Thomas French: Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives
Excerpt from Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives, Hyperion, 2010.
Chapter One - The New World
Eleven elephants. One plane. Hurtling together across the sky.
The scene sounds like a dream conjured by Dali. And yet there it was, playing out high above the Atlantic. Inside the belly of a Boeing 747, eleven young elephants were several hours into a marathon flight from South Africa to the United States. Nothing could have prepared them for what they were experiencing. These were not circus animals, accustomed to captivity. All of these elephants were wild, extracted at great expense and through staggering logistics from their herds inside game reserves in Swaziland. All were headed for zoos in San Diego and Tampa.
The date was Aug. 21st, 2003, a Thursday morning that stretched on and on. The elephants were confined in eleven metal crates inside the semi-darkness of the freighter jet’s cavernous hold. Before they were loaded into the plane, they had been sedated. Now they were woozy and not particularly hungry. Some lay on their sides, slumbering. A few stood and snaked their trunks toward a human who moved up and down the line of crates, replenishing their water, murmuring reassurance.
“Calm down,” Mick Reilly told them. “It's not so bad.”
Mick was thirty-two, with light brown hair and the permanent tan of someone who has grown up in the African bush. As usual, he was clad in his safari khakis and an air of quiet self-assurance. His arms and legs bore the faint scratches of acacia thorns. His weathered boots were powdered with the red dust of the veldt. Everything about him testified to a lifetime of wading through waist-high turpentine grass and thickets of aloe and leadwood trees, of tracking lions and buffalo and rhinos and carefully counting their young, of hunting poachers armed with AK-47s.
Mick and his father ran the two game reserves where the elephants had lived in Swaziland, a small landlocked kingdom nestled in the southern tip of Africa. Mick and these eleven elephants had come of age together in the parks. They recognized his scent and voice, the rhythms of his speech. He knew their names and histories and temperaments, which of them was excitable and which more serene, where each of them ranked in the hierarchies of their herds. Watching them in their crates, he could not help but wonder what they were thinking. Surely they could hear the thrum of the jet engines and feel the changes in altitude and air pressure. Through the pads of their feet, equipped with nerve endings highly attuned to seismic information, they would have had no trouble detecting the vibrations from the fuselage. But what could they decipher from this multitude of sensations? Did they have any notion that they were flying?
“It’s okay,” Mick told them. “You’ll be fine.”
Not everyone, he realized, agreed with this assessment. He was tired of the long and bitter debate that had raged on both sides of the Atlantic in the months before this flight. Tired of the petitions and the lawsuits and the denunciations from people who had never set foot in Swaziland, never seen for themselves what was happening inside the game reserves. There simply was not enough room for all of the elephants anymore, not without having the trees destroyed, the parks devastated and other species threatened. Either some of the elephants had to be killed, or they could be sent to new homes in these two zoos. Mick saw no other way to save them. He had heard the protests from the animal rights groups, insisting that for the elephants any fate would be preferable to a zoo, that it would be better for them to die free than live as captives.
Such logic made him shake his head. The righteous declarations. All this talk of freedom as if it were some pure and limitless river flowing through the wild, providing for every creature and allowing them all to live in harmony. On an overcrowded planet, where open land is disappearing and more species slip toward extinction every day, freedom is not so easily defined. Should one species – any species – have the right to multiply and consume at will, even as it nudges others toward oblivion?
As far as Mick could tell, nature cared about survival, not ideology. And on this plane, the elephants had been given a chance. Before his family had agreed to send them to the two zoos, he had visited the facilities where they would be housed and talked with the keepers who would care for them. He was confident the elephants would be treated humanely and be given as much space to move as possible. Still, there was no telling how they would adjust to being taken from everything they knew. Wild elephants are accustomed to ranging through the bush for miles a day. They are intelligent, self-aware, emotional animals. They bond. They rage and grieve. True to their reputation, they remember.
How would the exiles react when they realized their days and nights were encircled as never before? When they understood, as much as they could, that they would not see Africa again? Either they had been rescued. Or enslaved. Or both.
The 747 raced westward, carrying its living cargo toward the new world.
The savanna, alive just after sunset. Anvil bats search for fruit in the falling light. A bush baby wails somewhere in the trees. Far off to the east, along the Mozambique border, the Lubombo mountains stand shrouded in black velvet.
A fat moon, nearly full, shines down on a throng of elephants chewing their way through what's left of the umbrella acacias inside Mkhaya Game Reserve. A small patch of green in the center of Swaziland, Mkhaya is one of the parks where the elephants on the 747 were taken. This was their home. Before deciding what to think about the fate of the eleven headed for the zoos, it helps to see the wild place they came from. To know what their lives were like before they ended up on the plane and to understand the realities that pushed them toward that surreal journey.
An evening tour through Mkhaya is especially dramatic – climbing into a Land Rover at the end of a golden afternoon, then lurching along the park’s winding dirt roads, searching for the elephants who remain. Mkhaya’s herd is a good-sized group – sixteen in all, counting the calves – and even though they are the largest land mammals on earth, they are not always easy to find. Elephants, it turns out, are surprisingly stealthy.
As the sunlight fades, other species declare their presence. Throngs of zebra and wildebeest thunder by in the distance, trailing dust clouds. Cape buffalo snort and raise their horns and position themselves in front of their young. Giraffe stare over tree tops, their huge brown eyes blinking, then lope away in seeming slow motion. But no elephants.
A couple hours into the tour, the visitors begin to wonder if they will glimpse any of the hulking creatures tonight. Then suddenly the entire group seems to materialize from nowhere. The driver has unwittingly turned a corner into the center of the herd. On both sides of the road, elephants loom like great gray ghosts. They’re in the middle of their evening feeding, knocking down trees, snapping branches and chewing on leaves and peeling bark with their tusks. As the Land Rover sputters to a stop in their midst, the elephants turn their massive heads toward the intruders. Two calves hurry toward their mothers and aunts. A towering bull, his tusks faintly glowing in the moonlight, moves from the shadows into a patch of red leopard grass only twenty feet away.
“Here's my big boy,” says a woman in the back row of the vehicle. “Come over and say hello.”
As if on cue, the bull steps into the road and lumbers toward the Land Rover. He doesn't appear angry. Just insistent. Behind the wheel, the tour guide quickly restarts the engine, then shifts into reverse. He's hurrying backward down the road when, in his mirror, he spies one of the females waiting beside a bushwillow. As the vehicle approaches, the cow bends the tree across the road and holds it there, directly in the humans’ path. She makes it look easy.
Without slowing down, the guide spins the wheel, taking the Rover off the road – still in reverse – and maneuvering around both the elephant and her roadblock. He keeps his foot on the gas, tearing and bumping backward down a little hillside and across a dry river bed, until he's sure none of the herd is following.
The guests inside the Land Rover try to process what they've just witnessed. What was that elephant doing?
The guide smiles, shrugs. "She was just being naughty. They've got a sense of humor – more than people realize.”
“She was definitely trying to block our way,” says the guide. “It's just not good to drive through an elephant herd. They don't like you to drive through. They want you to listen to them.”
Driving back to camp, he explains that elephants get irritated when they're not in control. He talks about how helicopter pilots, flying over herds, have seen elephants grab small trees and shake them, as if trying to swat the helicopters from the sky.
Here in Mkhaya, encounters between elephants and humans tend to be more relaxed. Every day, the herd indulges the curiosity of the tourists who approach in Land Rovers with their camcorders. Usually the elephants seem curious as well, walking within a few feet of the humans, calming reaching forward with their trunks. Still, whenever the two species meet, anything can happen. Once, a park employee was bicycling to work when he accidentally pedaled into the middle of a herd. The rattling of his bike spooked a mother with her calf, and the cow attacked, chasing down the man and then picking him up and throwing him several times. He survived, barely.
In Swaziland, as in other parts of Africa, elephants have struggled to hold their own against humans. Americans tend to think of Africa as a continent of vast, unclaimed spaces, where species can roam to the horizon and beyond. In reality, humans have occupied so much of the continent that many animals are confined inside game parks. Although these parks are often huge by American standards – sometimes stretching across hundreds of miles – the animals increasingly find their movement restricted by human boundaries, human considerations, human priorities.
As our species paves over the planet, squeezing other species out of existence, we seek solace in the myth of unlimited freedom. Inside our subdivisions, we sit with our kids and watch The Lion King, singing along as Simba and Pumbaa and Timon parade across the endless veldt and majestically celebrate the circle of life. But the truth is, the circle of life is constantly shrinking. If you're going to see a lion, even in Africa, it will almost certainly be on a tour inside a fenced park.
The conflict unfolds in miniature inside Swaziland, a country smaller than New Jersey. Although elephants once thrived here, the only two places where they can be found today are inside Mkhaya and at another fenced reserve, Hlane Royal National Park. Compared with the mammoth game parks in South Africa and other neighboring countries, Mkhaya and Hlane are tiny. Only a few dozen elephants live inside the two parks.
Fifty years ago, not a single member of their species could be found in Swaziland. They had all long since died off or been hunted or poisoned. Then Ted Reilly, Mick’s father, stepped in. Ted was born and raised in Swaziland and spent his childhood in the bush, watching antelope graze in the distance, studying how kingfishers bore holes into the dirt to make their nests. As a young man he left home to study conservation, working as a ranger in game reserves in nearby South Africa and Zimbabwe. When he returned to Swaziland in 1960 to help run his family’s farm, he discovered that during his years away almost all of the country’s wildlife had been wiped out. Traveling through regions that had once teemed with dozens of species, he found that all of them were gone.
Reilly decided to bring the animals back. Working closely with Swaziland’s king, he created the country’s first national park at Hlane and then opened Mkhaya, a reserve designated for the protection of endangered species such as black rhinos and Nguni cattle. A nonprofit trust was formed to operate the three parks. Reilly trained more rangers, including his son Mick, and stocked the land with more species – lions, sable antelopes, buffalos, cheetahs.
The elephants began to arrive in 1987, when Mick was still a teenager. From the start, they were controversial. There were several dozen of them, all trucked in from South Africa, all of them calves only a few years old. They were survivors of the annual culls carried out to control the country’s elephant population. Though they had been spared, they had witnessed the slaughter of their families. Not everyone was sure it made sense to bring them into Swaziland. How would they survive without their mothers? Even if they did make it, would they be haunted by memories from the culls?
The elephants survived. They did so well, in fact, that within a few years of their arrival, they were exceeding the parks’ resources. Elephants are among the most beloved animals on the planet. But they are also voracious eaters who feed for up to eighteen hours a day. The elephants inside Mkhaya and Hlane were tearing the bark off so many trees and knocking down so many other trees that they were systematically deforesting entire sections. The destruction threatened the future of the eagles and owls and vultures that nested in those trees. It also posed a serious challenge for the black rhinos, one of Africa’s most endangered species, who depended on similar vegetation for their diet.
In the months before the eleven elephants were loaded onto the plane, some animal rights groups argued that there was plenty of room inside Mkhaya and Hlane, that the overcrowding had been exaggerated, that the Reillys had invented a crisis so they could justify selling the elephants to the zoos.
But the magnitude of the problem is obvious to anyone who tours the parks, even today. The devastation inside Mkhaya is striking. And in Hlane, it is catastrophic. Standing at one of the interior fences, looking toward a section of the park where there were no elephants, visitors see a lush expanse of green trees and bushes. If they turned their head a few inches and looked on the other side of the fence, toward the area where Hlane's elephants live, all that meets the eye are miles of dead trees. Many have been pushed to the ground. Hundreds of others stand like twisted silhouettes, their branches black and broken and bare.
Gazing across this moonscape, it seems impossible that the elephants have managed to survive, much less any other species.
Above the waves and the clouds, the 747 soared on. Sunlight burned along the wings. A thin trail of exhaust tapered behind, etched across a canvas of perfect blue.
Inside the hold, some of the elephants drifted in and out of sleep. Others were more alert, the effects of their Azaperone and Acuphase injections slowly wearing off. Mick, beyond exhaustion by now, was still patrolling back and forth between them, talking softly in the human language they were most likely to recognize.
“Kahle mfana,” said Mick, speaking in siSwati, the native tongue of Swaziland. “Kutwulunga.”
Steady, boy. It will be okay.
A South African veterinarian named Chris Kingsley worked nearby, assessing the elephants' condition. The vet watched their respiration patterns, checked to see if they responded to sounds, made sure that none were shivering or showing other signs of trauma.
Chris and Mick had been working for more than forty hours straight. They began their labors before dawn early that Wednesday morning, where the crew tranquilized the elephants inside the boma, a fenced corral where the animals had been kept in preparation for the journey, then lifted the animals via a conveyor belt and a crane onto flatbed trucks to be driven to Manzini, the nearest city with an airport. Loading them onto the trucks took all day, and then the drive to Manzini took most of the night. The airport didn’t have a runway big enough for a 747, so the elephants were shifted onto a pair of Aleutian IL-16s, and then when they flew into Johannesburg, they had to be unloaded from those two planes, with forklifts moving the crates, and reloaded into the hold of the 747. It was winter in that part of the world, and cold enough that night that Mick could see ice glinting on the tarmac. By the time the freighter jet lumbered down the runway, the sun was up, and it was Thursday morning.
Chartered for $700,000, the plane had more than enough thrust and weight capacity for the task at hand. A few more tons would have been no problem. Still, the pilots were eager to cause their passengers as little distress as possible, so they eased their ascent, taking off at a gentle angle before heading across the tip of the continent toward the Atlantic.
Now, as the 747 carried them across the equator and backward through eight time zones, the divide between morning and afternoon began to blur. Mick and Chris were wrapped in the hum of the engines and the breathing of the animals. Watering cans in hand, they checked on the elephants’ progress, making sure that they had enough to drink and that the trays underneath their crates were not overflowing with urine. Elephant urine is so corrosive, it can eat through metal.
All of the elephants were juveniles, between ten and fourteen years old. Four were headed for Tampa, and the other seven would travel on to San Diego. So far they seemed to be doing well. Early into the flight, Chris had been concerned about Mbali. Named after one of Mick’s two daughters, she was the youngest and smallest of the group. After takeoff, Mbali wasn’t eating or drinking. She simply lay in her crate. The vet had the impression she was depressed. A few hours later, the young elephant seemed to have recovered. She was back on her feet, drinking water with her trunk, responding to the humans' voices.
The other elephants were vocalizing, too, sending out waves of rumblings that Mick and Chris could feel in their chests. The two of them were startled when one of the males trumpeted. The bulls were more restless than the cows. Already, some strained at their confinement. Mick could see them leaning against the interior of their crates, pushing with their feet, testing the strength of the walls. A sickening thought occurred to him. What if one broke out?
His mind fixed on the image. He visualized the male elephant charging toward the front of the plane. He saw it bulldozing into the cockpit, trampling over the pilots, then finally bursting through the nose.
The bull would plummet toward the waves far below. The shattered 747 – no more pilots, no controls – would tumble close behind.