Posted in Africa, Elephants, Jabu, Morula, Sandi

Maps of Africa

An excerpt from my book:

Under a sun-bleached sky that is no longer blue, dry coughing barks from black-backed jackals lope in from our left . . . Wraack, wraack, wraack. . .  Black-backs are scavengers, more aggressive than other types of jackals, and occupy the same ecological niche in Africa as coyotes do in North America.  They are bold enough to steal meat within the reach of a lion’s paw – although their main diet consists of insects, lizards, snakes, rodents, birds and ripe fruit.  Unlike coyotes, black-backed jackals do not howl.

Up ahead of us Morula slaps her ears flatly against her shoulders.

Whoooosh, thwack . . . Whoooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .

 Elephant air-conditioning, for a creature that produces enough heat to warm a small house.  Elephants are pachy-dermed, thick-skinned.  Some of Morula’s blood vessels are buried as deep as one-and-a-half inches under her skin.  Since she doesn’t have sweat glands, her ears act like giant heat exchangers, regulating her body temperature. As her ears open, her body size increases by roughly one-fifth and her ears provide a huge area for thermoregulation.  The air moving over swollen arteries on the surface of each ear cools her blood as much as nine degrees before it returns to her body.

The veins in Morula's ear

I take a photograph of her ear in mid-flap.  Where Morula’s ear attaches to her shoulder, wrinkles give way to rising rivers of blood, pumping five gallons per minute across the surface of her ears.  The pattern of arteries on an elephant’s ear is as unique as a fingerprint, and often used for identification.

Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .

The breeze she creates dies before it reaches me.  I take off my cap and fan my own neck.

My teeny, itsy ears are built somewhat the same as hers are, with an upper rim of cartilage and a fleshy, lower lobe.  But I don’t have an auriculo-occipitalis, an ear muscle the size of a weightlifter’s bicep.  I can’t flap my ears.  I can’t even wiggle them.

Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .

In the late morning heat Morula’s ears are in constant motion.

Ears of African elephants resemble huge maps of Africa.  Ears of Asian elephants flop forward at the top and hang like small, wrinkled outlines of India.  Morula’s ears fold backward, giving them a smooth, tidy appearance, a map pressed flat.  Although the ears of all elephants have a similar construction – cartilage covered by a thin layer of skin – Morula’s ears are roughly three times larger than those of her Asian kin.  African elephants have the biggest external ears of all mammals, perhaps the biggest of all time.  Each one weighs approximately one hundred pounds.

And no two elephant ears are the same.  As pliable and soft as worn canvas, the leading edge of an elephant’s ear is often caught and torn on branches or by the tusks of other elephants.  In Kenya I watched an adolescent flare her ear and trace its outline with her trunk like a matador holding out her cape.  Backlit by sunlight, three perfectly round holes on its border reminded me of diamond studs.  Nearby, a huge bull posed for my gulping camera as I shot an entire roll of film in less than two minutes.  Only later, with the film developed and the prints in my hands, did I notice the edges of his ears were as scalloped as an old lace tablecloth.

Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .

Jabu sidles up to Morula to investigate the thorn branch in her mouth.  Sandi intercepts him and reaches into her bag of treats.

“Jabu, be nice to Morula,” she says.

Jabu holds out his trunk, cups his treat and puts a handful of pellets into his mouth.  While he’s busy, Sandi reaches back into her bag and transfers treats to the inside curl of Morula’s trunk.  Morula fans her ears, her perfect maps of Africa, and continues munching on her thorn branch.  She finishes the branch before eating her treats.

Jabu, Sandi & Morula


Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

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