I got some terrible news recently.
News that struck me hard in the chest as if a fist had been wedged between my ribs. It was mixed with the usual disbelief and the hope that a mistake had been made, all the things you feel when you're told of an untimely death.
You may think it's strange that I feel so strongly about the loss of an elephant I only knew for four days, but I do.
Her name was Kitimetse, Kiti for short. She was part of the famed Abu Herd, comprised of four rescue elephants and their offspring, living at Abu Camp in Botswana.
She was 18 and she'd just given birth to her second calf, Naledi, a few months before. She died from complications after the fact. What has been a joyous time turned into a tragedy overnight, and Naledi was left orphaned along with Lorato, her six-year-old brother.
(Baby Naledi/Photo Mike Myers)
I am told the camp's handlers, the men who live and breathe the herd, who keep them safe, were hit hard. She had been part of their family.
Elephants Without Borders, a non-profit organization in the same concession, sent a specialist to the camp to help.
More crucial than any human's assistance, Kathy, Abu's childless, 53-year-old matriarch elephant, started lactating and has adopted the calf -- Naledi's future looks hopeful, however bittersweet.
(Kiti's beautiful amber eye)
A Little Slice of Heaven
I met Kiti, and the rest of the herd, in March 2013. I remember I was beyond excited and revved up like a kid on too much chocolate.
I was going to get close to real live African elephants! I was going to touch them and walk with them! Whoopie!
We were taken to a clearing near the camp where the herd stood, their ears flapping gently against the heat, their trunks deftly pulling the grass, and with the grace of a dancer, lifting the blades into their mouths.
For our first visit with the herd I chose to ride, and Kiti was my chariot.
She was large, of course, and radiated a kind and gentle nature. She watched me as I approached, and I could see the intelligence in her big amber eyes.
Years ago ,she'd made her way to Abu after being abandoned by her natal herd after a crocodile attack. She was nursed and loved, and thankfully, "Kathy approved."
"Can I touch her?" I asked her handler, whose name I have shamefully forgotten. He nodded and I gingerly stroked her left front leg. Her skin was rough and rubbery, like a supple radial tire covered in sandpaper.
(A handler and a guest ride Kiti on my second day at Abu Camp)
Her trunk came around, first to my hip pocket, the place where handlers keep their treats, and then went down to my ankles. She slowly sniffed and explored my legs, maneuvered up my body, checked my hands for treats, and then to my face, leaving a small streak of mud on my cheek. I looked up, we locked eyes for a moment, and then she turned her head to focus on a patch of grass far more interesting that I.
A real elephant! I just said "hello" to a real elephant, and she said "hi" (sort of) back!
I was in heaven.
I instantly had fantasies of being Timmy to her Lassie and becoming best friends for life.
A Walk in the Bush
The Abu herd stays in the same single-file line every time they go out with guests into the bush: Kathy at the front, then Shireni, Abu, Lorato, Paseka and Kiti at the very back -- she liked to take her time. Warona, Shireni's one year old calf, trotted about willy nilly, but never to far from her mother.
As we walked, now and then, Kiti would make a low rumble that would vibrate through my entire body and thrill me to no end.
Kiti was pregnant with Naledi, and our group was one of the last that would be allowed to ride her before she went on maternity leave.
I noticed that Kiti had a large hole at the bottom of her right ear and I asked what happened.
Her handler replied that Kiti and Kathy had fought a few years back; Kathy knocked Kiti down and then pierced Kiti's ear with her tusk.
Kiti would always have a reminder of who was boss.
(Kiti raises her trunk for me)
I would see Kiti and the herd five more times after the first meeting. Early morning and late afternoon was our time with the elephants, in-between they walked through the bush freely -- the handlers nearby only to monitor their safety.
I've asked myself why I am so heartsick to hear of Kiti's passing. I think it's because I've always been fascinated by elephants and no matter how brief our time together, I shared a part of her world, and she acknowledged me. For a short while we connected. I was no longer a voyeur; she was no longer an animal that I watched from afar.
I saw first hand that Kiti was highly intelligent and that she had her own unique personality. I know it's frowned upon to anthropomorphize animals, but frankly, it wasn't a big stretch for me to think of the Abu elephants as big grey people.
(Kiti and a handler out for a walk at sunrise)
My time with those magnificent creatures was incredibly precious, and I am grateful that I had the opportunity. I empathize with the sorrow Naledi must feel, and with the grief felt by everyone who loved her at Abu.
I know it's the circle of life and all that, but for Kiti, I am so sad that it all came to an end so soon.
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