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What was Shadrack thinking? It’s mid-afternoon on the third day. We’ve just climbed the flank of a huge plateau and are now picking our way across a seven-mile-long expanse of ankle-snapping lava rock. It is about 110 degrees, there is no shade, and we have been on the move since early this morning. The plan is to cross the entire plain before we make camp, since here it is hard to find a place to sit, let alone lie down. The rocks are dusty orange, and it’s easy to imagine you’re walking across glowing charcoal briquettes in some giant backyard barbecue.

Shadrack’s willingness, and ability, to cross these plateaus has been, to Wall, a surprise. He never knew that elephants were even capable of walking over this type of terrain. Nobody knew that. The fact that Shadrack chose to do so is a shock.

Wall thinks he knows why Shadrack did things the hard way, though.

Us.

Not us, specifically. Us, generally. Our species.

Down below, we occasionally found the husks of bomas and manyattas, traditional homesteads that locals had left behind. Up here, there is no sign that people have ever passed this way. The only reason Shadrack would toil his way up and across these barren plateaus would be because he knew that he wouldn’t find any humans. In his mind, we were the biggest obstacles of all.

Intelligence is one of those ineffable qualities, difficult to measure in humans, let alone in elephants. In general, it’s considered the ability to process and utilize complex information. According to one measure—brain to body mass—elephants sit somewhere between gorillas and chimps. Perhaps a more telling metric is brain development. To reach maturity, an elephant brain grows 50 percent from birth over the course of five to ten years (human brains grow 75 percent over 16 to 17 years). That high level of postnatal development, while not entirely unique, correlates to learning ability and decision-making.

Just as Shadrack chose to dodge people on this streak, other elephants have been reported to solve complex problems in creative ways. To get around an electric fence, one elephant in Kenya found that he simply had to topple a tree onto the wire to knock out the charge first. To sneak silently into a banana grove at night, one Asian elephant learned to fill his wooden clapper collar with mud.

During a five-minute break, Wall starts telling me something that to my heat-addled brain sounds truly trippy.

"Maybe elephants hear mountains," he says.

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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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