According to Murphy's Law, if anything can go wrong, it will. After seven years of fieldwork on the behaviour and population biology of elephants in semiarid northwestern Namibia, Dr Keith Leggett suspects that Murphy was an elephant biologist, if not an elephant. A collection of Dr Leggett's communications from the field supports his suspicions.
The Best Laid Plans
The elephants are doing what elephants do and that is to cause problems for researchers. We didn't have any problem finding them at all. In fact, they were lined up around the campsite in Purros as soon as we arrived. What is more, one young male decided to pay a visit to the camp at three in the morning, rip up a water pipe and spend the next 20 minutes drinking, complete with gurgling, farting, and burping. My saviour arrived in the form of a much older bull that simply slapped the younger bull around and sent him on his way.
It seemed that I was not destined to get a full night's sleep as on each subsequent night we had thunder and lightning around us at three in the morning. One night the downpour caused thoughts of arks and gathering animals two by two. Recently, I have become alert around 3 a.m., waiting either for elephants to arrive or to be struck by lightning...
...The first collaring took place inside Skeleton Coast National Park. We had agreed that only four people from the community be allowed on the project, but about 30 people showed up. A young male elephant was duly located, drugged and while we fitted the collar a very funny incident took place. I had told everyone to stay well back while we worked on the elephant. When I called loudly to one of the observers to fetch the notebook that I left in the car, he took off at a run to get the book, saying something in the local language on the order of "get out of my way" as he was running. Well, the other community blokes took this as a sign that all was not well, and most took off at a gallop for the nearest vehicle. The driver of the vehicle then took this as a sign of imminent death and started to drive away from the scene like a racing car driver. Once peace had been restored and all of the locals knew that they weren't going to be killed, they wandered back to the elephant to see, and even touch, the animal that they had feared. Quite an interesting sight...
...There were three vehicles set to drive out together on the expedition, driven by Todd, Julian, and myself. On the second day of the trip, Todd had to return to Kamanjab (540 kilometres away) as he had two blowouts and no further spares for the rest of the trip. Julian and I retraced our steps the next morning to find Todd, returning over a section of road we affectionately term "the road to hell." I defy anyone to find a worse section of road anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, in this valiant "rescue" attempt, Julian broke his rear drive shaft and also managed to break one of the side shafts as well.
Up until this stage of the trip I had been thanking my lucky stars that my car had been running well. The indicator/front light had fallen off on one of the bumpy sections of the road to hell, but otherwise the car was fine. Then Murphy's Law reared its ugly head again. The next morning after Todd and I returned to Purros with all the volunteers, my engine threw a major wobbly-well, the electrical system did anyway. I decided that I too would have to make the 540-kilometer journey to Kamanjab back over the road to hell to have the car's electrical system fixed. Then it was back to the field for some research...well sort of, but I couldn't turn the vehicle off once I started it in the morning, as it didn't generate enough charge during the day at low revs to start more than twice a day. I must say the elephants were remarkably tolerant and allowed us to carry out a lot of research with the engine rumbling. We ended up seeing 23 elephants and getting some interesting observations, but for some unexplained reason some trips turn out to be a nightmare for tire punctures. I had seven on this trip, new tires and all, and I even managed to tear one new tire apart. Expensive hobby, research...
...Once again it is the silly season in the bush as well, with a couple of the bulls coming into musth. This means open season on anything equivalent in size to themselves, including researchers in vehicles. During this period, the bulls' testosterone levels are through the roof and nothing presents too big a target. The female elephants have seen it all before and take it in their stride, careful to keep their young away from rampaging, hormonally charged five-ton "playboys" who will literally have a go at anything.
So life in the bush is much the same as usual and I am really pleased for it. The temperature is of course breaking thermometers and humidity from the recent rains make it difficult to get by some days... but hell, the worst day in the bush is better than the best day in the office.
Dr. Keith Leggett (Northwestern Namibia Desert-dwelling Elephant and Giraffe Project) is principal investigator of Desert Elephants of Namibia. With the help of Earthwatch volunteers, he is conducting the first comprehensive investigation of elephant population ecology in semiarid northwestern Namibia.