National Geographic : 2008 Sep
An African Love Story BY DAVID QUAMMEN NATIONALGEOGRAPHICCONTRIBUTINGWRITER PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL NICHOLS NATIONALGEOGRAPHICPHOTOGRAPHER THE BIOLOGIST IAIN DOUGLAS-HAMILTON is walking up on an elephant, a sizable young female, nubile and shy. Her name, as she's known to him and his colleagues, is Anne. She stands half-concealed within a cluster of trees on the knob of a hill in remote northern Kenya, brows ing tranquilly with several members of her family. Around her neck hangs a stout leather collar along which, at the crest of her shoulders, like a tiny porkpie hat, sits an electronic trans mitter. That transmitter has allowed Douglas Hamilton, flying in by Cessna, proceeding here on foot through the tall grass and acacia scrub, to find her. Crouching now, he approaches upwind to within 30 yards. Anne gobbles some more leaves. She's oblivious to him, or maybe just not interested. Elephants can be dangerous animals. They are excitable, complex, and sometimes violently defensive. Douglas-Hamilton is a world-renowned expert who has studied them for 40 years. Don't try this at home. He wants a clear look at the collar. He has heard reports that it may be too tight-that she has grown into it since having been tranquilizer darted, fitted, and thus recruited as a source of research data. Ordinarily, Douglas-Hamilton does his elephant-watching more cautiously, from the safe containment of a Land Cruiser, but no vehicle can drive this terrain, and Anne's comfort and health are at issue. The collar should hang loose, with a dangling counter weight below. He wants to be sure that Anne's isn't snugged up to her throat like a noose. But at present, amid the thicket, she's showing 42 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * SEPTEMBER 2008 him only her imperious elephantine butt. So he creeps closer. Three other men lag back. One is David Daballen, a bright young Samburu protege of Douglas-Hamilton's, who often accompanies the boss on missions like this. The second man is a local guide holding a Winchester .308 rifle. The third is me. As we watch Douglas-Hamilton edging forward, we notice another female elephant, a big one, probably the group's matriarch, sidling around craftily on his right flank. We duck low to escape the matriarch's view. We freeze. As this female comes on, suspicious and challenging, Douglas-Hamilton seems unconcerned with her, but Daballen begins to look nervous. He is calculating (he'll tell me later) how fast an ele phant might be able to charge across such a rocky, rubble-strewn slope. Then the big female commits herself to a sequence of gestures suggesting nonchalance, if not outright contempt: She pisses torrentially, she defecates galumphingly, and she turns away. Anne herself swings daintily out of the brush. She steps toward Douglas-Hamilton. The gap between them is 50 feet. For a few seconds the young female graces him with a frontal view of her large forehead, her flappy ears, her pretty tusks, as though posing for beauty shots in the glow of a flash. She gives him a profile. He raises his camera and clicks off several frames. Then she too turns and ambles away. Through his lens, in those seconds, he has seen that the collar hangs just as it should. The alarm was a false one. Anne is in no danger-or anyway, no danger of chafing or choking.