Amboseli’s Sleeping Giants

Herd of elephants sleeping in Amboseli, Kenya

Standing like this, the herd initially looked as if was walking away from us but it wasn’t. They were fast asleep.

Weeks ago I wrote a piece called The Elusive Amboseli Pinhead Cheetahs, which detailed our group’s quest to find a family of cheetahs during our visit this past June—they were a squirrely lot that kept us on our toes most of the trip.

Prior to dashing across the plains in response to a we-think-we-found-the-cheetahs call on the radio, we came upon a small breeding herd of elephants blocking the road leading to the slippery felines.

Baby elephants sleep at the feet of their mothers in Amboseli, Kenya

Two young ones sleep while their mother’s rest standing up

We were deep in conversation—I don’t recall about what—so it took us a few seconds to realize that the herd wasn’t moving: not an ear twitch, no grazing, nada. To our astonishment, they were asleep in the middle of the road. Fast asleep. Statues that instead of pigeons had egrets perched on their backs.

To the right, more elephants stood in a single file line facing away from us, creating the illusion that they were walking away from us but they weren’t; they were sleeping too.

How cool! I never saw elephants sleeping before—not in the middle of the day and never with a jeep full of people next to them. We decided to stay awhile and photograph the pachyderm statuary—cheetahs be damned.

An elephant drapes its trunk over its tusks

I just love how this elephant holds her trunk with her tusks while she snoozes. I am having a black and white print made of this for my wall.

As Sammy, our driver, turned off the engine, the jeep shuddered and rattled before it fell silent—an unfortunate side effect of the Land Rovers used on safari—waking the elephants directly in front of us. Sleepy-eyed and woozy, they meandered behind the rest of the herd in the makeshift queue and then most of them went back to sleep.

Three of the youngest elephants stayed awake, walking tentatively around the adults, quietly playing with each other or grazing.  The littlest one was the size of a big dog, maybe a month or two old, and it was utterly adorable—except when it ate its mother’s poop. It was less adorable then.


Three young elephants of varying ages cuddle together while their mother’s sleep nearby

As we photographed the herd, I was thrilled that the elephants felt secure enough that we could park so close while they slept, but part of me hated the potential consequences of that security. I worried that some day they’d let the wrong sort of traveler get too close, or worse, poachers. Common sense told me that if they were more skittish of humans they would probably be safer in the long run.

Unfortunatel, poaching is an escalating. A tragic reality in Africa. On the first day I arrived in Kenya, Satao, the country’s largest elephant ( a “Big Tusker”) was brutally killed in Tsavo, de-tusked and left mutilated next to a river.  He was a national treasure and monitored by guards and yet the poachers got to him. The little herd in front of me had no such protection.

On the other hand, I selfishly loved that the elephants’ midday nap gave us the opportunity to really look at them. I imagined touching their deeply wrinkled skin that feels like a rough radial tire; the gentle slope of their big ears; their large, powerful bodies; their long, wiry eyelashes, and trunks with the dexterity of a human hand. I could’ve stared at them for hours.


An egret perches on a slumbering ellie

Question: Did you know that some elephants use their tusks to hold their trunk while they sleep? Me neither, but it’s true! One female delicately draped her trunk over her tusks as if she  were a butler with a towel, I can’t imagine why they all didn’t do it. It looked so much more comfortable than letting it flop on the ground like other members of the herd did.

Our sighting came to an abrupt halt when in the middle of our lovely encounter a jeep drove toward us at full speed, racing around a curve in front of the elephants startling them and sending them on their way. What’s worse, the vehicle was from a local camp and yet was completely disrespectful of the elephants (which is unacceptable) and us, which was just rude.

The driver apparently was too self-absorbed to consider anyone or anything above his own needs or that of his guests. I still kick myself for not snapping a picture of the twit when he drove by and sending it to his boss.

Next time JERKBALL, beware!









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