Branches snapping from deep within a forest full of shadows stop me in my tracks. I try to pinpoint the source and direction of a likely elephant as a flock of parrots disturbed a hundred meters ahead take to wing, squawking and whistling in a circle above. The chip-ch-chip of a scuttling band of moustached monkeys rustle through the canopy on my right in a shudder of branches, moving like wind through the trees. No time like now to assess my surroundings. Several trails meander through the forest, a sure sign that elephants have been passing through. Trails that become options if I suddenly need to make a quick departure, the obvious problem being these trails are used by elephants, and I have no idea where they may lead. Listening to the oncoming crackle in the understory, I slip behind some thick vegetation, eyes straining, heart pounding, searching for the first sign of movement.
Just passing through. An elephant crosses a trail in front of a camera trap, mid-morning.
Suddenly, silence. A distant sea tumbles into the void. Two hornbills drum a reverberating course beneath clouds hanging heavy in the dry season. I try to imagine the elephant, pausing in suspicious interest, testing the air with trunk raised, ears alert, a pair of yellow eyes probing forest left to right. I fear my breathing will give me away and try holding my breath but the blood coursing through my ears sounds like an oncoming adrenaline train.
A snort, more like air escaping a tire puncture as the elephant clears scent from trunk, followed by the penetrating rumble of low growl that seems to rise omnipresent from the very forest floor. I feel like I have been busted. A tentative creaking of bush suddenly erupts in a crash as saplings writhe beneath a forest canopy. Lianas twist and spiral, wrenching a shower of leaves from high above. Beneath all this ruckus is an elephant I can be sure. The limited visibility of thick forest obscures the details. I read the torment of vegetation lashing wildly under a bulldoze of moving elephant. The elephant crosses the trail twenty meters before me, a flash of ivory stuttering through occluded light followed by a fragmented wall of gray. My eyes are riveted to the movement, my feet ready to spring into action should elephant veer in my direction.
Numerous elephant trails in this forest suggest a likelihood of close encounter, in this case, recorded by camera trap.
Today the elephant continues bearing west, exploding vegetation marking its progress until some 60 meters off to my left the silence returns. My piqued imagination sees it turning to circle back my way and I remain frozen in my tracks, listening for a second charge. A long, anxious minute later, in the midst of an otherworldly silence, I hear the slow, padded footsteps of an elephant moving, receding among the shadows of the forest, swallowed by whispers from the sea.