The Princess and the Beast
A Rescue of Grevy Zebra • Part 2
By Iris HuntClick here for Part 1 of this story
All went well to start with. The path was cleared and the Toyota driven to the hole. But as we attempted to attach the first rope, the trapped elephant screamed in fright and was immediately answered by the chilling trumpeting roar of its enraged mother somewhere close by. It was pandemonium for a few moments, Moran yelling and the ground shaking as the big tusker approached with alarming speed.
Someone thought to start the car and drive out, with the rest of us either jumping aboard or running alongside. We all make it OK, but clearly the plan had failed at the first application. We were disappointed, but also tired, hungry, very dirty and disheveled, so decided to call it a day.
It was late afternoon and the mother elephant would clearly stay with her calf for the duration, having temporarily defeated our purpose which – frustratingly for both men and beasts – was the same as her own. We promised the Samburu we’d be back the following day.
Back at camp, showered and smartened up, we joined the Amblers around the camp fire. Forgotten was any thought of their being a “problem” for Don and I. They were now altogether “with us” on the mission. Over Dinner we discussed strategy and how to forestall further perils we might encounter the following day.
Our various roles in the renewed rescue attempt were determined, notably sentry duty for John after he’d assured us that he’d become a good marksman over many years of hunting with his fellow royals around their estates in Europe. He would stand guard with Don’s 458 caliber rifle loaded and safety on, but with strict orders not to fire except in an emergency and only at Don’s command. Margaretha would be on look-out duty on the ridge close to the hole, while the rest of us made another attempt to extract the calf.
Looking back on it we must have been mad. But fortune favored the foolhardy in this case, since there had been a somewhat salutary change in the situation when we eventually got into position at the site. The calf had weakened significantly over night and the mother appeared to have almost given up, losing heart and disconsolately wandering further away than the previous day.
She was still within hearing range, though, and there was a certain pounding of hearts as we attached the ropes to the young elephant in the hole. If she screamed, our lives would obviously be on the line again.
Not quite as trustingly won over as Don, I was also worried about our particular protector with the heavy rifle. Could he really drop a charging elephant if need be? Or would he more likely panic and shoot prematurely?
But in the event we never got to find out. This time the calf hardly whimpered. It was as if she knew what we were trying to do and let us truss her up with the ropes without a murmur. It then took us two hours to ease her out, after which she collapsed in a heap on the ground.
The scouting moran arrived in due course to report that the mother had continued to move off and, by then, was several miles away. She had clearly abandoned her offspring finally and was seeking to rejoin her herd, on which her own survival would depend. Instinctively she would have known she had no choice but to leave her calf to its fate, which at that moment was actually not without hope. It was perilously weak, utterly exhausted and still unable to stand on his shaky legs. But the calf was still alive with at least some chance of survival.
Not without further monumental effort, however, since we still had to get the collapsed heavyweight onto the truck and take her away for resuscitation and whatever further care would be needed. A slope was dug out of the ground below the recumbent body, the car backed up and somehow the seemingly impossible was accomplished as the great dead weight of young elephant was hauled, pushed and slid onto the flat back of the catching car.
A new track with a gentler gradient and otherwise less hazardous for the loaded truck, had then to be cut through the forest. Don supervised the work, John in attendance, while the Princess did what she could to soothe frazzled nerves with her now familiar laid-back poise and charm. Finally, I was able to drive the car out, praying that the weight of the elephant would not tip it over on the still steep incline.
It was evening before we had settled her down on a bed of straw in a hastily erected pen at the camp. I had available – fortunately – an outsize feeding nipple, acquired from a farmer friend just a few months before with such a large animal emergency in mind. It was matter then of persuading the calf to suck on a bottle I’d prepared of a re-hydrating mix of water, glucose and minerals. Not at all easy, as I knew from experience.
Margaretha and I took turns in trying to get the patient to drink, but with little success. We broke off for a while for a hurried meal, but then returned to the task since it was clear that with the calf still in a critically weakened state, the feeding effort was, de facto, a race against time.
By then both of us were close to exhaustion ourselves. But out of the blue, the lady Royal determined, regally, that she would spend the night lying alongside a wild animal – on which matter, incongruous though it might seem, she would brook no argument. In a certain parallel with another well-known Margaret, her husband advised us mournfully, that once her mind was made up on anything, “the lady was not for turning.”
Nor was she. The best I could do was negotiate a compromise. She’d take the first shift until midnight and thereafter we’d take shift and shift about. Blankets were then brought out for her and the elephant and we all repaired to bed.
Me too – but not for long. I told Don that no way could I leave her out there at the risk of being rolled on by a hefty elephant. I thus got up and joined the unlikely pair in the pen. There followed a long, sleepless night, worried as we were for the life of our joint ward. But we talked our way through it and in the process bonded a strong friendship that lasts until this day.
Around daybreak the young elephant decided all of a sudden to take some of the offered sustenance and began finally to suck on the bottle in Margaretha’s hand. A little later, we made her up some warm Uji maize porridge with a little milk and sugar, and that went down a treat. At that point, we knew she’d made it!
In just 24 hours, she’d also got us both fully enamored. A brave and resilient “Princess,” I named her as a tribute to the same qualities that were so genuinely impressive in the unexpected safari guest and new-found friend.
She was able to watch “Princess” the elephant grow stronger over the next few days. Normally a two-year-old, as I figured she was, would not so easily become habituated to humans. But the species is endowed with considerable intelligence by comparison with other mammals, or so we believe, and this one might just have been aware of the ordeal we had all been through together. Never, at any rate, did she show any nervousness in our presence and certainly no aggression. She also seemed to have a special fondness, fully reciprocated, for Margaretha.
“Princess” stayed with us at the Mount Kenya Animal Orphanage as a much loved resident for six months. She was a natural clown, clearly amusing herself as well as us and the staff with self-taught tricks such as standing on her hind legs for a candy. She loved doing that.
President Kenyatta then made a gift of her to the State Governor of Kano in Nigeria. We were sad to see her go, but she was growing fast and we couldn’t anyway have kept her for much longer at the Ranch. Along with a Government wildlife official, Don and I went with “Princess” to Kano to help her settle in and ultimately to leave assured that she would be well looked after until her planned release back in the wild of one of the country’s reserves.
As for her namesake…The Princess Margaretha went home to resume her more prosaic life of royal dignitary, supporting her brother who was duly crowned King Karl Gustav of Sweden. But the warmly informal Amblers have returned to join us on many more safaris over the years – though none, it has to be said, quite as indelibly memorable as the first.
While watching the elephant “Princess” habituate herself to life in the Orphanage, I wondered where she got the idea of elevating her heavyweight frame into a sitting position and occasionally stand upright, Man-like, on her hind legs.
I’d seen it before, of course at a circus as a child, where elephants were induced by their trainers to assume such unlikely and somewhat comic postures. Since then I’ve also seen it many times in the wild – the great beasts apparently naturally and voluntarily squatting on their honkers, front feet and trunk stuck out, and often using a fallen tree as a Park bench, so to say.
Sitting or standing upright they look distinctly odd – like “monstrous canines,” as described by wildlife scientist, Dr. Richard Estes, in his fascinating book: “The Behavior Guide to African Mammals.”
Among other off-beat elephant idiosyncrasies, he notes the habit of tail-gripping, the pachyderm equivalent of hand-holding. A mother will sometimes loop a trunk round her baby calf’s tail for the purpose of maternal guidance. Or more commonly, an older calf (of an appropriate height) will hitch up firmly to its mother’s rear appendage, like a trailer bar – maybe for some motive assistance on a long trek across the bush, but at any rate, more obviously, so as to stay close.
Like Dr. Estes, I’m especially intrigued by the tactile expression of elephant mother-love and affection – frequently touching and caressing the small offspring – but also, when the occasion warrants, of stern motherly discipline, delivering a good slapping on a wayward calf’s tail-end.
Clearly, in elephant culture – unlike modern Western human – the old maxim still holds of “spare the rod and spoil the child.”
Maybe a swish or two would be further appropriate on occasions when a gang of teenage mates, usually males, get a bit too boisterous, apparently “showing off” to people who stop to watch them. They’ll rush at the cars, as I’ve witnessed myself – flapping their ears and wildly throwing their trunks around, only to stop suddenly in their tracks to study – with evident satisfaction – the intended effect of their macho mock charges on the rapidly retiring tourists.
Nature or nurture? The perennial riddle of animal behavior obviously applies with elephants as with humans. Who could ever know exactly what’s what in the equation?
In any event, it was fascinating to watch the interplay of mannerisms between the young orphan “Princess” and the people around her in her new environment. She certainly taught us a natural, uncultivated trick or two.
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