Please note: This story takes place in the year 2012.
There are two abbreviations used in this story: KWS stands for Kenya Wildlife Service and DSWT stands for David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
dedicated to my foster elephant Barsilinga
The full moon stood high in the Kenyan sky, causing the Acacia trees to cast bizarre shadows over a hangar. Above the entrance to the building, which appeared strangely out of place in the vastness of the Masai Mara, hung a sign that read: "Wings for Elephants".
In a safe distance to the front of the building, four men were sitting around a camp fire. Its flames danced merrily while shielding the men from the chilly night air and keeping the coffee warm.
One of the men grabbed the coffee pot and topped up the mugs, first the ones of his companions, then his own. His name was Peter Flanagan, ex-SAS, ex-mercenary and now founder, pilot, mechanic and manager of "Wings for Elephants". If it hadn't been for Joseph Owusu, the registered charity set up to save elephants from poaching, would have been a one man operation.
Taking a sip from his mug, Bodie glanced at his mate Peter. Bodie hadn't heard from Peter for years when he received his friend's call from Kenya inviting him to check out his latest endeavour. Bodie had been even more surprised when Cowley had granted Doyle and him two weeks leave for a trip to the African continent.
Bodie couldn't hide a note of incredulity from his voice when he said: "Peter, tell me again why you decided to be an eye in the sky for elephants!"
Peter heaved a deep sigh. He had to admit that his sudden change of career from mercenary to protector for elephants took some explaining, but he was getting rather tired of telling the same story over and over again. Summoning all his patience, he said: "Well, first of all, the elephants are in grave danger of becoming extinct within the next ten years. One elephant is killed every fifteen minutes by a poacher to satisfy the growing demand for ivory in China."
He looked up to the star-filled sky and took a deep breath before he continued: "Secondly, an elephant saved my life. A wise, old matriarch to be precise. I was injured during a mission in the bush that went seriously wrong. During my escape, I lost my way. I was running a high fever and I had no more water left. That's when I came across a herd of elephants."
Peter exchanged a glance with Joseph, his young assistant. "At first, I was a bit afraid. I mean, elephants have no reason to trust or be friendly to humans considering what we're inflicting on their kind, but the matriarch of that herd came over slowly to check me out. I figured the best thing I could do was to stand still and besides, I didn't have the strength to run anyway."
"She had a very young calf with her and she carefully sniffed me with her trunk. Then she turned, swung her left front foot forward a couple of times and gave a low rumble. I felt she wanted me to follow her and her herd."
Bodie broke in. "Since when do you speak Elephant, Peter?"
Peter shut him up with a cold glare. "When you're life is in danger, you develop some amazing skills. You should know that, Bodie!"
Bodie put his hands in the air, palms pointing upwards to the sky. "All right, all right, point taken."
Peter nodded. "To cut a long story short, she led me to a waterhole in the nick of time. Without water to drink and to cool myself down, I would have died that day. These wise old matriarchs know how to find water, even when the drought is at its worst like it was back then. Sadly, they also have the bigger tusks. Killing the older elephants for these tusks jeopardizes the survival of the species even more as a lot of important knowledge is lost with them. Imagine a society without the wisdom of the older generation."
Doyle smiled. "I certainly could do without Cowley's words of wisdom sometimes, but the cunning old fox surely has lots of tricks upon his sleeve."
Adding another log to fire, Peter replied: "That's what I mean. Everybody has an important role to play and on that day, I decided that my future role was to protect the elephants."
He spread his arms out wide. "I sold all my earthly possessions, bought a Piper Super Cub, built this hanger and hired Joseph. I couldn't do it without him."
The young man smiled proudly. Joseph had had a rough start to his life. Both his parents had died of AIDS when he was just a baby. He had grown up in an orphanage in Nairobi and had just finished school with excellent grades. Not really knowing what to do next, he had joined "Wings for Elephants".
Joseph said: "I'm glad I can help the boss to save the elephants. Without them, Kenya would never be the same again and I love my country just as I love elephants."
Doyle, who had never been to Africa before and who enjoyed the experience enormously, said: "I haven't come across an elephant yet, but from what I've seen, I can say that I like Kenya a lot. Especially with the full moon in the sky."
Peter frowned. "The full moon may look beautiful to you, but it worries me. Here we call the full moon "Poacher's Moon" as the poachers come out in full force during these nights."
The radio in the hangar crackled into life. Peter went in to answer the call. Bodie and Doyle couldn't make any sense from what was being said in Swahili, but Joseph's face took on a worried expression.
Bodie and Doyle looked at him inquiringly as Joseph got up and started to put out the fire. The young man explained: "We'd better get some sleep now. Gunshots have been reported from near Wamba. We'll be up in the air by first light."
Pushing his full body weight against the Piper Cub to get it out of the hangar, Doyle exclaimed: "Come to Kenya with me, Doyle, he said. It'll be fun, he said." Pausing for a moment to wipe the sweat from his face, he added: "Not quite sure getting up in the middle of the night suits my definition of fun, Bodie!"
Bodie, who was pushing at the opposite side of the plane, replied: "Would you rather fancy an early morning run around Epping Forest with Macklin?"
As a reply, Doyle shuddered slightly and gave the plane another energetic push and the Piper Cub finally came out of the hangar. Some more pushing and shoving was required to get the plane onto the airstrip.
While Peter and Joseph loaded the supplies for the mission ahead, Peter explained: "The Piper has only got two seats, so Joseph and Bodie will use the Landy while Doyle and I will go in the plane. We'll be in radio contact all of the time."
Having finished a thorough check of the Piper Cub, Peter asked: "Joseph, you've got the GPS coordinates? " Joseph nodded in reply.
"Then it's time for take-off. Are we all ready?" Peter looked at the now extended team of "Wings for Elephants" inquiringly.
Three voices exclaimed in unison: "Yes, Sir!"
As the sun began to rise, the Piper Cub and the Landy headed off.
"Bloody Hell," Peter exclaimed. "Can you see them, Doyle? Three o'clock. Close to the ravine. An elephant cow with a tiny calf by her side. She's moving very slowly, so she could have been the target of the shots that were reported last night."
It took a while till Doyle had located the elephants. Peter was right, the cow was barely able to move. He shielded his eyes against the sun to get a better view. Then he used his binocular and said: "Yes, I can see them. I think I can spot some blood on her and the calf is rather wobbly on its feet."
The Piper Cub circled over the spot a couple of times to get a better look of the mother and her calf and to to find a suitable place to land.
Pointing to a stretch of long grass, Peter said: "That looks like the best landing spot to me. Let's hope there are no rocks hidden in that grass. I ordered my bush wheels only yesterday and landing on normal tyres with no airstrip available can be a bit tricky."
Doyle raised his eyebrows and asked: "What do you mean, you ordered your bush wheels only
Peter replied: "We had to collect the money to buy them. We're still in the process of setting up the charity properly. Joseph did a good job at running the appeal on Facebook. He's a really smart kid. Yesterday, a generous donor donated enough money to reach our target and I placed the order."
Taking Doyle's silence as a sign that his passenger was worried, he hastened to add: "Don't worry, I've done bush landings on normal tyres before, we'll be all right."
Doyle was just about to reach the conclusion that he would actually prefer a run with Macklin around Epping Forest, but he didn't really have time to dwell on that matter because Peter swiftly brought the plane down in the designated area.
Calling it a smooth landing would have been a huge overstatement. To Doyle, it felt more like a dodgem car out of control hitting a brick wall. Yet he was pleased that they had made it to the ground in one piece. While Doyle was still busy with getting his bearings, Peter was already climbing out of the plane. Then he slowly walked over to the elephants.
It didn't take Doyle long to catch up with Peter and together they carefully approached the elephants. When they were about 100 yards away, they stopped. The cow's trunk was outstretched like a periscope as she tested the scent of the men. Dried blood caked her chest and she desperately tried to shield her baby from the scorching sun as best she could. Her ears moved frantically to cool herself.
Peter sighed. "This doesn't look good. Let's tell Bodie and the KWS team we've found them. I hope the KWS vet isn't too far away."
Taking another look at the elephants, Peter said: "And I'd better call the DSWT orphanage as well just in case the calf needs rescuing."
Having made the necessary calls over the plane radio, Peter and Doyle made their way back to the elephants. They were heavily loaded with water canisters because Peter considered it most important to keep the elephants cool and well hydrated.
Doyle felt uncomfortable about getting so close to the mother and her calf and he asked: "Do you think she will charge if we get too close? You said that elephants don't have reason to trust humans."
Peter stopped, put his canister down to get a rest and answered: "That's right, but they're very intelligent and can read your heart. This mother will have figured out by now that we don't mean her and her baby any harm. If she hadn't, we'd be as flat as pancakes by now. An ele mother will do everything to protect her baby, even in a weakened condition."
Doyle swallowed audibly.
Peter gave him an encouraging smile. "Come on, the elephants won't harm you" The smile faded from his face fast and he added: "I'm more worried about the poachers coming back for the tusks. Let's hope our plane scared them off, but we must be on high alert."
Doyle asked: "Do you carry a weapon, Peter?"
Peter allowed himself a quick, sly smile before answering: "Only the member of the KWS are allowed to carry weapons, but I've always got one on me, well hidden of course." He tapped the inside of his right ankle with his left foot and Doyle nodded knowingly.
They picked up the canisters and walked over to the elephants. Peter poured water into a bucket and placed it close to the elephants. The mother took some agonizing steps towards the bucket, the baby always by her side. Then she carefully sucked some water into her trunk and sprayed it over her baby.
She turned her head and looked at Doyle. Their eyes met for some seconds and Doyle felt that what Peter had said was true. Elephants could read your heart. Obviously, she liked what she read in Doyle's heart and her trunk reached out to touch him very tenderly on his chest, right at the spot where Mayli's bullet had left a scar.
Doyle flinched briefly.
Then her trunk touched her own blood-covered chest. Doyle's left hand reached out and placed it gingerly on the mother's chest. She let it rest there for a while, then she carefully nudged it away. She sucked some more water into her trunk and drank noisily.
There was a big lump in Doyle's throat. Memories of him lying helpless in his flat after being shot by Mayli flashed through his mind and he was very relieved when a low voice could be heard shouting: "Kenya Wildlife Service."
The KWS vet shook his head sadly. "I'm afraid the mother doesn't have the slightest chance to survive. Her injuries are too severe. The best and kindest thing to do is to euthanize her and send the calf to the DSWT orphanage."
The place was teeming with KWS rangers by now and Bodie and Joseph had arrived as well. Everybody fell silent when they heard the vet's diagnosis.
The vet added: "The baby is a very young bull, still pink behind the ears and with his umbilical cord still attached. His chances of survival are very slim. Without his mother milk and dependent on formula, the teething process can easily kill him."
The men exchanged desperate glances and everybody drew a sharp breath when the vet explained: "To boost his chances, we'll let the baby suckle from his mother one last time, so he can get another dose of his mother's milk with the vital antibodies. Then we will lay her to rest."
Nobody moved for several minutes. Finally, the vet walked to the calf that never left his mother's side. Talking gently to the little bull, the vet guided the tiny trunk to the mother's teats. The little boy started to suckle eagerly in an instant. All the while, his mother was caressing him with her trunk.
Doyle could feel tears sneaking their way down his cheeks. He lowered his head to hide them and quickly brushed them away with his sleeve. Yet there was no need to hide his tears. When he glanced around, all the rangers, the vet, Peter, Joseph and Bodie looked suspiciously like they had shed a tear or two as well.
After a while, the baby stopped suckling and a KWS ranger tried to get him from his mother's side. The little man fiercely resisted being taken from his mother. His ears were splayed out like plates and his trunk was stretched high up into the air.
Once again, his mother caressed him with her trunk and the baby dropped his aggressive stance. After a short while, the mother gave him a little nudge with her trunk and when the vet tried to coax him to a vehicle, the little boy followed.
Bodie, Doyle and Joseph helped the rangers lift the baby elephant into the vehicle while the vet administered a lethal injection to his mother.
While the elephant mother breathed her last breath, her son started his journey to the closest airstrip where the DSWT keepers would meet him and take him to start his new life at the DSWT orphanage in Nairobi National Park. His desperate bellows etched themselves deeply into the memory of everybody who heard them.
Peter joined Joseph, Bodie and Doyle who watched as the landcruiser pickup disappeared in a cloud of dust. He put a hand on Doyle's shoulder and said: "The KWS has found the spot where the cow must have been shot. They followed the poachers' trail to their hide-out in a forest."
Looking over to where the elephant cow way lying, he added: "The KSW officer leading the operation said the ele mother did an amazing job at getting herself and her calf out of harms way. It's a miracle she managed to save her calf and escape the poachers hacking her face off. What a brave creature!"
With an ice-cold tone to his voice, Doyle said: "Did they capture the bastards?" His right fist clenched until the knuckles turned white.
Bodie looked at his mate in amazement. He had never seen him like this before. Doyle's face was ashen, but it had a determined expression and there was a deep sadness in his eyes. Of course, Doyle had been deeply affected by the things he had witnessed in the line of duty before, but something was different that day.
Bodie knew that Africa had a tendency to get under your skin and transform people and it seemed that this had happened to Doyle.
Peter said: "Well, they caught all of the bastards, except for one who escaped wounded. They had to abandon the search because they have been called to expel some pastoralists who let their cattle graze in a place that is not allowed for grazing."
Doyle's eyes narrowed and his lips were pressed together tightly. Bodie asked: "Are you all right, mate?"
Doyle nodded before asking. "Can WE go after him?"
Peter smiled in return. "Of course, we can!"
Doyle pointed to the elephant cow: "What will happen with her?"
After a moment of hesitation, Joseph replied: "They KWS will remove her tusks and take them to the storage room in Nairobi. Nature will take its course on the carcass. The members of her herd will probably come by to pay their respects."
"I will pay my respect as well," Doyle said. He walked over to the cow and knelt beside her. Stroking her head, he whispered: "Thou wert plenty of elephant!" He didn't know why he remembered that particular quote from Hemingway's "For Whom The Bell Tolls" at that moment, but it seemed to be the perfect way to bid farewell to this brave mother.
A little later, he and Peter were up in the air again and the Landy with Bodie and Peter resumed their job of ground forces.
"Vultures," exclaimed Peter, pointing south. "They could be after an easy meal of poacher's meat."
"Let's go and check it out," replied Doyle grimly.
When Peter brought the plane down in a place near where the vultures congregated, Doyle didn't even notice the rough landing because of the adrenaline running through his system.
This time, he was the first out of the plane. He fetched the binoculars and scanned the area. Handing them to Peter, he said: "There's a man dragging himself along. Let's go check him out."
They walked over to the man. He was bleeding from his stomach and chest and looked at them with a pleading expression on his face.
"Save me," he whispered in a barely audible voice.
Peter asked: "Are you part of the gang that shot the elephant this morning?"
The poacher nodded weakly.
Peter and Doyle just stared at him.
"Please, I'll tell you who I am working for if you save me," the poacher pleaded again.
"We're listening," said Doyle.
"Aban Kabesi," said the poacher.
Peter's eye-brows rose. "That's a rich business men and there have been allegations that he's involved in the ivory trade before. Maybe he can be convicted this time."
"Very good," Doyle said and turned to walk back to the plane. Jospeh and Bodie had just parked the Landy next to the plane and were coming towards them.
The poacher pleaded: "You can't leave me here. I will die if you don't take me to hospital."
Peter said coldly: "You're finished anyway. I assume you have killed many elephants?"
The poacher nodded. "About 50!"
Peter replied: "So you will die like the elephants you killed died...slowly and painfully out in the bush. A fitting end, don't you think?"
Not waiting for the poacher's reply, Peter turned to follow Doyle. He soon caught up with him.
Despair lending volume and force to his voice, the poacher yelled: "Then at least give me a gun, so I can end my suffering before the vultures and hyenas get to me."
Doyle looked at Peter and said: "Can I have your gun?"
Silently, Peter handed his gun to Doyle who turned and headed back to the poacher.
Joseph and Bodie joined Peter at that moment and he explained to them what was going on. They all watched as Doyle slowly made his way back to where the poacher was. They could see him fumbling with the gun in his hand.
"Good old, Doyle," Bodie said. "He's always the one with a conscience and a good heart." Africa didn't seem to have changed Doyle that much after all.
Peter looked at him with narrowed eyes.
While Doyle walked to the poacher, images and sounds went around in his mind. The cow saying good-bye to her calf, the baby suckling one last time from his mother, the way she had touched him and the desperate bellowing of the baby.
"Here," he said gruffly and handed the gun to the poacher. Without waiting for a reaction, Doyle turned and headed back to the others.
"Not quite what I would have done, but well done, Doyle, " Bodie said and patted his mate on the back.
Doyle looked at him and gave him a weary smile.
The poacher waited. He harboured a faint hope that the people would come back to take him to hospital.
As the plane and the Landy disappeared from view, he lifted the Smith and Wesson to his head. When the bolt hit an empty chamber again and again, his cry of despair added itself to the hoarse croaks of the vultures overhead.
A week after Aban Kabesi had been arrested for being involved in the illegal iory trade, Doyle was holding a milk bottle from which Barsilinga suckled eagerly. The little bull had been named Barsilinga after the area close to the spot where his mother had died.
Bodie was busy feeding Kithaka with whom Barsilinga had formed a firm friendship. The two little boys got up to all kinds of mischief together, but getting some TLC from their keepers was their favourite pastime.
Jospeh and Peter were busy taking photographs of the new foster daddies and their sons. Barsilinga had a close bond with Doyle and one of the Keepers in the orphanage explained that the little lad remembered him from being close to him and his mother during his rescue.
"Elephants never forget," Edwin, the Head Keeper, explained.
When Barsilinga's bottle was empty, he put his trunk around Doyle's neck and tried to engage him in a pushing match.
A spirited tussle ensued, accompanied by lots of laughter.
Edwin said: "He's a feisty little lad our Barsilinga, I'm sure he'll make it."
Doyle looked thoughtful. "I sure hope so. His mother tried so hard to save him, he deserves to live."
"We'll do everything in our power to make sure he gets through the teething, " Edwin assured them. "The keepers are with the orphans day and night and there is always a vet on standby to help when thing take a turn for the worse."
At the mention of the word "vet", Joseph's face lit up in a smile. "I have decided what I want to do next. I want to become a vet!"
Peter was the first one to say "Congratulations, that is a very wise decision!"
Joseph looked sheepish. "I hope I can keep my job as your assistant to help me pay for my tuition!"
Peter grinned. "I was hoping you'd say that!"