Story by Shailee Shah
Picture this: it’s 1:00 AM and you suddenly find yourself wide awake, tucked under two blankets and a hanging mosquito net. Sound comes into focus and you realize there’s something chomping loudly outside your window. Something large, by the sound of it. Gingerly you pull aside the layer of mosquito net and curtain, and at first your brain can’t quite process the amount of darkness on what you thought was moonlit night. A split second later you realize it isn’t darkness but an elephant! A full-grown bull elephant with gleaming tusks, five feet away from where you’re sitting, filling the frame of your window and casually chomping on an acacia tree that barely comes up to its knee!
I let out an audible gasp and dropped the curtain, scrambling for my iPhone, my camera, my flashlight, trying not to make any loud sounds and spook the elephant. Heart racing, I parted the curtain again, trying desperately to get a picture. But both my photographic devices failed to emulate the adaptability of my eyes, and eventually I gave up. I crossed my legs and settled down to simply watch. I felt like I was in the cheesiest of all African safari film scenes, one of those “this is Africa” moments, like this scene from Netflix show The Crown. But no one else was awake, and this elephant was certainly not a product of CGI.
It was my first time in Kenya, and only my third night there. I was commencing the first field season of my PhD – a six month-long immersion to figure out if my research ideas were feasible and to learn to work with superb starlings, my study species – but first I was spending three weeks as a teaching assistant (TA) for a course taught by my PhD advisor. Advice to all graduate students who need to TA: pick a field course if you can! Sure, you’re with the students and professor all day for many days at a stretch, and yes, the courses can be intense, with a semester’s worth of work packed into three short weeks, but they attract the most dedicated undergraduates and facilitate experiences otherwise unobtainable on a grad student stipend. Since the class was small – only seven students – I didn’t have anything in the way of TA duties that was stressful or onerous, and ended up essentially taking the class myself, going on game drives and helping out with data collection for class projects. And of course, there I was, seeing a wild elephant up close like I never had before.
The sheer size of the elephant was still astounding to me, the moonlight making its size and movements seem ethereal in black and white. He continued to munch on the little acacia for a few minutes, ponderously stripping the branches with his trunk and stuffing them in his mouth. Then, having had enough of his midnight snack, he slowly turned to the elevated water tanks on his right. I watched, astonished, as he sniffed the air and then, with an expert twist of his trunk and a loud clang, loosened the pipe connected to the three tanks.
Water came gushing out, the sound exploding into the quiet night. The elephant put his trunk to the end of the pipe, staunching the flow as he filled his trunk with rhythmic glugs, and then emptied it into his mouth. I watched, bewildered, fully expecting to hear others in the rooms around me startling awake at the racket – our day’s water supply was fast being exhausted – but no one stirred. The elephant patiently drank three whole trunkfuls, abruptly cutting out the sound of running water as it filled up its trunk each time. Then, with some reluctance, he left the still gushing pipe behind, turned, and disappeared into the night.
Adrenaline was coursing through my veins and I couldn’t contain my excitement. I knocked on my advisor’s door, waking him up to explain what had happened and how we were in danger of not having any water tomorrow, but he just said, “they’ll fix it in the morning” (“they” being the people who ran the lodge we were staying at). And they did. Apparently, the elephant was a regular; a known troublemaker. I should’ve guessed from the well-practiced trunk twist I had seen bring the water pipe clean down.
Researchers I met described becoming “desensitized” to the wildlife on the savanna after seeing animals such as zebras and impalas almost every day, and over the next six months of my field season I saw plenty of elephants. Two groups regularly frequented a site I conducted a lot of my observations at, and I was often happily distracted by baby elephants tottering about, their little trunk waving curiously. But the image of that bull in the moonlight, its tusks long and gleaming is still burned in my head; the awe that animal inspired, with its ingenuity and majesty, has carved out a special place in my heart for elephants.
Shailee Shah is a PhD Student at Columbia University studying the behavioral ecology of a cooperative breeding bird – the superb starling. She splits her time between New York City and rural Kenya, finding equal joy in sampling coffee shops in Manhattan and admiring baby elephants on the savanna. You can read about her field work adventures on her blog summermigrations.wordpress.com and track her #365papers goal and other #PhDLife observations on twitter @shailee_shah93