Greetings from Mikumi National Park, where I continue my exploration of Tanzania’s natural wonders, one park at a time. I love it here because I am surrounded by animals all of the time, day and night. Every minute, a new creature reveals itself to me.
Last night, after a day of wildlife-watching, I was taking off my shoes when a rhinoceros beetle introduced himself to me. As insects go, they are a little bit daunting—about as big as my thumb with horns and pincers. Perhaps you should consider getting one as a classroom pet?
I have also seen a lot of hippos, which always makes me think of you, seeing as your school mascot is a hippo. You should be very proud of such a symbol as hippos are incredibly strong and fierce competitors. Watching two hippos thrash one another in the water is pretty exciting, though what I love most is that they have wiry black nostril hairs and how they twirl their little pink ears so fast they become a blur.
I hope you are all well and working extra hard before the end of the year. I know how much you must all be dreading having to go on vacation in a few weeks. I bet you wish you could go to school all the time—even on weekends and throughout the whole of summer, right?
This weekend, I met a sixth grade school group from Dar Es Salaam who had traveled to Mikumi National Park to learn about African wildlife—they didn’t seem to mind going to school on a Saturday. “Lucky!” I thought—I never got to take a safari field trip when I was in sixth grade, did you?
I am sorry Ms. Hemenway, if I have just created unreasonable expectations from your students. And since I know they are asking you already, Tanzania is bigger than Texas (yes, it is possible)—about one and a half times the size of the Lone Star State. Actually, parts of Tanzania resemble Texas and the dry grasslands of Mikumi remind me of the long miles of west Texas.
Where Mikumi differs from Texas is that we have elephants on our front lawn, while I imagine most of you do not. Imagine if you would, coming home from a day at school, only to be unable to enter your front door because two elephants had decided to eat your flower patch?
This is what happened to me yesterday evening as I came back to my bandas. A “bandas” is like a cottage where you can stay when you visit the national park—like a cross between a motel and camping. My bandas in Mikumi had a big bed with mosquito net, running water (fancy) and a front porch where the elephants liked to hang out.
As you know, my work takes me to some pretty fancy hotels all over the world. Just two weeks ago, I was living lavishly at the Corinthia Hotel of London, where I had a sterling silver tea set and a flat screen TV in my bathtub.
But even for all the luxuries in the world, no luxury compares to having elephants on your front lawn. Imagine if the motel billboards on the highway advertised it: “Heated Pool, Color TV, HBO, Baby Elephants on your Doorstep every morning!”
Did I mention the baby elephants? They are so cute. See, the first pair of elephants to land upon my lawn were about 12 years old—the elephant equivalent of a sixth grader: small enough for me to not get too worried but big enough to cause significant trouble. Then the following morning, they were back, but this time with twenty of their friends. I know it was twenty because ishirini is twenty in Swahili and this is what the cook kept saying (also, I counted). You said it was just like a teenage sleepover, where you prepare for five and then fifteen show up.
Well, I had not prepared at all, and I was too scared to even leave my bandas. Some of the elephants were parked outside my door and you don’t just tell an elephant, “Excuse me” and then walk around them.
When an elephant gets annoyed, they do this thing where they stomp one foot forward, and the swing their head at you. Basically, it’s their way of saying, “Back off, Mister, because next time I’ll run over you.” Not wanting to be trampled by elephants, I cowered on my front porch, trying to be invisible as possible. I recall @Natinah40 telling me that in such a situation, she would have called the fire department, but I’m guessing that here in Tanzania, a family of twenty elephants could spray more water than a fire engine.
African elephants are amazing creatures—not only for their size and power, but also their otherwise peaceable natures. After our brief encounter on my front lawn, my first impression is that most elephants just want to be left alone so that they can go about their business, which is mostly eating trees, or else knocking down trees so that they can eat them. They also want to protect their babies—here in Mikumi I saw one of the youngest elephants I have ever seen. The baby was maybe only two or three weeks old and stumbling behind its massive mother. Seeing that delicate little beast reminded me how vulnerable these animals are and how unfortunately, they are not being left alone.
As I’m sure you know, elephants are still hunted for their ivory tusks, and while the entire trade is illegal, poachers still sneak in and kill the elephants—just to steal these two long white teeth from them so that they can make trinkets. The whole affair is entirely tragic and my short time at Mikumi National Park has reminded me how critical the situation has become.
I asked Mr. Obed Nnko (a park ranger at Mukimi) how he protects their elephants from poachers. He explained how rangers follow each group of elephants around the park for 10-day circuits, exchanging on rotation with other rangers—basically, the elephants are always being watched.
“During the dry season we camp by the water holes, so that when they come to drink, we can protect them. Because we have so many rangers, Mkumi is safe compared to the outside area—especially compared to the Selous.”
The Selous is a huge game reserve just south of Mikumi that is particularly susceptible to poaching. According to the park warden at Mikumi, in 2008, they counted 40,000 elephants in the Mikumi-Selous area. In 2011, they counted fewer than 38,000. This is not a good statistic. If 2,000 students went missing, you would probably notice (right?).
In a way, the struggle for elephants’ survival is a long and drawn-out war. The rangers in Mikumi carry guns, and although they prefer to arrest and charger poachers rather than kill them, they have had a few Texas-style shootouts.
“Sometimes we exchange fire,” said Obed, then grew dour. “Three years go, the poachers shot one of our rangers.”
Most poachers are sentenced to four years in jail. Obed does not think this is enough—he thinks there needs to be bigger fines and longer jail time to dissuade people from poaching. Most poachers suffer from extreme poverty, and killing an elephant for the Chinese market earns them quick money.
“But it’s not worth it,” he counseled. “This is very risky and elephants are dangerous animals—they can kill you.”
I asked him what else he would say to poachers and he replied, “Stop poaching—for the benefit of the next generation. We have already witnessed what’s happened with the rhinoceros.”
Then he added, “Be patriotic. Don’t sabotage your country by killing these animals.”
One time, he found an elephant that had been killed.
“It had no tusks—they had been taken. I found the carcass in the national park when we were patrolling one day.”
How does this affect him—finding dead elephants?
“Oh—it makes me so sad,” he said. “It means I have failed at my job. My job is to protect them—we need them to stay alive.”
Obed insisted that everyone needs to take responsibility—not just the rangers and national parks but also the neighboring communities and the international markets. Still, he sees his job as critical.
“What would happen if you stopped your patrols?” I asked.
“Elephants would disappear completely,” he said, ominously, and then went on, “and not just elephants—all the other animals, too.”
Hearing this put things into stark perspective. The reason I witnessed twenty elephants enjoying the buffet of trees near my bandas is because there is a whole host of park rangers babysitting them around the clock.
For this reason, I am grateful that there are so many national parks in Tanzania set aside solely for conservation. I am glad that as a traveler, I have the chance to see so many elephants and so close up. And I’m grateful to the rangers, like Obed, who risk their lives every day to protect the elephants.
You asked Obed what you can do to save elephants and his response was that teachers should make wildlife studies part of the curriculum. He says education is vital and that in Tanzania it is important that children learn about the animals of their country.
So, do you teach “wildlife” at Hutto Middle School? Is elephant conservation part of the TACS test?
Most of what I know about elephants I learned from reading National Geographic, and in our recent October 2012 issue, the cover story deals specifically with elephant poaching. I remember when the magazine arrived in the mail, I saw the cover and my first reaction was, “Oh dear, you mean, we haven’t stopped this yet?”
Because when I was a sixth grader, elephant poaching was a major problem, and all these years later, we are still dealing with the same threat to one of the most magnificent creatures on the planet.
I do not mean for this to be a sad letter. For me, being surrounded by elephants was a happy occasion—I just want to make sure that in twenty years’ time, your sixth graders have the same opportunity and so on and so on.
I send you best wishes from Africa—thank you, as always, for being such a fun part of my travels on Twitter and for joining me every day as together, we learn new things about the world.
On that note, I will teach you a good word to know in Swahili, and that is tembo—elephant!
Your friend (in hippos and elephants),