Maun, a remote town in northern Botswana, has that very special feel that you pick up in places that are on the edge of something grand and wild and unspoiled. You feel that at their air strips, with the buzz of single-engine aircraft waiting to take off into the blue. You feel that in the sense of expectation of the travelers waiting for their guides; you feel that as you watch the dusty safari vehicles heading off with their jerry cans of fuel and their tents and strapped-on shovels to dig the vehicle out of the sand of the untarred roads.
Two years ago, I was at the airport at Maun. It was a flurry of activity, but the small terminal building there has retained the intimate, local feel that the isolated frontier town that has grown up around it. I had been in the Okavango Delta, at one of the camps on the extraordinary flood plains that make up this slice of Africa — sometimes described as the continent’s last great wilderness. A safari company, the same company that runs the Orient Express trains, had arranged an expedition for readers of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series who wanted to see for themselves the world of Mma Ramotswe, the central figure of that series of books and films. Part of their offer was that the author, that’s me, would be on hand to spend a week with them in their camp on Eagle Island in the Delta.
We had enjoyed our time together, and firm friendships had been forged between participants from all over the world. But now it was time to go home, and farewells had been said to our guides and to each other. I found myself standing in the queue to board a plane to South Africa, from where the flight back to the U.K. would leave. While waiting for security, one inevitably ends up looking at one’s fellow travelers and I noticed a few places ahead of me a woman chatting with several locals who had come to see her off. They were dressed in the khaki outfit that is the universal uniform of wildlife people in that part off the world. I judged from her accent that this woman was American. Were these her guides who had been conducting her safari? I assumed they were.
The plane was not a big one, and I found myself sitting next to this woman. People still talk to one another on small planes in Africa, and before long we had established what had brought each of us to this remote spot. She introduced herself as Debra Stevens, from Dallas, and she had been in Maun, she told me, on elephant business. That required explanation, and as our plane climbed up over the endless plains of the Kalahari, she told me of her mission, which was to save orphan elephants.
It was a story of both sadness and of hope. Elephants are under threat wherever they live. In places where human population is pressing in on their habitat, elephants are increasingly cornered. As land-clearing and agriculture impinge on the native bush, elephants get drawn into conflict with farmers and villagers, destroying crops and in some cases human habitation. This is simple competition for territory, and humans have a way of winning that.
Added to the woes of the elephants are the predations of poachers operating in gangs and with all the advantage of modern weapons and technology. They are interested in the tusks, which they rip out of their victims and sell on the illicit ivory market. There are few sights sadder in the African bush than the carcasses of these great creatures, left to rot, felled for a few pounds of ivory. At the end of the chain that starts with that death, a small trinket or adornment is produced for the satisfaction of some purchaser, principally in Southeast Asia.
China may now have legislated against the ivory trade, but Chinese buyers still drive the trade in other countries where ivory may be sold legally. Roughly 20,000 elephants are killed each year to satisfy this demand. That is the ending of the lives of 20,000 intelligent creatures with families, social groups, memories and the capacity to mourn and regret.
Debra had been touched by the plight of Africa’s elephants and had set up, together with several collaborators in Botswana, a sanctuary for the calves of elephants shot by poachers. She called this Elephant Havens, and she and her colleagues recruited experienced elephant handlers to create a place where young elephants could be brought up and later reintroduced into herds in the wild.
The typical rescue involves a baby elephant found next to the body of its mother after she has been shot by poachers. The baby does not know what to do, and so will linger by the mother’s body, to die of dehydration or to succumb to predators. Taken to the sanctuary, the young elephant is fed on special infant formula — gallons of it — and given a human guardian. The guardian will stay with that elephant until its eventual return to the wild after a few years. The guardian will sleep with the baby elephant: raised beds are provided in each pen, but it is not unusual for morning to see the guardian sleeping next to his or her charge on the ground, a reassuring arm, or a trunk, around one another.
There and then on the plane the idea came to me for the next installment of the Mma Ramotswe story. The redoubtable Gaborone detective would become involved in the rescue of a baby elephant and its placing with the sanctuary. And the title was to come later, but just as easily: How to Raise an Elephant.
The COVID-19 pandemic eliminated a planned visit to the sanctuary, but the miracle of Zoom and a co-operative satellite meant that I was later able to join the staff at the orphanage and be introduced to the elephants themselves. The love lavished on the elephants was as vivid and inspiring to behold as if seen in the flesh — and so too was the singing of the staff members, who, as is traditional in Botswana, welcome a visitor with song.
I wrote the book. I went to Dallas to meet people who back the scheme. We often don’t see that side of America, which may be drowned out by another sort of noise, but which is an America in which there are deep wells of generosity. Out in Botswana, where the pandemic has had a terrible effect on much-needed tourist revenue, the work of Elephant Havens still continues. The world draws in, and life becomes harder, but works of love somehow soldier on, persistent, invincible, healing. [https://www.dallasnews.com/]
*Alexander McCall Smith’s latest novel, How to Raise an Elephant (in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series), will be published this month.