The Elephant in the Room

There is literally an elephant in the room.

For a moment, at least, his trunk is in the room, dabbing the edge of the open door with his quivering nose, as if feeling his way with fingers. Then Lizzy shoos him away with both hands and the pleasant clip of an African accent.

“Go away Mr. Elephant—I need to get out and you are in my way.”

The young elephant listens and trudges into the darkness.  I return to blogging by lantern light in my Botswana office—a small, wood-paneled shed at the edge of the great Okavango Delta.

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A large male elephant approaches our jeep while out on safari at the Selinda Game Reserve in Botswana. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

Ever the consummate hosts, National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence Dereck & Beverly Joubert welcomed us to Selinda Camp with open arms, iced cocktails and a campsite that would make David Livingstone jealous.

Red and gold Persian carpets cover up grey dust beneath our feet, a peaked white tent offers cool shade, where in the hottest part of the afternoon, we lounge about on Moroccan cushions and sip ginger lemonade and gently wilt until dusk.

This is when the animals come alive—when the elephants parade past in family groups of fifteen or thirty or more it seems, all of them of varying size, flapping their slate-colored ears like raggedy sails. When our jeep gets close, I can look into their eyes, shaded by brushy eyelashes that turn even the mightiest beast into a bit of a cute cartoon character.

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A family of elephants take a morning drink at the Selinda Game Reserve in northern Botswana (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

There are 9,000 elephants at Selinda, just a fraction of the 200,000 elephants that roam Botswana—and yet in spite of that astounding number, “We are losing 5 elephants per hour,” says Dereck Joubert.

The naked math is frightening. It takes two years to make an elephant, but in Africa, we are losing 25,000 a year to unnatural causes.

“We are losing 5 lions per day,” adds Dereck. Five lions out of the only 20,000 that remain—a mere 5% of what we once had. “Lions are now extinct in 29 countries of their former range,” chips in Beverly, who is the most cheerful woman dropping the most discomforting statistics, “We are losing lions faster than ever before.”

And then there is the rhino—every nine hours a rhino is killed, almost always by poachers. The situation with rhinos has become so dire that Dereck and Beverly are raising $3 million in order to fly 100 rhinos into the heavily protected areas of their own country of Botswana.

These are not the campfire stories you want to hear on safari. All of us are here because we love wildlife and love watching it roam about in the beautiful natural habitat of the Botswana bush. But if I have learned anything in my time traveling and writing for National Geographic, it’s that Nature is a luxury—despite the dreamy world of open jungle and savanna we encounter on screen, the reality of today’s world is one in which every part and parcel of “wild” space has a price on it. In my own lifetime, our world has become demarcated to such a degree it seems that nearly every wild animal has a fixed address on the planet. The laws of simple economics means that accessing Earth’s rapidly-diminished wildlife translates to higher and higher prices paid in order to ensure their survival.

Indeed, nature is a luxury, which is why the patch of land at Selinda (half the size of Rhode Island) is priceless. There may not be Jacuzzi tubs or flat screen TV’s but there are leopards in the tree and lion cubs sipping water from the riverbank.

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A female leopard dozes on a tree branch at Selinda Game Reserve in northern Botswana (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

“Honestly, it’s a privilege to be able to live in one of last remaining paradises left on Earth,” answers Eva, one of the managers at Selinda, when I ask her if she misses her native Germany.

It’s been a rewarding day of safari—one in which I forced the entire jeep to sit still for 20 minutes while I cooed like a momma dove over the tiniest baby elephant. The saggy animal stumbled about like an awkward puppy, as if the little guy was still getting used to his body, returning constantly to the safety of his mother’s tree trunk legs and peeking at my camera just to check that I was still staring.

“Why do we love baby animals so much?” I asked everyone in my jeep.

“Because we want to protect them,” answered Josh, my filmmaker, and he is right.

Because we want to protect them—it is in our human nature to reach out and help anything that seems fragile and vulnerable, and out here in the bush, when you see some baby creature, be it a lion cub or a zebra foal or a itty bitty warthog jogging behind its mom, all you want is for that animal to succeed.

“Oh, how I hope you make it,” I think, looking back at that dopey baby elephant. This is when I want to ignore the horrid statistics of elephant poaching. This is when I hope with all my heart that 40 years from now, I somehow I might make it back to Selinda Camp and run into this same elephant, who will be monstrous by then and who will try to enter my room in the dark, touching his way with his feeling trunk.

But that is only a dream for another time. Now the day is ended and when night falls, the lightning begins—orange and purple flashes that leave a silhouette of palms burned on my retina like a film negative. Vague thunder follows and then the chorale of clicks from a million unseen reed frogs, riding out their night on their individual blades of hollow reeds that rustle in the breeze.

The symphony of hippos begins, first on one side of my canvas tent, then on the other. Echoing grunts pass back and forth, followed by rippling water and silent interludes before another gruff male belts out his part of nature’s all-night song.

I am left to piece the scenes together in my mind. In the darkness, I lie quietly, wrapped up in a queen-sized bed in a tent the size of a Manhattan apartment, waiting and waiting for it—the growl of an unquiet lion, which comes to me on the wind and sends me to sleep.

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A male lion passes right beneath my seat while on safari at Selinda Game Reserve in northern Botswana (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

I am the only animal inside my tent, but the proverbial elephant remains. For all the joy of exploring the bush with the Jouberts, the bare facts are clear—if current rates continue, we could erase lions and rhinos from the planet in my lifetime.

And then all of this goes away—take away one piece of the exquisite puzzle that is nature, and the whole thing turns beige and blank and useless, like a bike without wheels.

I am awake before dawn, picking up the hippos song where I left off last night, then watching the sky go grey, then lilac and catching fire with flames of orange and pink on the horizon.

Nothing beats camping in Africa, and nothing beats waking up to the promise of elephants outside your door. But liking animals is not enough—two days with the Jouberts and I realize that conservation is a war—it is the daily choice between good and evil, survival and death, a world with or without lions, rhinos, sharks, frogs, or songbirds.

Like the zebras who roam these fields—the situation is black and white, and unless more of us cause an uproar, the African night will become eerily silent.

This trip is one of the many ways to travel with National Geographic Expeditions. To learn more about all of our travel programs, click here.