Li Bingbing Bush Blog and Photo Gallery Day 2

A safari never to be forgotten. Meeting the amazing Samburu tribe and experiencing the life of wild elephants, Samburu Reserve, Kenya.

We departed early from Wilson Airport to make it to the Samburu Reserve in Northern Kenya early, while the light was still soft. Taking off over the Nairobi National Park, it was amazing to see how its natural and wild habitat, home to rhinos, cheetahs, lions, leopard, many plains game, and the orphaned elephants I had seen the day before, live in such near proximity to a city of millions of inhabitants. I have never experienced this before in my travels. We flew for one hour before we descended from the highlands of Mt. Kenya down over the Ewaso Nyiro River (brown river) and red soils of Samburu. As we came in to land, it appeared that we might just drop off over the cliff if we did not stop quickly enough; and to my amazement, also at the runway’s end was a huge herd of magnificent giraffes running to clear our way. I disembarked in the dry heat, looked around at the spectacular scenery and wildlife, and realized what it means to be in the African bush. It is a special feeling, similar to the magic created on a movie set, but this is real life not a fantasy world!

I drove down the hills to reach the elephants, which we were told were down at the river (and yes, it was literally ME driving—a big 4 wheel drive truck and it was very liberating I might add!). The Samburu Warrior who was accompanying me was as splendid in his red shuka and beads as the birds in the trees and I felt very alive and full of joy. Standing on top of the car to get a few photographs, I was inspired to yell, “I love you Africa!” And at that moment, I had the sense that I might never be the same for having come to this place. And that was before I met the elephants of this land.

At the river, I came upon the sight of probably 40-50 elephants in and near the river. All ages, from tiny babies who stay under their mummies tummies to avoid sunburn, to huge matriarchs that guide the herd’s movements to the old males that stay along the fringes of the family herds. It was here, amongst the elephants, that I learned that more than being survival machines that have lasted the test of time, these ancient animals live their lives experiencing the complex range of emotions that we humans feel. Eating when hungry, scolding their children when they misbehave, greeting other groups trunk to trunk and sharing playful moments with their friends and family in the Ewaso Nyiro river—even at times fully submerging their bodies in order to be whisked down the fast flowing river for a ride. It is impossible to not appreciate how we are all connected in a web of life.

I had the chance to spend hours with this herd, some coming so close to the car that I could have reached out and touched them. They clearly knew that they were safe here and I later learned that researchers call areas like Samburu “safe havens.” And based on data from the radio collared elephants, scientists can see how elephants move in a relaxed manner within their safe havens, and then with great speed when they are moving from one to another.

Like humans, young elephants are slow-growing with big brains and are entirely dependent on their mothers in the early years of life. The older elephants pass knowledge on to the younger ones over time, which is based on their own lifetime experiences. But now, even in Samburu, poaching is occurring. As a result, one in five elephant families in the area no longer have any mature females to lead them, decreasing the likelihood that those remaining will survive in tough times such as drought when they have to find food further away or navigate the human-wildlife conflict conditions that occur when elephants must pass through farming areas to reach their destinations.

I felt sad to leave these lovely creatures but was headed to the Save the Elephants (STE) Research Camp to learn more from the renowned elephant scientist, Iain Douglas-Hamilton and his head researcher David Daballen. Iain has been studying elephants across Africa for over 40 years and was one of the key activists in the campaign to end the international in ivory in 1989, which was being fueled by the West at that time. I had no idea that billiard balls and piano keys around the world were then being made from ivory. Iain believes that the ban successfully brought global attention to the plight of the elephants and then reinforced this education with laws preventing the export of ivory from Africa to far away lands. And this worked for many years, allowing for a steady increase in their populations and also for people to realize what it actually meant to obtain ivory. Once they knew, it seemed to change their attitudes about wanting to own it. I feel hopeful that the same thing can happen in Asia, and especially in my homeland China, which is now the main market for ivory products as shown by the TRAFFIC/ETIS reports.

I got to see the huge collars that these elephants can carry around their necks, which enable researchers to learn more about their ways of life via GPS tracking data. This tracking data is used to protect individuals and map the corridors elephants use to move from one protected area to the next. I also got to see the huge skulls where their Ivory “teeth” grow and how deeply embedded they are in the elephant’s skull, making it impossible to take without killing the animal.

I asked the question about ivory being taken from elephants that die naturally.  However, it appears that the demand that exists today is much greater than the supply of ivory that could possibly come from natural deaths, and so natural deaths cannot provide a good solution to the crisis that they are now facing.

I met so many amazing people at STE who have dedicated their lives to protecting elephants, including Iain’s entire family….it has inspired me deeply to join the effort to help try and protect them.

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