They came into the circus ring, over a dozen, each holding the tail of the one before.
These were elephants and I was five or six. The only other elephant I had seen was Babar and he was a drawing. Clean, cared for and vast, these were real.
I am happy to report having my face examined by a young elephant’s trunk – she happened to be there for some other reason entirely when I was doing a “bit” at London zoo. I was covered with chewed up green but who cares ? It was a real live curious elephant.
Then, four or five years ago, a name came into my head, I could give you the route but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that, within a week, a pristine paperback turned up in a secondhand bookshop, the story of an old soldier who after WWI applied for a job in elephant management in what was then Burma now Myanmar and he spent 20 years with the beasts he loved – less Mr.Williams and more Elephant Bill.
There were wonderful documentaries, indicating the difference between African and Indian elephants, those of the forest, those of the plain, Daphne Sheldrake’s refuge for the orphans, victims of the rise in poaching. These were eclipsed by the endless ads from the World Wildlife Fund telling us about poachers who kill and maim. I think I might make peace with a level of killing if they weren’t so mindlessly cruel.
And here we are, in the last quarter of a bitter year, and as you well know misery, real and manufactured, is almost omnipresent: you can’t get away from it. Very fashionable, misery. So when I saw a headline which read “Elephants free to roam rainforest as poachers flee”,
I read on.
One of the things you must remember about a dream is that you have to dream it again and again to make it come true. You have to accept the limitations of your dream. Life is not magic. You may have a vision but if the vision is not faced and re examined in the light of day, it will fade, like every other dream. Dreams are the embodiment of “if at first you don’t succeed, try try try again.” Yesterday I met on a bus an Indian professor of computer science whose first love was physics – but the study of it was in in decline when he qualified “and” he said “you must be practical.”
President Ondimba of Gabon has been just that. The son of a longlived dictator, he loved the forest which covers much of the country, and its gorilla and elephant. It is where he stayed when he came home from the Sorbonne and Harvard – Gabon is a formerly French colony that joined the Commonwealth in June 2022.
Ten years ago, this part of the Congo rainforest, second largest after the Amazon basin (now in destructive hands) with much higher carbon absorption, was doomed. The President set his face against that and the man he chose to help him was Professor Lee White, a zoologist from Manchester who came to the country in 1989, rose to become director of the national parks agency and subsequently minister of the environment and maritime affairs.
An odd couple, they did what they had to do. Armed war was declared on poachers, through park rangers trained and equipped by the British Army and both sides took casualties. (In dreams they may not but in wars, they do.) Ondimba passed legislation against poachers, ivory smugglers and illegal logging while, at his side, Lee and others laboured to enable legal logging, palm oil production, using the forest for those who live there, with new methods of farming
and a greater appreciation of its worth. Such an easy sentence to write, much harder to make happen.
Seeing elephant wander forest pathways and gorilla calm enough to notice intruders but not flee is good news. Seeing two such different men united in a common cause is good news too. And seeing an African politician set his face against what he thought to be wrong, without quarter. Seeing any politician make thoughtful choices is heady.
What a wonderful story. So often one reads of wholesale slaughter of rare species it makes one’s heart swell to read a success story.