An aged bull was rubbing his back lazily against the truck of a broad acacia tree. Beneath its prickly branches, shards of deep shadow were welcome in the heat of midday. The red sandy earth beneath his feet was bright and baking, hot enough to cook a body. From the lone male, a breath escaped in long, laboured sighs of several minutes. His ribs, clearly visible through his skin, lifted and fell gently. Eyes seemingly vacant, he scanned the horizon and counted.
One, two, three men and a jeep found him as he was slumbering, rocking quietly to stay on his feet. He was such a venerable age that his long tusks swept forward in long, low arches that almost touched at the fore, and which emphasised the thinness of the head beneath. The approaching men, who smelled bad from walking and hunting in the heat, surrounded the bull without a word, creeping in slowly and peacefully.
“He’s an old fellow. Makes our job easier, doesn’t it?”
“Sure. At least he’s had a life. How old?”
“Dunno. Probably near ninety, from the look of his feet and his tusks. Check out the tears on his ears, too. Looks like we’re doing him a favour.”
One bullet was enough. The shot was louder in the shade and the report shocked dazed birds out of the trees. Their weapon was meant for much tougher prey than this animal, who slipped down, sank and keeled over almost without a sound. There was no hurry and they waited, lighting cigarettes. Five minutes later they figured he was dead. Ten minutes after that, two great tusks were lying covered in the jeep, the body of the last elephant left to decay where it lay.
This band of men was not to blame for extinguishing the flame. All slow-moving guardians of the savannah had been shifted out of the way with the advance of suburban Africa. The savage yielded to the tame. Wild creatures incapable of domestication were judged pests and routinely cleared off land needed for agriculture, away from fish ponds. Precious wet patches and shimmering marshes were reclaimed for growing food and the forests harvested for wood. Bulky elephants made easy targets for Russian-style semi-automatic machine guns. Picked off singly, or butchered in families as they grazed, washed or licked salt from secret deposits, they gradually disappeared.
Their ivory was shipped to the east to make aphrodisiacs and potions that sold for thousands of dollars in the Asian markets. The West, too, with its hunting parties and exclusive safari deals had a hand in the demise of Loxodonta. Skeletons were scavenged and scoured to make talismans and powders. With the demise of the elephants – though no-one cared enough to notice at first – native trees, matured to hardiness over thousands of years gradually thinned out and disappeared, like the hair on an old man’s head. Gradually, the savannah became a bare expanse of sand, with rocky outcrops and low-lying shrubs clinging to the edges of housing developments. Losses were gradual, unseen until dust kicked up everywhere because the trees were not there to hold it down. With their vast, extending root systems, trees were like the tap in the sink, keeping the water in the soil. Without them, and without the elephants to partner them, the stuff of life gradually disappeared, leaving a giant dustbowl on the World’s largest continent.
Acacia became endangered, and although it was monitored for growth and germination success, lab results were stunted and inconclusive….not enough could be done, quickly, to save the species, so scientists, who had been flown from Zurich and Amsterdam and America to help with the problem, worried. From their purpose- built labs they sent out distress signals around the planet, hoping to find a cure.
On the fringes, other watchers waited, just as they always had. Men and boys at the gates – the gardener who clipped the bushes into shape and kept down the termites with creosote and sprays of sparkling water from a coiling hose; the houseboy who swept aside the dust every morning and afternoon and straightened the mats – knew that the world flattened up here would soon crumble into powder. The glass would shatter and the bricks would bake.