Hunting Elephants

My journey to Tombouctou gave me a chance to reflect and refocus. My last day there, I spent a couple of hours floating down the Niger in a pinasse, thinking about the challenges that lie ahead. Since returning to Banzena I have had to shift my expectations even further. The elephants, which remain in large groups, are still not coming to the water in the daytime. In fact, they are spending all of the daylight hours in dense acacia forest, which I cannot safely enter. I have had to accept that I might not even see the elephants by the water in the daylight, and if I do it will be a one-time opportunity. I keep faith that this will happen, but in the meantime I cannot wait for the elephants. I must go after them. I know that they will come to the water each night, but where they come from and where they go changes each day. Success depends on following their tracks and anticipating their movements. This year the lake and marsh extend for several kilometers and the elephants use all of it at different times. For the past couple of days they have been browsing in the Tabarac Barac forest by day, and then crossing a gap of relatively open sand for the lake at dusk. Last night they waited to cross until it was too dark to make pictures. This morning they returned to the forest under the cover of darkness. Being so close yet so far is frustrating, but at least I know where they are and will continue to pursue them there. Eager to photograph the crossing, last night I waited behind a tree until all the light was gone. As a result we had to sleep at a nearby Tuareg camp without any of our food or supplies. Elmedhi (who was understandably frustrated by my resistance to leaving earlier) insisted that it was far too dangerous to walk the 1.5 km back to our camp in the darkness. There were far too many elephants converging on the marsh. I probably would have pushed on in the dark, trusting my ability to avoid elephants. But that was before I learned that an elephant killed one of the villagers last year. So I slept in my clothes on a reed bed in a Tuareg camp under the stars. I expected that I would go without food until the morning, but Muhammed slaughtered a small goat (something he only does when he has a guest because they are too valuable to eat otherwise). Then he brought me a bowl of the prize cuts – boiled liver, pancreas and heart. I ate with my pocketknife and hands under the moonlight, surrounded by curious onlookers. Getting stuck at the Tuareg camp provided a window into a world that I had only seen from a distance, leaving me thankful for the turn of events. I felt welcome as part of the group as I drifted into sleep amongst the family circled on sand. The night passed ephemeral as a dream, punctuated by the scuffling of goats, the rumbling of elephants in all directions, and the occasional scream of the camels when the elephants came to close to camp. Today it is very hot and that makes me happy because it brings hope the elephants will become thirsty before nightfall. Yesterday I discovered that my light meter has a built in thermometer. Right now it reads 103 degrees. And I am sitting in the cool room where we work and rest during the midday. At least I don't have to worry about my lunch getting cold on the table beside me. Last night, when I laid down to sleep, the temperature under my mosquito net was 95 degrees (and actually feeling comfortable). It is 112 degrees in the room where I store my gear and work. When I put the thermometer in direct sunlight on the sand, it climbed quickly to 141 degrees. Note that my camera trap is doing some good work for me in the nighttime world of elephants that I myself cannot enter. It has produced 4 rolls of film with some promise of successful pictures. I placed a digital camera on the trail for two nights. See the image gallery for a result.View new photography at www.carltonward.com