As I walk to my tent at the edge of camp, my vision is elemental, full of shapes without fine details. Shifting slabs of moon-glow keep rearranging trees as if they are pieces on a giant pearled chessboard, their trunks whitewashed the color of ash.
I enter my tent, zip it shut, and switch on the lamp. The electricity comes from batteries charged by solar panels on the other side of camp, carried by a line buried several inches below the sand. Not long after, I turn off the light and crawl into bed.
I roll on my back and blindly stare at the black canvas ceiling of my tent, looking back at the bright moments of the day. But then an unexpected memory darkens the darkness.
In 1996, on my first trip to Africa, I was in a carload of tourists rounding a corner on a sandy road in an area of Zimbabwe where elephants were recently massacred for their tusks. We rounded the corner and stopped – face-to-face with a huge matriarch.
Richly repulsive, an unnatural, confined scent rose from us – odors of food on our clothes and in our hair; flowers washed in alcohol dabbed behind our ears; dead skins around our waists and on our feet; grease, oil and exhaust from our vehicle.
With her trunk shaped into a “J,” the elephant sampled the waves of scent emanating from us, and then tossed our smell away with an emphatic flick. Unnerved by our overpowering human stench, a miasma with a deadly history, she turned and fled, while the half-shadow of dust that marked her exit collapsed to the ground.
The air around me tightens. Canvas walls crowd in, closer, and then closer.
What if our days were measured in scents rather than minutes? What if we could tell the difference between a friend and a murderer with just one sniff?
An excerpt from my book, Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants
My eyes tired from a day spent looking into the sun, I drowsed in a Land Rover beside a waterhole in Chobe National Park. Only a few yards from our vehicle, a single-cylinder pump drew from the water table beneath the sands and sent spurts through a pipe to a square concrete trough. The bachelor elephants of Savuti congregated around the trough as they waited for spring rains and the return of female breeding herds.
The steady sound of the pump, chugga-sputter, chugga-sputter, chugga-sputter, lulled my eyes closed. They opened, closed, opened half-lidded, closed again.
“Here he comes,” someone whispered and my eyes flicked open as a huge bull strolled past. I picked up my camera.
His enormous tusk splayed out almost sideways. I focused on his great head, nodding downward with each step, as he trudged past. A thirsty pilgrim in a parched land, his trek to water was nearly finished. The clicking and whirring of our cameras didn’t alter his gait.
Through the viewfinder I marveled at his tusk. It was easily four feet long, stained and chipped on its end. Because of the growth pattern of his tusks – out, rather than down and up – he seemed a much wider elephant than he really was.
Mid-drink, he curled his trunk into his mouth; head tilted back, eyes closed. Extending his trunk into the waterhole, he blew bubbles before curling his trunk again and again to hose several gallons at a time down his throat. With each swallow went samplings from all the animals that drank here – zebra, wildebeest, warthog, ostrich, hyena and the occasional furtive flavor of lion.
I tried to imagine the bouquet garni of the waterhole and how its myriad fragrances might seep into the crevices of an elephant’s mind, form pools of scent they recognize, year after year, the liquid memory of Africa. Perhaps that old bull was memorizing the stories in that trough, paragraphs of taste and smell, twists of plot and character and fate.
He retraced his steps to where we were parked, and stopped close by. His skin was the color of seasoned cast iron. The waterline on his body rose just past his belly. Spatters of mud stained his ears and back.
After several long minutes, his eyelids drooped and his mouth slackened. Under the hot sun he fell asleep, lulled perhaps by the narcotic of a long, slow drink. The tip of his trunk coiled like a magic rope on the ground. He slept with his weight on three legs, resting a hind leg, occasionally rocking back on it as if he dreamed of his trek. Drool from his trunk slowly seeped into the sand.
I matched my breathing with his, and drowsed once again, sedated by the sun.
The giant beside us rumbled soft snores in his sleep. Other elephants shuffled by quietly on their way to and from the waterhole, as if they didn’t want to wake us.
I’ll be gone for awhile, but here’s a very lovely elephant to watch over you. Our house sitter isn’t “into” elephants, but I promise to try and reply to comments while I’m on the road.
A shoulder lifts, a leg straightens and accepts weight as the foot splays out. The back leg opposite moves forward, toenails nearly scraping sand, straightens, accepts weight, and the foot splays out. As his body shifts side to side, the bull elephant walks ponderously and gracefully towards me. Even from twelve feet away he fills my entire range of vision.
He trails his trunk, knuckling the ground, leaving smooth marks like a giant side-winding snake. A creature bigger than most monuments is on the move, yet his movements are loose and his pace casual. He reaches out and rubs the bottom of his trunk across a cow elephant’s backbone.
Shyly she turns her head away, her expressive ears folded neatly against her shoulders, a diamond on her forehead.
Jabu’s trunk tip investigates my right boot. Its scent swirls up two seven-foot-long nostrils – nostrils surrounded by nerves, arteries, veins and a staggering array of longitudinal and transverse muscles, the world’s biggest, longest and certainly most flexible olfactory organ.
A trunk is the most useful appendage that ever evolved. Imagine having an arm in place of your nose, an arm long enough to reach to the top of a tree and pluck a single leaf from its crown. Imagine having a nose that could rip, tear, excavate, whack, and blow bubbles. You could steal with your nose, suck on it, or swat, poke and siphon with your nose. You could take a shower, scratch your back, or whistle with it. You could even arm wrestle with your nose.
The seven-foot septum that divides Jabu’s nostrils is made of muscle, not cartilage. It becomes cartilage where his trunk attaches to his skull above his eyes. Thick layers of skin and muscle protect his trunk. It’s impossible for him to break his boneless nose, even when he uses it like a battering ram.
He picks up a wizened palm nut.
I ask Sandi, “How many of the fruits can he hold in his trunk?”
“Would you like a photo of that?” She takes some of the fruit already on the ground and puts them one, by one in the tip of Jabu’s trunk. “Jabu, good boy, Jabu, one more.”
Three, it turns out, but carefully placed so he can still breathe.
“Good, my boy, goooood. Okay Jabu!” Sandi tells him, and he spits out the fruits Whoooof! all at once.
Then he picks them up and gently tosses them, one by one, back to her.
How many are left? With no real protection, with rampant corruption, with a continuous conduit to China, I wonder how many in this scrum are still alive. The thing I love most about this photograph are skin textures: wrinkles and rubs and stains contrasting with the smooth skin on their ears.
African elephant calves develop deciduous tusks called tushes that grow up to five centimeters (two inches) in length and fall out when the elephant is between 6 to 12 months of age. Tushes consist of crown, root and pulp. They provide the foundation and orientation of permanent tusks, which are extensions of an elephant’s only incisor. Permanent tusks grow approximately 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) per year and grow throughout an elephant’s lifetime. This young elephant is about three or four years old. Female tusks grow at a slower rate, so her permanent tusks are just beginning to show.
I’ve never thought of baby teeth as deciduous, like the shed leaves on trees. Who knew that elephants have baby teeth?
Elephant ear and shoulder – a study in contrast.
She has very smooth ears, don’t you think? A well proportioned, if a tad round, elephant. Thembi is an enthusiastic eater.