That morning, just like every morning, my mother began to stir before the sun rose. Still drowsy, I followed her from the dense bush where we lived to the grassy savannah beyond.
I stayed close to her so she could take care of me. Not that anything bad could happen because my mother was very strong and always knew exactly what to do. Besides, we lived in the protected Nakuru Reserve which the government had set aside especially for us.
Mom and I made our way to the water hole for our morning bath and we splashed around in the water for a while. After, we enjoyed a soothing mud wallow which protected us from the strong African sun and the pesky mites that lodged in our lines and folds and irritated our skin.
Later, when we felt clean and refreshed, I joined the other little rhinos. We ran around and played while Mom settled down to exchange information with the other mothers about places where tender vegetation grew and warnings about hungry lions who might be prowling in the area. Of course, Mom didn’t have to worry about lions—and one day I wouldn’t either. They are so small, slow and pitifully weak compared to us.
I heard the sound of something called an engine, the slam of two doors and a harsh trilling noise I’d never heard before. It was followed by a flash of bright light. Nearsighted like all rhinos, I was blinded, too. For a while, until my eyes adjusted, I couldn’t see what was happening.
I heard the rustling of wings as flocks of birds flew away. The elephants moved nervously for a moment, then froze. A moment later, the mothers and their calves cantered off. Right after the elephants disappeared, the herds of zebra and eland ran away, too. Something was upsetting them but I didn’t know what it was.
Then a loud, sharp boom broke the normal morning sounds of the savannah and I turned toward my mother and asked her what was happening. Instead of answering, she made a wheezing sound and fell down. She flailed her powerful legs and tried to stand up but she couldn’t.
She made a distress call and I sounded a response but she didn’t answer. I was scared and I nuzzled my mom with my nose (my horn hadn’t grown in yet) but she didn’t nuzzle me back the way she always did. Instead, she huffed but this time she didn’t sound like herself. I didn’t know what was wrong but it made me feel weak and trembly.
A two-legged creature appeared—he looked like one of the ones called tourists but he had a nasty smell and he wasn’t holding the little black thing they use to take our picture. Instead, he walked up to my mom and poked her in the tender spot just behind her neck with the end of his long shiny stick. She huffed in protest but he didn’t stop. Instead, he raised his shiny stick and pointed it right at her and made that loud boom noise again.
This time, my Mom didn’t try to get up and the tourist-creature raised his shiny stick again—the one that made the boom noise. This time he pointed it at me. My heart began to pound. I was scared, more scared than I thought anyone could ever be. My legs began to shake and the awful weak trembly feeling came back worse than before. I was afraid he would make that loud boom noise again.
Instead, another tourist-creature appeared, pulled something he called a knife out of his belt and waved it around. He talked to the first one who went to the van and came back with something that made a loud buzzing noise. He used it to cut off my mom’s horn and I rushed at him to make him stop but he pointed the buzzing-thing at me and I ran away
I hated those two and their nasty smell and their loud noises and I wanted to make them go away but I was afraid of them and didn’t know how. I saw the first one put my Mom’s horn into the back of his van and bend over and wipe his hands on the ground.
The other one came toward me, the one with the knife, and he pointed it right at me. I knew he was going to do something bad to me. I wanted to run away but I didn’t want to leave my Mom.
Mommy! Mommy! I signaled but she didn’t answer.
The elephants of the Kihali Animal Orphanage, located in Western Kenya, are the first to know.
Lanky, dark haired Renny Kudrow—he is Director of the Orphanage, an authority on animal communication, and host of popular television specials called Animals Have A Word For It—will be the second.
He is sitting on the veranda of the main cottage of the Orphanage, drinking his first mug of hot, sweet, milky tea and watching as the night’s dark sky gives way to the light of the rising sun and turns the tall, yellow grass of the distant savannah gold. He has just finished a less-fraught-than-usual phone conversation with his wife, Phoebe, who is living an ocean away in the United States.
He has been doing his best to focus on the orphaned animals the Kihali team rescues and then prepares for return to the wild when they are ready. Instead, he is distracted. He is thinking about Phoebe and their lives in Atlanta—the good times and the bad and the moments that pushed them apart. He is wondering if there is a way for them to be together again when the five Kihali elephants stir restlessly and then freeze.
They silence their usual morning vocalizations and stand motionless in a listening posture, their ears fanned wide. From Maisie, the oldest and the matriarch of the group, to Doris, Kihali’s youngest orphan, rescued after her mother died of Elephant Pox, they are paying attention.
Renny knows they are heeding information being relayed in at least two ways: by infrasonic rumblings too low in frequency for humans to hear and vibro-tactile cues transmitted through the ground and received by their sensitive feet.
They are paying attention to important messages coming from other elephants as far as two miles away.
But what are they saying?
Renny doesn’t know. He knows only that an alarm is being sounded. Somewhere in the 23,000 acres of the protected Nakuru Reserve that adjoins the Orphanage, something has happened. Something that is distressing the Kihali elephants.
“Jomo! Muthengi!” he shouts as he untangles his long legs and jumps up. The two experienced keepers, best friends since childhood, run across the courtyard and scramble onto the open flatbed of the Orphanage’s dinged and battered pick-up.
“Dr. Higgins!” Renny calls as he crosses the courtyard where the elephants, their trunks now extended along the ground, continue to receive messages only they can understand. “Starlite!”
It is the new vet’s first emergency since coming to Kihali. She is already dressed, wearing the same outfit she wears every day—beat-up jeans, a grungy rumpled tee, a pair of well-worn hiking boots. Her fair skin is freckled and peeling from sunburn and her unruly copper-colored hair is braided into messy pigtails. She picks up her black medical bag with its ointments, syringes, antibiotics and anesthetics and races across the dirt courtyard.
“What’s happening?” she asks, breathlessly tumbling into the front seat of the pick-up as Renny is starting the engine.
“I don’t know yet but the elephants do,” he says, glancing at her, irritated by her disheveled, unprofessional appearance.
Using the direction in which the elephants have turned their heads as a guide, Renny hits the accelerator. He speeds as fast as he dares out of Kihali’s gates and over the rutted dirt roads, traveling deep into the Nakuru Sanctuary.
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