Elephant in the Room

Return to the Mystical Forest

Vivek Menon is executive director and CEO, Wildlife Trust of India
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The eternal rewards of an African safari

THERE IS something about the lion that approximates the domestic tabby in a way that no other big cat does. Perhaps the similarity lies in externalities, or maybe, it lies in the nature of its soul. The tiger and the jaguar are too aloof, too majestic and too orange to be tame. The snow leopard lives and looks like a snow-dusted Himalayan cloud. The cheetah is all too wrong a shape and pattern. Perhaps the leopard. It could at a pinch approximate the tabby in its ability to live cheek-by-jowl with humanity, despite a fiercely wild core. But the coat gives it away instantly. It is in the lion that the wild mimics the tame. Unpatterned, except to the most discerning eye, unfettered, except for close kin, and unconcerned about the moment as it passes by. Or so it seems, when you look at a lioness and her cubs lying under the sparse green shelter of a mopane bush, barely six feet from your vehicle. The eyes are glazed over with sleep, opening just a crack for a sneaking glance. The ears twitch to the wingbeats of a passing fly. It is impossible to fathom what thought flits through its indolently feline mind. Perhaps it is the futility of looking up at mankind, up close and personal. The black lips curl in a deprecating sneer, and the eyes close to the world.

I am in the western corner of Zimbabwe, just a little south of the Zambezi basin. An hour north, the turgid waters of the river pour over a 108 m cliff which the Ndebele people call Mosi-oa- Tunya, or the ‘Smoke that Thunders’. A White man who saw it several centuries after the first African did, rechristened it for his country and ruler, Victoria. I have returned after 22 years to a land that has seen great political turmoil and indeed continues to do so. The day I fly in, the government cuts off all social media and wi-fi in a bid to stop the youth coalescing into a revolt over spiralling fuel prices. Luckily, the boat I have chartered has its share of fuel and the morning is spent gliding upstream of the falls, steadying the cup of tea on a picnic table as hippos froth up and down the current. The air is full of bird song. The clarion calls of the white-headed lapwings and the dikkops clear the morning mist off the waters. Sacred ibis and Egyptian geese cackle and croak in small gaggles and a hadada screams off into an adjoining pool. White-fronted bee-eaters chitter as they sally and swoop from vantage perches and a malachite kingfisher rattles its war cry that must run a shiver down the spines of tiny whitebait and parr. On a rock in the very middle of a river two hungry rock pratincoles, tiny swallow-like birds, screech and scream till an adult swoops in with a mouthful of insect titbits. It is one of the birds I am looking for. Unlike others that migrate when the season is too hot or too cold, this one moves up and down the river depending on where rocks emerge in the swell. As waters recede and rocky outcrops poke their heads out of waters, pratincoles arrive to perch and also to breed, laying two splotched eggs in a depression in the shelf. The female often returns to the eggs with wet feathers to cool the eggs to prevent them from baking in the hot African sun. Altogether a different tactic to sitting on them to keep them warm. On the opposite bank in between lily pads that has a trotting jacana and a pair of Egyptian geese, is another bird that I am looking for. A lesser moorhen; an aquatic chicken that had been split recently from all other waterhen and coot and given a genus all of its own. Paragallinula, or Near Chicken. It walks past the other birds and the boat in some consternation. The yellow frontal shield with a splotch of orange colours its face comically. The thin orange legs accentuate that. But there is nothing comical in the way the bird is clucking around the reeds bordering the lily pads. It is searching, frantically, for something, or someone. A sudden movement reveals the mystery. A small chick runs out from under a large leaf. Then another, followed by three more. In a minute there are seven little Near-Chicks paddling furiously behind mother Near-Hen. Even as my attention is riveted on these tiny gallinules, a sharp exclamation from the boatman makes me swivel around. “Finfoot,” he exclaims, jabbing in the air towards a spot of dark water underneath an overhanging bough. And there, in the gloam, is the most mysterious resident of the Zambezi—the African Finfoot—a two-foot black-and-white bird with a six-inch sharp red dagger of a beak. Taxonomically so unique that there are only two other birds that are somewhat related to it: The Masked Finfoot of India and the South-East and the Sun Bittern of South America. Behaviourally, so secretive that it forms part of the Holy Grail for all birdwatchers. This small nook of water that flows between Zambia and Zimbabwe is where it can be seen with some certainty. And there it was on cue, causing great consternation on the boat while it swam among the roots of a massive riparian tree and then vanished almost as silently as it had emerged. An hour on the Zambezi and three rare birds had emerged from the morning mists.

In contrast to the aquatic riches of the Zambezi, the dry mopane and Zambian teak forests of Hwange are dry and vast. Hwange is the largest national park of Zimbabwe. Those who know elephants know it for hosting one of the largest populations of the animal in southern Africa. Those who are interested in carnivores would know of it as a park that hosts eight large carnivores. The world at large heard about it in July 2015, when a magnificent lion, called Cecil, was shot dead by an American hunter as a trophy. The outrage that the killing of Cecil generated in the conservation, animal welfare and indeed in the social media stratosphere was far greater than the several grand human tragedies that have unfolded in that long-suffering nation. Hwange lies just north of the great Kalahari that sweeps upwards from Namibia and South Africa. In its driest parts, Zambian teak lies claim to the land. A characteristic Kalahari- land tree that is not a teak by any stretch of imagination, nor a rosewood as its alternate name of Zambezi rosewood suggests, it is a good-looking tree nevertheless. Deep mauve flowers bunch amidst its dark-green leaves, colouring our passage for a while. Then the light green of the mopane trees takes over. This is elephant country now. Large herbivores start taking up great chunks of the vista. Gangly Angolan giraffes tower over the mopane. Large-horned Greater kudu run in stately alarm, their vulture-dropping stripes miraculously melting their large buff bodies into the vegetation. Impalas skitter and pronk across the path causing us to drive at a very sedate pace. A coagulation of dark buffalo bunch in the distance and nearby, plains zebras graze in larger groups. Brown birds with red bills are hanging from the ears of the zebras. They are red-billed oxpeckers, eaters of ticks and other parasites that dwell on large-bodied animals. On the backs of the buffalos in the distance, I can see their only cousin, the yellow-bellied oxpeckers. The two species act as cleaners of parasites off wildlife and cattle. But they themselves could be parasites, contributing little to the host and sometimes acting detrimentally by opening up new wounds. Elephants are one of the few large animals that don’t tolerate oxpeckers. A sign of intelligence perhaps?

As if on cue, young male elephants appear in the distance. One concentrates on a small black mud pool as if his life depends on it. Sucking the goo for minutes at a time he sprays his wrinkled grey form with a mudpack that is all at once a cooling agent, a parasite repellent and possibly a fashion statement that humans have discovered only in Bulgarian mud spas and rugby fields. In the evening sitting in large tents abutting a vlei (a shallow natural pool of water), one can see small family groups moving across the landscape. There seem to be quite a few young bulls around the corner at any one jeep ride. The animals seem healthy (only to the eye based on body conditioning) and unperturbed (only a single mock charge in three days of close viewing). Both are today, so, oh so rare among Asian elephants and I take in the beauty and grandeur of my favourite animal.

In the late afternoon light, as resplendent lilac-breasted and European rollers splay their wings in pursuit of the insect fauna of the park, and large sombre saddle-billed storks lumber through the grasslands, a miraculous gathering of falcons darkens the skies. These, the Amur falcons, have flown an amazing migration across the Russian and Chinese Far East and the Indian Subcontinent, resting only once in Nagaland while dragonfly flocks gather in migration over the Arabian seas into south-eastern Africa. Now, they cluster on bare branches in the hundreds, taking off on short sallies to feed and fatten before their long, return leg back to the wilds of Amur land. Just a short distance from the open grassland, under a small clump of mopane lie the pride of lionesses and their cubs. I can see three adult females and eight young bundles of fur. The adults are statuesque, resting in the shade. The young are being youthful; tumbling, tugging and gnawing at each other. Strangely, all of them seem unwilling to break the sultry silence of the afternoon. In silent, slow motion they ignore the whirr of the camera motor drive and the supressed excitement of the onlookers and instead go about their unhurried lives as if driven by an unbeknownst master. The lioness catches my eye for just a moment and settles back into her slumber. Peace has settled on Hwange and its residents, it seems.

As a general rule, one must not return to a mystical nature refuge after two decades. Like returning to an older love, fond memories are far better served without viewing a visage ravaged by the passage of time. Land would in normal cases have been razed by humankind, its verdancy shorn, its waters held bondage, its life annihilated. Hwange, miraculously, seems to have been spared the fate of many others. My two short visits bridging 22 long years feels much the same. Life seems all at once vibrant in its munificence and tranquil in its sanctuary. Was it that a despotic government that had wreaked misery on its citizenry, had spared the earth from as much destruction as a more democratic government could have?