Published: March 2009
The Secret Lives of Elephants
Eight men. One hundred and thirty miles of Kenyan desert. And one supercharged bull elephant. What do they all have to do with conservation? Everything.
Text by Luke Dittrich

Thirteen men, three of them carrying assault rifles, are conducting business in a desert. Six of the men arrived in a battered Land Cruiser, which is parked a hundred yards away in the meager shade of an acacia tree. The seven others are members of the Gabbra tribe—Kenyan by nationality, nomads from birth. The Gabbra live here, in the Gof Munde, an expanse of martian wilderness in northern Kenya, 50 miles of lava and dirt from the nearest town. They sustain themselves by trafficking in certain goods that certain people find useful. Most of them don’t even speak Swahili, Kenya’s national language. Their leader does, though. He speaks English too. His name is Abdullahi Boya Galgallo.

Galgallo wears immaculate brown pants, a pressed khaki shirt, lightly tinted sunglasses. He’s standing next to the leader of the Land Cruiser group, Jake Wall, who wears military boots, a military watch, and a military camo-print sun hat.

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.

Yet for all its lofty aspirations, our expedition has plenty of down-to-earth hurdles. For example, we’ll need pack animals. And there’s really only one kind of pack animal that can carry a lot of water but doesn’t have to drink much itself.

Wall and Galgallo begin lobbing numbers back and forth. Galgallo is holding a long dry stick, and he starts employing it like a conductor’s baton, tapping ruminatively at the volcanic dust as he considers Wall’s latest offer, then making sharp, precise slashes as he retorts with some salient point about the superlative qualities of his camels: their docility, their size, their willingness to carry loads and walk at night.

Wall makes another offer: 57,000 Kenyan shillings. Roughly $735.

Galgallo nods, taps the ground once more with his stick, then throws the stick to the side.

The deal is done.

***

A day before we set out on Shadrack’s trail, Save the Elephants founder Iain Douglas-Hamilton flies his Cessna out to a remote airstrip near Mount Marsabit so he can take Wall on a reconnaissance flight. The plane was a gift from the late HRH Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, one of Save the Elephants’ many notable donors, to replace the one Douglas-Hamilton had totaled in a gory collision with a zebra. Wall sits up front, with a handheld GPS unit, directing Douglas-Hamilton as he flies from waypoint to waypoint along Shadrack’s 129-mile route, just 500 feet above the terrain we will start walking tomorrow. I’m in the backseat with Nathan Williamson, the photographer who will be documenting the expedition.

Below us, the Kaisut Desert, red and baking. Riverbeds and old lava flows. Steep escarpments. A sea of rocks and dirt. Infrequent circles of desiccated bushes or hastily placed stones are the only signs that humans have ever ventured where we are about to. A few times we spot what is clearly water. A few other times we see vague shimmers against the dirt and cross our fingers. Occasionally, Douglas-Hamilton pulls a tight, unadvertised U-turn, making sure our eyes take everything in, though at the expense of our stomachs.

With my headphones on, listening in on the conversation between Douglas-Hamilton and Wall, I’m privy to an encounter between men who represent the past and the future of elephant science.

Douglas-Hamilton, 66 years old, has probably spent more quality time with elephants than any man alive. He was born in Britain, but he, his wife, and their two children have lived most of their lives in Africa. Good chunks of that time were spent, to quote the title of a best-selling book he wrote in the 1970s, "among the elephants." His early research was groundbreaking in its descriptions of the inner workings of an elephant society in Tanzania, and his later work led directly to the outlawing of the ivory trade under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) treaty in 1989. Although elephant poaching remains a problem today, the CITES ban dramatically slowed a trade that had in ten years decimated half of Africa’s elephants and pushed the species toward the brink of extinction. By the time Douglas-Hamilton founded Save the Elephants in 1993, one could argue, he had already accomplished the organization’s titular mission once.

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.

Wall is in some ways a 21st-century incarnation of Douglas-Hamilton. Like his mentor, Wall is happier in the bush than behind a desk and seeks out extreme experiences: Prior to starting his work with Save the Elephants, he lived in voluntary exile at Cape Bounty, a remote scientific installation far above the Arctic Circle in Nunavut, Canada. Projects like the Shadrack expedition are as rough-and-tumble—and mediagenic—as science gets. A generation of nature-doc viewers has marveled at photos and video of the handsome Douglas-Hamilton. It wouldn’t surprise me if Wall, who looks like a more rugged Prince William, someday assumes the same sort of public-scientist role currently played by the Leakeys and Goodalls and Douglas-Hamiltons of the world.

Over the roar of the prop, Douglas-Hamilton tells Wall that he wishes he could come along on this expedition, that he would have loved to, were he younger. It’s an unprecedented undertaking, he says, and the challenges aren’t purely geographic. Hidden between the rocks, or in the patches of thick bush, we might come across lethal puff adders, charging buffalo, even other streaking elephants. At one point, Douglas-Hamilton wings the plane over to take a closer look at a particularly nasty-looking stretch of lava rocks. "I’m not sure it’s possible to cross that," he says.

Wall, not yet 30, tries not to let Douglas-Hamilton’s skepticism eat away at his confidence. Still, it can’t help but have an effect. He looks away from the window, with its view of rocks and rocks and rocks rolling on ad nauseam.

Then he opens up a white paper bag, leans forward, and does something perfectly understandable.

***

It’s dusk, the first night of our trek, and our team of eight has been walking for several hours. I’m leading the second of our five camels. Ahead of me David Daballen, Save the Elephants’ chief field researcher, leads the first. Daballen probably knows more about elephant behavior than anyone here. He’s Kenyan and, like Shadrack, grew up near Mount Marsabit. He owns property there, a bucolic mountain-slope plot, though he’s had to give up cultivating mangoes because elephants keep barging in and eating them all. At the very front of our group, Teteya Daballen, David’s brother, leads the way in a patterned skirt, his G3 assault rifle slung over his shoulder on a Diesel-logo-emblazoned gun strap. Teteya is also in charge of our two goats. A little while ago I briefly took charge of the goats, but Teteya relieved me of my duties after I let them stray too close to the camels, causing a panicky, grunting, bucking, cargo-strewing explosion. You might wonder why, if camels and goats don’t mix, we’re bringing them along. Simple: Goats taste good.

We are not yet on Shadrack’s route. In fact, we’ve already had to abandon the original plan of reaching our first waypoint, as there turned out to be a camel-proof canyon between us and there. Instead, we’re shooting for one of Shadrack’s waypoints several miles to the south. To get there, we have to cut across six miles of bush. The going is tough. Aptly named wait-a-bit bushes grab us in painful embraces as we walk by. Sometimes it takes a minute or two to pry their barbed fingers from our flesh and clothing before progress can resume.

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.

And the trunk is just the tip of the elephant. Look beyond it and things start getting really strange. Take the ways in which elephants communicate with one another, for example. Few would be surprised to learn that an elephant’s prodigious ears, with their immense cochleas, are capable of detecting sounds completely inaudible to humans. But elephant vocalizations, it turns out, are just as impressive as their hearing: These animals employ not only a wide arsenal of intimidating bellows, but also a secondary palette of infrasonic groans and grumbles, communiqués that can travel great distances and are absorbed not by their ears, but by the highly receptive soles of their feet.

When Shadrack passed this way a year ago, those receptive soles of his were nevertheless thick enough for him to make good time across the brutal ground underfoot. My $140 pair of Merrells aren’t as tough, as I discover when a two-inch-long acacia thorn punches straight through the rubber tread and into my instep.

***

We reach Shadrack’s trail at about noon on the second day. That’s what the GPS tells us anyway. On ground level, there’s nothing to distinguish where we are now from where we were before. Although the lack of a trail is a buzzkill, it jibes with some of the recent information on elephant corridors. The routes that elephants take are not well-bounded passageways but tend to vary with each streak. On the slopes of Mount Kenya, for example, an elephant named Mountain Bull jazzes up the Save the Elephants server about four times a year with a seven-mile streak between his highland and lowland grazing grounds. Overlay a year’s worth of Mountain Bull streaks and you get a tangle of individual routes that start and end in the same place. While this makes corridors more challenging to define, it also makes them easier to conserve. There’s no need to protect a single unchanging line: You simply have to ensure that a safe path exists. The elephant will figure out the rest. British tycoon Sir Richard Branson, as it happens, has agreed to fund the conservation of just such a pathway for Mountain Bull. He’s calling the project, of course, "The Virgin Elephant Corridor."

From the moment we reach his trail and start following in his digital footsteps, Shadrack becomes less of an idea and more of an eagerly awaited guest, one who may or may not show up. His tracking collar stopped transmitting data several months ago, so we don’t know exactly where he is. We do know that elephants often time their streaks with clockwork precision, which means there’s a possibility, slight but tantalizing, that he’ll materialize alongside us at any moment, his bits and bytes becoming a 12-foot-tall mountain of dust and muscle.

As the day proceeds, the bush thins. For a few golden hours we trek across an open, savanna-like area, plodding pleasantly along, spotting giraffes, gazelles, another camel caravan, and a few fat kori bustards, which can weigh nearly 40 pounds, making them the heaviest flying birds in the world.

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?"

***

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.

We’d been talking about Shadrack’s streak and about elephant migrations in general. While the motives for such long-distance movements are pretty well understood, scientists still don’t know how elephants, who have very poor vision, find their way to faraway spots without getting lost. Were there any theories, I asked, that could account for this?

Which is when Wall said what he said.

Maybe elephants can hear mountains. Maybe each mountain range, each specific mountain, with its uniquely serrated ridgelines, creates a different sound, a different tone, when the wind blows over it. Imagine a soundscape as vivid as a landscape, but only "visible" to an elephant’s huge ears. An elephant wanting to move in the direction of a specific mountain wouldn’t need to see his destination at all. He’d just need to hear it.

That’s only one theory, of course, but it’s as good as any for now.

The sun, another thing you don’t need to see to sense, begins lowering to the west of our useless ears, and we march on, trusting our GPS devices to guide us silently where we want to go.

***

"We are in desperate need of maji!" David Daballen’s equanimity has flown the coop. We are on day four of the trek and have walked some 50 miles, about half of what Shadrack covered in the same amount of time. Daballen is pacing, a satellite phone pressed to his ear, his voice rising, urgent. "Maji" means water. Maji means everything.

We’ve nearly run out.

The water that remains is a problem in itself. Several problems, in fact: (1) Most of our jerricans are recycled cooking-oil containers. They weren’t entirely cleaned out. Now, midday, day four, the oily residue has gunked up our hand-pump water filters. As Daballen paces, I’m sitting on a duffel bag full of useless freeze-dried food, working one of the filters, sweating more liquid than the pump is producing. (2) The jerricans that are not recycled cooking-oil containers are recycled sulphuric-acid containers. They’ve got the skull and crossbones and everything. These, too, were not cleaned out very well. The water from these jerricans has a distinct car-battery tang. We’ve been avoiding drinking from them. Now we’ve got no choice. (3) The water we took from the reservoir two days ago was a cloudy and putrid miso soup of excrement and algae. We’d been avoiding drinking this water too. Again, we’ve got no choice.

We expected to find much more water. Even an hour ago, our hopes were high. We had just reached a dry riverbed where Wall had sworn he’d spotted a big patch of water during our flyover. But all we found was a rank green pool not much bigger than a Jacuzzi, one that had just been vacated by a small family of evidently diarrhetic warthogs. We dubbed it Jake’s Oasis.

So we retreated to the best patch of shade we could find and waited while Daballen used the sat phone to arrange an evacuation. He makes plans for a Land Cruiser to meet us about eight miles farther south, where Shadrack’s path skirts close to what on satellite maps looks like a faint crease in the earth. In our hearts we hope this is a passable road. We head toward the evac point, sucking down the dregs from our CamelBaks.

And then, finally, we find a trace of Shadrack! The sun has set, and we’re illuminating the landscape like fire-eyed cyclopes with our headlamps. Daballen sees it first. An impression in the earth, several inches deep, the diameter of a small frozen pizza, followed by another and then another and then another. Elephant tracks. It’s impossible to say for sure that Shadrack made these, but they are almost on top of one of his GPS waypoints. After days walking in Shadrack’s virtual footprints, it feels great to do so literally.

Wall bends down, touches the impressions. The ground is dry, parched, stiff, and brittle. An elephant, even a huge bull like Shadrack, wouldn’t leave tracks this deep in ground this dry. It had to be soggy, a clue that reinforces another one of Wall’s theories: Elephants probably wait until all the right environmental factors, like rain, fall into place before they embark on long journeys. Unlike us, Shadrack wouldn’t be caught dead out in the middle of a drought-ravaged desert. He’s too smart for that.

***

The cavalry’s name is Daniel Lentipo. He rides in that evening on one of Save the Elephants’ prematurely senescent Land Cruisers and meets us at the spot Daballen had noticed on the map. He brings some cold Tusker Beer, Cokes, and lots of clean well water. We spend one more night in the bush. The next morning, as we’re driving out of camp, starting the long drive back to Save the Elephants headquarters, we spot fresh lion prints above the Land Cruiser tracks. Some Simba had obviously sniffed around our tents before dawn but had, thankfully, found us wanting.

All the implications of the data that Wall accumulated along the way will take time to work out. He plans to draw up Shadrack’s caloric profile over the course of the streak; he’ll analyze the route, charting big features like watering holes and minutiae like acacia patches; and, slowly, he’ll wade through the tedious number crunching required of even the most rough-and-tumble field scientists. Ultimately, though, Wall will attempt to divine the wheres, whys, and hows of Shadrack’s streak—findings that could be as essential to the conservation of elephant corridors as the range and speeds of typical cars are to the construction of good highways. And the conservation of elephant corridors, of course, is essential to the conservation of elephants, period.

And what about Shadrack? Where is he now?

A couple of weeks after the trek, Wall and Williamson and Daballen, along with a videographer and Web designer named Moritz Zimmermann, and two rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Service, home in on the last remaining functional part of Shadrack’s busted tracking collar, its radio transmitter. With the assistance of a small plane overhead, they track him down on the slopes of Mount Marsabit.

Zimmermann later sends me a video of what happens next: One of the rangers shoots a dart containing 16 milligrams of etorphine into Shadrack’s side. Twenty minutes later, Shadrack falls, knocking down a small tree in the process. The group gets to work, fixing a six-foot-long strap of cow leather around Shadrack’s neck, a collar prefitted with a lunch-box-size payload full of digital equipment. Shadrack is oblivious, lying on his left side, his right eye wide open, his womanly lashes an unruly jumble. Black flies crawl across a huge golden iris. The humans take measurements: Shadrack stands almost 12 feet, foot to shoulder, his tusks measure 4.6 feet on the outside of their crescent curve, 3.1 feet on the inside. (Were these men poachers, they could sell those tusks for about $10,000 each.) Wall plucks three tail hairs, which will later be analyzed to gauge Shadrack’s diet. Then the ranger plunges two hypodermics into the elephant’s flank. Through the first he draws a hefty sample of blood, through the second he injects a healthy dose of stimulants.

"He will wake in two minutes," the ranger says, and he’s right. Two minutes later, from a safe distance, Zimmerman films Shadrack rising to his feet and ambling slowly off into the dense forest.

That may be the last anyone ever sees of him: Less than two months after Shadrack receives the new collar, it too goes dead, just like the first one did.

Shadrack drops off the map, and walks on without us.