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Wall hopes that once we reach Shadrack’s route, a clear and relatively easy path will reveal itself. A few years ago he wrote a paper for the journal Current Biology titled "Elephants Avoid Costly Mountaineering." The gist of it was that elephants take pains to find the least taxing route between points. Picking my may through the bush, I hope Wall’s theory bears out.

As night falls, David Daballen is still walking ahead of me leading his camel. He is tall, thin, wears khakis, a button-down shirt, and running shoes. I’ve already gleaned he is preternaturally cheerful, a born optimist. His presence here is a comfort. Suddenly he shouts at his camel to stop, turns around, and calls out to me in a calm but pointed tone.

"Luke," he says. "Take your camel a little to the right. Don’t come this way."

Why?

"Because," he says, "I just stepped on a puff adder."

***

The moon iS UP, bright enough to make my headlamp redundant, and we’re still marching. The going at night is easier than in the heat of the day, but it presents a range of new challenges, like the low-hanging and sharp-tipped acacia branch that I don’t see in time to duck. While Wall pulls out his first aid kit and gets to work patching the hole in my head, I can’t help wondering what creature, other than an elephant, would have drawn eight grown men on this sort of quest. Elephants and their mammoth ancestors have fascinated everyone from prehistoric cave painters to Dr. Seuss.

When Iain Douglas-Hamilton first began writing about elephants, he articulated one of the reasons for their allure: "Here is an alien intelligence tantalizingly like our own when it comes to family ties, loyalty, and love." His fieldwork revealed, for the first time, many of the most touching elements of elephant behavior. He watched while they doted tenderly on their young and cared for their wounded. He mapped their social networks, complex matriarchies with rules and customs of their own. Two years ago, a Save the Elephants scientist witnessed and photographed a natural elephant death. As the aging female lay down to die, the clan gathered around her in a circle. For the next four days different elephants took turns standing over the body, fending off predators and mourning their loss.

Stories like this can make it easy to feel kinship with the elephants. They seem so much like us. But as Douglas-Hamilton wrote, they are ultimately "alien," and even a cursory dip into elephant science reveals an animal that is gloriously and spectacularly inhuman.

Consider the trunk. It is perhaps the most complex yet utterly practical tool on the planet, a combination of a nose, a hand, a snorkel, a semaphore, a hose, and a siphon, a nearly 150,000-muscle-unit wonder that is delicate and maneuverable enough to snatch a dime from a concrete floor, and strong and rugged enough to yank up a quarter-ton tree, roots and all. The trunk is an apparently inexhaustible marvel and continues to give up new secrets. Among the latest findings: Bulls can precisely locate females in estrus from five or more miles away, simply by pointing their trunks in the right direction and taking a sniff.

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  • Brilliant photographs especially the night time ones. It is inspiring in a very astounding way.
  • Great article, wonderful photos. I wish I could take part in something like this someday. They are…
  • Amazing, inspiring.
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