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Elephant Time

Bayou-Diversity (8 December 2019) I have seen the beginning and end of time. It first appeared on the steep slope of a volcanic crater perhaps a quarter mile distant and flowed toward us in the form of a giant bull elephant. His gait was such that he moved without moving, a majestic fluid passing silent and determined. Time is like that. Evidence of his seasons reflected in huge, polished tusks worn on the ends from mining red clay banks for essential minerals. His right ear was ragged and cleft from an encounter with mortality. He marched steadily forward passing between our two safari vehicles, glancing in our direction only once.

The setting for this encounter is not without significance. Ngorongoro Crater mirrors a map of time. Formed 2.5 million years ago after the eruption of a volcano higher than Mount Kilimanjaro, the vast caldera encompasses a hundred square miles and is home to thousands of wild animals. If there is a surviving Eden, it is here. Humans too have coursed across this landscape from their beginnings. A few miles to the north, the Oldupai Gorge of the Great Rift Valley has yielded fossils of Homo habilis, likely the first early human species. In time we also walked from this place in the shape of Homo sapiens.

The African savannah elephant in our presence evolved from ancestors here 3.5 million years ago, this continued progress of existence barely fathomable. As he passed within a few yards trailing closely behind his dark shadow, a woman at my side wept for the drama of the dreamlike moment. Alone, the elephant walked to the distant crater floor and the future. When I first saw him, time began for me. It will end for humanity when he is gone – even along the bayous.


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