Culture Magazine

Elephants, Consciousness and the Thomson’s Gazelle

By Emcybulska
Some years ago, when I was in Kenya, I observed a scene that changed forever my views on elephants’ consciousness. My companions and I were staying at the auspicious Treetops Lodge, where in February 1952 Princess Elizabeth spent a night to discover the next day that she was Queen Elizabeth II.

   We took seats in the comfortable lounge to relax and take stock of the day’s adventure in the Aberdare National Park. We still felt slightly shaken by the fact that at one point during the afternoon drive a wheel fell off our jeep and we had to get out in order for it to be repaired. Our only hope was that the resident lions had already had their dinner. They had.

   It was a beautiful July evening and the sun was setting behind the snow-capped Mount Kenya. In my imagination I could hear the soundtrack from my beloved film Out of Africa and was almost expecting Robert Redford to join us for a drink in a moment.

   Taking our seats by a large window to have a good view of the adjacent watering hole, we were hoping to watch animals coming to it. It was getting dark, but the watering hole was well lit by powerful flood-lights. At first, there were only a few birds dotted about the water’s edge. However, gradually, a procession of some larger animals began to take their places: waterbucks, warthogs and I thought I could just make out a pair of zebras in the distance. Then, to our delight, the huge figure of elephant loomed out of the bush. A lone bull, he was in no rush as he came to the water and began to take it in, sucking it up into his long, muscular trunk, before squirting it into his mouth.

   Suddenly, a nervous-looking gazelle darted into the clearing, and scampered in the direction of the elephant. Trembling slightly, she stood by his side. In height she did not even reach his knee. I remember commenting to my companions: “That’s probably not very wise of her. Even if he is in a benevolent mood, he could squash her accidently.” To my surprise she moved even closer to him. And then a companion whispered with some distress: “Look! Some hyenas! There are several of them in a pack, lurking in the shadows”. We knew that the elephant would be safe from these hungry predators, but was the gazelle?

   For a while, our proboscidean friend continued to drink water rather nonchalantly, eyeing the situation. Then, very slowly, he lifted his left leg and moved it towards the gazelle. I felt like covering my eyes and screaming quietly with horror. What he did was not what I feared. He stretched his leg around the gazelle so that he now stood over her, sheltering her with his massive frame. Frightened as she was, she must have understood his intention and did not move. He continued to drink water phlegmatically. After a little while, we saw the hyenas slink off into the bush, no doubt disappointed at the outcome of their plot. The gazelle stumbled towards the water and lapped some, glancing sideways with some trepidation. Then, as quickly as she had appeared, she skipped off into the bush, in the opposite direction to where the hyenas had gone. The elephant appeared to smile to himself.

Elephants, Consciousness and the Thomson’s Gazelle

   I shall never forget this scene and the impact it made on my understanding of elephants. One could only wish that humans always behaved in such a compassionate and magnanimous manner. It is my now belief that poachers should be tried in court for murder or attempted murder.

   Recently, I read Lawrence Anthony’s most beautiful book, The Elephant Whisperer. He was a man of great mind and heart, and it is to his memory that I dedicate this short story.

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