Galgallo smiles at Wall. A gold tooth gleams in the oppressive sun.
"So tell me," he says, "have you ever purchased a camel before?"
Wall, despite his outfit and his circumstances, is neither a mercenary nor a camel expert. He is a scientist, one who shops at Actiongear.com and works full-time for Save the Elephants, a group that in the past ten years has fitted more than a hundred elephants in four countries with GPS-enabled satellite collars to track their movements across the continent. If you talk to Wall about the project, he’ll likely start by telling you some generalities: For example, on an average day, elephants move about 15 meandering miles. And though they never run in the traditional sense, with all four feet leaving the ground at the same time, they can still "walk" at speeds of up to 25 miles an hour. Eventually, though, he’ll tell you about Shadrack. Shadrack is a bull elephant that Save the Elephants collared several years ago. He’s more than 40 years old, weighs about six tons, has tusks nearly the length of a Harley Davidson, and lives not far from here, on the slopes of Mount Marsabit, an oasis of relatively lush forest in the middle of this vast desert. That’s where Shadrack lives most of the time, anyway.
Sometimes, Shadrack streaks. Last May, for example, he left Mount Marsabit and headed south, across the Kaisut Desert, traversing an inhospitable stretch of lava fields, dry riverbeds, and thick bush before eventually reaching the Ngeng, a river valley in the Mathews Range, another elephant-friendly spot. His "streak," the scientific term for such jaunts, lasted five days and covered 129 miles. According to Wall, it was the longest streak ever recorded.
As impressive as Shadrack’s odyssey was, the GPS crumb trail it generated left a lot of unanswered questions. Why had Shadrack left Marsabit when he did? How did he navigate his way to the Mathews Range? Was he following some unknown and ancient elephant pathway? How close had he come to people?
These sorts of questions might strike you as trivial. They are not. Across Africa, elephants are succumbing to the twin juggernauts of human aggression and human development. In Chad, elephants are free to roam across unfenced savanna, but ivory-hungry humans ambush them on a near-daily basis. In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, protected but fenced-in populations have increased so unsustainably that park administrators may soon decide to cull the herds. Here, near Mount Marsabit, elephants routinely raid the mango groves of local farmers, who sometimes retaliate with lethal force. It’s no longer enough to ask how humans can protect elephants. The question today is, How can humans and elephants coexist?
Which is ultimately why Wall is here, in this desert, meeting with Galgallo. Wall is planning an expedition that will cover Shadrack’s route at Shadrack’s pace, on Shadrack’s terms. Which is to say, on foot, unsupported. This has never been done before, at least on this scale, but in Wall’s mind, an on-the-ground understanding of where, why, and how elephants move is the first step toward effective protection. As humans, we know our wants and needs.To live with elephants, however, we need to understand theirs. Shadrack is just the guy to teach us.