I know a wild elephant. Once she was tame, used to humans and to complying with their biddings. She was called Eleanor. I met her in 1987 when I went to Tsavo, Kenya, East Africa as part of a research team. We were studying the thermoregulation of elephants living in a “natural setting”.
Eleanor had been an orphan. She was born in 1958. She was found at 2 years old, standing next to an older, female, dead elephant who was assumed to have been her mother. Eleanor had been stranded on a small strip of land after two rivers had flooded in Tsavo East National Park in 1961. It was believed that she had stayed in this location as the rains came and went because she had not wanted to leave her mother's side. The body of the older elephant had a poison arrow in the leg.
Eleanor had been captured for her own good. It would be hard for a 2 year old elephant to survive on her own without a mother or a herd to look after her. After spending a few years in the care of her captor, she was eventually taken to live with David and Daphne Sheldrick at the ranger station at the Entrance to Tsavo East.
The Sheldricks had already reared several wild elephant babies when they took over the care of Eleanor. At the time, David Sheldrick was the head warden of Tsavo. Daphne his wife and later his widow, would later found The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and go on to save many orphaned elephants and return them to the wild. The Trust is still saving elephant orphans today.
When I met Eleanor in 1987 she was hanging around the entrance to Tsavo with another young elephant called Mary and a young eland buck with a rope around his neck. They were all orphans in the care of the Tsavo park management and though they were free to go where they wished, they seemed to stick mostly together right at the entrance to the park. Eleanor had been assigned a body guard to follow her around and to protect her from harm as she had tusks and no fear of humans.
She had trusted humans because of the kind ones she had been exposed to and because tourists sometimes snuck her treats even though they were not supposed to. And because of people like us who were feeding her treats in the name of science so that we could get her to stand still and comply as we took temperature readings of her skin.
I liked her a lot. She was the only elephant I'd ever met. She had a very sweet and curious nature. Her eyes twinkled and she had a look of mischief on her face. She seemed so sharp, like she could read my mind. Because I did not mind her size nor her wet slimy trunk, which she put all over me, I often got the assignment of feeding her bananas or loaves of Wonder bread while the other researchers took readings of her skin temperature with thermocouples.
She quickly became familiar with the Land Rover we were in and when she would see it, she would run towards it. If the bananas or bread did not start flowing quickly enough she would grab ahold of the Rover's roof rack and shake the Land Rover back and forth until we would get the bananas and bread going her way.
I never felt good about our approach to working on Eleanor, with the treats as bribes. It was enhancing all the wrong messages. Assumptions that could later get her into a lot of trouble with humans. But I was a low man on the totem pole of the research team. I was just 21 and feeling very lucky just to be working with a team of scientists studying elephants. To have met Eleanor, gotten a chance to pat a semi-wild elephant and look into the eye of such an intelligent creature was among the top experiences of a life time.
I learned the whole story of Eleanor's life only a few years ago. How she had, over the years, taken on the position of caring for and protecting all the orphans that were raised at the Sheldrick's Wildlife Trust. How she had ended up (before I met her) for a while in a zoo, and then regained her freedom, thanks to the Sheldricks. I learned that during the time I was in Tsavo Eleanor may have been being held close to the entrance gate by her guards to gain them some money in exchange for allowing tourists to pat her and get pictures taken standing next to her..
I read also, how later on in the early 1990s, Eleanor relinquished her position as matriarch of the Tsavo orphans and went alone back to the wild to have a calf. That she had chosen to remain aloof from her former family of Tsavo orphans, her gaurd and the Sheldricks. Eleanor has never returned to see them nor to show them her offspring, as so many of the other orphans have done.
Eleanor trusted and probably loved some humans but not enough to risk her own calf's future. Elephants know a lot. They know that humans can be kind and also be dangerous. I hope Eleanor has been wise in her decision. She has lived through some awful times for elephants. She has chosen to disappear with her calf back in to the anonymity of being wild. I hope she is doing well. When I think about what is happening to elephants in Africa, I can't help taking it personally. I think of Eleanor, not quite a friend but an acquaintance, still out there somewhere with a family of her own hiding herself and her family from humans as best she can.