As the sun sets on the extinct volcano of Mount Elgon and the red light of the African evening fades, a female dung beetle scrambles over a pile of elephant droppings, forming her find into a ball. Once completed, it will be at least three times larger than the shiny, black-armored insect. She will roll her prize away backwards, a single egg enclosed within, to be buried in soft ground.
Though the deed of the lady dung beetle is both fascinating and commendable—for it is she, and all her kindred, who help prevent the putrefaction of the land—there are other creatures whose doings we will attend to tonight.
Darkness descends, and the silent tread of the elephants is directed through the thick groves of bamboo to a fall of water and the stream running from it. Beside the waterfall and its stream, nearly hidden by brush and trees, a muddy path leads into a cavern. A stone stands like a single gray fang beside it. This way the matriarch leads. The heavy, round feet press squelching craters in the soft ground, and the miniature calderas slowly fill with swirling, murky liquid after the elephants pass. But they are not the only creatures in this hollow of the hills…
Frugivorous bats sleep here when the sun is in the sky, and all manner of small animals scurry and creep and flutter about. Lone leopards or clans of spotted hyenas sometimes lie in wait here to ambush duiker, antelope, and bushbuck, but they find the elephants too formidable a target to tackle, aside from the occasional unguarded calf.
Leaving the slippery mud and gurgling water behind, the matriarch’s extended family of sisters, daughters, and their young ones journey deeper into the earth. The elephants grope their way forward in utter darkness; no light of moon or star pierces here, and they never come in daylight. Why they come at this time is known only to them, but what they come for has been discovered by others.
Balancing precariously over uneven stones, squeezing through narrow places in single file, they continue until the darkness opens wide around them. Here they disperse, calves pressing against the legs of their mothers, or trailing just behind.
The grown ones begin to scrape the walls and roof of pyroclastic rock with their tusks. Ivory scimitars catch and grate in grooves which fit them the way a rusty lock welcomes its long-lost key. For elephants first began to shape this grotto generations ago, and the granddaughters of the granddaughters of the great-granddaughters continue their mining to this day.
Sand is ground from the roof, falling into the open mouth of an elephant whose head is tilted far back. Another chips at the wall, dislodging chunks for her calf to pick up with his trunk. This coarse geological matter is rich in sodium, and the vegetation outside is lacking in this key ingredient of a healthy elephant's diet.
Wide, ridged teeth grind, and the broken fragments of the cavern disappear from the bowels of the earth into the bowels of the great beasts. In the barrel-like stomachs, the salt-rocks mix with mashed bamboo and maize raided from cultivated crop fields.
A curious and rambunctious male calf, tired of standing close by his mother, wanders a few paces away, still chewing. He has neither heard nor smelled nor seen anything to chase (a favorite game of his), but there may still be something with which to entertain himself.
He trips and falls, and hurries back to his mother to be soothed. It is well, for had he gone much farther, he could have fallen into a deep rift in the floor, where, unreachable, he would have starved to death, if the very fall did not kill him.
She comforts him, stroking his back and face with her trunk, and rumbling at sub-sonic levels, before returning to the matter at hand. The elephants visit their salt mine only once every few weeks, and spend only a few hours in this large chamber before reversing their journey in the dark, to leave the caves before the sun rises. Time presses.
Finally, the matriarch, one of the oldest in this family, trusted by the others to lead them in safety, prepares to leave. Slowly they congregate, waiting until all are ready before beginning their trek. Despite his mother’s guiding touch, the male calf slips often. He is young and unfamiliar with the way.
As the cherished treasure of the entire group, he has no need yet to pay close attention to his world, for attention is payed to him by his watchful grandmother and aunts. He is the firstborn of his mother, and she readily accepts the knowledge of those more experienced than her in child rearing. Now, however, the attention of each individual is focused upon herself as all struggle over the treacherous footing.
Everyone in the family is preoccupied, and the young mother makes a mistake.
Nearing the entrance, her little one’s eyes catch the moonlight shining on a curtain of water. He charges ahead, eager to fling droplets toward the sky, glimmering like dim stars of his own making.
She lets him go.
A black leopard, crouching in shadow, sees the solitary calf. The leopard, in his youth, believes himself capable of this kill. He arrived after the elephants entered, and has determined this one is alone, strayed far from help. The calf blunders past. The leopard springs.
At the first squealing trumpet of terror, the matriarch surges from the mouth of the void, ears flared, trunk lifted high in readiness to strike. The leopard cannot see her as he swings from the calf’s neck, struggling to fix the living clamp of his jaws on the baby's soft throat.
In a single sinuous movement, the matriarch’s trunk grasps the tail of the foolish leopard, tears him from her grandson’s neck, and flings him away. His yowling snarl is cut off by a thud, and the predator tears a frantic escape through the thick brush. He has acquired a wariness of elephants which will be with him to the end of his days.
Loving trunks run protectively over the body of the wide-eyed calf as all assure themselves that he is safe. The morning approaches, and for reasons known only to the elephants, they quit the cave before dawn, carrying the mountain within themselves as they travel across it.