A family of some 20 elephants moves in single file, trunks to tails as they lumber across a scrubby, arid plain. It looks like an otherwise unremarkable morning scene that could be anywhere in East Africa, though a practiced eye might note that the trees are sub-Saharan baobabs and doum palms.
Then a band of riders appears—on camelback. They rein in their mounts to yield right-of-way, nonchalantly, to the elephants. The riders wear the litham, a turban veiling their mouth and chin against desert heat and blowing sand. Their front saddle horns are tall and elaborately carved.
These men are Tuareg of the western Sahara, and they speak Tamasheq, a Berber language. Either they or the elephants, one would think, are far off their home turf.
But that's not the case. The elephants are part of the herd that inhabits Gourma, a remote sahelian region south of the Boucle de Niger, the Niger River Bend, in the Republic of Mali. For all the world's fascination with elephants, very few people other than these Tuareg herdsmen know about the Gourma herd, which today is thought to number around 400 elephants. It's the northernmost herd in Africa.
Yet once, all of North Africa was elephant country, from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco south and east across the Libyan Desert to the Ethiopian highlands. Neolithic rock carvings throughout the Sahara attest to their widespread presence. A painting of tame elephants in the tomb of Rekhime, an official in the court of Thutmose III (1504-1450 BC), shows they were known in Egypt. In classical times, Hannibal of Carthage and Pyrrhus of Epirus used North African elephants in war, having learned the art of capturing them and training them for battle from the Indian mahouts whom Alexander's generals brought from Asia. (Their method of assigning two human trainers—one gentle and one rough—to a single beast was cited by Ibn Sina in the 10th century as an early example of applied psychology.)
The ninth-century natural historian Abu 'Uthman al-Jahiz of Basra suggested a military countermeasure from his knowledge of the elephant mind. "The lion utterly terrifies it," he wrote in Kitab al-Hayawan (The Book of Animals), "and the cat profits so much from its resemblance to the king of beasts that one way of dealing with approaching war elephants is to release a quantity of cats from a bag."
Though not indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula, elephants did appear there at least once. Sura 105 of the Qur'an, titled Al-Fil (The Elephant) recounts how God miraculously destroyed an elephant army commanded by the Ethiopian King Abrahah as it approached Makkah in the year 570, barely two months before the Prophet Muhammad's birth. "And He sent against them flights of birds, striking them with stones of baked clay. Then did He make them like an empty field of stalks and straw of which the grain has been eaten up."
The Romans never rode elephants into battle, but their falaricae (flaming barbed javelins) proved a most effective measure against enemies who did. Nonetheless, following their victory in the Second Punic War, the Romans forbade the Carthaginians from ever again mustering an animal corps. This ended the use of elephants for war in North Africa, a ploy that had fascinated military tacticians ever since Alexander encountered the elephant cavalry of Darius some 130 years earlier.
Thus it was not Roman war but Roman amusements that drove the North African elephant herds to extinction. The Roman taste for bloody spectacles included those in which elephants were pitted against lions or gladiators, and this slaughter weighed heavily upon numbers already in decline as a result of the increasing desertification of the Sahara.
The final herd of true North African elephants—the last relatives of Surus, the one-tusked pride of Hannibal who helped win the Battle of the Trebbia in northwest Italy in 218 BC—is believed to have perished in the Mauritanian drought of the last generation. Naturalists believe the Gourma elephants of Mali are not North African, but rather an offshoot of the large-bodied, large-tusked Eastern savanna species common to Kenya that long ago wandered up and across from the south.
And wander they still do. Their seasonal migration is the longest of any elephant herd on record, covering some 800 kilometers (500 mi) in a counterclockwise pattern from the Burkina Faso border during the summer rains up to the ponds and flood plains of the Niger Bend in winter. There, in Mali, they are most at peace, for they face neither natural predators nor poachers. People, according to Tuareg custom, are the friends and protectors of the elephants of Gourma.
Omar Ag Ahmad Souedou, a Tuareg who has worked in Libyan oilfields and Saudi computer centers, now makes his home in the village of In-a-Djiatafane, whose seasonal pond is one of the elephants' many watering points. "We live with the elephants and they live with us," says Omar. "Elephants and camels share the shade from the same tree."
Yet Souedou feels something more is needed in order for the elephant-human cohabitation to continue smoothly. "Herders have no problem with elephants," he says. "They browse the tops of trees, camels browse the sides, and goats browse the bottoms." But, he adds, now more people are tending gardens, planting orchard trees and cultivating borgu, a rich fodder grass grown at the edges of ponds.
This increases waterside competition between humans and elephants, for the elephants' migratory route hops from pond to pond, and many of the ponds are now being permanently settled by Fulani, Songhai, and even Tuareg people. In-a-Djiatafane, once an occasional camp for pastoralists, now has a primary school, a government office and 200 families living in mud-walled compounds, some of whose walls limit elephants' access to the water.
With increased human proximity to the herd comes danger—initially to the humans: Two boys are said to have been killed a few years ago, and near-miss encounters are not uncommon. To deal with this intensifying contest between elephants and humans, Souedou in 1997 founded a group called "Les Amis des Elephants" ("Friends of the Elephants") with 15 other tribal leaders from In-a-Djiatafane and surrounding Tuareg encampments.
The group's aim is to monitor the animals' location, warn other settlements when to expect the herd to pass, and generate income by working as guides for the trickle of Western tourists that is expected to become at least a modest stream in the near future. A documentary film "The Elephants of Timbuktoo" brought the herd to the attention of US television viewers recently, and Malian travel agencies, scenting eco-tourist dollars, are beginning to include tours to elephant country in their itineraries.
Yet what makes the Gourma elephants stand out from other African herds, each of which has been better studied and more widely visited, is the human ecology in which they live. Tuareg folktales, fables, and eyewitness accounts endow these animals with a larger-than-life mythos that they, of all Africa's large mammals, most truly deserve.
"Despite its great bulk," wrote al-Jahiz about the elephant, "it is the shrewdest, the cleverest, the best imitator, and in this respect it surpasses all slender and graceful animals." Today, a discussion with In-a-Djiatafane's elders about the elu, as the elephant is known in their Tamasheq language, shows that everyone seems to have a story. Each one underscores respect—as well as a few fanciful misconceptions—for the animal that the Tuareg regard as almost a relative.
Elephants, they say, are like humans because they bathe daily; they walk straight-legged and flat-footed like people, rather than hock-kneed and hoof-toed like cows; and they use their "hands"—for the Tamasheq word afous means both "hand" and "trunk."
Moreover, elephants have nearly human hearts and minds, says Ibrahim Ag Dirar, chief of the Ifogas tribe. "I heard this story from a man I trust," he relates. "One day people were drawing water from the banks of a pond when the elephants came to drink. Everyone departed quickly, but in their hurry a child was left behind. A female elephant approached and with her trunk gently pushed the child to safety while the other elephants walked past."
The Moroccan traveler al-Hassan bin Muhammad al-Wazzani, better known by his Western pseudonym Leo Africanus, visited Mali in 1510, and he might well have seen there the ancestors of the Gourma herd. In his Description of Africa, published in Italian while he was held in a Roman prison, al-Wazzani wrote that the elephant "is of gentle disposition, and relying on his great strength he hurts none but those who do him injury, only he will in a sporting manner heave up with his snout persons whom he meets."
Al-Jahiz had also noted the elephant's apparent sense of play: "He possesses a curious gift for imitation and is normally very playful and addicted to jokes." The Tuareg are no less keen observers. The largest elephant, which they call adjilal ("big one"), always walks at the rear of the herd. This is because elephant society is matriarchal, and when the group moves, the dominant male usually lags behind.
Likewise, they say, every herd has an individual they call the tamzagt ("deaf one"), and it is this elephant that is most aggressive toward people. According to Anne Orlando, a graduate student at the University of California at Davis who is studying the Gourma herd, this is probably the dominant female herself. "Matriarchs are the most aggressive members of the herd," says Orlando. "And it's reasonable for [the Tuareg] to think that any animal unafraid of man might well be deaf to our threats."
The Tuareg are similarly correct when they say that the number-two male walks at the head of the herd. Western scientists agree that this is in fact the normal position of adolescent males. Whether, as the Tuareg also believe, each herd has an aniram, or male scout, who marches several days in advance of the rest of the herd, is a matter subject to closer study by Western naturalists.
But Salik Ould Ibrahim, the In-a-Djiatafane village-council secretary, is certainly accurate in calling elephant families "excessively organized." Wildlife behaviorists similarly regard elephants as highly stratified socially, and this is something the Tuareg especially would notice right away: Tuareg social structures are among the most highly defined of any tribal society on earth.
Orlando is undertaking the first scientific study of the Gourma elephants. She hopes that the knowledge gained may head off conflicts between wildlife conservation and human development, and also bring the herd more attention from the world conservation community. "So little is known about this herd," she says. "How many are there in all, how many different families, when and why and exactly where they migrate, what they need to maintain a stable population—these are questions we're just beginning to ask."
Her research aims to answer some of them by fitting 10 elephants with Global Positioning System (GPS) radio collars and tracking their movements over a two-year period. The participation of Tuareg herdsmen is also key to her success. "The satellite knows where the elephants are today," she says, "but the nomads can predict where they will be tomorrow."
Indeed, predicting elephant behavior can sometimes mean the difference between life and death for a Tuareg. Ibrahim tells a story: "One day a herder was walking through the bush and came upon a herd, so he climbed a tree. An elephant walked past and started to scratch himself against the trunk without noticing the man up in the branches. The man took fright and threw a flashlight battery at the elephant's head. He looked up and saw the man, but just then another elephant came along and pushed the first one away. The man took his chance to climb down and run to another tree. And he was right to do so.
"The first elephant came back to the same tree 10 minutes later and knocked it over with his head. He trampled the branches until they were nothing but broken twigs. He stamped and stamped until he was sure nothing was left. If that man had not known enough to climb out of that tree when he had time, he would have been killed."
Muhammadain Ag Muhammad al-Amin tells a different story of a close call. "The owner of a champion horse wanted to test its speed against an elephant's, so he approached an elephant at the water hole of Banzena and goaded it into a chase. He had tied his rein five times around his wrist, and as the elephant gained on him step by step, the man unwrapped the rein loop by loop to give the horse his head. Still the elephant gained. The man spurred. Still it gained. The man whipped. Still it gained, and the elephant would surely have come even if he had not just then approached Bambara Maoude village. Only for that did the elephant turn away."
Despite al-Amin's vivid account, the tale is likely Gourma myth: No elephant can keep pace with a fast horse over a single kilometer, much less over 25 kilometers (15 mi), the distance from the water hole to the village. But the story's truth is less important than its cautionary value.
Muhammad Ag Waliwali is the head of a Tuareg clan that camps seasonally at the Inbanta pond. A family of elephants has been coming through his group of tents every morning before dawn to get to the water. "We try to frighten them away by rattling stones inside tin cans," he says, "but there is not much you can do against an elephant. Whenever I see one, I prefer to leave it in peace. My camels don't mind them. They think they are just another animal, but I know they are strong and can do what they please. Yet I also know that they will soon move along, and so will I. In fact we plan to move from this place in March, to follow what is left of the grass before it rains again in June."
That, in sum, is Tuareg wisdom on elephants: Camels may share the browsing trees, but people must beware. Elephants and herdsmen need the same things—water and forage—and as long as they move from place to place there is little reason to fight over what each will soon leave behind. In the past, the sharing has been enough, but the future will undoubtedly ask more of both the people and the elephants of Gourma.
Louis Werner is a New York freelance writer and filmmaker. He is also a contributing editor at Américas, the cultural bimonthly magazine of the Organization of American States.
Kevin Bubriski's photographs have been widely published, exhibited and collected. He lives in Vermont.