When the rains cease in dry season, some barriers between humans and animals disappear with the tall grass.
Summer 2015 was an especially harsh dry season in Botswana. And Elephant Sands (the Moller family's lodge) in Northeast Botswana, was smack dab in the center of it. Hundreds of elephants would gather in a day to come drink at the small water hole at their lodge. Some would wait up to eighteen hours to get a turn at the crowded pool.
In their desperate search for water, elephants will break down walls, pull up pipes, and scavenge campsites. Providing water and policing these trouble makers became a full-time job for lodge manager Mike Toth.
And then came Benny.
In August that year, a bold bull trumpeted through the campsite, poking around for water and stepping a little too close to campers.
Mike chased him away from the campsite initially, but he kept returning. Recognizing it was water he was after, Mike filled up the trough near one of the campsite bathrooms. The newly named Benny came to drink, and let Mike spray him with water from afar.
They got into a routine over the next few days, with Mike filling up the trough and Benny coming to drink. But then Benny did something extraordinary - he pointed to Mike with his trunk then rubbed his injured foot three times.
When Benny returned a few days later his wound had split open. Mike gave him something to drink and sprayed him with water. After trying to clean the wound with the hose, he sprayed his feverish body. Mike and the Moller family phoned the vet. The team followed him through the night to keep a close eye on him The vet did an emergency surgery on Benny's infected foot, which appeared to have a piece of wood lodged in the wound.
With a patched up foot, Benny showed up four days later rummaging through the campsites for water.
Recognizing his old trouble-making friend, Mike walked right up to him and gave him water directly.
After two months of this close-contact routine, Benny grew more and more trusting. In two months he began to touch Mike with his trunk, feeling and smelling who his human buddy was.
After letting Benny make the initial contact, Mike bravely placed a hand on the wild elephant's trunk. This ritual continued throughout the season every other day.
Benny would come and stand by the lodge (giving the occasional tourist a heart attack) and wait patiently for his water and human friend.
As their connection grew, Benny got more protective of Mike. In the heavy drought season, the elephants around the water hole grew in numbers and grew more agitated with longer wait time to get to the water source. One day, when Mike was giving Benny water by the campsite, a large bull elephant came in-between the two. Remarkably, Benny recognized the danger of another wild elephant to his human companion. He grabbed Mike's hand with his trunk, pulled him away, and backed up into the large intruder.
This friendship has carried on for the last two years. Benny has returned every dry season to wait by the lodge for fresh water and his old friend. Mike hopes to see his giant friend again this year.
Water first brought these two together. In the dry season the elephants and the wildlife of Botswana are all on Benny's mission: to find fresh water.