Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives - By Thomas French Page 0,1

given as much space to move as possible. Still, there was no telling how they would adjust to being taken from everything they knew. Wild elephants are accustomed to ranging through the bush for miles a day. They are intelligent, self-aware, emotional animals. They bond. They rage and grieve. True to their reputation, they remember.

How would the exiles react when they realized their days and nights were encircled as never before? When they understood, as much as they could, that they would not see Africa again? Either they had been rescued or enslaved. Or both.

The 747 raced westward, carrying its living cargo toward the new world.

The savanna, alive just after sunset. Anvil bats search for fruit in the falling light. A bush baby wails somewhere in the trees. Far off to the east, along the Mozambique border, the Lebombo Mountains stand shrouded in black velvet.

A fat moon, nearly full, shines down on a throng of elephants chewing their way through what’s left of the umbrella acacias inside Mkhaya Game Reserve. A small patch of green in the center of Swaziland, Mkhaya is one of the parks the elephants on the 747 were taken from. This was their home. Before deciding what to think about the fate of the eleven headed for the zoos, it helps to see the wild place they came from. To know what their lives were like before they ended up on the plane and to understand the realities that pushed them toward that surreal journey.

An evening tour through Mkhaya is especially dramatic—climbing into a Land Rover at the end of a golden afternoon, then lurching along the park’s winding dirt roads, searching for the elephants who remain. Mkhaya’s herd is a good-sized group—sixteen in all, counting the calves—and even though they are the largest land mammals on earth, they are not always easy to find. Elephants, it turns out, are surprisingly stealthy.

As the sunlight fades, other species declare their presence. Throngs of zebras and wildebeests thunder by in the distance, trailing dust clouds. Cape buffalo snort and raise their horns and position themselves in front of their young. Giraffes stare over treetops, their huge brown eyes blinking, then lope away in seeming slow motion. But no elephants.

A couple of hours into the tour, the visitors begin to wonder if they will glimpse any of the hulking creatures tonight. Then suddenly the entire group seems to materialize from nowhere. The driver has unwittingly turned a corner into the center of the herd. On both sides of the road, elephants loom like great gray ghosts. They’re in the middle of their evening feeding, knocking down trees, snapping branches and chewing on leaves and peeling bark with their tusks. As the Land Rover sputters to a stop in their midst, the elephants turn their massive heads toward the intruders. Two calves hurry toward their mothers and aunts. A towering bull, his tusks faintly glowing in the moonlight, moves from the shadows into a patch of red leopard grass only twenty feet away.

“Here’s my big boy,” says a woman in the back row of the vehicle. “Come over and say hello.”

As if on cue, the bull steps into the road and lumbers toward the Land Rover. He doesn’t appear angry. Just insistent. Behind the wheel, the tour guide quickly restarts the engine, then shifts into reverse. He’s hurrying backward down the road when, in his mirror, he spies one of the females waiting beside a bushwillow. As the vehicle approaches, the cow bends the tree across the road and holds it there, directly in the humans’ path. She makes it look easy.

Without slowing down, the guide spins the wheel, taking the Rover off the road—still in reverse—and maneuvering around both the elephant and her roadblock. He keeps his foot on the gas, tearing and bumping backward down a little hillside and across a dry riverbed until he’s sure none of the herd is following.

The guests inside the Land Rover try to process what they’ve just witnessed. What was that elephant doing?

The guide smiles, shrugs. “She was just being naughty. They’ve got a sense of humor—more than people realize.”


Another shrug. “She was definitely trying to block our way,” says the guide. “It’s just not good to drive through an elephant herd. They don’t like you to drive through. They want you to listen to them.”

Driving back to camp, he explains that elephants get irritated when they’re not in control. He talks about how helicopter pilots, flying over herds, have seen elephants