The atmosphere was great in the car that took us back to Boromo for our lunch break. Having eaten nothing – except dust – since the previous day because of a very early start, we discussed the seasonal dishes that would have made up our ideal meal. It was 1:30 pm and the presence of the lazy goats and donkeys on either side of the track told us that we were close to our destination. But suddenly, the information I'd been waiting ten months for came to me: wild elephants were roaming near Nania's enclosure.
Even before my eyes met his, my driver Issa understood – the meal we dreamed of eating was now only a delectable memory. With a smile on his face, he turned around and set off on the track leading us back to Nania. I was clinging on for dear life. This track – which is about twenty kilometres long – is particularly difficult. Because of a lack of resources, the authorities have stopped maintaining it. It is deteriorating from one year to the next, from the dry season to the rainy season, and requires the skill, experience and caution of a driver like Issa to avoid its traps. I was worrying about the poor condition of the track. Becoming less and less passable, over the coming months it will undoubtedly complicate the weekly rotation of Nania's keepers as well as their supplies of food and water, and could slow things down in any emergency. What can be done? Perhaps pressure could be put on the park management to repair this track? If so, with what resources? These questions occupied my thoughts for a good part of the journey.
After fifty minutes of jolting, we arrived at the site in monastic silence, trying to walk with feline stealth. But Nania and her best friend, Whisty the sheep, had spotted us! They were watching us, intrigued by our attitude, which was probably suspicious. Seeing them so placid, I relaxed. There was no doubt that the wild elephants had gone. Salif and Souleymane – the keepers on duty for the week – confirmed this to me, showing me which way they had gone. I then saw the short videos they had recorded on their mobile phones: six wild elephants, including a baby elephant a few months old, had just walked past the photographic trap I had set the previous day! My assistants were amused by my frustration, which was quickly compensated for by the joy of knowing that Nania had finally made visual and olfactory contact with some of her fellow animals while she was outside her enclosure. As they passed by, she stopped next to Salif, who had been looking after her since the first day of her rescue, and watched them, her trunk raised. They too saw her and could smell her from a distance. This was a beginning, representing an important step in her rehabilitation process.
While Nania was gulping down the two litres of milk from her 3 o'clock bottle, I decided to follow the footsteps of these elephants. Their passing had flattened the tall grasses, turned yellow by the start of the dry season, making it easier to track them. I was looking for the real treasure – their dung! And the rest of the group decided to join me on this special quest. In single file, we followed the furrows left by the pachyderms and I noticed that, at times, Nania put her trunk delicately onto Whisty's back. Was it to tell her to hurry up? Or to reassure her in this blind pursuit? I did not know – but seeing this powerful 800 kg baby being so attentive towards such a vulnerable adult touched me deeply. Whisty had relieved Nania's loneliness. Nania had offered Whisty the status of permanent resident in her park. This friendship is unique on a continental scale!
Salif, climbing a tree to look around, beckoned us. The elephants were thirty metres away. They were eating at the foot of a large tree. It would have been unwise to continue moving towards them while this part of the park had not yet been burned to stimulate the regrowth of the green, nutritious vegetation. The grasses around us, which were at least two metres high, prevented any visibility. We tried to move forward via a clearing, but without success. With their trunks raised, they perceived the danger and, after some hesitation, decided to continue on their way. We rushed to the tree... Our excitement was at its height: our treasure was there, and perfectly fresh! I took the GPS data of the location.
Kneeling beside Salif, with a sampling tube in my hand, I listened to him remind me of the steps to take when collecting samples of elephant dung. The content of the team's training had been absorbed perfectly – the practice could now begin. We put on our disposable gloves so as not to pollute the material with our own DNA and measured the circumference of the selected dung, which was to be recorded along with the date, GPS data and tube number. As he had been taught to do, Salif opened it slightly, took a few pinches from different places on the external surface as well as from the interior, which he put into the tube containing a preservative solution. He closed his tube and shook it. Did it contain Nania's mother's DNA? This is a question that we would ask ourselves every time we took a sample – but the answer would have to wait. After all, the elephants had only been back in this 56,000-hectare park for a few weeks after wintering elsewhere. They are hard to locate. So far, only four of the twenty or so sample tubes had been filled. To preserve its contents, they would be going to the freezer while the team continued its treasure hunt, day after day. Releasing Nania to her family is what motivated each of us, regardless of gender, origin, status or belief. Adventure is human and Nania is our cement.
131 cm high at the withers, 172 cm around the chest! These were the new measurements of our protégé as I prepared to return to France. In her usual way, Nania ran towards me with her trunk raised and stuck the end of it onto my nose at a speed and with efficiency and precision worthy of the best plumbers. We were connected there, for a few seconds, under Whisty's quizzical gaze.
-Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Country Director of France and Francophone Africa
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