Julian the elephant
Kenyan rangers don’t name the animals. It’s not Jerry the giraffe or Billy the buffalo, it’s an animal to be protected against poachers (potentially at the cost of their own life). Except for this guy. He’s different. He’s Julian.
After three hours chasing wildlife in our cacophonous safari truck, we saw Julian slowly stepping towards a watering hole. Our guide asked us an incredibly easy question. “Do you want to go see him bathe or go back to camp?”
We drove ahead, parked, and as we waited for Julian’s ponderous steps to bring him closer the guide told us about elephants, and told us about Julian. Older males tire of the roughhousing juveniles, especially when an errant tusk wound can be fatal, so they retire from herd life.
Leaving the group, they just sort of…live. Nothing preys on an adult bull elephant, so they meander around, eating and drinking, bathing and doing whatever a retired elephant wants to do. This is what we watched, as Julian moseyed over to the water fountain for a series of long splashing drinks of the fresh cool water brought by a solar pump (donated during a dry spell). His deep bass rumbles were powerful, his impatient snorts for more water adorable, but I was most struck by the sheer presence of such an incredible animal.
Initially there were three in the boys club, but one morning the other two were gone, migrated somewhere else in Tsavo National Park. But Julian stayed, content with his life in the smaller landscape of Rukinga Wildlife Sanctuary (nestled in the middle of the C-shaped Tsavo).
Stop here if you want Happily ever after.
Elephants have six sets of teeth, each worn out in turn by the grinding of 250-300 kg a day of tough grasses, replaced just as our adult teeth replace our baby set. But six is a finite number.
When that sixth set of teeth wear out, the animal starves to death.
Second chance to stop reading. Because it’s worse to learn that an elephant knows when it’s their last set of teeth. They start eating softer grasses to delay the inevitable. They get stressed, sometimes they get aggressive. They know they’re going to die.
So we sat and watched Julian, his vision reduced to about seven feet, slowly drink water in elephantine majesty. But those hooded eyes were of an animal that knows his time is running out. The herd is gone, the other bulls are gone, and Julian is alone, teeth almost gone, waiting for the end.
When he’d had enough to drink he waded into the water and had a bath. He walked back. Had one more drink of the cool water. Then Julian walked back into the grassland, throwing dust on his back, doing as elephants do. On his way, for a little while longer.
I never knew before about elephants losing their teeth and ability to eat. I suppose that many elephants pass away because of this.
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