Red And Green Mingles At Tsavo

Photo by Tobias Adam on Unsplash

[FOREWORD: In commemoration of the World Elephant Day 2020, August 12, here is a nature essay I had written earlier in the year for coursework.]

The brilliant azure of the sky adorned with cottony cumulus would strenuously belie that fact now, but it did rain by the gallons throughout the night, continuing the trend of the past few days at the Tsavo East National Park.

Encompassing nearly 4% of Kenya’s total land mass, the Tsavo East and West National Parks together represent a vast East African wilderness teeming with life. Our story today unfolds in the larger of the two, the northern stretch of Tsavo East.

Located at the South Eastern corner of Kenya, between Nairobi and Mombasa, Tsavo East is flanked on its Northwest by the Athi river. Athi arises in the Aberdare Mountain range to the North of Nairobi, flows through the Gatamaiyu forest to enter Tsavo East at the middle and merge with the Tsavo river also flowing east. The confluence of Athi and Tsavo makes the Galana river, which traverses the dusty plains of Tsavo East and drains into the Indian Ocean.

During Tsavo’s rainy seasons, which bring about 8 to nearly 30 inches of rainfall to this terrain, the waters of Galana are in spate, and can even rise to about 30 feet at places. During the rest of the year, its meandering path is punctuated by localized pools and backwaters. Regardless of form, it supports life in this wilderness.

With a warm temperature varying between late 60s to late 80s, this expanse — carpeted with semi-arid, bushy grassland and scattered Savannah-type forests largely untrammeled by human civilization — is home to an astonishing number of birds, small and large mammals, including lions, leopards, hippopotami, rhinoceri, and the world’s only red elephants.

Wait… “Red” elephants? Yes, Tsavo East plains have fine red volcanic soil to the North of Galana. It’s a favorite pastime of Tsavo’s African bush elephants (Loxodonta africana) to roll in the red dirt, throw the dusty powder upon themselves and others, and for good measure, spray each other with water from Galana to give them a nicely paint-like, fiery coat.

Red Elephants of Tsavo. Photo embedded from the Facebook page of Kenya Wildlife Service, posted on August 11, 2015

On this morning, however, our pachyderm protagonists, Faraja, a young bull tusker, and his friends, Zongoloni, Ziwa and Ngasha, are cleansed of the red dust and grime; the overnight shower saw to that. But before they get into the usual daily shenanigans and youthful mischief-making, Faraja feels something missing — perhaps he’s a little peckish?

To the denizens of Tsavo plains, this impromptu February precipitation is rather unusual. January and February are the dry spell between the short rains season at Tsavo, embracing mainly November and December, and the long rains, comprised of March and April. But Faraja isn’t complaining; after all, the fresh breeze of the rain-refreshed morning has brought in wafts of something green and desirable, like a favorite salad bar!

Elephants have nostrils at the end of their trunks, endowed with a rich array of hypersensitive smell receptors. Research has shown that these smell-capturing contrivances are fundamental to their uncanny ability to find vegetation and water from a distance, and even to distinguish between types of plants to choose the one that catches their fancy that day. No wonder Faraja was content to let his trunk guide him and his cohort to a quick snack.

And why not. With the unexpected showers pushing things along, Tsavo is in verdant bloom. There are greens everywhere, some with pretty flowers, too. One just had to step up and have at ’em. Faraja and his friends don’t dilly-dally. A good heave with their multifaceted, prehensile trunk wrapped around bunches of leaves and flowers, and volumes of vegetation start disappearing into their voracious maws. The youngsters need their nutrition; a day of fun and frolic beckons!

While you are here… I urge you to look up the Nairobi, Kenya-based Sheldrick Wildlife trust and, if you can, support their amazing work. Established more than 40 years ago, SWT is a pioneering organization working towards wildlife conservation and habitat protection in East Africa. Their ongoing Orphans’ Project is a wildly popular and successful elephant and rhinoceros orphan rescue and rehabilitation program.

Source material:

  1. Faraja, Zongoloni, Ziwa and Ngasha are orphaned elephant cubs, rescued and raised in the nursery of Dame Daphne and David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya. Meet and fall in love with Faraja here: Instagram: Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (Last accessed 2/10/2020)
  2. This essay was inspired in part by this scene from Tsavo: February 7; Instagram: Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (Last accessed 2/10/2020)
  3. Facebook page of Kenya Wildlife Services for Dust Red elephant (Last accessed 2/10/2020)
  4. Gorman, J. (2018–06–19) The Elephant’s Superb Nose. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/19/science/elephants-smell-trunk.html (Last accessed 2/10/2020)
  5. Information about the geography and ecology of Tsavo East National Park comes via:

Originally published at https://inscientioveritas.org on August 12, 2020.

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Wannabe storyteller in science. Graduate of John Hopkins Science Writing MA program.

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Kausik Datta

Kausik Datta

Wannabe storyteller in science. Graduate of John Hopkins Science Writing MA program.

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