Saturday, 11 May 2013

Walk it off.

It was not like touching another living thing. Snakes, dogs, cats, lovebirds, horses, sheep, cows, humans, everything that breathed still somehow conveyed its being-alive-ness. I mean, Jesus, that snake-touching was no fun because it was a 3m python, but still, through the clammy coldness it was alive and, well, it could (try to) eat me.

Not the elephant though. The elephant felt strangely like touching a stuffed museum exhibit. Her skin was harder than I had expected, seemingly impenetrable, with bristles sticking out and a layer of mud caked on. I knew she was observing me, and feeling me sort of man-handling her stomach, the bottom of her back foot, the hairs at the end of her tail and the patch of skin behind her eye with some kind of special gland in it (I wasn't listening as intently as I should have to the elephant handlers). It was as though I was playing every part in the parable of the blind men and the elephant, except that I knew I was touching an elephant.

Only upon touching the back of her ear did it feel less like interacting with a 7t dirty rock and more like she could crush me whenever she felt like it. I felt an interesting contradiction between fascinatedly touching something so big and powerful, but at the same time so silent and vulnerable. All the elephants at the sanctuary near Hartebeespoort are orphans. Their families had been culled because of overpopulation in the Kruger National Park, and they were the only ones that could be relocated. So aside from the threat of crocodiles mauling their trunks, predators attacking them and humans killing them for their ivory, the elephant is on the endangered species list because it needs space to survive, and we are encroaching on its habitat.

It was a bit sad to have to resort to making an interaction with elephants all about taking photographs. On the tour one hears almost everything one can about the loxodonta africana. Then one proceeds to feed them handfuls of pellets, after which one enters one by one to pat the elephant down and pose for a photograph. At the end one walks around an enclosure, with the elephant's trunk in hand.

The entire visit was very cool to experience, but it also felt a bit rehearsed, as though we were at Disneyland queueing to go on a ride. Here we were just queueing to touch something frightening and beautiful. For instance, for the trunk-in-hand walk, I know the elephant did not want me to hold his trunk (I was walking with a different one than Ms. Elephant) because he kept pulling it away. Which I can understand, I also don't like holding people's hands. But then the handler would authoritively say a command, and the trunk would be back in my hand. Sorry Mr. Elephant.

If you are ever in Gauteng and don't know what to do, this is great. But I would bear in mind that this is an animal that could crush you, and not merely a great photographic opportunity to show to your friends back home.

Hello Ms. Elephant

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