Written by: Hans Schabel
On a grey morning in the Babile Elephant Sanctuary (BES), East of Harar in Ethiopia, we had been driving through miles and miles of depressing bush, thick with invasive lantanas and fig cactus, and we had only come across one wild creature – a Salt’s dik-dik. This did not bode well for our wildlife safari.
We had been warned that the probability of sighting Africa’s easternmost savanna elephants, which also happen to be the world’s last Somali elephants (Loxodonta africana orleansi or oxyotis), was at best iffy. With a population estimated at no more than 150 individuals, our endeavour would be like searching for needles in a 7,000km² haystack.
On top of being rare, these elephants also tend to be shy and remain well hidden in the dense jungle of the huge reserve. And, as if that wasn’t enough, safety was of concern too; Babile Elephant Sanctuary borders the Ogaden, a notoriously unstable region of Ethiopia plagued by Somali shifta. However, the lure of possibly bumping into these unique animals overcame our reservations.
Accompanied by an armed guard, we drove along a sandy track through the valley of the Errer, a tributary of the Leopard River (Wabi Shebelle). Frequently blocked by dromedaries, herded by Somalis toting AK-47s, the going was slow. Eventually we stopped at a Somali zariba to talk to one of the many illegal squatters resident in the Babile Elephant Sanctuary.
When he asserted that he had heard elephants nearby just a few hours earlier, our mood lifted. Then the sun finally broke through the gloom, and swarms of colourful butterflies flitted between the lantana and cactus flowers. Things were looking up!
We set off on foot to see what we could find. Walking felt great, despite unavoidably brushing against the barbed mini-spears (glochids) of cacti along the narrow bush track. They caused an itchy rash (sabra dermatitis) for months to come. After half an hour, the snapping of branches ahead perked us up.
Pulses racing, we now stalked into a good wind until the grey, wrinkled back of a genuine Somali elephant came into view. Unfortunately, try as we might, we failed to see more than that patch of nondescript pachyderm hide above the dense tangle of bushes. The only way to get a better view was to climb an acacia.
Lo and behold, from up there the curtain opened to a grand show, as more than 30 portly actors with surprisingly small tusks were busily stripping acacia foliage.
As I blissfully clicked away, congratulating myself on our good luck, I witnessed a mating. What a treat! Jungle love, such as I had never before encountered in many years of African exploration, and the perfect climax to a once in a lifetime adventure!
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