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Unlocking the trunk

Decades of research, aided by modern technology, have given us a greater understanding of Africa’s favourite animal — and how we can better protect it and the people whose land it traverses. Emma Gregg tells us what she has learned

I squint through the trees into the midday glare. Beyond the branches, nothing moves. On our short drive across the dusty, drought-bitten grasslands to this shady spot, we caught a glimpse of a solitary cheetah, relaxing gracefully under a shrub. At other times, and in other places, it would have been surrounded by eager wildlife-watchers, but most of today’s visitors to the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya have long since retreated to their lodges to escape the shimmering heat.

With Samburu-born Bernard Lesirin from Elephant Watch Camp as my guide, I’m following a different timetable. Our plan is simple: we’re going to observe elephants. We won’t just be smiling at them in passing, we’ll be watching them at length and in detail. Lunchtime, when they’re resting, is the perfect time.

The elephants have kindly granted us an audience. “Meet the Virtues family,” says Bernard, driving us up to a small group and stopping so close I gasp. “Don’t worry,” he adds. “We know each other extremely well.” What follows is one of the longest and most beguiling elephant encounters I’ve ever experienced.

For over 20 years, the eminent zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton has monitored Samburu’s elephants through studies based on mutual trust and respect. Guests at Elephant Watch Camp, which was created by his wife Oria, reap the benefits of their special relationship with the herds.

In turn, visitors are encouraged to get involved in conservation by supporting Iain’s nearby research base, Save the Elephants (STE).

Eye on you: Long eyelashes and an inner lid called a nictitating membrane help to protect elephants’ eyes
MARGOT RAGGETT / REMEMBERING ELEPHANTS
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About Travel Africa

Special Wildlife Issue, celebrating Africa's fauna • Big Cat lovers • Understanding elephants • In praise of primates • Painted dogs • Snakes • Birds • The wildlife in forests, deserts and rivers... and much more!