An Orphan Elephant Inspires

Each morning, I stumble downstairs to retrieve a newspaper — or even three on Sunday, and possibly more written material clogging my neglected mail cubby — and reflect on this masochistic attraction I seem to have for keeping up with the news during these still mostly depressing times. But one recent morning, back upstairs in my apartment, coffee poured and comfortably settled with that day’s New York Times, I was surprised to find myself smiling over a sweet story about a baby elephant found alone and helpless on a riverbank in Africa.

Smiling? Has the paucity of feel-good news these days turned me into some kind of heartless news junkie? I hope not. No, Elizabeth Preston’s story quickly got into a heartwarming account of the efforts by villagers, schoolchildren, wildlife authorities locally and around the world, international animal welfare organizations, and DNA experts working to assure the elephant’s continued health and safety, and even perhaps enable the orphan’s return to the wild with her biological family.

Some of this seemed vaguely familiar. sending me to my travel journals from African trips in 2004 and 2009 when I accompanied my cousin Dorothy Woodson, then curator of African collections for the Yale University library, now retired. Why haven’t I written more about those wonderful experiences? Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso in West Africa and South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia in the south.

And where was it that I learned about the annual migration of elephants traveling from near the border of Burkina Faso 1,000 kilometers to Duenza in Mali? It is thought to be the longest journey conducted by elephant herds and welcomed as a sign of the coming rainy season.

Reading Ms. Preston’s article, I came to the happy realization that I have been close to the very place where rescuers brought the young elephant after finding her in 2017 wandering alone near Bonomo in Burkina Faso. Only two or three months old, she had been separated from her family just a day or two, according to wildlife experts who said she would not have survived otherwise. When orphan elephant calves are rescued, Ms. Preston wrote, they are usually found near a mother’s carcass, but in this case, no one knew of an adult that had been killed. “Although elephant mothers are extremely attentive, [this baby’s] family left her behind for some reason — perhaps at a nighttime river crossing that the tiny elephant couldn’t manage.”The villagers sought help from the local wildlife authorities who took the elephant to a pen outside their headquarters in Bonomo. There, “local residents pooled resources to buy milk for the elephant, and a drugstore donated powdered infant formula. But the young elephant’s appetite, unlike the funds of the humans helping her, was bottomless, The humans needed help.” Ms. Preston wrote. They reached out to the International Fund for Animal Welfare for help, and the group took charge of the elephant’s care.

Local schoolchildren named the elephant Nania, a word for will and visited daily, along with a black and white sheep named Whisty who became her best friend. DNA analysis indicated that Nania and her relatives are forest elephants, recently recognized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as a distinct species, separate from Africa’s larger and more numerous savanna elephants. It also declared them critically endangered. With that information, the project became “about more than just rehabilitating one young forest elephant, but ensuring the future of her species.”

In February 2019, weaned and no longer requiring bottles of milk, Nania moved into a home specially built for her inside the nearby national park Deux Balés where, Ms. Preston wrote, she could start learning how to be an elephant. It includes a stable where she stays at night, and a large fenced pasture called a boma. Also living there is the “loyal sheep friend Whisty and four keepers who stay in pairs, a week at a time. Each day, the elephant spends six to eight hours roaming the park with her keepers in an effort “to help map the wilderness in her mind and learn where to find water and tasty fruits.”

It is unclear from the Times article whether Nania even realizes yet that she is an elephant. Hanging out with a sheep and her keepers, trying to run after visiting schoolchildren and join their play, and barging into the building where her milk was being prepared — none of that helped in the realization process, and the article says the first time she encountered a herd of wild elephants, she fled.

Orphan elephants have been accepted into herds of non-biological relatives, but the choice is up to the family. “Nania might have a chance to join not just any family of wild elephants but her own,” Ms. Preston wrote, explaining that only about 40 wild elephants pass through that park, and the team from the International animal welfare fund figured that Nania’s family could be among them. To find out, they began sending samples of elephant dung to a lab at the University of Washington in Seattle for DNA testing. The results were startling: According to the lab, “One of the sampled elephants was not just a relative, but almost definitely Nani’s mother.”

Any hoped-for reunion will have to wait now the wild elephants have migrated out of Deux Balés for the rainy season that will end sometime in October when, the Times article notes, “Maybe Nania — a little bigger and fatter, a little more confident — will be ready for the returning elephants.”

And if Nania eventually joins a family — her own or a foster one — the Times article observed, “the international fund team plans to follow up with tracking and more dung sampling to make sure she’s safe — and to learn whether, against all odds, she has found her mother.”

(Boromo is located a few hours southwest of Ougadougou, the country’s capital, where airline scheduling problems caused my cousin and me to stay longer than originally planned. Local people recommended a side trip to Bobo. Heading back to Ouago, as the locals call it, we decided on another side trip to Banfora, about halfway there, where, about 10 kilometers off the highway is the national Parc des Deux Balés where elephants come to get water. At the end of a long dirt road, we found an encampment at the river’s edge with a long deck built over the water and set with tables, chairs and a bar. We stopped for lunch and learned from fellow diners that about 60 elephants had come by a few days before but none since. Had we ventured farther into the park, might we have encountered a young Nania walking with her keepers? One can only dream.)

Sorrowing for Burkina Faso

Things were looking hopeful for the West African country of Burkina Faso. Since gaining independence in 1960, the former French colony was ruled primarily by the military and experienced several coups. Last year, the 27-year rule of a former president ended after a mass uprising and protests, and a democratically elected president was inaugurated on December 29.

And then, on January 15, terrorists attacked a hotel and café, setting off explosions and targeting guests and employees. In all, 20 people were killed and dozens more wounded. The North African Branch of Al Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for the attack, is the same group that held 170 people hostage and killed 22 at a hotel in Bamako, Mali in November.

Along with the rest of the world, I mourn the senseless loss of those lives, but I also feel such profound sadness for the people of those desperately poor countries trying to build lives for themselves. The New York Times explains that while tourists and business people who escaped last week’s carnage can hurry away on the first available plane, the workers who are lucky enough to hold such jobs can’t consider leaving no matter how frightening the situation becomes. “There aren’t many jobs here,” one employee observed.

Formerly known as Upper Volta, Burkina Faso’s name means Land of Incorruptible People. Since meeting some of those people during a 14-day visit to the country in 2004, I have been pulling for them from afar and rejoicing with each new development. And now this. So very sad.

African Tales, the compilation of stories from the six African countries I visited with my cousin, Dorothy Woodson, retired curator of African collections at Yale, is progressing distressingly slowly on this website. But with recent news events taking me back to those wonderful experiences, I was re-inspired to write more about the Land of Incorruptible People. The latest addition, about Burkina Faso, is “The Festival of the Masks.”

africa map

Do Not Feed the Baboons!

It’s the first of the month and as I turn the page on The Nature Conservancy’s wall calendar, I see them: three baboons. Just like the ones I did not see in South Africa. These guys, photographed in western Tanzania, appear to be working at opening some sort of shellfish from Lake Tanganyika, which the caption tells me is the world’s longest lake, holding “17 percent of our planet’s fresh water and (boasting) more than 300 fish species.” Lucky baboons.baboon in grass

At the Cape of Good Hope, which I visited with my cousin Dorothy, the warning signs were everywhere — “Baboons are Dangerous and Attracted by Food.” I’d seen similar signs atop Table Mountain towering 3,000 feet above Cape Town where we’d gone earlier in the week — traveling in a rotating gondola named The Flying Dutchman, me seated on a central perch, white-knuckled hands gripping a metal post and eyes tightly shut; I understand the view is magnificent.

Dorothy had told me of picnicking on the beach with her daughters when they lived in Cape Town and being watched by baboons hovering nearby. I was intrigued and wanted to see the animals myself. So everywhere we went in Table Mountain National Park, I kept hoping to catch a glimpse of a baboon and lamenting the fact that the closest I was coming to one was the ubiquitous signs. In the gift shop I even bought a refrigerator magnet that reads “Beware Baboons. Do Not Feed.” I guess I was being annoying, voicing my fear that I’d have to add baboons to my list of Animals I Never Saw in Africa because my cousin finally ducked into the gift shop and emerged with a small baboon figurine which she presented to me – “So you’ll finally shut up about baboons.”

South Africa 0052In the park flyer I read that baboons on the Cape Peninsula are protected, the only ones with that designation in all of Africa. You are warned to keep a safe distance from the animals, move away slowly if one approaches you, and hide your food. Feeding a baboon will get you fined. All of this information proved to be moot as I never did see one. And I thought I never had seen one anywhere ever until my daughter remembered that baboons had swarmed over our car as we drove through a wild animal park in New Jersey many years ago, defecating all over the car windshield. That memory removed any intrigue that might have existed before.

Dorothy confirmed that baboons are not very nice animals. But then this picture showed up in my e-mail. Go figure.

baboon on a bike

The Last Time I Was in Ouagadougou…

Well actually, it was the only time. But how many times in my life will I get the chance to say those words? Between Ouaga as it’s called for short and Bobo-Dioulasso, I was in the country of Burkina Faso a total of 14 days. You can read about why by hopping over to my book, African Tales. This blog post is a shameless attempt to get you to do just that.

I bring up Ouagadougou because it’s in the news today. The New York Times has a piece about “tens of thousands” marching through Burkina Faso’s capital city yesterday demonstrating against a proposed change to the West African country’s constitution that would allow President Blaise Compaoré to run again next year. He’s already been in power 27 years, and the people are saying “enough is enough.” Some people threw rocks. The police fired tear gas. See how similar all our countries are?

Our own country went through a similar controversy over presidential term limits back in 1944 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to a fourth term. Afterward, our country also said “enough is enough” and in 1951 passed the 22nd Amendment barring a president from serving more than two full terms. I was alive then but not paying attention to such things. These days, both the country and the president seem grateful to have the four or eight years come to a conclusion.

Burkina Faso is a usually peaceful place with friendly people who have lived since 1991 under a constitutional democracy “in theory at least,” as one writer put it, “if not always effectively in practice.” The nation, formerly known as Upper Volta, experienced a number of military coups following independence from France, the most recent of which put the current president in power.

Africa On My Mind

The world lurches from one crisis to another. The media struggles to continue keeping us informed. And in the process, ongoing coverage of particular news stories drops from view. In my case, it’s been news about Mali and especially Timbuktu, so that is why The Guardian’s photo essay by Sean Smith and accompanying stories by Alex Duval Smith was such a welcome addition to my inbox.

When they say that travel broadens a person, I guess it means that it expands your interest and understanding of a place and its people. If you were lucky enough to actually meet people in another country, as opposed to just glimpsing them from the window of a tour bus, the experience stays with you forever. And even if you didn’t maintain contact with those people, your concern for them and hope for their well-being remains.

When rebel jihadists invaded Mali’s northern desert region and fundamentalist Islamists announced their intention to impose Sharia law, one of my first thoughts was for the cute and giggly teenage girls who walked along Timbuktu’s dusty main street with my cousin and me. What would become of them and other women and girls we met? The fact that the militants have been routed and peace somewhat restored is only partly comforting because you know it could happen all over again when the French and United Nations troops depart.

When I read about militants seizing and destroying ancient documents I thought of the earnest young man at the Ahmed Baba Center for Historical Research who described the library’s efforts to preserve brittle manuscripts written in various languages and convert their contents to digital and other formats. They were hoping to obtain a university internship in the west for an African student to learn about modern preservation techniques. How horrible it must have been for scholars to see those precious materials, to which they’d devoted their lives, being carried off. But then I read later how not just librarians but ordinary citizens of Timbuktu took it upon themselves to hide documents, even burying some in the ground during the uprising, to save them. Stories like that came afterward and were inspiring, as are The Guardian’s depictions of a people persevering against unimaginable challenges.

Returning from five weeks in three west African countries and later, from three weeks in southern Africa, I wrote stories about my experiences because that’s what writers do. But, much as it would have pleased me to see these stories in a published book, I did not feel I had the right to do so. I was not presented as a writer to the people I met and photographed. I was just “Dorothy’s cousin” who was along for the experiences. So I’m putting the stories here on this website of unpublished material, having started with Timbuktu, with more to follow. I hope you enjoy reading them and find the experience “broadening.”