Oh man, I miss Kenya already.
The elephants, the adventure, the people, the contrasts, the staggering numbers of wildlife in seemingly every direction… all of it was amazing.
People keep asking me, “How was your trip?!” and I’ve finally got a short answer that works: say, “It was awesome!” pull out my phone to show off my Jurassic Park Moment, and conclude with the video I got of female elephants bluff charging our research truck (see below).
The long answer, however, would take days to give, because the experience is staggeringly hard to put into words. It was my first time traveling to East Africa and I was so struck by how much I take first-world luxuries for granted. Drinkable tap water, textbooks, Wi-Fi, toilets that flush… If you want to feel like you live in a palace, go to Kenya and then come back again.
But the research trip really was AWEsome, far above and beyond what I could have imagined. I’ll post in-depth information about my experiences as I make progress on my book, HOW TO BE AN ELEPHANT, but for now, here are just a few of the highlights.
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1) Elephant Collaring—Samburu National Reserve
Not even a month before I left for Kenya, I had emailed Save The Elephants, a famous NGO based in Samburu National Reserve, to let them know I’d be in the area… and could I please, please, please come by to visit? They said yes, and I arrived in Samburu in the late afternoon after a long journey from Nairobi to learn that not only had the head field manager, David Daballen, made time for my visit, but he’d also delayed taking paternity leave just for me.
The moment we met, he suggested we go on a game drive to find the whereabouts of, Matt—a huge, 10-ft tall bull elephant in full musth—who needed to be fitted with a new GPS collar the next day. We spotted him, followed from a distance, got back into camp after dark, and in the morning I joined the researchers and Kenya Wildlife Service as they successfully darted and collared Matt. It was only my second day full day in Kenya and already I’d witnessed an incredibly rare event.
Cue my “Jurassic Park Moment”—how could I possibly resist?
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2) Elephant Monitoring—Mpala Research Centre with Sandy Oduor
On the morning of May 10th, I joined elephant team researcher, Sandy Oduor, for his daily elephant monitoring rounds on the 200 km2 Mpala research campus. Thousands of elephants migrate or reside at Mpala, and Sandy graciously explained his job in whispers and gestures as he drove us in and around different elephant herds, logging each family he could identify. Sandy knew hundreds of the elephants on sight, and showed me a few of the tricks he uses to tell them apart.
Halfway through our circuit, we were surrounded and bluff charged (or were they really charging?) by a family of elephants never before seen in the area. I should have been a lot more scared—this turns out to have been incredibly dangerous—but at the time, it felt like being in a New York taxi; you sit back and go “Eh—this guy knows what he’s doing, right?
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3) Petting Baby Elephants—The Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, Nairobi National Park
I know that this isn’t news, but baby elephants are so terrifically cute, and seeing them in person is just as good as you think it’s going to be.
After attending the daily feeding at the world-famous Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, and having my hand sucked on by a newborn elephant, I adopted one of the youngest calves, a pushy little girl named Kamok, and then returned later that afternoon to watch the dinner-time feeding.
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4) Seeing Mount Kilimanjaro for the First Time—Amboseli National Park
Before leaving for Kenya, I’d spent some time poking around the travel section of our local Barnes & Noble, and the book 100 Places to Go Before They Disappear listed “snow on Mount Kilimanjaro” as a top must-see. I have to agree.
As my mom and I (oh yeah, my mom flew in to join me for safari!) approached Amboseli, almost on cue the clouds parted and the snows of Kili came into view. Though it played hide and seek with us throughout our two days in the park, we caught some breathtaking views of the mountain as families of elephants and cheetahs strolled through the foreground.
It’s estimated that in less than 20 years the glaciers will disappear entirely after almost 12,000 years of continuous coverage. I hope to see Kili again soon before that happens; if you’ve been meaning to get there, for God’s sake, man, don’t wait!
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5) The Famous Red Elephants—Tsavo East & West National Parks
I know that red dirt doesn’t sound all that exciting, but believe you me—you’ve never seen red dirt like this. Many areas in Kenya have soil that is hyper-saturated with iron, and nowhere is that more true than in parts of Tsavo. It took a bit of doing to get there (including a personal military escort to ensure against robbery along the Tanzanian border), but the parks are hands-down among the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. There are intense skies and deep valleys, and John Williams music played in my head off and on the whole time.
Seriously folks, it really is this red.
The red dirt gets on everything (the zebras, the van, your face, etc.) and the elephants dust themselves with soil so often that their skin takes on stunning orange and maroon hues. So beautiful!
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6) Elephant Beehive Fences in Action—Elephants & Bees Project, Voi
Voi is a hotspot for human-elephant conflict, where ancient elephant migration routes pass through new farming settlements and create a perfect storm for elephant crop raiding. In just one night, a family of elephants can consume a year’s worth of food for a human family!
Crop raiding is devastating to the farmers, and elephants can get hurt when the farmers use force to protect their land, but Dr. Lucy King, who also works with Save The Elephants, has made some ingenious progress with beehive fences. She was gracious enough to let us drop in and look around her very cool new facility. Lucy answered our endless bee-fence questions and invited us to watch them at work on a nearby farm.
It’s such a simple concept—elephants don’t like bees, so farmers string hives together along the perimeter of their fields to keep the tuskers out—but it’s incredibly effective at keeping the peace. It also provides a source of income for the farmers—Elephant-Friendly Honey, anyone?
I sincerely hope her ideas become a movement; so much of wildlife management is people management, and in Kenya the economy is at odds with the environment.
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7) Visit to Saint Bernard Academy—Primary & Secondary School in South Kinangop
On our last day in Kenya, my mom and I visited St. Bernard Academy, a school for children impacted by HIV, founded by our incredible safari guide, Ben Gitari.
Ben has lost several family members to the disease, so five years ago he and his wife decided to build a village school in their own backyard. Since then, the school has grown from two students to over a hundred, funded mostly by the salary and tips Ben earns by leading safaris.
Most of students have never seen a wild elephant, let alone gone out on any kind of safari, so I gave a little impromptu talk about my job and elephants while Ben translated as needed into Swahili, using my sketchbook as a visual aid.
Most children in Africa have never owned a single book, and classroom textbooks are often shared by 10–20 students, so my mom and I had brought donated high school textbooks along with us on the trip. They were so thankful, a shocking contrast to how we completely take it for granted that school and textbooks go together. It was wonderful and profoundly heart-wrenching to be there, and I hope to return in the future bearing even more books.
Throughout my time in Kenya, I felt as if I’d fallen into the deep end of my research dream from a thousand feet up. I’m so thankful to be doing this book, so thankful to have seen hundreds of wild elephants, so thankful to make new friends, and so thankful for my safe return.
Now begins the rather daunting task of assimilating what I’ve learned into a story, but with the tremendous number of new images in my head, I’m (mostly) confident that I’ll somehow figure it out.
Keep an eye out for more sketches, and thank you for reading!