Elephant scales Wall: UBC student struggles to keep up with a giant

Originally posted at the blog: Secret Lives of UBC students

Jake Wall PhD Candidate, UBC Department of Geography

Jake Wall jolted awake, struggling to free himself from a nonexistent mosquito net. It was the latest in a series of bizarre dreams, but his reality was no less surreal. He was, after all, in the middle of the Kaisut Desert in Kenya, resting alongside a quintet of stubborn camels.

Back in Vancouver, nearly two years after his journey, I sat down with Wall to find out what had motivated the PhD candidate to cross lava rocks, drink from recycled cooking-oil containers, and risk daily encounters with deadly puff adders.

His reason was simple: It was the only way he, as an elephant conservationist, could see the world from the perspective of his study subject.

It had all started with Shadrak, a solitary bull elephant that was being tracked by Wall and his colleagues at the non-profit group Save the Elephants. Shadrak was special: In 2007, he’d traversed a 208km stretch in five days, thereby completing the longest elephant streak on record. After that, his satellite collar had gone dead and he’d disappeared off the face of Google Earth.

“We thought it would be really cool to follow that path,” said Wall. He wanted to get past the “GPS crumbs” and, on the one-year anniversary of the streak, follow the trail and maybe even find Shadrak. Wall worked with David Daballen, a Samburu researcher with Save the Elephants, to plan a journey of unprecedented scale in the field.

Photo courtesy of Jake Wall.

“As the leader of that trip I was really concerned with safety,” said Wall, who was accompanied by an eight-person motley crew of camel tenders, local guides, security guards and journalists. The group had planned to walk in the elephant’s exact path and at his pace.

What Wall didn’t know was that Shadrak’s five-day journey would end up taking his group nearly two weeks, that their food and water supplies would run dangerously low, and that their four-legged companions wouldn’t always want to stay the course.

“The camels would get spooked at night,” Wall explained, adding that his equipment carriers were prone to both “freaking out” and scheduling their own breaks. The journalists from Adventure Magazine documented such moments in print and photographs as Wall collected detailed and unique scientific data.

Despite the difficulties, Wall believes the trip was worth it. He doesn’t take for granted his ability to walk elephant corridors that may one day cease to exist.

“Elephants in Marsabit number around 350, and it’s looking more and more like their habit will disappear,” Wall said. He explained that human population is quickly expanding and squeezing out the elephant’s migratory routes. Although the challenges continue, researchers like Wall will keep working to make sure the world talks about the elephants in the room.

Listen to Jake Wall describe the day he finally met Shadrak, the bull elephant. Available at the end of the original post.