The challenges facing the elephants of Africa today, however, are in some ways more varied and more complex than those of two decades ago. Chief among them is that posed by the growth of another mammal: Since 1990, Africa’s human population has exploded from about 600 million to an estimated 900 million. The more room humans take up, the more they butt heads with elephants.
Small farms in Kenya can lose their entire harvest due to elephant raids. The conflict between farmers defending their crops and elephants intent on pillaging them often turns violent, leaving casualties on both sides. It is rare, in this part of Kenya, to meet somebody who has not lost a relative or a friend to an elephant. But if the conflict remains a martial one, one waged with tusks against steel, there is no question which side, ultimately, will come out on top.
Finding nonviolent solutions is a high-wire balancing act, and Douglas-Hamilton has stayed at the forefront of these challenges by recruiting a new generation of elephant scientists to his cause, inviting them to live and work together at his idyllic research camp in northern Kenya’s elephant-rich Samburu National Reserve. Some of that work employs old tools in new ways: For example, Lucy King, an Oxford-educated scientist, is studying the efficacy of honeybees as an elephant deterrent. Other work at Samburu leans more heavily on modern technology. Wall has spent much of the past year experimenting with "geo-fencing," a program that will alert farmers (via cell phone) when collared elephants cross into their fields. With some bright flashlights, flares, or even pots and pans, farmers can chase the elephants off. Their maize is saved and, in a roundabout way, so are the elephants.
Still, no single issue occupies the minds of those at Samburu more than elephant corridors. And that’s what this expedition of ours is all about. Shadrack, though he once streaked exceptionally far, is probably not an exceptional elephant. It’s a fair guess that, like most elephants, he spent his infancy through adolescence in the company of a matriarchal herd, sheltering in their strength and numbers and learning the rudiments of elephant culture. Then, once he reached sexual maturity, he was cast out to become, like most bulls, a randy and solitary vagabond. No longer welcome among his own close relatives, Shadrack was forced to find female companionship elsewhere. Sometimes, in order to do so, he needed to execute tremendous acts of endurance and bravado. Like, say, streaking 129 miles across the Kaisut Desert. Shadrack’s streak was not some one-of-a-kind aberration. It was simply an outsize version of an act that is both utterly routine and absolutely fundamental to the continuing viability of elephant societies. Without freedom to follow their ancient byways—whether to seek sustenance, security, or sex—elephant populations will inevitably continue to fracture and dwindle. But if we want to define and protect the corridors, we have to understand them first. A good step in that direction, of course, would be to hike the longest streak ever recorded. At least Jake Wall thinks so.