THE BIG QUESTION

"It was the worst year of my life," Cynthia Moss is saying over breakfast. "All the elephants over fifty years old died, except Barbara and Deborah. Most over forty died. So it's particularly amazing that Alison, Agatha, and Amelia have survived."

Alison, now fifty-one years old, is right there, in that clump of palms -- see? Forty years ago, Cynthia Moss arrived in Kenya determined to learn the lives of elephants. The first elephant family she saw she named the "AA" family, and she named one of those elephants Alison. And there she is. Right there, vacuuming up fallen palm fruits. Astonishing.

With much luck and decent rainfall, Alison might survive another decade. And there is Agatha, forty-four years old. And this one coming closer now is Amelia, also forty-four.

Amelia continues approaching, until, rather alarmingly, she is looming so hugely in front of our vehicle that I reflexively lean inward. Cynthia leans out and talks to her in soothing tones. Amelia, practically alongside now, simply towers as she grinds palm fronds, rumbles softly, and blinks.

In the light of this egg-yolk dawn, the landscape seems an eternal ocean of grass rolling toward the base of Africa's greatest mountain, whose blue head is crowned by snow and wreathed in clouds. Through gravity-fed springs, Kilimanjaro acts like a giant water cooler, creating two miles-long marshes that make this place magnetic for wildlife and for pastoralist herders. Amboseli National Park got its name from a Maa word that refers to the ancient shallow lake bed -- half the park -- that seasonally glitters with the sparkle of wetness. The marshes expand and contract depending on the rains. But if the rains fail, panes of water dry to pans of dust. And then all bets are off. Just four years ago, a drought of extremes shook this place to its core.

Through times lush and calamitous, through these decades, Cynthia and these three elephants have maintained their presence, urging themselves across this landscape. Cynthia helped pioneer the deceptively complex task of simply seeing elephants doing elephant things. Longer than any other human being ever has, Cynthia has watched some of the same individual elephants living their lives.

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I was expecting that, after four decades, the famous researcher might be a bit field-weary. But I found in Cynthia Moss a young woman in her early seventies, of bright blue eyes and startling bubbliness. A bit pixieish, actually. A Newsweek magazine writer during the 1960s, Cynthia decided, after her first visit to Africa, to chuck New York and all things familiar. She'd fallen in love with Amboseli. It's easy to see why.

Perhaps too easy. The great plain of mirages and heat waves conveys the illusion that Amboseli National Park is big. It is too small. You can easily drive across it in well under an hour. Amboseli is a postcard that Africa once mailed to itself and now keeps in a drawer marked "Parks and Reserves." Kilimanjaro, not even in the same nation, stands across an imaginary line in a place called Tanzania. The mountain and the elephants know that it is one true country. But the 150-square-mile park serves as a central watering hole for the surrounding three thousand square miles. Amboseli elephants use an area roughly twenty times larger than the park itself. As do cattle -- and goat-grazing Maasai people. The only year-round water is here. The outer lands are too dry to water them. The park is too small to feed them.

"To survive the drought," Cynthia is explaining, "different families tried different strategies. Some tried to stay close to the swamp. But they did very badly as it dried. Some went far north, many for the first time in their lives. They did better. Out of fifty-eight families, only one family did not lose anybody." One family lost seven adult females and thirteen youngsters. "Usually if an elephant goes down, the family gathers around and tries to lift it. In the drought, they had no energy. Watching them dying, seeing them on the ground in agony -- "

One in four of Amboseli's elephants -- four hundred out of a population of sixteen hundred -- perished. Nearly every nursing baby died. About 80 percent of the zebras and wildebeests died, nearly all of the Maasai's cattle; even people died.

So when the rain returned, the surviving female elephants bereft of babies all cycled into estrus at about the same time. Result: the biggest baby boom in Cynthia's forty-year history here, about 250 little elephants born in the last two years. This is a sweet spot in time to be born an elephant in Amboseli. Lush vegetation, plenty of grass -- and little competition. Water makes elephants. And water makes elephants happy.

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Several happy elephants are sloshing through an emerald spring under ample palm shade. It's a little patch of paradise. With their bouncy, rubbery little trunks, the babies seem to transit the outer orbits of innocence.

"Look how fat that baby is," I say. The fifteen-month-old looks like a ball of butter. Four adults and three little babies are wallowing in one muddy pool, spraying water over their backs with their trunks, then sprawling on the bank. As a little one melts in pleasure, I notice the muscles around the trunk relaxing, eyes half-closing. An adolescent named Alfre lies down to rest. But three youngsters pile on, stepping on Alfre's ear. Oomph. The fun softens to a snooze, with babies lying asleep on their sides, adults standing protectively over them, the adults' bodies touching one another's as they doze. Feel how calm they are, knowing their family is safe here now. It's soothing just to watch.

Many people fantasize that if they won the lottery, they would quit their job and immerse themselves in leisure, play, family, parenthood, occasional thrilling sex; they'd eat when they were hungry and sleep whenever they felt sleepy. Many people, if they won the lottery and got rich quick, would want to live like elephants.

The elephants seem happy. But when elephants seem happy to us, do they really feel happy? My inner scientist wants proof.

"Elephants experience joy," Cynthia says. "It may not be human joy. But it is joy."

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Elephants act joyful in the same situations that make us joyful: familiar "friends" and family, lush food and drink. So we assume they feel the way we feel. But beware of assumptions! For centuries, people's assumptions about other animals have ranged from believing that animals cast spells on people to believing that they are aware of nothing and can't even feel pain. Observe what an animal does, scientists advise, but speculation about mental experiences is meaningless, a waste of time.

Speculation about animals' mental experiences happens to be the main quest of this book. The tricky task ahead: to go only where evidence, logic, and science lead. And, to get it right.

Excerpted from "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel," by Carl Safina, published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2015 by Carl Safina.