It was an alarming thing to see almost the first moment we drove into the Buffalo Springs game reserve in Kenya: a dead elephant off the side of the road, its huge head and trunk resting on the ground. Wildlife personnel stood beside it, some with guns, either protecting it from poachers or trying to find the poachers who had killed it. It was hard to know.
Our guide asked them how it had died. They said it was sick. We suspected otherwise. After all, there is a huge black market for tusks and the money from ivory can be terribly alluring to a host of unsavory elements: profiteers, terrorists, thieves. The tusks were already missing, but then maybe they were removed in a preemptive strike.
We were to see many more elephants on our trip, living ones, and they were marvels to watch, the biggest of God’s land-roving creatures. Bright, sociable, engaging. One afternoon we spent nearly an hour, binoculars stuck to our eyes, watching a mother with her nursing newborn stumbling awkwardly on unfamiliar legs. Another time, a young buck walked so close to our jeep we could have put a hand out to touch him. We didn’t. He seemed like a teen fooling with us, letting us know just who was boss. The lion as the king of beasts? The elephant seemed the real monarch. One thing I was certain of: “Loud as a herd of elephants” is a complete misnomer. They aren’t loud at all but move so gracefully you can barely hear them—until they pull down a branch to eat.
Why would someone kill such a lordly beast? We already knew the answers. When we returned to the elephant carcass, dozens of vultures were hovering in trees, waiting for their turn. That is as nature should be, the animals living in the sometimes uneasy harmony that is part of God’s world. Man is a crucial part of that world too, of course. But the reserve was purposefully set up by man as a safe haven to protect elephants from man. Something had gone wrong.
When we pray for peace I’ve always thought those prayers were for countries and politicians and wars, but I found my vocabulary expanded here, because I could imagine a new prayer for peace that includes living well with the animals in this world God gave us. A prayer for the elephants and other endangered species and the greed that drives their killing. You should have seen the look of shame—guilt? —on the wildlife workers guarding that corpse. They hated for us tourists to see this painful side of their job. All the more reason to pray.
Our safari continued with no more dead elephants, but when we returned stateside, my wife found an article in The New York Times about the very elephant we’d seen. He even had a name. Philo. God forgive those who would do such a thing.