In the summer of 2016, I had the honor of studying elephants in Africa. More specifically, our team was conducting research that focused on how these magnificent animals affect the biodiversity within their ecosystems. It was a magical summer. The kind I dreamed about as a little girl. The kind of summer that lingers long after you leave, and never fades. And in the spirit of Endangered Species Day (this past Friday), I want to tell you of a song.
We spent our balmy days trekking through the African savannah, often rounding some thick sagebrush and finding ourselves mere meters away from a giraffe attending a scrumptious leafy luncheon among the treetops, or a herd of zebra frozen in their tracks, staring at us, as though their stripes made them invisible against the greens and browns of the plains before running off as they sounded their signature whinnies.
Magical. That is the only word I know to best describe it.
Within the thickets of Swaziland’s savannah, at Mbuluzi Game Reserve, birds sang from dawn to dusk, small mammals scampered among the tall grass, and insects buzzed as they went about their business. It was as though the whole place were a song – the birds as vocalists and the ungulates playing rhythm with the percussion of their hooves. Even the rain came down with a pitter patter sound that syncopated perfectly, adding soft touches to the tune.
Yet, this was only one chorus of a larger musical piece that felt unfinished. You see, Swaziland is no longer home to free-roaming elephants. The gentle giants that reside within its borders belong to the King’s national park, Hlane. And even while they exist within the fences of Hlane, their absence is felt keenly throughout Mbuluzi. Something was missing. A very integral element of the ballad.
We left Swaziland after a few weeks. Then came time to cross the border into South Africa, whose roads led us into the heart of Kruger National Park. This stretch of wild is the largest protected land in South Africa, and one of the largest game reserves in all of Africa. Its horizon seems to stretch out into the distance forever. And it was here that we found the missing note. The finale to not just a song, or a movement, but an entire musical composition. They were a graceful melody, even though they broke the thorny acacia branches like they were withered twigs and brought them to their mouths using their long, versatile trunks. They were an essential coda, with the way that they brought water up from under the hardened and parched soil, by the weight beneath their feet, creating holes from which the rest of the African plain could drink and be nourished.
Invariably, the African elephant plays an instrumental role within this ecosystem.
Even with all the beauty they bring to it, this place is not enough. It is but an oasis in a desert of dread and death. There are not enough rangers to protect them across the entire expanse of this vast openness, and their smooth white tusks… I wonder, do the elephants know how much their possessions are coveted? Do they know how much they stand to lose, due simply to their existence? Answering for no other crime than what they are born carrying? If only we could throw a protective shroud over the herds, over the gorgeous matriarch as she blinked in the setting sun… How different their – her – fate might be.
We need space, to allow these magnificent creatures to roam as they once did. We need education, to teach those around the world that no one besides an elephant needs an elephant’s tusk. We need researchers, to continue studying the importance of these awe-inspiring animals and how they are connected with their environment. We need rangers, to protect them from those who would deprive the world of an entire species and deny others the chance to witness the breathtaking sight of a migrating herd, or to listen to the mighty trumpet of an elephant’s call. And above all, we need more love, to wipe away the stain of greed that has thus far set these animals into the status that they hold today – endangered.
Future generations deserve to hear what can be heard within Kruger National Park, for only with the elephant can one experience the entirety of the African savannah’s song.
“One day we will know that all animals have a soul. Hopefully this knowledge does not come when it is too late.” ~ Anthony Douglas Williams