My first thought is that their faces could be on the cover of a fashion magazine: the Elephant Guardians of the Upper Kitete Corridor are beautiful and young. The corridor, which resembles a thin river, winds its way through an expanse of cultivated fields to connect Ngorongoro Conservation Area with Lake Manyara National Park. It is 1.5 km wide and is the only place in 60 km that elephants can use to safely pass from one protected area to the other. Mary, the youngest guardian, is only twenty years old and wears a ranger’s hat of which she is very proud, while Cielo (yes, that’s her name), has the serious and intense look of a thirty-year-old warrior. They all come from the ‘communities’ in the area, which really are just collections of a few houses scattered here and there within a vast carpet of cultivated fields and bananas, starting immediately near the border of Ngorongoro. The corridor is a dramatic and sharp passage between the green of the forest and the color of the land. Both for the elephants and for the human communities, that narrow 1.5 km strip means a lot. It means salvation, to save their crops and even to save their very lives. However, at the same time, it means being able to easily identify the passage of animals which, unfortunately, are still a resource for meat and tusks. It also means interaction, like when elephants invade a field, which then has to be managed.
Here, there are not many choices for future and career. Here, either you stay and take care of animals and home or you leave for the city. But for these Elephant Guardians, there is a third choice: they live in a tented camp on the slopes of Ngorongoro, a high ground along the slope that provides a good place to keep an eye on the elephants crossing the corridor, to spot the poachers’ torches at night and to leave for patrols in search of snares or to download data from the photo traps. This is their job: protectors of wildlife and their people. Proud of their uniform – too big or too small in some cases – and what they do. They explain where the elephants spent the night while examining the flayed trees, they tell you about the mornings when the serval arrives, about leopards and hyenas sneaking around the houses at night, about poachers (so difficult to discourage), and about chili fences, which they prepare for all the inhabitants of the area who have a crop field. They tell you everything, with pride.
My eyes fall from half-broken flip-flops left outside the tent and I feel very tender. Then I look at the Elephant Guardians’ faces, and I feel infinite respect.