The elephant in the room

Education Officer, Ali Schofield, admires one of thousands of elephants in Chobe National Park, Botswana. Photo by Nina Lex.

I started the day by losing my phone.

We hadn’t been over the Botswana border 5 minutes when from the back seat of our safari jeep I heard the distinct thud of my cell phone hitting the dirt road below us. There it went. My phone, my contacts, my messages were now either a) to be crushed by a transport truck, b) picked up and likely sold by a Botswanan or c) manhandled by one of the elephants that are as common as the Canadian squirrel. (They have the right of way, you know!)

Moments later, I declared my liberation from my mobile device to my friends. Now, I would be up the river without a paddle, so to speak– or at least on safari in Chobe National Park without a signal.

The first part of our safari was by boat, where we spotted crocodiles, hippos, exotic birds, buffalos, and elephants. The crocs were somewhat frightening, the hippos mysterious, as they bobbed in and out of the water, and the elephants were – in the flesh and in their habitat – otherworldly.

Close to the end of our river cruise we sat and watched the elephants– just a few hundred of the 120,000 who call Chobe National Park their home – at play.

Soon, 5 or 6 other boats showed up in this relatively narrow stretch of water. It was then that I realized how unnatural this whole safari activity felt in the grand scheme of the things – that we should be on the river, hippos beneath us, elephants in front of us, snapping away with our big Nikons at these beautiful giants.

For some reason it made me feel a little dirty.

Here we were taking pictures for friends and Facebook albums, all the while forgetting that these are truly intelligent creatures that deserve a little more consideration. Humans used to poach elephants for their tusks (and sometimes still do); more often now we invade their space en masse in motorized vehicles with folks from around the world to take their pictures.

Safari tourism is one of the biggest pulls for visitors to Africa.  In Botswana alone there are 93 tour operators, tourism comprising 12% of the country’s GDP. All over southeastern Africa there are innumerable tour companies that make visits to hundreds of national parks, often multiple times a day.

Still, I couldn’t shake this feeling like I was in Jurassic Park and it made me slightly uncomfortable, and truly, the only thing that could have made this situation natural once again was for our boat to be overturned by a creature beneath us and for us all to be eaten.

After lunch the animal-ogling continued when we went on a game drive; giraffes, impalas and more elephants, and this time they were walking all around us.

This, despite my strange moral dilemma with “the nature of things,” was wonderful; they were almost close enough to touch. I had to put my camera away and just enjoy the spectacle – which was a spectacle for me, but simply bath time for them.

One thought on “The elephant in the room

  1. Pingback: Vacay Pt. 2: Livingstoned | letters to betsy

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