Play Pandemonium

It was already a month ago I left Samburu!  The last day was a memorable one…

We headed out after lunch. As it was my last day, I was still hoping to catch a glimpse of cats.  I was hoping that we’d have a better chance being out in the afternoon.

At first we came upon the Clouds, then the remnants of the storms – Monsoon and her family, with orphans in tow.  It was a peaceful afternoon, almost sleepy, except that the silence was occasionally punctuated by distant trumpets. As we admired the long graceful tusks possessed by Monsoon and Cirro-cumulus, we felt a twinge of sadness – that we couldn’t simply appreciate them without fearing for their lives. Green grass and open sky, calm white clouds above, calm gray Clouds below – if only this were heaven. Monsoon, so gentle despite her powerful name, an elderly survivor.

Other families passed by in turn, and we thought the Clouds headed up away from the river. Passing between scattered herds of elephants, we eventually made it closer to the river, among the maze of tracks between thickets of vine-like bushes.  As we approached, we heard more trumpets.  My curiosity was aroused – were these the trumpets we had been hearing for some time?

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A teenager from Monsoon’s family puts up a spirited display, whirling and dancing around at us.

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Turning around a bend, we came upon the culprits.  Three sub-adult males, twirling and clacking their tusks against each other.  The adults remained unmoved and unperturbed.  Was this play? Or something a bit more escalated? Were they all in the same family, or were they from different families? We decided to stick around for a little while and observe.  Shifra managed to identify two of them, but the third appeared to be from a sporadic family and could not be immediately placed.

As they chased each other about, we too maneuvered here and there trying to get a better view.  Then, a strange thing happened. It gradually dawned on us that these three were not the only ones chasing each other around.  In the distance, left and right, there was more charging and chasing, sparring and trumpeting.  In fact the three who we had seen initially didn’t maintain one another as sparring partners – it was a free for all, with individuals shifting their attention from one to the other.  Faster and faster they switched, faster than we could keep track, getting more excited, building in energy, charging at bushes now and displaying at us as well.

The Planets walked into this commotion, with Europa in the lead along with two little babies and a few older calves.  At first Europa stopped dead, but then suddenly it seemed she caught the excitement as well.  A full grown adult with no dependent calves of her own, she started behaving as flamboyantly as these teenagers.  She ran smack into a bush and disappeared into it, shaking up a frenzy.  The objects of her attention, meanwhile, wandered off so that when she poked her head out again there was no one watching.  This didn’t stop her, as she ran off in another direction. The rest of her group was also in on the action now, and even the tiny tots were chasing one another back and forth.

As we pulled up on them Europa redirected her displays at us, apparently deciding we would do as an outlet for her exhuberance. The poor bushes quivered and quaked ominously next to our jeep.  A young male strode up behind us at some point, a bit slow to work up his energy but curious nonetheless.  At some point three youngsters mock-charged the vehicle from three directions simultaneously. We hardly knew which way to look, there was action everywhere.

We’d never seen anything like this – clearly it was play, but among so many different families that Shifra could hardly keep track (though, bless her, she made a valiant attempt at scribbling notes furiously). Even the Clouds were here, completely disorienting us as we thought they’d gone in the opposite direction. These weren’t elephants, they were sprites, fiends! It was a sort of contagious play, a high-energy, mass hysteria.  I thought it deserved a name, play pandemonium, for instance.

And then, Europa grew still.

Her family eventually assembled around her. They stood in front of and around the vehicle, as though half-asleep.  To all appearances they were just waking up from a dream, as though they had been collectively sleep-walking.  Some browsed on bushes placidly.  Europa blinked, the picture of regal innocence. One might have doubted her involvement at all, if not for the obvious green smudges on her forehead, evidence she had been thrashing the unfortunate shrubbery.

At her soft rumbling, the youngsters assembled like obedient school children and the family moved off.  Elsewhere too the excitement had died down, though here and there someone tried to poke someone else.

We could not stop grinning – what a marvelous spectacle to end my stay in Samburu!  It’s an experience I’ll never forget as long as I live, a cheerful reminder of spirit and resilience.  This is why, I think to myself, this is why…why we do what we do. Why it matters.

And then on our way back to camp, came the cherry on top of the cake – leopards!

It was the mother and two cubs, at the base of a hill named Koi Togo. The same family we had seen earlier, only this time the mother emerged from her nap to take a long gaze at the small army of vehicles that had assembled to admire her.  Stretching, she headed up the hill and paused briefly in silhouette to survey us again.  Her cubs clambered up and together they disappeared out of view.

Thus ended my stay in Samburu.

Mama leopard

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About asianelephant

Promoting understanding of Asian elephant behavior, evidence-based conservation, and the coexistence of people with wildlife and wilderness.
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