The Backbone of the Night

Edge of Darkness

I sit on my heels next to a high-burning fire and rock back and forth, toe to heel, toward the fire and away from it.  Leaning in, I cup the palms of my hands to its heat.  Tongues of flame lick blackened lips of wood as if they want to tell my fortune with hot, strange words.

In Botswana, this close to the equator, there are twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of darkness.  The earth rolls into night at 1,000 miles a minute – thirty minutes from sundown to dark.  No long sunsets technicolored by particles of pollution, no lingering light due to the earth’s tilt, no instant barrage of street lamps.

My night is lit only by flame and stars.

The fire spits an ember into the sand near the toes of my boots where it flares and dies.

Above my head a brilliant swath of the Milky Way spanned a vault of sky already crowded with stars.  Stars wheel toward dawn, the second hand on a clock face, the only clock that measures eons of time.

The beginning and the end are up there, somewhere.

The people of the Kalahari call the Milky Way “The Backbone of the Night.”  They believe it keeps the sky from crashing down on their heads.  If I squint hard enough, long enough, the Milky Way knits itself into what might look like pieces of solid bone.

Each time I look up it births even more new stars.

Most of our Old Stories must have originated like this, at night, around a hand-warming fire.

The fire burns down to single chips of orange.  My hands make a small lid over the last of its heat.

I walk down the path to my tent.  Soft night shadows loom around the circle of my flashlight.  At the tent’s threshold, I switch it off.  I trace the outlines of gods in the constellations overhead.  I see Orion doing a slow cartwheel, his left hand already touching the horizon.  Leo naps on his back, the way most lions sleep.  Scorpio thrusts one claw into the leaves of a fan palm.  Buried deep in the Milky Way, a jewel box of stars contains the tiny, tilted Southern Cross.

Moonlight rains through mesh openings of the tent’s windows, spatters my blanket with shifting, delicate squares.  Sleep comes quickly, like an African nightfall.  My dreams fill with elephants as the backbone of the night arches over me and holds up the entire sky.

 

(an excerpt from my book-in-progress, Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants)

 

 

 

 

The Elephant in Her Backyard, Part Two

Subsistence farmers depend on hard work and luck. About 70% of rural households in Botswana derive their livelihoods from subsistence farming crops dependent upon seasonal rains. As a consequence of low and erratic rainfall and relatively poor soils, such farms have low productivity.

Keikagile (Kee-ka-HEE-lay) owns such a farm, in the panhandle of the Okavango Delta. But she has one large problem most subsistence farmers do not have: elephants. Her field is close to one of the most frequently used pathways used by generations of elephants as they move south in April and June from the drying pans near Namibia to the waters of the Okavango River. A night’s raid by a single herd of elephants could destroy her entire crop.

 

Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza

Keikagile, Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza

 

In her book Coming of Age with Elephants: A Memoir, elephant researcher Joyce Poole writes: “Imagine having your entire livelihood destroyed by a beast that comes in the dead of the night. Imagine defending your homestead from a monster weighing close to a hundred times your weight, one that knows exactly where you are through its extraordinary sense of hearing and smell, while your only useful sense is reduced to what you can see in a dim circle of light from a flashlight with failing batteries. Imagine being too poor to buy new batteries.”

And once each year, coming and going on ancient pathways, elephants pass close to Keikagile’s farm. However, starting in 2014, she’s had help from Ecoexist, one of the programs featured in Howard G. Buffet’s book, 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World. A five-year effort aimed at fostering coexistence between the 15,000 elephants and the 15,000 people of the Okavango panhandle, Ecoexist http://www.ecoexistproject.org/ seeks to apply multiple strategies to alleviate human/elephant conflicts and improve human/elephant coexistence.

 

Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza

Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza

 

In partnership with Texas A&M University, and with support from the Amarula Trust, and USAID”S Southern Africa Regional Environment Program, The Ecoexist Project has five main goals, designed to work in tandem with each other:

  1. tracking the elephant herds; 2. building plans for co-existence; 3. learning together with farmers & villages how to protect fields; 4. making fields more resilient to crop-raiding events; and 5. building an elephant economy.

Using techniques such as radio collars and GPS tracking, the Ecoexist researchers are learning more about the movements and habits of the elephants in the Panhandle, in order to help predict possible points of land use conflict. The government of Botswana pays farmers to expand their fields in order to increase productions, yet the land boards responsible for allocating the land lack information about where and when elephants move through villages and fields. Ecoexist is mapping elephant movements in order to help local land boards allocate fields away from the elephants’ pathways. By amplifying the voices, experiences and ideas of farmers such as Keikagile, policy makers learn from those most affected by crop-raiding, while the farmers are able to share responsibility with policy makers to manage the knowledge, tools and resources for field protection. Improving yields with short-cycle crops, early harvests and planting techniques ensure that farmers are less vulnerable to elephants raiding their fields. Since tourists rarely visit their part of the Okavango watershed, efforts to collaborate with private companies to market the Panhandle as an elephant-based destination with community-based tourism experiences are being developed.

 

Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza

Village Meeting in Xakao, Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza

Ecoexist has a large team of advisors and participants. Its directors include a conservation biologist, an ecologist and an anthropologist, as well as post-graduate students and interns from Botswana’s department of Wildlife and National Parks and other relevant government departments. With input and guidance from Botswana’s Department of Agricultural Research, the College of Agriculture, the Department of Wildlife, land boards, international trusts, private corporations, Oxford University, Texas A&M University, the University of Botswana, and most importantly local farmers and residents, the goal of Ecoexist is to make the Panhandle “a place where elephants benefit people more than imperil them…a place where people benefit elephants more than imperil them.” It’s also an endeavor to create solutions that can be used throughout Botswana and beyond.

Keikagile has already used new planting techniques and a solar-powered electric fence to protect her field. Her millet yield this year is 10 times the national average! And next April, when the elephants begin their seasonal migration, she’ll be able to sleep better at night.

 

To see more of Dr. Stronza’s incredible photographs, click Here.

To follow Ecoexist’s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/ecoexistproject

The Elephant in Her Backyard, Part One

For several months of each year Keikagile (Kee-ka-HEE-lay) has elephants in her backyard. Entire herds of elephants. Lions, zebras, crocodiles, hippos, hyenas, and other wild denizens of Africa surround her home. But it’s the elephants she most fears, for they can destroy her entire farm in just one night.

 

Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza

Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza

Keikagile lives in the Okavango Delta of northern Botswana, in an area of roughly 3,500 square miles (9,000 km2) where 15,000 elephants roam freely and 15,000 people plant fields, herd livestock, and walk to and from school. Between April and June, elephants move southward from drying pans near Namibia to the permanent waters found in the Delta. And as they follow their ancient migration routes, the herds often stop to forage in the fields planted closest to those paths. When seasonal rains return in November, the elephants return north along the same routes.

Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza

Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza

Keikagile’s fields are less than a mile (1.2 km) from one of the largest and most frequently used elephant pathways. Her farm is twice as likely to be raided as those further away, a risk that could happen twice a year, as the elephants migrate to and from the waters of the Delta. (Note the man in the background of this photograph and the power lines.)

Keikagile’s crops are mostly pearl millet, maize (corn) and Bambara ground nuts. Pearl millet has been grown in Africa since prehistoric times. It has a slightly nutty taste, can be cooked like brown rice and ground into flour for flatbreads. It’s high in antioxidants and magnesium. Dried ground maize can be cooked into porridge or a dish called bogobe, made by putting sorghum, maize or millet flour into boiling water, stirring the mixture into a soft paste, and then cooking it slowly. Sometimes the sorghum or maize is fermented, and milk and sugar added. Bambara ground nuts ripen, like peanuts, below ground. They are high in protein (an important food source for people who cannot afford animal protein) and can be eaten roasted, salted or boiled, similar to beans. Most importantly, the plant improves the soil with nitrogen fixation.

Pearl millet grows well in soils with high salinity and is a highly drought-tolerant crop. The Bambara ground nut grows best in sandy soils and is resistant to high temperatures. Maize, the most difficult to grow in a semi-arid climate, is preferred by farmers. The three plants can be grown together, mixed into the same space, in a practice called intercropping, which maximizes space and creates biodiversity.

 

Pearl Millet

Pearl Millet

As a subsistence farmer and a single mother, Keikagile feeds and provides for her three children. In the past, the yields from her fields were barely enough to support her family. And the threat of catastrophic damage to her livelihood by elephants is an annual worry for her.

EcoExist (Ecoexist) hopes to change that. Partnering with local farmers, EcoExist (EcoExist Facebook)is a five-year program aimed at reducing human/elephant conflicts in the Okavango Delta. Read about the dual efforts of Keikagile and EcoExist in Part Two, The Elephant in Her Backyard.

A Thunder of Hippos

An excerpt from my book-in-progress:

Whenever I leave for Africa I’m always, invariably asked, “Aren’t you afraid?”

“Of what?”

“Snakes. Alligators. Lions.”

“Well,” I usually reply, “there are no alligators in Africa. Only crocodiles.”

“So crocodiles, whatever.”

Once, in Tanzania, I saw a submerged crocodile lunge up amid four wildebeest faster than they, or I, could blink. I don’t know how, but he missed all of them as they leapt in four different directions. I’ve never taken a bathing suit to Africa. Didn’t seem like a great idea on my first trip and less so on subsequent ones.

Lions? Well, lions will consider me prey if I act like prey. Look! Breakfast! And it’s fat and slow!

The possibility of actually encountering a lion is pretty rare. There are only about 20,000 lions left in Africa, down from 200,000 in 1975. Until 2007 Botswana allowed 50 lions to be hunted per year. By the time a hunting ban was enacted many of the male trophies were just two or three years old – requiring hair extensions woven into their manes before they were mounted on a hunter’s wall.

B&W male lion

Snakes? There are a lot of snakes in Africa. Black mambas. Vipers. Cobras. Pythons. Boomslangs. Puff adders.   In the Okavango Delta I could encounter Egyptian cobras or a puff adder or an African rock python or a black mamba or perhaps even a shy boomslang. I could, but I haven’t. In all the times I’ve been to Africa, I’ve never seen a snake. Bad luck, I guess, because each of these snakes, in their own way, is fascinating, and I really wouldn’t mind seeing one of them.

The deadliest animal in Africa is not a snake nor a crocodile nor a lion – it’s the hippo, those oddly comic, rotund herbivores that Walt Disney put in tutus. Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal: several hundred per year. In contrast, sharks kill only around ten people per year, worldwide.

Hippos don’t even eat the people they kill. They emerge at night from ponds and rivers to spend all night eating grass. Their beady, sherry-colored eyes don’t see well, but their sense of smell is acute. Males defend territory, females their calves. They can outrun you, and you never know what might set them off.

In 2002, I was on a game drive with six people in an open-sided Landcruiser. Laid-back hippo blimps floated in a nearby pond. One of the hippos grunted, burbling like a submerged tuba.

A herd of hippos is known as a “thunder” – possibly a reference to their size, but more likely because of the noises they make. When a group of hippos get going, their combined grunts sound like rolling thunder. But these hippos were relatively quiet. They rose and sank, twirled their ears, exhaled wetly through their nostrils.

It was that magic half-hour before sunset when the light is golden and incredible – perfect for photographs. A short distance away a male grazed on flowers. I raised my camera.

Without warning, the hippo opened his mouth in a threat gesture, displaying his long, razor-sharp canines. A second later, he charged, head swinging side to side like a giant sledgehammer, running directly for us at a surprisingly clip, intent on slamming into our vehicle. Since a hippo’s top speed is around twenty miles per hour, he was closing fast. All I could see through my camera lens were those massive incisors, as the autofocus kept singing out zzzzt zzzt, zzzzzt zzzt.

Charging hippo b&w

Luckily, the engine of our vehicle started without a cough and the hippo just missed the back bumper. He continued on into the bush for thirty yards before stopping to wonder where we had gone.

The Oldest Human Footprints in the World

An excerpt from my book in progress:

Morula

After Morula finishes browsing, I follow her down one of the unmapped, two-track, lightly traveled, nameless roads of the Okavango Delta.

Zik! Zik! Zik-zik! A masked weaver hops through the brush beside us. White clouds above our heads twirl like cotton candy across the sky. The track we’re following parts a shallow lake of grass and climbs out on an island of trees. A game trail crosses the road. Morula swivels her trunk to one side, then the other, at the intersection where the grass is beaten down.

In dun-colored sand as finely ground as cake flour, Morula’s prints barely register. I can’t see a single puff from the impact of her feet. With each step, she leaves behind outlines of small moons. We cross the recent, delicate hoof prints of impala and the moons obliterate them.

photo by Cheryl Merrill

photo by Cheryl Merrill

My boot prints, inside the crater of her footprints, look like exclamation points, the heel separate from the rest of my sole.

The oldest human footprints in the world are 1500 miles north of here, at Laetoli, in Tanzania. Found in 1976, the 3.5 million-year-old footprints are not far from the Olduvai Gorge, where the Leakey family discovered the first hominids. Although the Laetoli hominids are Australopithecines and not Homo sapiens, they are part of our family tree, a relationship comparable to that of mammoths and elephants.

Fossil footprints are not uncommon, especially near ancient riverbeds. But the Laetoli footprints were created when a nearby volcano erupted, covering the ground with a slurry of volcanic ash somewhat the consistency of concrete. Once excavated, the site was found to have over 9,500 impressions, mostly made by rabbits. In order of decreasing abundance, tracks were also found of guinea fowl, hyena, antelope, rhinoceros, giraffe, buffalo, elephant, horse, small carnivores, monkeys, pigs and ostriches. Just one short, 80-foot section was made by hominids.

Their footprints – that of a man, a woman and a small child – tell us much about our ancestry. For in that trackway is a hesitation, as if one of the hominids thought about turning left. Perhaps it was the moment before an earthquake, when the ground was no longer solid beneath their feet. Or perhaps one of them considered turning around, going back.

I stop and look over my shoulder, in the same way my human ancestor did. All of Africa stretches out behind me – overlapped boot prints and footprints leading backward into her hot, crowded maze of life. It was Africa who designed us to walk upright across her landscapes. Because of Africa, I know the ground better than I know trees.

In the distance, across a golden backwater of high grass, stand a family of giraffes. They are motionless, watching us cross between islands of bush. The spotted derricks of their necks swivel in all directions to get a better look at us. At the end of each neck a head is cocked sideways: the universal body language that says, “Huh?” But once we stop to look, they turn away and head for cover, except for one curious female who continues to watch us.

photo by Cheryl Merrill

photo by Cheryl Merrill

Tramping along in Morula’s wake, I’m beginning to get the hang of all this walking and browsing – less sweating, less reliance on my water bottle.   I’m beginning to wish I could do this every day of my life.

 

Year of the Elephant: Swamp Lessons

A baby elephant crosses a small swamp, guided by Mom.  And of course she got a chance to stop and play in it, too.  A beautiful afternoon in Zambia, 2012.

Baby ellie swamp

Let Freedom Ring

Free to Roam

Free to Roam

“For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.” – Henry Beston

And should we not, therefore, allow our fellow prisoners the freedoms to which our nation, our populace aspires?  Life.  Liberty.  The pursuit of Happiness – which I interpret as a life well lived.

Year of the Elephant: Vegetarians

Cow elephant, Samburu, Kenya

Cow elephant, Samburu, Kenya

It takes a lot of foliage to sustain an elephant.  Depending on its sex and size, elephants eat four to seven percent of its body weight each day – four hundred to six hundred pounds of vegetation.  And sometimes they take offense if you disturb their meal.

(Currently, the Samburu area of Kenya is experiencing its highest level of poaching in 14 years.  I hope this young cow has survived.)

Year of the Elephant: Camouflage

Year of the Elephant continues a series on the lives of elephants in today’s world.

Jabu in the trees 2

Camouflage is the art of hiding in plain sight.  Of standing perfectly still, keeping silent.  Elephants know how to do this.  It’s a necessary skill.

 

 

Morning in Africa: Year of the Elephant

Taking a break from the Ivory Timeline and beginning a new series to heighten awareness of how elephants live.  If poaching is not stopped, elephants will become extinct in our lifetimes.

Morning in Africa

“I never knew a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy.”  Earnest Hemingway

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