April 13, 2011

The elephant has to die—this isn’t the Lion King. ~ Joe Yeoman

An Elephant Dies.


I’m in the Amboseli National Park.

There’s an elephant carcass on the side of the road.

The head and the tusks have been hacked off by researchers, or poachers.

I can see the spine through the neck hole. All of the meat has been picked away by scavengers.

Flat, dried up marshes sprawl for miles. Behind the remains, famous Mt. Kilimanjaro hides in the clouds.

The skin sags on the bones, and the gray color fades. Flies circle around the openings.

The bone structure is sitting up, like the elephant just collapsed there on its haunches, probably looking for water. There has been a drought for several years, but it has rained recently, and some of the other marshes in the park look fertile.

We stand in the back of our safari wagon, taking pictures of the corpse. The van has a roof that raises into a canopy.

I don’t know why I have a fascination with death. Maybe it’s because death reminds me why life matters.

Or maybe it’s something less philosophical—maybe I just like seeing the “behind-the-scenes” of nature. At zoos, we only see living, bored, and placid animals. At Disney, they feed the lions USDA approved horse-meat, but they don’t tell the children “on safari” this. Instead, lions aren’t allowed to be real wild lions.

In Kenya, lions are lions.


An elephant writhes in a dirt patch.

The trunk swims around the body, searching for unpicked grass. There is no more grass for it to eat.

The elephant moans and then rocks, trying to get off its side. It stops and the snout scrounges again.

Across the road, its kin wallow in a marsh, spraying their backs with water and munching on green flora.

The elephant is so close to the water. Just across a dirt road, and it could survive instead of becoming a carcass.

We stop and call in for support. Just because we are in safari and Christmas vacation, doesn’t mean we can’t help. George, our driver, radios a famous elephant lady; her compound is close. Maybe, if we hoist up the elephant, it could waddle over to the water and collapse there. My brother, father, and I concoct plans—think of ways to save the elephant.

George is off the radio and says that they are coming. He drives on; there’s no way we can help.

We see two hyenas in the background, slumped in a pool of water.

[galleria] [/galleria]

Later, we drive back to the elephant. It is still panting and writhing in the dirt. There is a graduate student doing tests on the animal. She seems unafraid of the hyenas and lions in the park. She comes over to us.

Can we help? we ask.

“No. No.” She shakes her head, saddened. “There’s nothing that we can do.”

What do you mean?

“If the elephant has a virus, disease, or infection, she could give it to the rest herd.”

So, what do we do?

“Just leave her be.” She shrugs and walks back to her SUV. The clouds surround Kilimanjaro, and the day is getting late. We’ve already eaten lunch and there isn’t any more we can do.

It is beautiful to watch the elephant die. There is something…serene about it. Nature can be disturbing to watch and destructive. The elephant has to die; this isn’t the Lion King. We are eco-tourists, and this is the environment. There is something awful and hurtful in watching death, and it is sad to think of it as a wonderful action. Without death, we have no life. It is something to celebrate; instead we bury it under layers and layers of sadness and euphemisms.

Yes, it is sad to watch the elephant die, and there is nothing I can do about it. I understand the elephant is in pain, and that does hurt to watch.

So we continue on to our hotel and get a drink at their Hemingway bar.


Joe Yeoman thinks you’re pretty awesome. Hopefully, when you meet him, you don’t spit in his face. You can contact him at Joeyeoman [at] gmail [dot] com. Follow him on twitter @themindfullife, @walkthetalkshow, and @joeyeoman. Friend him of Facebook.

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