Driving through Samburu National Reserve, the landscape is almost unrecognisable. Clouds of dust fill spaces left empty by fallen trees and carpets of greenery have withered into patches of parched dirt. There’s an unnerving silence too. Once as common as the sound of birdsong, not a single trumpeting call or rumble can be heard.
“We were recording 600 elephants per day at one point,” sighs David Daballen, director of field operations for Save The Elephants. “Now we can drive a whole day without seeing one.”
As northern Kenya’s three-year drought continues, competition for natural resources is intensifying and conflict between humans and animals is on the rise. Having exhausted grazing areas for their livestock, armed herders illegally entered the park a few months ago, depleting the lush oasis. Forced to find food elsewhere, Samburu’s elephant population have ventured into community land, where David and his Save The Elephant team are now spending most of their time.
Only last week, a panicked mother with her calf trampled someone, 44-year-old David tells me, after receiving a radio call about yet another incident. Tensions are understandably high.
Born into a family of pastoralists in Marsabit, 2km north of Samburu, David has experienced first-hand the challenges and dangers posed by elephants.
But fear evolved into fascination as he grew older, largely helped by school holiday visits to his uncle who was working for the Kenya Wildlife Service. Subsequently he landed an internship with the government organisation, eventually leading to a job with Iain Douglas-Hamilton’s charity, Save the Elephants.
What intrigues Daballen most about the elephants, he says, is their “social cohesion”.
“It’s the family bonds and the tightness of females together. The love they have for each other really touched me, making me dig myself more and more into elephants.”
During the past 20 years, he’s been involved in more than 100 collaring operations and can identify 500 individuals – even from the air. Amongst the many highs, however, there have been inevitable lows.
Back at camp, on the banks of a dry riverbed inside the reserve, he shows me a graveyard of skulls, mostly belonging to animals shot or speared during Samburu’s poaching crisis, which peaked in 2012.
“It was heart-breaking,” he recalls. “I felt angry and embarrassed as a human being.”
David quickly realised the key to stabilising the situation was earning the trust of communities, a skill proving to be essential in tackling the problems Save the Elephants is facing today. Mindful of different tribes, cultures and levels of knowledge, he admits it’s an ongoing process.
“You really have to nurture people until they understand what conservation means, rather than pointing a finger at them. It’s not an overnight job, it’s a lifetime commitment. I’ll be doing this for as long as I’m alive,” says the father of four, who still struggles to balance family and work life.
But time lost with his own children is invested in a future generation and he knows, above all, his family are proud of the achievements he continues to make. Despite the enormity of problems driven by climate change, human overpopulation and habitat loss, he steadfastly believes it’s important to remain positive.
“If I give up, then what?” he asks rhetorically. “We have to carry the mantle to the next generation. What really gives me hope is there are so many vibrant Kenyans interested in conservation coming up behind me. That is my driving force and my strength.”
Images and words by Sarah Marshall