Amboseli National Park in Kenya is one of the finest places in Africa for an elephant safari. The prize is to watch a herd of elephant browsing in the foreground with the cone of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro rising behind them. It’s one of Africa’s iconic sights.
We had come on this particular luxury Kenyan safari to witness one of Africa’s most iconic sights: elephant viewed against the backdrop of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro. Like the pyramids of Egypt or Victoria Falls, nothing quite prepares you for the majesty of this encounter with ancient, sublime Africa.
Our quest for our elephant safari had brought us to Amboseli National Park in the Rift Valley Province of Kenya. The lodge we’d chosen had a fine location, with uninterrupted views of Kilimanjaro. What’s more, it lay directly in the path of seasonal elephant migrations.
We headed out from our lodge in the late afternoon. The ranger in our open 4×4 scanned the horizon, looking for grey giants. ‘Amboseli is famed for being one of the best places on the continent to get close to free-ranging elephant,’ said David, our ranger. ‘I just love this land with its big skies and far horizons, combined with swampy springs and dry, dusty earth trampled by great herds of browsers and grazers. It’s simply magical.’
David told us that Amboseli was 39,200ha in size and lay at the heart of a vast, 800,000ha ecosystem that extended across the Kenya-Tanzania border. ‘The park has an endless underground water supply, filtered through layers of volcanic rock from Kilimanjaro’s ice cap, which funnel into two clear-water springs in the heart of the park,’ he said. ‘This ecosystem is unique: no other place in Africa combines its special hydrology, topography, geology and cultural history.’
It wasn’t long before David had spotted something in the distance and we headed that way. After a few minutes, we rounded a bend and there they were! A maternal herd drank at a water hole, bathed in honeyed light. Behind them, the massive, snow-capped cone rose out of the plain, dominating the horizon.
We spent a long time with the herd, which was completely relaxed in our presence. At first, I snapped away with my Nikon, hardly able to contain my excitement. But after a while, I put the camera away and simply drank in the scene. It’s not often in life that the fantasy and the anticipation are matched by the moment, when it finally arrives. But this was one of them: a scene to savour. These are the safari moments that you hold onto, and take with you back to a city life far removed from such powerful, elemental sights.
We listened to the low rumble coming from the elephants’ stomachs, the twitter of birds in the long grass, the gentle flapping of the giants’ ears, and watched the play of light on the mountain growing richer and more golden.
David was incredibly knowledgeable and gave us a full CV on each animal during our elephant safari. Indeed, the elephant in this park have been very well studied. Later during our stay, we got to learn a bit more about that research. The Amboseli Trust for Elephants seeks to ensure the long-term conservation and welfare of elephant. It does this through ground-breaking scientific study, training, community outreach, public awareness and advocacy.
We visited the premises of the trust the next morning. David explained how it was founded by Cynthia Moss, who moved to Africa in 1968 to study elephant in northern Tanzania with Iain Douglas-Hamilton. ‘Four years later, she teamed up with Harvey Croze to continue the research in Amboseli,’ said David. ‘More than four decades later, her work is the longest-running study of wild elephant ever undertaken, documenting the lives and deaths of almost 3,000 pachyderms.’
Wandering around the premises and seeing the great work being done by Amboseli Elephant Research Project (AERP), I marvelled at how this place had become an international hub for learning, collaboration and training. I learnt how AERP’s research covers many areas, including behaviour, social organisation, demography, ecological dynamics, communication, genetics and human-elephant interactions.
‘Ensuring the survival of these creatures in today’s urbanising Africa is an increasingly complex problem,’ explained David as we gathered to head back to the lodge. ‘The ivory trade – legal and illegal – and the tremendous increase in human population have taken a heavy toll. In 1979, there were approximately 1,3 million elephant in Africa. Ten years later, there were only about 600,000. It’s a tragedy.’
I learnt that the elephant population in Amboseli National Park is one of the few that has been able to live a relatively undisturbed existence in natural conditions. This rare situation is primarily due to the presence of researchers and tourists in the park, and the support of the local Maasai.
I came away from the visit realising how the knowledge gained from AERP’s research has profoundly altered the way we think about, conserve and manage elephant populations. David and the researchers had highlighted the ethical implications of dealing with sentient, long-living, intelligent and socially complex animals. This knowledge base provides powerful and authoritative support to elephant conservation and advocacy campaigns worldwide. Their vital work had certainly touched my heart.