What happened when I touched an elephant for the first time…

I have contemplated a lot what to say about this video. Honestly, I was not even sure if I should share it at all. 

Because for the longest time, I believed that I am — we are— not meant to touch wild animals. As a general rule, I still believe it today. When in doubt: do not touch them, for your own safety but also for theirs. 

That doesn’t mean, however, that I didn’t have the desire to touch an elephant, to feel their wrinkles, to have that connection, skin on skin. But I always felt this was selfish of me, like, “what is the elephant getting out of it?”

I do not know the answer but my guess is: probably not that much. 

Elephants Are Sentient Beings.

That’s not to say elephants don’t feel anything, on the contrary: They feel *SO* much. But in this particular case, I don’t think the moment was as impactful for the elephant as it was for me. As a rescue animal, this elephant has become an ambassador for his kind; he sees many humans delighted and moved by his presence every day. 

But why was it so impactful for me, so much so that it brought me to tears? 

I didn’t mean to cry, nor did I think I would. So here’s how the whole thing came to be:

Writing a novel about elephants:

After spending give or take six years working in the Southern African safari industry, and three subsequent years of pandemic blues, some research and a whole lot of procrastination, I wrote a novel about elephants, which in many ways also became a novel about women. In my story, Grace Thompson, a career-obsessed London journalist is assigned to report on Mardy Adler, an alleged elephant whisperer in South Africa with a truly uncanny ability to communicate with wild animals. Grace is dead certain Mardy is a fraud, until Mardy starts messing with her head. And before long, both women must question much of what they thought they knew… 

Out now: The Age Of Elephants. Click here to get your copy!

Researching my novel about elephants

… Long story short, it was during the research for this book that I decided: to truly know what it’s like and be able to write about it, I needed to do it. I decided to bridge that gap between our species, at least this once. And that is how I met Somopane, a rescued elephant bull who happened to have been born in 1987 – the same year as me (what are the chances?).

Now, I don’t claim to be an elephant expert, not by any stretch. I wouldn’t even say I *know* elephants. But what I will say is this: 

I have *seen* elephants. 

I have seen an elephant matriarch charge at my vehicle entirely unprovoked from five hundred meters away, because that was the extend of her and her herd’s trauma due to poaching and trophy hunting in that particular area.

I have seen elephant roadkill, twice, where fully grown elephants were hit by trucks and then, to my utter horror and my disillusion, their carcasses were dismembered to the bone to not waste the meat.

I have seen a young elephant bull being chased by a trophy hunting vehicle and there was nothing I could do, other than to glare at the men on that back seat carrying those guns. 

But I have also been so incredibly lucky to see elephants thriving and safe and happy.

I have seen elephant babies shake their trunk uncontrollably, and even step on it repeatedly, trying to figure out what on earth that weird long thing in their face might be.

I have seen a young elephant bull bathe in a river on a scorching hot day, fully submerged with nothing but the tip of his trunk sticking out to breathe as he splashed joyfully in the water.

I have seen an ancient matriarch lying down in the soft sand to die of old age (a luxury too rarely bestowed upon her kind). 

I have seen elephants, and I have come to love elephants. 

What happened when I touched an elephant for the first time

So, when I approached this massive 5-ton bull to give him some food, and then the caretaker told me it would be okay if I wanted to hug the elephant, hesitantly, I moved in closer. I reached out a hand, and then I gently leaned my face against his. And in that moment, and with unforeseen intensity, it hit me: after years of learning about and admiring these magnificent creatures who have enriched my life in more ways than I’ll probably ever know, there I was, for the first time, actually touching one. 

You might wonder what went through my head in that moment…

“I’m sorry.”

Two words. That’s all I could think of. I am deeply sorry for everything we are doing to your kind. And that is when the tears started to fall. 

If you are sorry, too, please consider donating (regularly, if you can) to one of the following organisations:

  • ifaw
  • african parks network
  • daphne sheldrick wildlife trust

In the last century, elephant populations worldwide have plummeted by over 95% while our human population exploded by over 300%. Despite this shocking statistic, elephants are still being heavily poached and hunted for trophies in 2024. 

An elephant encounter, as described in my novel ‘The Age Of Elephants’:

The zipper sounds like a scream in the silence. I settle in the tent entrance, hugging my knees as I gaze upward. There, right in front of me, stands the elephant, tall like a living, breathing double-decker bus, his skin a landscape of moonlit shadows and creases, his smell overwhelming – a potent mix of wild, earthy musk and the fresh, tangy scent of grass.

He’s so close I can hear him chewing – breathing. A deep, resonant sound that seems to echo the rhythm of earth itself. My heart pounds in my chest, in harmony with this giant’s. I am frozen in awe, every sense is heightened. I know that he knows I’m here. He knows that I know he’s there. And it’s this simple acknowledgment of the other’s presence – of literally breathing the same air – that hits me with unexpected intensity: I exist in the same world as elephants.

Excerpt from “The Age Of Elephants”

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING meets EVELYN HUGO in this witty and thought-provoking women’s fiction novel about a career-obsessed London journalist assigned to report on an enigmatic elephant whisperer in South Africa…