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At about 3 p.m., near one of the waypoints, we reach a rectangular, human-built reservoir, about half the size of a football field. On satellite photos and during our reconnaissance flight, this was the only large water source we’d seen along the entire 129-mile route. Kenya is dangerously dry this year. Newspapers report violent conflicts between humans and baboons at shriveling water holes all over the country. This particular reservoir has plenty of water, but it is rank, full of visible feces. We’re in no position to be choosy, though. Shadrack—who could have gone for no more than about two days without water—probably gorged himself here almost exactly one year ago today. We follow suit and top up our jerricans.

***

In my tent, before sleep, I spend a few contemplative minutes hunting down ticks. I’ve spoken with a number of elephant experts, starting with Douglas-Hamilton, Wall, and the rest of the research staff at Save the Elephants, then branching out by telephone and email to dozens more in the field. I wanted to put this trek into context, to understand the greater purpose for following the year-old tracks of a single AWOL elephant. It wasn’t until I reached a guy named Richard Ruggiero that I got a sense of what you might call the trek’s meta-context, its larger, larger purpose. As the head of African conservation at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ruggiero leads the U.S. government’s protection efforts for everything from mountain gorillas to sea turtles. And despite having spent time with much of Earth’s wild kingdom, he doesn’t hesitate to label elephants "the apex" of the natural world. "Some people are ape people," he tells me. "I’m an elephant person. I’m unapologetic about that."

First of all, Ruggiero says, elephants are "the perfect conservation bellwether." If you manage to conserve an ecosystem in a way that benefits elephants, you will inevitably trigger a cascade of benefits that showers down on the buffalo, the antelope, even the termites. Second, elephants are conservation’s greatest challenge. They are so big, roam over such a wide expanse, and have such an immense impact on their surroundings—"second only to humans," as Ruggiero asserts—that finding a way to live with them is the ultimate challenge. To understand the relationship between humans and elephants, he says, is to understand "the problem of people and wildlife on the planet from time immemorial."

And what about this expedition of ours? In the millennia-long history of elephant-human relations, what good is it for a few men and camels to walk in the year-old track of a single bull? Simple, according to Ruggiero: "In examining what [elephants] do very closely, you can understand why they do it. Why are they tarrying here to dig for these grass roots, or why are they looking for this bit of water, or why are they not going there? And that allows you the key insight and the most interesting insight into elephants, and that is, getting inside the elephant’s head. . . . What is the elephant thinking?"

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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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