Though the wildebeest have started crossing again (and drowning as well), I still find myself leaving the Mara. My third field season has come to end. It is always amazing to be here in this time of plenty – plenty of wildebeest, plenty of predators, and plenty of vultures. There has been so much to see and it has certainly been a busy field season. So with my data gathered and my birds tagged, it is time to head home to the other rather overlooked portion of scientific research – the analysis. So I will return to my university to teach and to analyze. The Mara and the vultures will still be present as I watch them through my own descriptions of their behavior and through the blinking blue dots (which represent the current position of each tagged bird) that I will now follow across the East African plains over the next year. When I write to you next, it will be to describe those movements – so that we can all follow these amazing birds as they have their own adventures.
Before leaving I went for one final adventure of my own – to visit the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi. This center cares for young elephants and rhinos that have been orphaned due to natural causes or, and much more often, anthropogenic causes, especially poaching and human-wildlife conflict. The little elephants will eventually be reintroduced to Tsavo National Park where they will join a pre-existing elephant herd. In the sanctuary, tourists look on, protected by a small rope, as the little elephants take mud baths, drink water, and kick around a soccer ball. Some elephants are a bit more athletic than others and we watched one has he managed to kick the ball using each of his four feet with nearly equal dexterity to move the ball around himself and his playmates. He even lined the ball up to kick it backwards using one of his back feet, showing an awareness of what was behind him that I really wouldn’t have expected given his bulk. Other elephants were a bit more naughty and one poured out a huge tank of water, scattering the crowd of onlookers, who moved back to avoid the rushing muddy water. The little elephant then rushed towards us, only to slip and fall in the muddy mess of his own creation. Most of the elephants seemed more interested in each other than anything else, as they touched, ran around, and even sat on their playmates. Their love of the mud and dirt was clear and every single elephant made sure to thoroughly cover itself in the red soil before racing off with its human caretakers. When a second small herd of orphans was brought out it was immediately clear who the matriarch was. One elephant stood head and shoulders above the rest and her flared ears made it clear that she planned to protect the group from any intruders. When a small family of warthogs started to eye the mud pool, the “mother” elephant, though still an infant herself, chased the tiny pigs away, trumpeting as she raced after them.
The surrogate mothers, a group of hard-working Kenyans that would stay with the baby elephants until they were ready to join a real herd, told the stories of each elephant as we watched them play. Some had fallen into wells; some had lost their mothers to poachers. Most were from Tsavo, but I was particularly touched by the story of a little elephant who had come from the Mara – just north of the Mara in fact in Olare Orok Conservancy an area I have come to know well. Her mother was found paralyzed by a bullet and the little elephant had been watching on, urging her mother to action but unable to move the fallen parent. While there was little to be done for the mother, they had been able to rescue the baby, who stood before me now, sucking up a trunkful of water, which she promptly emptied into her mouth. Baby elephants are not easy to raise and I tried to imagine the amount of time, effort, and money that must be necessary for the orphanage to be run. Though many of the orphans would die in the first few months – mainly from traumas both physical and psychological suffered before their arrival, so far the orphanage has been able to release all of the survivors, something few reintroduction programs could claim. Needless to say, I was moved and impressed, though I wondered if there would ever come a day when the actual threats that made such a place necessary would be solved.
I wish I could say this was my final adventure, but every time I leave the field there always has to be one last disaster before I can go home. Last year, the oil seals on my car broke and my credit card got canceled, the year before that I was stopped by a highway patrol who claimed I had been speeding, but ended up just begging for money, and this year I had awoke on my final day to find my vision blurred in one eye. The skin around my eye had swollen considerably and now drooped blocking my sight. I could feel a round mosquito bite popping up on my forehead and I wondered if it wasn’t a second bite that had caused the swelling. A few heat compresses later and the swelling had gone down – minor discomfort alleviated. Though minor, I was hoping this would count as my disaster for the season. But when I reached the airport, I realized there was more.
Airports are a great place for people watching. A melting pot in of themselves, you never know who or what you will see, though admittedly behavior is generally fairly controlled given the security. When I had entered the waiting room for my flight, I had noticed an African woman dressed in formal Indian wear – bright yellow pants, green top, and sachet included. Her accent and look suggested she was West African, so certainly the clothes seemed a bit out of place, but I didn’t really think much of it until I realized she had moved over to kneel next to my chair. I was watching a DVD as we waited, headphones in and she seemed to be more interested in my Scrubs episode, then in the WWF wrestling that the airport had oddly decided to show on the public TV. As she moved closer, she said something incomprehensible to me and indicated that indeed she wanted to watch. I angled the screen in her direction.
For several minutes, she sat calmly and quietly and then she took off her rather tattered high heels and started ripping them apart. The white shoes had a band that went around the heel and over the foot, which had started to sag with wear. She tore away at this piece of the shoe, turning the heels into a sort of flip-flop with only the part around the toes remaining. As she did this, she occasionally babbled, possibly in French, and rather loudly and others were soon watching her. I stared at the other guests with a knowing look as if to say, “yes this woman’s behavior is a bit odd, isn’t it? But let’s not stare.” So I returned to watching my show, only to find that the woman was now raising her arm and counting with her fingers over and over again – one, two, three fingers up and then again. She stared talking again and was soon on her feet in a full on dance. With no shoes and the sachet as a prop, she went into an elaborate West African dance (one that I think I might have learned in a dance class I took at Columbia, while singing a West African song that I think I might own). She stomped her feet and vibrated her body and then went on to slap her own butt as she loudly screamed in her strange dialect. The dancing would go on for a few minutes, before she would tire and return to sitting calmly. Then it would start again – more elaborate then the last time with more yelling and occasionally even rolling on the floor. When she stood up, this time very near another rather frightened looking family of three, there was drool running from her large lips and she let it drop to the ground as she stared at the little group, pointing and yelling.
Whether drunk or mentally handicapped I wasn’t sure (though the crowd seemed to be guessing drunk) but her behavior had definitely crossed the line from slightly odd to belligerent. She opened the boarding room door, letting herself in to the next room, which lead onto the platform of the plane. This clearly seemed a violation of airport security, and we now looked for someone with some authority to come forward and do something. A squat Kenyan security guard, armed with a radio, walked up and tried to ask the woman to leave. She clearly didn’t understand him, so he grabbed her bags and began walking away. She raced over to him, slapping his hands away from the handle of her largest bag and grabbing out what at first appeared to be an enormous lighter. When I finally realized it was a perfume bottle, I wondered if she would spray it in his face. Instead she stepped a few feet back and threw the glass bottle, pieces of the plastic lid (but luckily no glass) scattered at the feet of other passengers waiting nearby. At this the security guard left the bag and walked away, leaving the 200 passengers alone with this mad woman.
With no aid in sight, people were now switching seats to get away from her and the front row of chairs had soon cleared. She took this as a sign that it was time to rearrange the furniture. She grabbed a set of four chairs – all connected to each other with a metal bar though not secured to the floor, and dragged them into the new room which was apparently to be her new dance studio. When she went for the next row of seats, in which one man was still sitting, she had to tilt the chairs forward to empty them of their final occupant. When this didn’t work, she tapped the guy on the shoulders indicating that he should leave. Three new security people had appeared but seemed unsure of what to do as they tried to reason with the woman. When she bared her rather large white teeth, they backed off.
The crowd was starting to get agitated as we all looked back in the direction of the other security guards, who seemed as unsure of what to do as the rest of us. When the woman moved back into her separate room, someone moved forward to close one of the doors, but it was clear that this wouldn’t contain her. She was soon back yelling at us all, pointing and stomping, with occasional breaks for some singing and ass slapping. At one point she started to lift her shirt, revealing a large birthmark, and I began to wonder what sort of dancing profession she had been in. Perhaps thirty minutes had passed since the odd behaviors had begun and it was becoming unclear if anything was going to be done to control her. Finally two more official looking security guards appeared, one with a hat even and they moved in on the dancing lady. She once again bared her teeth and tried to kick at them, but with four large men now standing around her there wasn’t too much she could do. They pinned her to the ground, rather unprofessionally, and put handcuffs on her – though in front of her, rather than behind her back like one might see in the movies. She lay there wailing and again the security seemed unsure what to do. Finally the unlocked one of the emergency exits and carried her and her luggage out.
The whole episode seemed like an odd dream and I would had to pinch myself had it not been for the lack of vultures in the scene (almost every dream I’ve had in the last two months has included at least one Lappet-faced). In all the commotion, I had completely lost track of time. But with the lady removed, one of the security guards moved to the doors and quietly announced, “you can board now.” It hadn’t dawned on me until that point when I looked at my watch and realized not a single announcement about the flight had been made in the last hour and indeed we were supposed to start boarding about thirty minutes ago. We had been waiting because of her.
The obstacle removed there was a mad dash to the little room and onto the platform. There were sighs of relief from the crowd and someone pointed out that we should all be grateful that the scene had occurred before we got on the plane. Personally, I was just wondering what would have happened if there had been a real emergency, a genuinely dangerous or violent person. The security had been a little less than effective to say the least. In any case, the flight went on with out a hitch and I have made it to Paris where I await the final of leg of my journey home.