After lunch with Philip, the resident entomologist at the science and research center, I am asked if I would like to join him and a few others in tracking a wounded elephant on the reserve. "We must hurry," Philip says, moving toward the awaiting vehicle. "Time is of the essence."
I jump in, Epateti at the wheel, a handful of guards, trackers and rangers crammed into the jeep. Everyone is speaking hurriedly, excitedly, about an elephant feared injured by the spear of a local farmer.
We drive to the perimeter of the reserve, and along the fence line, two awaiting askaris (guards) show us faint elephant tracks dotted with blood. It appears the elephant had gotten over the perimeter boundary fence and onto private land, more than likely eating the crops on a neighboring farm or farms. The animal was pursued by a farmer, speared, then chased back onto the ground of Ol ari Nyiro, wounded and bleeding.
Spearing an elephant is serious business. It is illegal, as they are an endangered specie and deemed protected wildlife. If caught, the accused could face up to fifteen years in prison. It is a horrible fate when an elephant is speared. The animal dies a slow and painful death and suffers greatly as the tip of the weapon is coated with a deadly poison.
It is not uncommon in these parts - man and elephant have always been at odds. The elephant habitat continues to be compromised, diminishing due to human encroachment, and the survival of the elephant means that food must be found, wherever it happens to be.
An elephant does not know boundaries. In contrast, the very existence of a farmer is his crops and an elephant or herd can wipe out a single crop, a livelihood, threatening the farmer's survival. It is a conflict seemingly without solution and sadly, lives of both warring species are lost.
For many hours, on foot and over the fence line of the reserve into neighboring land towards the manyatta (village) of Ol Moran, I follow the expert trackers along the scene of the crime. Indiscernible to the untrained eye, I can barely detect the tracks left by the farmer. And yet, to the trackers, they are quite clear and tell a vivid and detailed story. After some time investigating in the dense scrub, the trackers find a promising clue: sandal prints surrounded by areas of broken twigs and disturbed earth. It is the spot where man and animal fought, where the doomed elephant took a spear to its flesh.
One tracker snaps a long twig from a leleshwa bush and measures the length of the sandal print. Cutting the twig to size, he measures it against his own foot and determines the shoe size of the farmer. While the trackers have determined the location of the attack scene, Epateti drives to the village to speak with the Turkana chief, asking him to join us where the apparent spearing took place.
An hour or so later, Epateti arrives with the chief who greets all of us with a firm handshake. He is shown the spot where the alleged crime happened, the sandal prints, the broken twigs, depressions and marks in the dry soil where farmer and elephant collided.
It is the chief's duty to investigate and find out who has injured the elephant. Fact is, however, many of the local farmers have gone uncaught after past spearings, and fellow villagers are reluctant to offer any information leading to the arrest of a farmer who has illegally speared an elephant. While the effort in tracking down those who harm or kill endangered wildlife might seem futile, it is the law and necessary protocol must be followed as the numbers of these magnificent animals, the elephant, continue to dwindle.
As daylight fades, we drive the chief back to his manyatta of Ol Moran. This is Epateti's village too, and as the jeep comes to a halt, he is greeted by many friends and family. I am up front with Epateti and the villagers greet me as well, smiling, offering handshakes, children waving and giggling.
The manyatta is not like anything I have ever seen. Poverty-stricken, it is comprised of mainly Turkana and Samburu but there are a few Pokots and other ethnic groups as well. Ematiated dogs, goats and chickens scramble across the dusty dirt paths. Buildings are small earthen huts, thatched roofs or loose metal sheets atop the structures which have few or no windows, and barely look as if they can withstand the very weight of their tops. There are a handful of stores, tiny, dark rooms offering little from what I can see from my seat. It is hard to imagine that anyone lives here, let alone survives. But they do.
All around me, everyone is smiling. Why do they appear so happy? Why does everyone, especially the children, show so much heartfelt affection toward me, in greeting me with warm handshakes and even warmer smiles? Is it because of their deep affection for Epateti and the fact that I am sitting beside him? Am I graciously afforded this outpouring of genuine kindness due to nothing more than my proximity to someone they care for, of importance to them?
I view a poor village scene that appears so very limited, seems to offer so little hope. And yet, is it not my view as well that is limited? Are my visions not small and contained in light of the bigger picture?
We know what we know. And what we have is what we know. I have infinitely more in terms of creature comforts, in a world of overabundance. Their world is based on community, family and friends, and the land. Perhaps what they lack in creature comforts they make up for in community spirit, a survival based on togetherness, cooperation, and extended hospitality.
It is a balance that is missing - in both worlds.
The last thing I see as we pull away from the manyatta is a weathered sign above the door of the local pub. The pub is nearly dark but the last of the daylight illuminates the placard, an ad for Tusker beer, a sign showing the head of a regal elephant with long, massive tusks.
I do not know the fate of the villager who speared the elephant. The fate of the elephant, however, is not as ambiguous.
Excerpt from the memoir, In the Heart of the Lily, copyright 2007, Jan Baumgartner.
Content cannot be reprinted without express permission from the author.