Boise & Garden City

Boise to Mozambique: Gorongosa's elephants touch the heart

In the end, we counted 67 elephants strolling across the edge of the meadow.  Today, about 400 roam the park, helping to balance the ecosystem.
In the end, we counted 67 elephants strolling across the edge of the meadow. Today, about 400 roam the park, helping to balance the ecosystem. Katherine Jones / Idaho Statesma

I’ve always wanted to see a big cat in the wild. Mountain lion, bobcat — doesn’t matter. Even a track would make me ecstatic; they are the creatures of my heart. And today?

We saw a lioness.

She was simply sitting, giving us just enough time to get photos before she slowly walked off, leaving us with the sight of her tail curled and bobbing in the tops of the grasses. We saw her a second time, this time with her lion, just after the sun sank big and beautiful over the horizon. Oh yes. I can die happy.

(We learn later: The other half of our group saw her with her three cubs. On second thought: I will hold out for cubs.)

But for all that — let me tell you about the elephants.

We had seen two bulls and spent a lot of time watching a herd of 20 — and were so impressed. Massive, slow-moving, graceful — although not always so. Gorongosa elephants remember being hunted during the war and are inclined to be wary of people. They are learning, but elephants are smart and they remember. We keep our distance and travel with a park ranger carrying a gun///, whose purpose is to keep people — and elephants — safe.

Around another corner, though, we saw another part of the herd. We stopped in the center of a beautiful pastoral meadow dotted with yellow fever trees and watched the elephants slowly make their way across the far edge — like a little parade — to join another group. Mothers and babies paused to nibble branches with their trucks, gently fanning their ears, doing elephant things.

We scanned the meadow. To our amazement, we saw another group of elephants emerge from the forest, clearly headed to join the group. And then we saw another group. And yet another. We started counting: 68 elephants, give or take, and likely more.

I’m struggling for words. These elephants made Africa real to me today. One elephant, two or even three — I’ve seen them in zoos; this doesn’t seem very farfetched. Nearly seventy? All wild and free, doing what elephants do? And us, in the Range Rover, watching? Us — mesmerized. Speechless.

This I will remember for the rest of my life. I have seen elephants.

I wish I could end this post here. But know this, too: Steve Burns, director of Zoo Boise, says that 400,000 elephants live wild in Africa. Every year, 35,000 are poached. That’s 96 every day and four per hour. He did some math.

Those 67-ish magnificent elephants that left me breathless with wonder? Sixteen hours and 45 minutes of poaching.

P.S. This coming Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, is World Elephant Day. It’s a day for zoos, including Zoo Boise, to bring awareness to the threats that face elephants around the world. Visitors wearing gray or elephant costumes will receive discount admission all day ($7.25 for adults and seniors, $6.00 for children). See ZooBoise.org for more information.

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