In the Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya, when the fierce heat of the sun has softened into a gentle evening glow, David Daballen and I climb into a jeep to find some elephants.
As we drive through the savannah, Daballen, a conservationist at Save the Elephants, points out family groups and individuals within them. “These are the Butterflies, this group is Storms, here are the Spices,” he says. We have been looking out for Cinnamon, the Spices’ matriarch, and suddenly there she is: around 50 years old, huge and tuskless, having been born without any precious ivory. Close to her is Habiba, who was orphaned along with seven siblings when poachers killed their mother in 2011. The orphans were adopted by Cinnamon and the rest of the Spices.
Daballen reckons he can identify and name between 400 and 500 elephants. In the jeep, he keeps up a stream of names. “That’s Jonathan,” he says as we spot an elephant’s rear end, some 50 metres away. How can he tell one from another? “Look at their ear patterns: the nicks and holes and tears. Look at their tusks: some are short, some are long, some are curved, some are straight. Look at the pigmentation: some have pink skin, some are light, some are dark. But also look at their faces. They are like our faces, every one is individual.” It’s not just physical characteristics that are distinguishing, he adds. “When you spend time with elephants you understand they all have different personalities. They get into your mind. I probably know more elephants than people.”
One of Daballen’s colleagues tells me later that the recognition and respect is mutual. “The elephants trust him, they will come to him,” she says. Indeed, one evening our jeep, parked with the engine switched off, is surrounded by a dozen elephants, nudging against the vehicle, trunks nosing almost under our tyres to find clumps of grass, their eyes slowly blinking as they meet ours. It’s a magical moment.
After the group moves on, we drive back though near-darkness without headlights. Daballen navigates the jeep between thorn bushes and over furrows, guided by a rising moon and his intimate knowledge of the terrain.
At 36, Daballen has spent 16 years working for Save the Elephants (STE), and the 20 years before that living among them and other wild animals in the village of Marsabit, some 200km north of Samburu. When he was a child, he tells me, “there were a huge number of elephants up there, but they’ve been devastated by poaching.”