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Eye Contact with a Wild Elephant

Air Date: Week of

The herd sticks together. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

Eye contact can be powerful, a knowing look exchanged between beings. And for Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender, nothing compares to catching the eye of a wild elephant.


CURWOOD: Eye contact can be powerful, a knowing look exchanged between people. But for Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender, there is nothing like catching the eye of an elephant.
Eye Contact
African Elephant
Hwange National Park
© 2020 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

They mill about. If they were thirsty there is water nearby and plenty of it and they would go there. If they wanted food they would look for it and find it. They are in each other’s company, nothing more. It makes them whom and what they are.

Purpose enough.

Now a dark shape sudden and close: Tusks thick as posts, the wide brow, the ears outstretched, huge! The startled look, as if he did not expect me there, as if he turned a blind corner and was surprised, though I am in plain site. He stares. Unsure. An attitude they all share. And would prefer if the vehicle and the people riding on its open frame were at a distance.

Instead of in the midst.

Of wild elephants.

The young female elephant. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

Under the midday sun.

In the total absence of shade…

The bull that was so close veers off and into the herd. I sit and watch the elephants.

On the periphery, at the other side of the clearing where the brush swallows the land, a young female is staring at me. She is twelve maybe thirteen, an age which means in her what it means in us. Her knowledge incomplete. The years of her majority distant. An age for discovery. Naïve, both to possibility and danger.

Every time I glance in her direction she is there looking at me. Me, in particular. So I lift my chin. Twice. Two quick gestures, deliberately as close as possible to imperceptible.
She sees - she was waiting for this - and returns that very same gesture.

Eye contact with a wild elephant. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

And comes, towards me.

The herd is in motion. Revealing, concealing the line of sight. I see her then I don’t. She sees me then she doesn’t. I am there, then I am not but every time I loose sight of her sure that she changed her mind I see her again; we exchange the sign:

The nod, the softness around the eyes....

Again… Again…

We seek and find each other’s faces.

A reinforcement.

Of Recognition.



On through the crowd, the mass of legs, expanses of skin thick and grey and furrowed as drought baked mud; until there is nothing and no one between us.

She raises her trunk.

I lift my hand.

“She raises her trunk. I lift my hand.” (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

She reaches out to me as I reach out to her -

And my guide slams his heavy fist on the hood and yells WHADDAYAH THINK YOU’RE DOIN’? GET OUTTA HERE!

I stood, I called to her out loud, Wait! It wasn’t me!

Too late… Too late.

Elephant, for the rest of her long life will think about this. As the day ends if she still lives she is thinking of it now. And as for me, I see that look on her face.

It haunts me.

This is what I am left with.

That I will never be able to find her.

To tell her:

Come Back.

CURWOOD: That’s Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender. For photos from Mark’s trip check out the Living on Earth website, loe.org.



Mark Seth Lender’s website

Read the field note for this essay

Sekenani Camp

Donald Young Safaris


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