At birth, elephants have only two or three small cheek teeth. By the age of ten, big tectonic molars began to erupt in the back of their jaws, becoming part of a conveyer belt of teeth. As molars wear down near the front of an elephant’s mouth fragments of them break off in pieces and either fall out or are swallowed. Throughout its lifetime, an elephant will grow twenty-four molars in six sets – but only two tusks.
Each molar looks like a set of dishes drying edgewise on a rack, bonded together by enamel. The vertical ridges function like giant vegetable graters as an elephant’s lower jaw moves forward and back, rather than side-to-side like a cow. Each molar grows up to a foot long, has a maximum of ten ridges, and weighs eleven pounds apiece – perfect for grinding up tree branches.
Like human teeth, elephant teeth consist of cementum, dentine and enamel. Cementum holds the roots of a tooth in place, dentine surrounds the pulp and enamel crowns each tooth with a hard protective layer. Packed with nerves and blood vessels, the pulp cavities of elephant tusks extend two-thirds of the length of each tusk. Their teeth are as sensitive as mine are.
Doug asks Jabu to “Open up.” He curls his trunk back over his head and Doug stretches to his tiptoes, pulls his lower gums wide with his hands.
In his lifetime Jabu will have six sets of molars. His sixth set will wear down by the time he is sixty. Only ten percent of aging elephants grow a seventh set of molars.
“Very good, my boy. . . . veerrry good.”
Peering over Doug’s shoulder, I count four molars in his mouth, two on top and two on the bottom.
Doug lets go of Jabu’s lower jaw. “Allllright, Jabu, allllright.”
He drops his trunk but leaves his mouth open. Doug grabs a fistful of treats and slides his arm into Jabu’s mouth, all the way to his elbow. As he lets go of the treats he rubs Jabu’s tongue. He flaps his ears.
“Elephants use their trunks to rub each other’s tongues. It’s kind of like a handshake,” Doug says.
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.
As promised, I’m re-visiting the third most popular blog post of my blog in 2014: an excerpt from my book, Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.
Doug gets my full attention when he proclaims to his guests, “Thembi has a great set of knockers.”
She obliges by bending her left front leg at the knee and raising it, exposing a clear view of her breast. “See? Elephant mammary glands are located on the chest, like humans.”
I lean over Doug’s shoulder and look at two gray breasts with permanently erect nipples. They’re about the size of a medium cantaloupe and, like human breasts, slightly globular, due to the pull of gravity.
“Alllllll-right, Thembi.” As her foot touches the ground, she flaps her ears and her trunk snorfles around his feet.
“If you reach in like this,” Doug demonstrates, “you can feel them.”
Steadying myself with one hand on Thembi’s leg, I reach in and cup her breast with the other hand. The skin of her breast is as soft as an old, creased leather bag. Her nipple, as one might expect, is harder than the flesh around it.
Thembi emits a low, murmuring rumble.
“Oh you like that, do you, Thembi girl?” Doug chuckles.
I quickly withdraw my hand and step away from her side.
“Anyone else want to try?” asks Doug.
Out of the seven of us, several people look away, several look down. No one ventures forward. I can’t tell if everyone is embarrassed or just reticent. Feeling up an elephant may not be quite what they had in mind. It certainly wasn’t what I had in mind.
“Well, OK. Mammals are called mammals because . . . . ?”
One of the guests ventures, “Mammary glands?”
“Right.” Doug continues his lecture: “Like all mammals, Thembi’s lactiferous ducts terminate in her nipples. They point out a bit, while Morula’s nipples point down. Thembi gets a bit of stimulation while she walks, don’t you, Thembi girl?”
Some of the guests look mildly scandalized, while others giggle and whisper to each other.
Doug rubs Thembi’s leg, which generates another snorfle.
Female elephants don’t have a row of teats, like cats or dogs. They don’t lie on their sides, suckling a litter. Elephant calves nurse standing up, with their small trunks flipped over an eye like a wayward curl.
All mammal breasts are modified sweat glands. Some mammal breasts are located in the groin and some on the chest. The breasts between Thembi’s front legs are in the same location mine would be if I walked around on all fours. Her breasts weigh about four pounds each, .1% of her body weight. Human breasts weigh .08% of total body weight, dogs 2%, rats 9%.
Do all mammals have larger breast size to body weight than humans? I pull out my notebook to write down that question, but then decided I really don’t care, and put the notebook away.
“Is she pregnant?” asks the woman behind me.
Although Thembi possesses relatively trim tonnage in comparison to the other two elephants, she is significantly rounder – huge thighs, huge belly, a Rubenesque sort of girl with a really long nose – and very full breasts, unusually large for a non-pregnant elephant.
“We don’t think so,” Doug replies. “We had her hormone levels tested about six months ago, and they were normal. She’s an enthusiastic eater, so she might be a tad rotund because of that. She might be incubating a surprise, but we doubt it.”
Sandi laughs. “That’s because she’s a bit of a flirt with the wild boys around here, but when things get serious she becomes quite horrified and scoots on home.”
Another one of the guests pipes up: “Has Jabu ever tried mating with her?”
“Yes, he’s tried,” Sandi replies, “But we’ve never yet seen him achieve intromission.”
Heads nod thoughtfully. I can see intromission has thrown them a bit. It’s not a word commonly used to describe sexual penetration, but I think most of the guests have a general idea of what it might mean. Several of their heads swivel to gaze at Jabu, ripping apart a nearby bush. Since he’s such a big boy, why couldn’t he just have his own way?
“Thembi doesn’t really favor him,” says Sandi, as if she’s reading minds.
“What if she had a calf?”
There’s not one second of hesitancy to Sandi’s reply: “Oh, we’d keep it. It wouldn’t be easy, though. Thembi’s never been in a breeding herd and has no clue about birth. And she’s rather stuck on herself, you know. We don’t think she’d be a good mother. But if it happened, we’d make it work.”
Even though it’s not likely that Jabu and Thembi will become pachyderm parents, I can easily imagine Thembi as a pregnant princess, mood swings, food cravings and all. As if to prove my point, she regally sweeps through a stand of grass, a princess on a mission. She breaks off a few branches from a small thornbush, stuffs them against her back molars and chews with her mouth open.
Thembi has never been with an extended herd of mothers and sisters and aunts and hasn’t had the opportunity to learn the complex behaviors required to be a mother. She’s never learned that newborn calves stay in physical contact ninety-nine percent of the time, either below or beside their mothers. Although calves will begin to forage by nine months, they continue to suckle for about four years. Elephants in zoos will quite frequently shun newborn calves. So I can just about predict Thembi’s reaction to a calf: What IS this thing following me around?
I glance over at Jabu. He has nipples, too. Guy nipples, nozzle-like nipples, surrounded with sparse hair.
All mammals have three distinct features: hair, three middle ear bones, and mammary glands. Even whales, dolphins, porpoises and manatees have hair, usually on their snouts or next to blowholes. Elephants and manatees shared a common ancestor fifty-six million years ago, but the nipples of female manatees are now under their flippers, in their armpits.
A question comes from the back of the tourist group. “What about Morula?”
Dear, Old Maid Morula. The wallflower with big ears, large liquid eyes and a knobby forehead.
“If an elephant doesn’t breed by the age of twenty-five, they are unlikely to,” Sandi replies. “Morula is already the ripe old age of thirty.”
Female elephants typically become active at a quite young age, around thirteen. They can conceive as early as ten years old and possibly have 12-15 offspring by the time they are fifty. Female calves will stay with the herd the rest of their lives.
Male elephants take a bit longer to mature and become sexually active around the age of twenty-nine.
Morula has missed the boat. But I’ll bet she’d make a great aunty. She stands close by, slowly opening and closing her great ears, patiently watching.
When he first developed his classification system, Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus originally called mammals Quadrupedia, after the name Aristotle gave them. Later he became actively opposed to wet-nursing practices in the 1750s and wrote a book on the benefits of breast-feeding your own child. As a political act, he reclassified Quadrupedia to Mammalia in later editions of his most famous work, Systema Naturae, defining mammals as a lactating class within the Animalia kingdom, a classification that has lasted to this day – all because women of nobility in Linnaeus’s time thought breastfeeding would ruin their figures.
Certainly that’s one thing Thembi doesn’t have to worry about.
Heart shapes can be found in nature, if you’re lucky enough to spy one. There’s a heart on Jabu’s trunk, a ridge of skin that feels like fine shoe leather. One of his wrinkles pierces the lower third of this heart shape, from left to right, straight as an arrow. His real heart hangs between his breastbone and ribs, a little to the left, just like mine does. But instead of having a heart with a single point, an elephant’s heart has two points at its apex – so it’s the wrinkled outline of a human heart that Jabu carries on his trunk.
The length of Jabu’s real heart is about twenty-two inches, its width eighteen. His heart weighs around forty-four pounds, almost the same as a medium-sized dog. Still, it’s less than 1% of his body weight, a common proportion among large mammals and among humans. My heart also weighs less than 1% of my body weight: about ten ounces.
The human heart is approximately five inches long, three-and-a-half inches wide and shaped like a pulsing cone. It is the only muscle in my body that acts on its own – my heartbeat doesn’t need any messages from my brain. The cells in my heart tissue involuntarily constrict, all together, all at once, over and over, a soft perpetual-motion machine. Rip my heart from my body, chop it into pieces, immerse the pieces in a saline solution, and then give them a small jolt of electricity. The remnants of my cardiac muscle will contract . . . contract . . . contract – all on their own, sometimes for hours.
It’s designed to be strong, my heart.
In mammals, birds, and reptiles the heart has the same basic pump-like design, a design that has worked through eons – even cold-blooded dinosaurs had hearts. A day or two after fertilization, embryos develop a pinpoint that pales, then brightens, pales, then brightens, the beginnings of a tiny pump practicing emptying, filling, emptying, refilling. An old, old pattern. The master timepiece.
There are four chambers in my heart: two auricles (“little ears”) and two ventricles (“little bellies”) – named by anatomists for the external parts of the body they resemble. Spent, dark-red blood is collected in the right auricle, then dropped into the right ventricle, which constricts and pumps it out to the lungs to pick up oxygen. Bright red again, full of oxygen, blood circulates back to the left auricle and from there drops into the left ventricle. In the next twitch blood is delivered to every corner of my body.
The “little ears,” the auricles, make very little sound as they drain blood into the lower chambers of my heart, a distance of an inch or so. It’s the ventricles, the “little bellies,” that boom as each contraction forces open heart valves and blood gushes up the aorta under pressure. Lupp DUPP. Lupp DUPP. Lupp DUPP. One beat smaller, one beat larger, flush after flush.
My right ventricle has walls thin as paper – it delivers blood only as far as the lungs. If I could hold it up to the light I could see right through it. The left side of my heart is the heavyweight lifter, pumping blood all the way to my toes, moving 150,000 tons of blood in my lifetime.
Jabu’s great artery, the aorta, takes off from the left ventricle of his heart, the same as mine does. Named in the Middle Ages, aorta means, “to heave.” It’s an artery more flexible and sturdier than any manmade pipe. Jabu’s left ventricle pumps a continuous stream of blood up and out of his heart into the aorta, which then drops down into his chest and down each leg, where it branches and branches and branches all the way to his toes. Each arterial branch has less space than the artery it came from, but the sum of their volume is always greater than their mother artery. The blood moves, but more and more slowly through smaller and smaller pipes, trickling into all corners of Jabu’s body, trickling through capillaries one cell thick.
Blood’s trip back to the heart is made through veins. Millions of tiny venules drain into thousands of small veins, thousands drain to hundreds, hundreds to the one that empties back into the heart. Veins are even more elastic than arteries, can hold variable quantities of blood, and serve as a reservoir for all that moving liquid. At any one moment, 65% of my blood is contained in my veins. It’s an ancient blueprint, this branching, this heartbeat, this coming and going, a blueprint brought to life in even the tiniest of creatures.
Blood has to be literally hoisted from Jabu’s toes. Squeezed along by muscles wrapped around veins, pushed by valves in the veins, and sucked upward by the huge action of breathing, blood finally arrives in the vena cava, where it drops into the heart. Jabu has two vena cavae, possibly because of the large amounts of blood that need to be moved.The blood vessels of an African elephant reach lengths of twelve feet, a huge network of life.
Jabu’s body contains 120 gallons of blood, enough to fill an aquarium six feet long, two feet wide and two feet deep. At one-and-a-half gallons, my puny amount of blood would barely fill a birdbath.
Blood is the body’s only liquid organ, five times denser than water. It takes food and water in, removes waste and byproducts to the disposal areas of the body, the kidneys, lungs, and skin. Blood irrigates all tissue, both feeds and cleanses. It leaves the heart at one mile per hour and returns, laden with waste, at about half that speed. Construction materials move along highways of blood, demolished materials return. Blood is 20% solids and 80% water, carrying products of digestion, products made by the body, foreign intruders, the dust of stars, even cobalt from the original ocean of the earth where both of us, human and elephant, began our journeys.
We each have roughly one billion heartbeats for our lives. Mouse, hummingbird, elephant, human, all the same. Like us, elephants suffer cardiovascular disease, die of heart attacks and strokes.
Cardiac arrest: when the heart shudders and stops, when the light in the eyes flickers, fades and snuffs.
And when the heart quits beating, its resonance
Lupp DUPP Lupp DUPP Lupp DUPP
is gone. The gurgle of digestion, all the silky, sturdy, slapping noises, the blood rush, gone. The symphony of the body is finished.
For those of us left, that silence is almost too much to bear.
Carved ivory thrones are mentioned in the Bible. King Solomon had one, covered with gold. Tutankhamen’s casket had a carved ivory headrest for his pillow. Cicero wrote of Roman houses where ivory doors opened onto entire rooms covered with ivory tiles. Gladiators had chariots made of ivory.
In the 1800s, in Africa, ton after ton of tusks were transported thousands of miles to Zanzibar and Khartoum, carried on the backs of slaves. By the 1980s, more than 300 elephants a day were slaughtered for their ivory, nearly 100,000 per year.
In Amboseli National Park, in Tanzania, a recessive gene is becoming dominant, occurring in 50 years instead of thousands, selected by poachers.
Year after year tuskless elephants are born.
Both male and female African elephants grow tusks – the largest upper incisors on this planet. Tusks are defined as long teeth protruding beyond the mouth growing usually, but not always, in pairs. Most tusks are enlarged canines, such as those of warthogs, wild boars, hippopotamus and walruses. Enlarged canines in the myriad species of cats and dogs are called fangs.
Elephants and narwhal whales have incisor tusks. The narwhal’s single tusk is a left front incisor that grows in a straight spiral. Found mostly in males, narwhal tusks are believed to be the origin of unicorn legends. Oddly enough, narwhals with two tusks are usually female.
By the time Jabu is sixty, his tusks could theoretically reach a length of 18 to 20 feet. But in reality – if he does reach sixty – they will be much shorter, due to the wear and tear of everyday use.
Tusks on bull elephants can weigh seven times that of those on cows. The biggest pair of tusks on record weighed 460 pounds, taken from an old bull killed in 1897 near Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya.
The longest tusks ever found came from an elephant shot in the Congo in 1907. Its right tusk was 11.4 feet long; it’s left tusk 11 feet.
Such extraordinarily enormous tusks are a genetic trait, much the same as red hair is a genetic trait. Over the centuries poachers and hunters have always targeted male elephants with the largest tusks. As a result, the trait has disappeared from most elephant populations.
The same outcome would occur if redheads were systematically eliminated within family groups. As their genes died out, the redheads among us would become extinct.
While standing in the shade of my tent, I look out over a lagoon of bent grass to the trees at its far shoreline. A few of the stalks shiver and crosshatch in the lagoon as a mouse or grasshopper nibble at their stems. Otherwise, the grass is motionless.
I stick my hands in my pocket and scuff dust with the toe of my boot.
Something rustles in the underbrush. My sleepy senses come to full alert. It’s an ancient world out there – full of primitive memories storied at the bottom of our brains. i spot one of the honorary camp staff, a francolin, scratching around a clump of buffalo grass.
We are all afraid of something. Thembi gets in a tizzy over bees. (Imagine bees up your nose!) Eggshells horrify Jabu. For Morula, it’s the fear of not belonging.
Are elephants afraid of mice? No, but quick small things moving around their feet startle them. I consider that a prudent reaction in a world full of snakes.
My fears are primitive, hard-wired into the base of my brain from the time when humans were prey to huge fanged predators – cats as large as grizzlies, bears as large as elephants. My primitive brain is not comfortable when there are carnivores around, especially when I can’t see them.
Just last night a lion’s roar ripped me awake from a deep sleep: WAAA-AH-UNGHHH UNGH UNGH UNGH ungh ungh. . . .It ended with those deep grunts lions cough up from their bellies.
A lion’s roar can be heard for five miles. This one was incredibly loud and incredibly close, right at the edge of camp.
A cold set of fingers wrapped around my heart. In the darkness my heart threw itself repeatedly against my ribs, then slowly backed into a corner of my chest. Wary, it waited there for another roar, which never came. I knew I was safe – no lion has ever dragged someone out of a zippered tent in Botswana. But tell that to my primitive brain.
Four days ago, as I waited for Doug to pick me up from Stanley’s Camp, I had enough time before his arrival to join an evening game drive. A young couple on their first trip to Africa climbed into the tier of seats behind me in the Landcruiser and held hands. They were on their honeymoon. John, our driver and guide, explained that two other vehicles from camp had found a pride of lions on the other side of the reserve – but it was too far away for us to join them and be back before dinner.
So we headed off in the opposite direction. The young couple happily snapped photographs of zebras and impalas and baboons, giddy with the realization they were in the midst of their dream vacation. A male kudu with magnificent horns kept us in one place for nearly a half hour as the couple peppered John with questions and marveled over the graceful curl of the kudu’s horns.
At dusk John parked at the top of a knoll. With open grassland all around us it was safe to descend from the vehicle. He prepared traditional sundowners – gin and tonics – and handed them around.
As I take my first sip a lion roared in the near distance. “That’s not very far,” I said and looked at John.
“We could get lucky,” he looked at the couple with us.
They nodded, so we dashed our drinks on the ground, stashed our glasses back in their basket, and scrambled back into the Landcruiser.
Just down the road, where we’d been half an hour earlier, four large males lounged in the tall grass alongside our tracks. One lifted his chin and roared, loud enough to rattle our hearts: WAAUNNNNNNGH, UNGH, UNGH, ungh, ungh, ungh.
John sent a radio message to the other vehicles. They will detour to join us on their way back to Stanley’s.
As we watched the four males, light faded from the sky and disappeared. Blue became purple, then black. Stars appeared, each one of them a cold clear diamond.
John switched on a spotlight. A male sat in front of us, looking to our right, listening.
Spotlight off. The couple behind me murmured to each other and tried to become small blobs, rather than humans with discernable arms and legs and heads.
Spotlight on. Another male, on the left, folded into the grass, on his side, with a barely audible ufff.
A distant contact roar from one of the lions on the other side of the reserve.
Spotlight on. The male in front of us headed to a wall of brush and trees, disappeared.
Spotlight off. Shallow breaths through my open mouth. A commotion to our left.
Spotlight on. Another male, who was sitting off to our right, had moved across the road and was now rubbing the side of his face against the lion inert in the grass. When he couldn’t get his companion to rise, he also slid into the bush. A fourth lion, just up the road, ghostly in the spotlight’s shadow, followed the first two, disappeared.
Spotlight off. Silence.
Then a faint roar, in the distance again.
The hair on my arm rose before I even thought about it, as I realized that next to me the grass hissed, hisss zissh, hisss zissh, as something large walked by.
“He’s right beside me,” I whisper without moving my lips.
The inert lion was gone. John twisted his hand over his shoulder and the light caught the back of a lion just passing the front tire on my side of the vehicle. His great head swung back and forth as he walked hisss zissh, hisss zissh through the tall grass. The lion had walked around the back end of the vehicle without us hearing him until he was right next to me. The skin on the back of my neck tried to crawl up to the top of my head.
The lion turned his head toward the light. The pupils in his yellow eyes shrank to pinpoints.
He was that close. I saw his pupils shrink to pinpoints.
He huffed and swung around to follow his three brothers into the bush. I exhaled. Had I been holding my breath that long?
The two other vehicles appeared just in time to catch a glimpse of his back in waist-high grass. They followed him, bouncing through the brush, their headlights tapping the tops of trees.
John turned in his seat and looked at us. The spotlight in his lap illuminated his face and glinted from the eyes of the young couple, eyes that were now nearly the size of their open mouths.
“I think it is enough,” he said. “Let’s go to the hyena’s den before the others get there.”
An excerpt from my book, Larger than Life, Living in the Shadows of Elephants:
In 1998, the Disney Corporation opened the Animal Kingdom Park in Florida. It is, in essence, a 500-acre zoo, containing 1,700 animals representing 250 species, from Abdim’s storks to African zebras. In the center of the park is a 145-foot-tall, 50-foot-wide sculpture of a baobab, representing the Tree of Life from the Disney film, TheLionKing. Much larger than any known baobab, the sculpture is molded around a refitted oil platform. Its trunk is carved with 325 animals and contains a theater with 430 seats. Upon its branches are 103,000 leaves dyed five shades of green, made of kynar, a flexible fluoropolymer resin.
Since opening, the park has averaged 9 million visitors annually, ranking seventh in the world in theme park attractions. Disney’s resident herd of African elephants has produced six calves, three females and three males, all still living – the most successful breeding program in the United States. The herd now consists of twelve elephants: four males and 8 females.
Here, in the Okavango Delta, our small herd of three elephants, one male and two females, browse through thick brush on one of the islands left stranded after last year’s flood. As I might linger over a sunset, Jabu, the male, lingers over a small mopane tree, whose leaves have high protein content, an important year-round food source. Thembi pulls out a single leaf from a young palm and chews on the sweet cane-like stalk. Morula has entirely disappeared into a thicket, but I can hear an occasional crack from a breaking branch as she tugs it from a tree.
The white eye of the sun glares down upon us, blinding, melting the wax that held together a small, feathered breeze. My bones soften, melting. I lose my ability to soar.
The sun reflects from my camera’s metal buckle and penetrates my brain like a dull pickax. It’s a burst bomb, pure and searing, a light behind my eyelids, a glimpse of the beginning of our solar system. Halfway through its own lifespan, the sun is fueled by enough hydrogen to last five billion years more.
I move into the shadow of a nearby mopane. Thick, dappled shade makes diamond patterns at my feet. Slowly we begin to leave the island, the elephants more reluctantly than the humans.
Across a dried up lagoon full of grass, is a baobab, a rare species for this part of the Delta. Its nude limbs, entangled as a root system, seem to search for moisture from the sky. Kalahari Bushmen believe the trees appear fully-grown, planted upside down by the gods, with the tree’s roots in the air. They also believe spirits inhabit the baobab’s large, waxy-white flowers, and if anyone has the audacity to pick one, they will be eaten by a lion.
This baobab is deciduous and luckily naked this time of year. It’s around twenty-two feet in diameter and about seventy feet tall; a young tree that I would guess is 600 years old. Its trunk is smooth and relatively unblemished.
Older baobabs have a tendency to rot out their heartwood, but completely heal around the hollowed trunk. Rats and reptiles frequently invade them. The African honeybee often establishes hives in crevices of a hollowed trunk. Native to central and southern Africa the bees are actually a subspecies of the Western honeybee.
A single sting from an African bee is no more venomous than a single European or American bee sting, though African honeybees respond more quickly when disturbed and send out three to four times as many workers in response to a threat. They also pursue an intruder for a greater distance from the hive – thus their reputation as “killer” bees.”
So the Honeyguide bird is more than willing to let another species take that risk. Physically unable to break open a bee’s nest, it has developed a symbiotic relationship with humans, indicating the presence of a hive by continuously dive-bombing nearby, all the while uttering monotonous, squirrel-like chirps. Alerted by the Honeyguide, intrepid Kalahari Bushmen pound pegs into the soft bark of baobabs to climb the tree, lull the bees with smoke and obtain a sweet reward for taking that risk. Bushmen always leave honey for the birds, for if they should fail to do so, the Honeyguide will one day lead them to a lion, instead of a hive.
Smooth and pinkish-gray, the baobab across the grass lagoon has only a few hollows in its trunk excavated for bird nests, and a single scrape from an elephant’s tusk. Older trees are often deeply scarred as high as an elephant can reach.
Hollow baobabs have a long history of creative uses by humans. During World War II, a baobab in Namibia was fitted with a toilet. The toilet is still there, but the tree has grown around the door, which no longer opens. On the lower Zambezi River, the Kayila Lodge has an operational toilet tree, used more for photo opportunities than necessity. And on a private farm in Sunland, South Africa, an enormous baobab contains a wine cellar and bar, complete with draft beer, a dartboard, stools, and a wooden bench along the wall. The tree is possibly the oldest baobab in existence – it has been radiocarbon-dated to the end of the Stone Age, around six thousand years ago.
In Kasane, Botswana, a baobab was used as women’s prison in the early twentieth century. I imagine it also served as a deterrent – incarceration with potential rat and reptile cellmates would make any criminal think twice. Although that baobab died in 1967, an offshoot now grows next to the remains of the jail. Throughout Africa, hollow baobabs have served various purposes – as hiding places during tribal warfare, as shops, storage shelters, barns, chapels, burial sites, post offices, even a bus stop.
Almost every part of the baobab is edible. Fresh leaves are eaten as spinach and condiments. The shoots from germinating seeds taste like asparagus. Bulbs from its roots make porridge. Fluid extracted from the bark of the baobab is used to dilute milk. The ash from a burnt tree is a good substitute for salt. Pulp and seeds of its fruit contain potassium acid tartrate as well as citric acid, an effective substitute for cream of tartar, and resulting in the Afrikaans name “Kremetartboom.” Early settlers also used fruit pulp in place of yeast and added baobab leaves to speed up the fermentation process in winemaking. The fruit pulp has the highest known concentration of Vitamin C. It makes a slightly acidic, but refreshing drink when mixed with water. Baobab seeds have the same protein value as domestic nuts and can also be roasted and ground into a substitute for coffee.
The baobab is often called “the Monkey-bread tree,” because baboons and monkeys eagerly consume its fruits. Nearly all four-legged browsers eat the baobab’s fallen leaves and flowers. The flowers open just before dark, produce copious amounts of nectar and last for only 24 hours. Their heavy, carrion-like scent attracts nocturnal insects and bats, such as Peter’s Epaulleted Fruit Bat.
In times of drought, elephants strip the bark of the baobab and eat the spongy wood underneath, estimated to contain 40-70% water – classifying the baobab as the world’s largest succulent. An individual baobab can store up to 32,000 gallons of water and weigh 266,880 pounds – or one hundred and twenty-one tons. A big bull like Jabu can weigh up to 16,000 pounds or seven tons. If you stacked elephants one upon the other, it would take seventeen or eighteen elephants to equal the weight (if not the mass) of the water stored in a large baobab.
The name baobab derives from North African Arabic, bu-hibab, “fruit of many seeds.” Within life spans that reach six thousand years, the baobab nourishes countless species, takes in tons of carbon dioxide and releases equal amounts of oxygen. It cycles and recycles, measures seasons by dropping its leaves, measures centuries by the blur of life beneath its limbs. A baobab’s death is the death of an eternity, as measured by one of those species for which it provides.