I'm watching baby elephants splashing and learning to use their trunks to slurp from the Ewaso-Nyiro River, one of the few reliable sources of water on Kenya's increasingly drought-riven central plateau. Sitting next to me in the 4x4 is Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a grey-haired British biologist who directs my attention to Yeager, a lone bull elephant named after the pioneering American test pilot Chuck Yeager because of his tendency to wander long distances. Yaeger is sniffing the air in search of a female in oestrus and is soon trailing Martha, the matriarch of an elephant family researchers call the "First Ladies".
Counting Martha's group, which Douglas-Hamilton has studied for years from his research camp here in the Samburu National Reserve, he realises that two members are missing. Poaching, once again on the rise in the region, is suspected.
If a matriarch like Martha should be killed, he says, it will be a disaster, not just for her milk-dependent offspring but for the entire migrating herd because they rely on her knowledge of where to find seasonal water and food. As we discuss the impact of the latest drought to devastate East Africa and of the history of hunting this intelligent, long-lived species, an amorous Yeager walks right past our 4x4 and emits the elephant version of "Hey, how ya doin'?" - a low, vibrating rumble.
I'm staying at Elephant Watch Camp, set up by Douglas-Hamilton's Kenyan-born wife Oria in 2001, and which has evolved into one of Africa's most intriguing photo-safari operations. Apart from six canvas tents and the decorative Kenyan and Somali textiles, which Oria installed with a bohemian's eye, everything has been made from locally gathered material. That includes beds, chairs and settees constructed from the sculptural branches of Kigelia trees that have been felled by the local elephants while being used as a scratching post.
The Douglas-Hamiltons have lived in the wild with their research subjects for much of their marriage and Oria has become an expert at getting by with limited resources, as well as appreciating the difference between a formulaic holiday and a meaningful bush experience for clients. To avoid traffic from the big Samburu safari lodges, she takes clients for long walks along the river in the early morning and late afternoon. The rest of the day is spent tracking elephants, especially in January when families migrate back into the park, and during the May-June breeding season.
Camp meals are healthy, with an emphasis on salads such an avocado nicoise with tuna, capers, courgette and organic greens.
Now 69, Iain Douglas-Hamilton is also the director of the conservation group Save the Elephant. His research station is sited just downriver from Elephant Watch Camp and he often meets with guests when he is in residence. Since 1998, the Save the Elephant team has fitted wild elephants with GPS transmitters and amassed more than two million data points. These are mainly from Kenyan herds but also includes some Central African forest elephants, a sub species, and rare desert elephants in Mali. Relayed to Save the Elephant's computers, the data reveals not just the elephants' migrations but also provides insights into elephant emotions. Grief is shown by the amount of time elephants spend near the bodies and bones of their blood relatives while wariness of human interaction is demonstrated by the way migrating elephants rush through areas where farmers have previously shot crop raiders. Raiding elephants, by comparison, have learnt to be stealthy and nocturnal.
On the first day of my visit, Douglas-Hamilton receives an automated text message on his cell phone indicating that one of his collared subjects, Mountain Bull, is on the slopes of Mount Kenya, the distant snow-covered peak I can see from our game drive, but dangerously close to the Borana tribe's wheat crops.
"I'm happy to see he's still moving because the last time we spotted him, the old boy was dripping pus from the four bullet wounds in his hind legs," Douglas-Hamilton tells me. "He's a tame park animal, used to seeing people. But when an elephant leaves a park, it's in trouble."
For much of the 1970s and '80s, the Douglas-Hamiltons flew small planes across the continent, conducting aerial elephant censuses and documenting thousands of bullet-ridden, tuskless carcasses that indicated where poachers with automatic weapons had been at work. The continent's elephant population crashed from an estimated 1.3 million in 1979 to fewer than 600,000 by 1989.
Disturbingly, they say, poaching is once again on the rise because of a range of new factors. Inside the Samburu reserve, poaching has reached a 10-year high. More than 900 elephants reside permanently in the reserve, alongside other game including big cats, Grevy's Zebra and reticulated giraffe, but poaching has skewed the pachyderm population. Only 14 per cent of the herds are led by a matriarch more than 25 years old, while 70 per cent of the animals are female, reflecting the disappearance of the males that carry bigger tusks. As we meet at sundown by the river, Douglas-Hamilton tells me how male elephant tusks are lighter and smaller than those collected by the ivory hunters of the 19th century, probably because the gene pool has been affected by the elimination of the largest-tusked animals.
Ironically, demand for illegal ivory may have been fuelled by recent conservation efforts. In 2008, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) sanctioned a series of auctions by South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia of 102 tonnes of stockpiled ivory.
Recognising that African countries have different ecological and historical circumstances, CITES allowed these southern African nations to alter the status of their elephant populations from critically endangered status to the less-proscriptive threatened status. The change means regulated trade is permitted, which opened the way for the sale of ivory harvested from natural elephant deaths in game parks. Most of the stock was bought by Japan, where consumers prefer carved-ivory personal "Hanko" signature seals, and by China, where the 7,000 year old craft of ivory carving is being revived by a newly affluent population hungry for prestige items ranging from small ivory Buddhas and chopsticks to elaborate sculptures made from multiple tusks, often depicting mythical scenes and costing millions of dollars.
CITES justified the auctions, which earned US$15 million (Dh55m), as a way for individual African countries to inject money back into conservation while satisfying world ivory demand with a controlled supply. However, many scientists and wildlife monitoring organisations believe the auctions created an opportunity for criminal syndicates to sell poached ivory by claiming it was a CITES-sanctioned product. Chopped into pieces and shipped as unaccompanied baggage, hidden in shipping containers labelled as mobile phone parts and polished wood, poached ivory is shipped through multiple African countries towards Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines.
Kenya bans hunting and all trade in wildlife products, and the country has been lobbying CITES to ban auctions and impose a 20-year moratorium on all ivory trade. (To make the point, the government burnt five tonnes of confiscated ivory in Tsavo National Park last July.) Kenya has an estimated 35,000 elephants but poaching has quadrupled since 2007, with 216 elephants killed last year. At Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, specially trained sniffer dogs have been discovering illegal ivory in personal and unaccompanied luggage. Ninety per cent of the seizures were made from citizens of China, which is building five major highways in Kenya, and whose resident population in Africa has risen from 70,000 to more than one million in the last decade.
Some 7,500 of those elephants range across northern Kenya, and the 10,360-hectare Samburu National Reserve is a major crossroads within this migratory territory. During the dry season, from January to March, and again from June to mid-October, elephants mass in the park to take advantage of permanent water in the river. The herds' matriarchs instil knowledge of the migration routes in their offspring and for the rest of the year, elephants wander among community conservation areas, tribal group ranches, public grazing land, wheat growing villages and the forested slopes of Mount Kenya.
To teach pastoral communities on the park boundary about the economic benefits of elephant conservation, the Douglas-Hamiltons recruit cattle and goat herders from the Samburu tribe as researchers, safari wguides and camp staff. Clad in the Samburu warrior garb of kikoi skirts and elaborate beaded headdresses and jewellery, the guides provide guests like me with insights not just into ecosystems but also the Samburu culture and its relation to nature.
In addition to general game viewing - one day we track a pack of rare wild dogs on foot through a dry river bed - the Elephant Watch Camp guides take me to visit Samburu settlements. Head guide Bernard Lesirin drives us through the park, which is lush after the December rains and full of dog-sized dik-dik antelopes, browsing giraffe and elephant families returning to the river. As soon as we leave the park boundary, though, the land turns dry, spiky and thorny - all symptoms of overgrazing by cattle. A small trading town is growing just outside the reserve's west gate, but the manyattas - collections of wattle and thatched round houses within a collective thorn fence - lack electricity and schools and most modern amenities.
Samburu lore holds that elephants are the spiritual relatives of humans, due to their longevity and intelligence, but the cultural taboo against killing elephants is eroding. The temptation to poach increased in the aftermath of Kenya's 2009 drought, which killed 90 per cent of local people's livestock, including cattle, goats and the donkeys used to transport goods to and from distant weekly markets. Then, after a freak flash flood last year closed several safari camps, rains ultimately failed this spring, leading to the worst drought in half a century. Meanwhile, cell phone networks have spread into previously isolated rural communities, providing an unforeseen boon for organised poaching.
"A cellphone will connect the buyer to the middleman to the local person that shoots the animal," sighs Daniel Letoiye, a project manager with the Westgate Community Conservancy, which is owned by the Ngutuk-Ongiron Group Ranch, a Samburu community on the reserve's western border. "Now we have struggling communities, and Chinese road building crews, and international mafias. It's becoming the perfect scenario for poaching with connectivity and ease of transportation."
For such massive animals, elephants are surprisingly vulnerable creatures, Letoiye says. Adults fall off cliffs, get stuck between trees, or are crushed by the very trees they try to knock over. Young elephants die from snake bites, lion attacks, thirst and starvation during droughts, and they also fall into and drown in man-made wells. The serendipitous circle of life and death - wildebeest births, lions kills, battles between scavengers - are part of a game watching safari's allure. As we get back in the car for the drive back to camp, we are all too aware that elephants face an increasingly international, complex and dispiriting predation cycle.
If you go
The flight: Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) will launch an Abu Dhabi to Nairobi route in April 2012. Return flights cost from Dh1,940, including taxes.
The stay: A safari at Elephant Watch Camp (www.elephantwatchsafaris.com; 00 254 20 804 8602) costs from about US$650 (Dh2,390) per person, per day, including activities and meals. Transport by charter aircraft can be arranged from Nairobi.