The soldiers mounted up onto their troop carriers and heavy support wagons as we prepared to go out into the Malian desert and carry out our first anti poaching mission just South of Timbuktu. With a sense of urgency we left behind a skeleton guard and drove out of camp onto the potholed road under a scorching sun. A sun which having already been up for a few hours by 9 am, was chastising us for loitering.
We were in Mali as part of the Mali Desert elephant project. This a Wild Foundation project run by Wild Foundation and partnered with Chengeta Wildlife who are providing critical combat tacking tactics for a brand new anti poaching unit. Lead by Rory Young an expert tracker and combat tracking trainer the team is providing ‘in ops’ training to this new unit.
Turning off the road, we passed beneath one of the towering monoliths which break up this Sahel semi-desert landscape and continued into the interior.
For some reason, this landscape reminds me of the Lord of the Rings… The dark Lord Sauron at the centre of his dark mountain and little Gollum and his servants scampering around the crags and planning to cause mayhem and chaos… anyway, I digress.
Amidst the arid ground, we started moving in and out of swamp land, mostly dry and parched, though we could see where the water had been above the black clay-based soil for weeks at a time during the wet season. It transformed this part of the desert into aquatic swamp land; a life-giving source for the grass, trees, and of course, the elephant.
The column stopped in a stand of trees and after taking up defensive positions, I took the opportunity to get out and have a scout around with some of the forest guards.
As we moved slowly through the area, we found them. Our first glimpse of elephant activity — footprints the size of craters. For many of the soldiers and forest guards this was the first time they had seen such colossal footprints; so deep and so unbelievably wide. They were much bigger than the Southern African savannah elephant I was used to.
We discussed the differences between the rear footprints and the forefoot prints — the number of toes on each, which direction the elephant bull was walking, his speed, and lastly, how to tell his mental state. Was he anxious or was he just going about his day in typical elephant fashion? Questions are always great in the wilderness as they require answers and this comes from taking a closer look and investigating. For a photographer, the simplicity of this edict is perfect.
We ended up lining up for an impromptu photoshoot with bums in the footprints as we posed. This is what makes wildlife and conservation come alive. Enjoying moments like these is what makes tracking fun and taking the time to relax from the rigours of war and appreciate the simple beauty and magnitude of the present.
It was soon nearing lunch time and the hottest part of the day, so we set about laagering up in a glade to seek a bit of shelter from the scorching noon heat. Here the men cooked lunch and rested underneath vehicles and in any bit of shade available. We drank fresh Tuareg tea brewed by the one of the forest rangers, Azimud, and relaxed in a smattering of shade.
The tea comes in a shot glass, has a lot of sugar and the correct way to drink it is to sip it, with pinkie up. I feel honoured when I see Azimud coming with his little teapot and shot glasses and after weeks in the field with this team of men, one comes to miss these small moments. (Insert image).
Before the sun went down we had to make a decision whether to stay and laager up in the desert or head back to a more secure camp, but travelling at night was definitely not on the cards. With a constant source of tea we would be alright I figured!
We wanted to stay out, however it is a real threat staying in an area with little security and a relatively small number of men. Despite this, we had the element of surprise on our side and it would have taken a formidable number of troops (at least three times our number) to mobilize against us, but that would take more than a few hours to organise.
With ISIS and Al QAEDA running about causing mayhem, it is something which needs to be taken seriously and there have been cases where these “laagers” have been attacked at night by a lone gunman, so perimeter security is vital.
As the heat of the day abated with the setting sun, I took a moment to think about how much I have to be thankful for. To be in a position where I might be doing some good as part of a team of dedicated people who have given their lives over to studying and protecting these elephants.
Against all odds
That night at about 3 am when the temperature drops a few degrees, just before the dawn covers the land in its glow, I crawled into the bivvy bag Rory lent me and wrapping my turban around my head, tried to keep warm. The standard sleeping position in Mali for us on the ground is the foetal position, with a bivvy bag on top and a hand under our head. There are no pillows and it’s comfortable.
With the sun rising over the desert behind the OC’s wagon, the radio transmitter communicating in Morse code, the camp came to life. Hot tea was brought to us — it always feels somewhat of an honour.
Information was coming in that three bulls had ransacked the granary of a local farmer so we went to investigate. Loading up, we looked quite impressive as an anti-poaching unit. Something that seems to come easily to these troops and forest guards is the notion that when dealing with the community it is from the point of view of a guardian. They are there to help and offer assistance. It is with deference a people’s respect is earned and with it a willingness to act and do the right thing.Naturally, the farmer was upset and after discussion with him and elders in the community, we set off in the general direction the elephants were headed.
We soon picked up the trail and it was time for the men to show their combat tracking skills. The last thing we wanted was to run into an elephant unprepared. The tracking team kept on the tracks, at times with Rory having to assist and point out signs which are easily missed.
Suddenly the lead tracking team crouched down, eyes on. I moved across from the scope team I was with. The men were whispering excitedly, pointing, with the biggest, broadest smiles and eyes full of wonder.
There they were, moving slowly like ephemeral ghosts through the undergrowth… the stark monolithic cliffs reaching up to the sky in the background. This is Mali. Elephants meandering through this area of the Sahel, oblivious to the war waging around them. Behind me the military men stood transfixed. The Officer in charge murmured, “How can anyone kill a beast as magnificent as this.”
Two days tracking and we were now spending precious moments with them. Moments which I knew would be over soon. I was trying to drink in all the details. The small tusks, the massive grey and wrinkled bodies. The power of their trunks as they tore down branches. The way they stuck together in a group, exactly like three old men after a lifelong friendship.
This is the Africa I love and for a moment it took my mind away from the fact there are men out there who see only dollar signs when they look at these beasts. The men who will kill mercilessly to earn an easy dollar. Right then it was just me and the elephants and I truly believe every person recedes inwardly and reflects on their souls when in the presence of such greatness.
For more information go to: chengetawildlife.org.