They say an elephant never forgets. But the one who tried to cross the Zambezi on Good Friday would have had to be very old to remember the last time he saw the river running this high. And as he picked his way across from Zimbabwe, swimming from island to island along an ancient elephant corridor, a changed world was waiting on the Zambia side of the border as well: a sprawling five-star hotel along the banks in the national park. With poachers and hunters at his back, and tourists sipping sundowners ahead, the elephant foundered and was washed downstream, plunging over the 130-meter-high (about 430 feet) Victoria Falls, Africa's mightiest cataract. He wouldn't have had a chance of survival.
Word soon spread around this town upstream, named for David Livingstone, the white Scottish missionary who discovered the falls during his exploration of Africa. And the talk soon took on a political dimension. In recent years, as tourists with social consciences have spurned Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe's harsh authoritarian rule, visitors have headed for the Zambian side of the falls instead. That's been a blessing for the tourist industry in this southern African nation, prompting a boom in small hotels and game lodges along the Zambezi. But not all the locals appreciate the visitors. The Royal Livingstone, a Sun International property built six years ago in the Victoria Falls National Park at the top of the falls, is the only five-star establishment here, and "it would be fair to say, widely resented," said a tour guide. When the story of the elephant became known, residents said they'd heard that the doomed creature had been shooed from the grounds by guards firing in the air—and pointed out that a single drink on the hotel's riverside sundeck could feed a family of five for a week. They also heard, they said, that tourists were laughing as the pachyderm was swept over the falls.
The reality was different, to a point. "None of the rangers are armed," says the hotel's public relations officer, Jackye Nsovo. "Nobody's allowed to carry firearms. Basically with elephants, they will come toward the hotel but they don't harm anyone." Nor did anyone shoo the animal away," said Nsovo. "Elephants never come on the hotel grounds."
Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) Ranger Kenneth Nyambe, who is stationed on the grounds of the Royal Livingstone to keep guests from wandering into the hindquarters of zebras and to protect them from mugging by troops of baboons, said he heard a commotion from the hotel's riverfront sundeck about 4.20 p.m. last Friday. A crowd had gathered to watch what witnesses described as a 6-ton bull elephant (medium large, as they go) leading two smaller elephants, a male and a female, across the river. Elephants are good swimmers, but as the river cascades toward the falls, the current goes at almost 25 miles per hour. The elephant got as far as the last islet in front of the hotel and then swam the channel, making it almost to the hotel side, according to accounts from several eyewitnesses. "He almost made it and we were all cheering," said senior waiter Kelvin Ng'andu, who was on duty that evening. The site is a popular place to watch the sunset, and the falls are close enough to see mist forming above the precipice, rising directly into cloud formations. But in front of the elephant was a bank of sharp rocks, topped by the hotel’s electrified fence; the elephant turned back and tried to swim the channel a second time, but was swept downstream, constantly trying to swim back against the current.
As Nyambe and Ng'andu described it, a hush descended over the scores of spectators. "It was a very sad struggle, we could all put ourselves in the boots of that animal," Ng'andu said. "Some people were crying, no one was laughing." Occasionally the animal would get a grip on the rocks or a spit of island, then lose it. The struggle went on for half an hour, with the elephant screaming piteously whenever it could blow the water from its throat, through the trunk. Its companions returned the calls, but remained on the island on the other side. "Tons and tons of flesh and bones, and exhaustion just occurs," said Isaac Kanguya of the Zambian National Heritage Conservation Commission. "We just watched helplessly as it went over," Nsovu said.
At 4:55pm, ranger Nyambe said, the elephant disappeared over the main part of the falls, tumbling more than 400 feet into the Boiling Pot, as it's called, at the bottom. "I swear we could see the splash a moment later," Ng'andu said. "It's an endangered animal and if we lose one we never get it back."
The Good Friday elephant wasn't the first to perish that way this year. Officials at the local warden's office of ZAWA, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the press, said they had three confirmed cases of live elephants being washed over Victoria Falls this year, all since the recent rainy season ended. Their carcasses were found by ZAWA rangers and stripped of their valuable ivory, in one of the gorges many miles below the falls. "This has never happened before this year that anyone can remember," one said. The ZAWA officials say the presence of the Royal Livingstone on an established elephant corridor, plus the high water, and increased movement from Zimbabwe, were all to blame. The Livingstone hotel spokesman disputed that the hotel was on a corridor, saying the main elephant crossing in the area is more than three miles farther upstream. But elephants are often seen in the dry season crossing even at the lip of the falls in front of the hotel. Many more elephants are making the Zimbabwe-to-Zambia crossing now, as well, as Zimbabwe's economic collapse has led to widespread poaching on that side, and Mugabe's government has thrown open the doors to big-game hunters in a desperate search for hard currency from those prepared to pay as much as $50,000 for an elephant trophy. Such hunting is banned in Zambia. "In the dry season we'll have 300 elephants now, where we used to have five or six," said Doug Evans, who runs the Chundukwa River Lodge about 15 miles upstream from the falls, and last week had his gardens and ponds trampled by elephants. His lodge is also on an elephant corridor. "We just put up with it. But over the long term, we can't handle 300 animals, it's just too many. But five kilometers [three miles] inland, there's a big human population, so where can they go? It's a problem. As always, the wildlife seems to get the short end of the stick." Evans is often called on to run capture and cull teams for elephants when locals complain that they're ravaging farms, or endangering populated areas. "Every time we go out on the river, we hear gunshots from the Zimbabwe side. I call friends who work with wildlife over there, and they say, there's nothing we can do, it's political."
Kanguya of the Heritage Commission acknowledged that hotels like the Royal Livingstone were built on elephant corridors, but says that measures such as fold-down fences have managed to alter their routes so they could safely cross. But with the river as high as it is now, the electrified fences of the hotel grounds are right at river's edge. Some wildlife officials have called for expanding the national parkland along the river to protect them better, while at the same time major hotel operators have proposed building golf courses and sprawling complexes in existing parkland. "It's something we can manage by striking a balance," he said. "No overdevelopment at the expense of conservation, and no overconservation at the expense of tourism."
Finding that balance won't be easy, especially if more and more elephants vote against Mugabe with their feet. The Easter drama didn't end with the bull's plunge. His companions turned back, but one was stuck on another island until Easter Day. "That same day that our Lord Jesus died for us," said Ng'andu, "that elephant sacrificed for his friends to live.” Elephants never forget. I'm sure when they come back this way another year, they'll have a moment of silence for him." Elephant lovers might add a prayer.