Gray Thunder: Listening to Elephants


AMONG THE HUNTER-GATHERERS of Kenya, whose last remaining forests are in jeopardy due to deforestation, the Ndorobo, or Ogiek, share tales about their people having followed the migration paths of elephants for centuries. They tell of olden days when elephants used to live peacefully with humans. This was a mythic time, when the Ndorobo would eat the olerondo fruit in imitation of the elephant and boil acacia bark for its sugar. Tales of being given milk from elephant cows in times of drought, and of the Ndorobo giving the elephants honey as part of their family, are part of the lore of the first peoples of Kenya.

I first went to Kenya in 1975, for four months in the wilds of Nakuru. I studied vervet monkey behavior, climbed Mount Kenya, and, en route to the Indian Ocean, crossed the volcanic Chyulu Hills and the haunting red sands of Tsavo, where tens of thousands of elephants overwhelmed the landscape, causing one of the singular ecological holocausts of the twentieth century. I experienced the last vestiges of old Kenya, before the elephant hunting bans were put in place, when the Waliangulu still hunted elephants with poisoned arrows and Kenya felt like one of the last great frontiers on Earth.

Shortly after 9/11, my wife, Marie, and I went again to Kenya’s north, to visit the Turkana, who insist that the droughts have only manifested since the first appearance of the white man in East Africa. A medicine man — a seer — told us, “In the old days, there was always rain and the Turkana lived peacefully.” Today the rains no longer come when they used to. The Turkana believe that the elephant is next to God and that the sighting of an elephant signals rain is imminent. When Satan and God quarreled, they say, thunder and lightning shook the ground. Since God could not materialize he had to ask the elephant to go in his stead to respond to Satan’s thunder with his trumpeting calls. When the thunder ceased, Satan had departed, leaving the elephant lord over the land. Today the lack of elephants in the north, due to poaching, is believed by many Turkana to be an omen that rain will not come. The recent droughts, which have been some of the worst in decades — can they partly be explained by the near total disappearance of the revered elephant from Turkanaland?

The Samburu of Kenya believe that, like the seers who can foretell rainfall, the elephant knows when rain is coming. The sudden appearance of elephants after many months of drought suggests that rain is on the way. How the elephants know that the rains are approaching is a secret even the seers do not know. That knowledge is on the order of another language.

It was from the pastoral Samburu, whose relationship to the elephant is perhaps unique in Africa, that we were able to glean something of a sacred and remarkable alliance. After many trips to Africa, in September 2007 Marie and I took our son, Lysander, to touch the ground of East Africa for the first time. We were told by Pacquo, a Samburu elder from central Kenya, that during the peak of the elephant slaughter thirty years ago, a herd of twenty or more elephant orphans who had lost their entire family somehow managed to make its way to Samburu country, having traveled for days to reach a village where they were given sanctuary. Today the extant herd of elephants in the Matthews Range is due to the Samburu’s kindness and their acknowledgment of the elephant as an extension of their own being. Indeed, the Samburu as well as the Maasai have a concept — tenebo — which sees the coherence of elephant family dynamics as a model for human interrelationships.

One story told by Pacquo tells of a rogue elephant who was destroying crops in a nearby village. The elephant’s repeated intrusions prompted the authorities to threaten to kill it if the problem was not solved. A Samburu elder faced the elephant and somehow communicated that people were going to come and shoot it if it did not go away — and within a short while it disappeared in the bush. The elephant never returned.

Another story, which goes back decades, has taken on the status of legend. It concerns a Samburu tribesman, Lesematia, who lost a leg in the British army while fighting the Italians in Ethiopia during World War II. Many years later, back in Kenya, Lesematia was walking on crutches at dusk toward his uncle’s house when he noticed a pair of male lions stalking him, lions who knew he was a cripple. He thought to himself, What can I do? I am going to be eaten by lions. He pondered his predicament and realized he could call on his brother the elephant. He sat down and meditated on his elephant friends. Eventually, three elephants came and stayed with him, keeping the lions at bay, waiting the whole night next to Lesematia. When dawn finally arrived, and the lions had gone, Lesematia thanked his brothers the elephants as they returned to the bush. This story, firmly fixed in the oral tradition of the Samburu, expresses the uniqueness of the relationship between beings who have broken through the Berlin Wall of interspecies communication. It tells us, the dominant species, that we can either call out to the other, reach across the gulf that supposedly separates us, or reject at our own peril that which is not human.

Today, humanity needs to reach out to elephants and hear a singular voice, a mind that has evolved with us and influenced us biologically, culturally, and mythically, for our entire evolution. The trauma that elephants have experienced over the last few decades is not completely measurable by humanity. Indeed, only a few people have been willing to break the human/nonhuman gulf to insist that elephants — in killing villagers in India and Sri Lanka, in raping rhinos as they have done in South Africa, and in exhibiting post-traumatic stress disorder as documented by psychologist Gay Bradshaw — are exhibiting symptoms of a much larger malaise: the breakdown of not just habitat and family structure, but also of mind across an entire species. This breakdown is symptomatic of the unraveling of nature as we have known it. The irreplaceable bond we have had with the elephant is an alliance we need to salvage not only for the sake of the elephant’s future but for ours as well.

Cyril Christo is coauthor, with Marie Wilkinson, of Lost Africa. Assouline will publish their new book, Walking Thunder, this fall. They live in New Mexico.


  1. We must listen to the elephant, the chicken and each other. There is a reason man was given one mouth and two ears and it is to be able to listen twice as much as speak. I need to remember this and spend time listening to the voice of the creator speaking to me through the people who talk to me and I must listen more carefully to my own inner voice.

  2. Nothing preventing us from learning the language and local dialects of Elephant, Cachalot, Wolverine, Caribou or Blue Heron. Nothing but our unwillingness to listen and learn from the old aliens already among us. Too much time spent in rooms, training kids to watch the flickering blue light, and push the buttons on time. Frog feels rejected, Owl closes it’s eye. The Elephant and the Camel just weep.

  3. The truth is that we have to live one with Nature. The biotic and the abiotic factors of the environment need our respect. If we respect Nature, Nature in return will respect us.

    That is the way forward.

  4. If we could just see ourselves as beings in a living planet instead of on this “thing” called a planet we could perhaps re-open our connection with what we call Nature. We have cut the cord perhaps, but we can never withdraw our roots that are entwined in the flesh or our Mother, the living Earth.

  5. I can’t help but cry for what we have lost, which is so much more than what we have gained. Thank you for sharing your journey with us. As a songwriter, writing is how I, too, deal with strong emotions around the unraveling of our world. Please listen to my song, “Stealing Beauty” about the loss of habitat and the removal of birds like Macaws from the wild.
    Blessings, Thea

  6. I have always been drawn to elephants as a species, even as a child. I found it interesting that the tribes associate cessation of the rains with arrival of the white man. I see a correlation between arrival of the white man and the white man’s religion, which conflicted with the tribes’ beliefs that humans were not separate from the environment, as the white man’s religion asserts humans are separate from the environment. What is occurring among the elephants is also occurring among humans, as humans and the elephants mirror each other in many ways, and this is not unique among elephants but is also occurring in other species. Materialism, over consumption, the belief that the environment is ours to do with as we please with no repercussions; these are the products of white man’s religion. The god represented by the elephants is a different god.

  7. Well written and thought provoking.
    Gerry Baker’s comment that our listening needs to include chickens brought a smile to my face. I travelled recently to China and Haiti–the Haitian chickens are faring reasonably well because their “owners” still pay attention to what and who chickens actually are.

  8. Rodger, the fact that chickens were introduced to the Caribbean islands in the 1420’s by Chinese explorers means there was also a transmission of conscious understanding about these wonderful birds of Asian origin that went along with the gift! The current African population of Haiti have inherited this appreciation, while back in China, the relationship has become “westernized”, meaning it has deteriorated into the mere counting of factory feedstock.

  9. How soul-wrenchingly sad this story is. I am ashamed that we humans have so wantonly abused our place of trust on this planet. I really, really want to know just what it would take to develop a collective sense of shame about our impact on our fellow species.

    So far, not a single word, letter, article, book, conference, law, political agenda, demonstration or discussion has made any actual difference to the projected outcome, which by the way, looks pretty dire.

    Let’s face it. We are FAR beyond the point of talking about “how we need to be connected and what we need to do” And if those “leaping lords that party down while scraping the bottom of the barrel” aren’t connected by now, it is unlikely that they ever will be. Neither will the people who invest in the gravy drippings off their tables.

    But it’s not just the forest destroyers, the global industrial corporations, the chemical manufacturers and the oil industrialists that have a part to play in this unfolding nightmare.

    How many people are really serious about giving up their cars?

    …about refusing packaged goods?

    …about only buying local, organic, seasonal produce?

    …about only hiring local people or only working locally?

    …about putting on two sweaters and turning off the heating?

    …about giving up air travel?

    …about turning electrical eqipment off standby?

    …about feeding our waste into bio-digesters?

    We KNOW what we have to do. We have to get serious about changes and we have to get motivated, busy and determined… right now.. not at some vauge point in the future because it is a bit inconvenient just now.

    I haven’t said anything that any person reading this doesn’t know, chapter and verse. So really, what is the point of saying anything? Nomatter how well intended, will it help the elephants? I doubt it. Nothing short of a miracle can help them now, because it doesn’t look as if we are going to, does it?

  10. Beth,
    This is one of the most well written and to-the-point replies I have read about this article. Thank you for your articulation. I have put some of your points into practice, made a lot of changes in how I live on the planet, and others I have not been able to. After reading you I am inspired to kick it up a notch. The only thing I disagree with is the shame part. I think our collective shame is HUGE and part of what drives shameful behaviour. If we could only realize what glorious beings we really are, “no less than the trees and the stars…” or the elephants, we might start acting like the beautiful men and women we were given life to be. When we realize that we already have everything we need, then maybe we could stop taking and start giving something back out of the gratitude for all that we have been given.

  11. Beth,

    I agree with Thea that your response is nicely written. And I agree with the underlying tenet that localized economic/social systems would improve our overall situation.

    However, I think there is small disconnect when you say “But it’s not just the forest destroyers, the global industrial corporations, the chemical manufacturers and the oil industrialists that have a part to play in this unfolding nightmare.”

    There would most certainly be those individuals who would not give up even the slightest convenience, but I’m not sure they would be the majority. The real issue, as I see it, in this particular matter is that our societal structure is such that most individuals cannot AFFORD to give up many, maybe most, if not all, of those conveniences. Certainly, turning off the TV, or adjusting the thermostat are actions everyone can undertake.

    However, when we start looking at the other measures you list, it is apparent that they are largely ANTI-CORPORATE measures, based on reverting back to more localized systems, resulting in efforts that resist dealing with corporate entities that destroy local communal systems of economic and social interactions.

    I agree that this approach is the better way, but the current powers-that-be have solid control over the flow of goods, AND livelihoods (money), thereby maintaining a stranglehold on the ABILITY of many to resort to these more localized methods.

    So, in the end, it seems to me that, ultimately, the real conclusion is that the primary problem is, in fact, the “forest destroyers, the global industrial corporations, the chemical manufacturers and the oil industrialists” combined with the governmental system that supports and strengthens those same entities, empowering them within our social/economic system to the point that most individuals simply have very little choice in many of the particular issues that would have the greatest effect in improving our lot.

    Until society recognizes the ill-effects of the corporate model, the way it is instituted in today’s society, and takes measures to neutralize such corporate influence, the average individual will be able to do very little to change the destructive patterns of these greedy, self-interested entities.

  12. Rick mentions it will take society, and yes it will. The issue in the USA is that most people are completely comforable and also lost in the white man’s religion. They actually want “armeggedon” to come and so will not look, thinking it is all God’s will. They are failing to look at their part, and that they could perhaps change what they think God wants.

    This in the USA at least is a society that 6 2/3 years after 911 will not do anything about it. If they can’t do anything about the so obviously false flag operation and further will not stand forth on the two resulting wars and the rape of those countries resources, so shall it be that the law of karma will come upon us.

    I remain saddened greatly by the person who must live in Iraq these days, and indeed also Palestine. Americans do not realize we are an occupied country.

    There is no connection with Mother Earth in general, whether it be elephants or the decrease in birds, the bees, and the chemtrails in the air. God help us. However, we don’t realize we are the Gods who could help us. So be it. Nature well be the equalizer in all this. Take care, Candace

  13. Thanks Thea and Rick for your insights. Well put, Thea, about our true natures. Thanks for reminding me because sometimes the vison gets a bit fuzzy when looking at the illusion too deeply.

    Yes, under all of the layers of masks that we wear consisting of eons of dysfunctional action heaped on top of dysfunctional action, we are the original, beautiful, human children of mother earth.

    Best thoughts, Beth

  14. Beth,
    Ah, looking at the illusion too deeply — well put. We have been well trained. But looking at the bigger picture, perhaps the elephants have conspired to bring us the greatest teaching of all. Perhaps this is part of their evolution as well. How convenient that there are those who would claim to not believe in evolution, but we all came from somewhere, and we are all going somewhere. Perhaps that lesson is to learn how powerful we really are.
    Big Love, Thea

  15. Thank you Cyril for this article. I had a remarkable experience with elephants in Thailand where I played music for them on my electric cello and then played with the Thai Elephant Orchestra (a group of elephants who have been trained to play these instruments that were built expressly for them. I learned so deeply about the connection that is formed when truly listening and watching and being with another species. I composed music and a friend created a short film that appears on my cd Hidden Sky that was all inspired by my time with them. You can see the film at
    Check out my website if you are interested in finding out more about the cd. I am honored to have spent time with them in this way where music was the bridge between us.

  16. I tend to feel all animals – from gophers to chickens to elephants to the homeless are all One. Even so, one day as I was gently rocking on a kelp bed in my single-person kayak out on Monterey Bay, of a sudden a large sea lion surfaced next to me. Being only a few inches from the ocean surface, I could see every whisker, every eyelash and as as I connected with his big round eyes I felt a soul-to-soul communication. We lingered, looking into each other. I will never forget the strength of our connection. Later, at home, I wrote a haiku:
    Kelp rocks kayak
    Crone and seal lock eyes
    Ancient Knowing.

  17. on my way north, with a Mine Advisory Group friend, in Sri Lanka, we stopped by elephants returning from their long day as tourist carriers. I jumped out of the landrover and just stood, entranced.

    Seems that one of the elephants was equally entranced by me! He came gently up and with the tenderest movements of the tip of his trunk, began to examine me, from head to toe – and in some intimate places! I was totally smitten.

    Asking the Mahout ‘What is he called?’ I was told something… but before I could digest this information, my tall, grey friend caught my eyes with his. Something rumbled forth from him – and a thought formed in my mind: ‘My name is not this thing he says it is. No, my name is other. My name is as old as the first elephant, is as old as the mountains… to tell this to anyone is impossible. You will not comprehend our name but I say to you, we are brethren, sistren. Our mothers are your mothers. Listen to us, you will hear us and learn to help yourselves.’

    Watching us in reverent silence all the while, the mahout held perfectly still. As if he knew when our ‘conversation’ ended, he quietly asked: ‘Do you wish to spend more time with him? It is the end of his day, and he will swim… in the rain! But you seem to have become friends… come.’ Following across the dusty road, as rain fell in large drops, hot onto our backs, we entered the compound of shacks. A tall step ladder, perched against a high platform, took me far higher than my elephant friend’s shoulders: the seat had been removed. A drop of three feet – after a terrified hesitation, I let go and dropped onto the softest skin – spongey like a quilt, with large tough black hairs sticking out! I held on to a leather circlet about his neck as we moved out toward the lakes… a journey of two hours and one which I will never forget!

    My next teacher was a cow-pony in the Brazilian wetlands of the Pantanal. Here these narrow-chested horses, skinny and unpreposessing, yet possess uncanny knowledge and ability to communicate/listen to us. I quickly detached myself from the others and learnt that if I showed some spirit, my pony would hear and enjoy showing me its native land.

    He took me to where he had been born, into the swamps, among the caymen and pirrhana fish. There we met the rest of his family. His agility and his skill at ‘hearing’ quickly became stronger with me learning to listen. I felt in my pocket for my camera, and thought, we could go over there to those black storks… and over we went, with no prompting. As I finished with my camera, he felt my intention shift and off we went. Not a nudge, never a word spoken.

    Now, if we could really observe and listen to animals, of which we are by far the worst lot, not only would we begin to heal ourselves but we could, with determination, start to heal the planet.

    We must plant back indigenous trees wherever we are, to help the reforestation and rainfall. This is obvious, but I hear no-one on radio talk about it. They just bring ships full of water in to Spain’s dried up towns! What is that about?

    All along the Moroccan north coast, Spanish tourist company has torn out trees, dried up lakes, in order to cover the land with blocks of tourist hostels. Now, where there was water and forest (even tho it is far thinner than 10 years back) there is a grey dust. Where there were farmers and their produce, there is dust. Where there was life, there is dust and worse, commercially imported bottled water, imported food… It seems King Mohammed VI was hungry for the immediate petro-dollar.

    Does he not see that short term vandalism of this nature (huh!) is long-term disaster and expensive to all generations to come?

    Why are we such fools? And how can I find land to plant our Friendship Woods, wherever we can, in Britain or further afield? Bring back wolves, boar, beaver, dormouse, polecat. Just let’s get out of the way, bring back the animals.

    Can we meet, David? Writing on May 1st. There may well be a way to take such sotrytelling into schools, with my facepainting skills. I am a writer-illustrator and storyteller.

  18. good work Cyril! Congratulations! Kim Steele

  19. For three years now I have wanted to do something to get the Shriners to stop bringing the circus to town(Muskogee Oklahoma) and the Cherokee Nation brings the Circus(W elephants)to Tahlequah..First I thought I would hold a one person protest..Then I thought I would talk to them..then I thought I would ask to have a table with info about elephants(I have an incredibly beautiful book to share..Now I am feeling more guilty then ever..All I have done is complain to the people I work with..Any ideas?? I have to do something..I am connected w environmentalists in the state…They do not “rock the boat” Also I have had an ecstatic experience on a little air raft on the North Canadian river in Oklahoma when a Great Blue Heron flew beside me as I was enjoying my water experience…Jean

  20. I can appreciate the concern about the living condition of (some) circus elephants. That being said, where are they going to live/be cared for if no longer an aspect of the circus experience?
    I’m not being obtuse. I have an
    extensiver background in livestock

  21. What could be done for the Circus Elephants?

  22. Jean,

    If you write to PETA, they might have ideas on how you could get people to boycott the circuses. I think PETA has succeeded in rescuing some circus elephants and has found sanctuary for them, as they’ve also done with other animals, e.g., those rescued from research labs.

  23. I loved this article! I didn;t read the first 2 paragraphs.. but still – amazing. bob mnzrly

  24. Readers who love elephants would love a CD called Hidden Sky by jami sieber. On that disc they can also witness her with her cello, playing music with elephants. A friend of mine also just told me about a you tube going around which shows elephants painting!!!

    And I share the grief of this way we kill our instinctual self inside and outside and thus our very live as human!!

  25. Beth, such a sage article. Thank you. It may be late, but we cannot sit back and watch it happen. Trees must be planted. Cars recycled. There are people really inventing safe technology. I have long worried about the fallout from batteries in the tips. Japan has a man who has reinvented batteries, based on carbon and just adding water (a few drops) activates a far more powerful and longer lasting cheaper battery. Can be taken into desert and a drop of water starts it. Another invented a huge unfolding solar collector which will sit out in space, powering a small town for free. Hmm, but yes, what would it take to get collective action? =Two people to start with??? Us.

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