Posted in Africa, Elephants, Extinction, Jabu, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel, Writing

Ivory, Part One

Jabu's tusk
An African elephant’s tusk

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.

Posted in Africa, Doug, Elephants, Jabu, Lions, Morula, Thembi, Travel

Lions, Part One

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.

Kudu horns b&wSo 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.B&W male lion

Spotlight off.

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.

Spotlight on.

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.A Lion Walks By b&w

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.”

Posted in Africa, Jabu, Morula, Thembi, Travel

The Tree of Life, Part Two

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, The Lion King.  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.  Baobob in winter

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.

Baobab barkHollow 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.Savuti baobab 2 b&w

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Jabu, Morula, Thembi, Travel

The Tree of Life, Part One

An excerpt from the book I’m writing about elephants:

Baobob in winterJabu, Morula and Thembi slowly browse through the brush on one of the islands stranded after last year’s Okavango flood.  Opposite of us, across a dried lagoon filled with grass, is a rare tree species for this part of the Delta: an African baobab, Adansonia digitata – digitata for the five leaves it has per stem.  The baobab is deciduous, naked this time of year.  Its prehistoric appearance conjures up primeval landscapes full of odd plants and crawling creatures that existed in the ages before the dinosaurs.

There are eight species of baobabs, six found in the dry deciduous forests of Madagascar, one in Australia, and digitata, which grows in West, East and Southern Africa.  Baobabs are also found on the Arabian Peninsula, spread there by the movement of human settlements.

Adansonias are named after the French naturalist, Michel Adanson (1727-1806), who spent five years in Senegal, brought home a huge plant collection, and published a paper on digitata after his return.  Adanson also wrote a masterwork of natural history, an encyclopedic l’Ordre Universel de la Nature, but it was based on his own system of classification, distinct from that of his contemporary, Linnaeus (1707-1788).  Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae, introduced binomial nomenclature – using an organism’s Genus, Adansonia, followed by a descriptive modifier such as digitataSystema Naturae classified 4,400 species of animals and 7,700 species of plants.

In contrast to Linnaeus’s system based on structures, Adanson proposed a “natural” system that took many features of the plant into account, which included structure along with function, growth, evolution and distribution.  His system was ignored in his time because he refused to use binomial nomenclature.  However, the publication in 1789 of Genera Plantarum, by Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, combined Adanson’s use of multiple structures with Linnaeus’s binomial classifications – a methodology widely accepted and still in use.

Adanson’s masterwork was huge, just like the baobab: 27 large volumes with a 150-volume index that contained an alphabetical treatment of 40,000 species, a vocabulary listing 200,000 words, 40,000 drawings and 30,000 specimens.  It was never published.  It is, however, preserved in the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Elephants love the bark of the baobab because of its moisture content.  As insurance against harsh drought, the swollen trunk of a single baobab stores up to 32,000 gallons of water, making its wood soft, spongy and fibrous.  A plank cut from this tree will decrease in volume by 40% and shrink in length by 15% while it dries.  Sometimes, during these times of drought, elephants will completely gird a tree, leaving it standing as if standing on its own pedestal, and yet the baobab will still survive.

The bark on the baobab across the lagoon is smooth and pinkish gray – untouched by elephants, probably due to its proximity to the Okavango’s permanent water channels.  I estimate this tree to be about 22 feet in diameter and 70 feet tall.  Mature baobabs have trunk diameters of twenty-three to thirty-six feet and reach heights of sixteen to ninety-eight feet.  The Glencoe baobab, near Hoedspruit in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, is considered the largest specimen alive.  Up to recent times it had a circumference of 154 feet.  In 2009 it split into two still-living parts, revealing an enormous hollow in the middle.  The date 1893 is carved into its trunk.

Found mostly in seasonally arid areas, baobabs grow very slowly as they age.  However, in its first years of life, a baobab grows relatively quickly.  A tree planted in Kruger National Park in South Africa grew 65 feet tall with an eleven-foot diameter in just 38 years.  In contrast, an older tree described by Livingstone in 1858 grew only two feet in circumference in 110 years.  Despite their early exuberance, baobabs can be cultivated as bonsai trees.

Baobab forest b&wAlthough the Glencoe baobab is thought to be two thousand years old, baobab wood does not produce annual growth rings and it actually shrinks during times of drought, so its size is not an indicator of its age.  The baobab across the grass lagoon is probably – my best guess – around 600 years old, or older, taking root about the time Eric the Red colonized Greenland (985), or later – perhaps the year Gutenberg invented the printing press (1439).  This tree, this timepiece, first dropped its leaves during the Middle Ages, and will continue dropping them, annually, for several thousand years more.

Just twenty days after leaving England, the Beagle anchored at the Cape Verde Islands on Jan 16th, 1832.  As Charles Darwin surveyed the islands with ship’s captain Robert Fitzroy, they measured a baobab that was 45 feet tall and thirteen feet in diameter, and rumored to be a thousand years old.  Darwin remarked in his diary that Adanson supposed some “celebrated baobabs” to be 6,000 years old.  The enormous tree “with its great thickness” impressed Darwin, and he wrote in his diary, “This one bears on its bark the signs of its notoriety – it is as completely covered with initials & dates as any one (tree) in Kensington Gardens.”

The Glencoe baobab has never been subjected to radiocarbon dating, but another in the Limpopo area has been carbon-dated at over 6,000 years, older than the pyramids at Giza (2560 BC).  Several other trees in the region have also been dated  – at about two-to-three thousand years old.

As I look at the baobab across the grass lagoon, I wish I could slip sideways into the life of this nearly eternal tree, and time-lapsed, witness the swirl of life around it as it fattened and grew.  And why not wish also for the future, for another one or two thousand years more?

I turn at the sound of a branch breaking behind me, squint against the sun, and cup a hand at my forehead to shade my eyes. The elephants are great gray silhouettes, haloed all around in bright, bright light.  My watch ticks on my wrist, its hands pointing to meaningless numbers.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Jabu, Uncategorized

Heart

I’m reposting this piece in honor of the new year.  It occurred very early in my blog:

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.

The heart on Jabu’s trunk
Posted in Africa, Elephants, Jabu, Travel

Odd, How Fast We Re-civilize

An Excerpt from My Book:

In the late morning, dizzy from heat, I survey the far side of a large lagoon.  Bracketed with the dense foliage of knobthorns, leadwoods, rain trees and fever berries, this remnant left behind by the Okavango is ultramarine, inviting.  But the color is only an illusion, a reflection of the blowsy blue sky.  The water is actually steeped brown, rich with dung, dead snails, rotten vegetation, sediments, and decomposing bodies by the thousands: fish, spiders, ants, beetles – any creature unable to outrun last year’s flood.

Not far from here jungles of papyrus lean their feathery seed heads over the clear blue channels of the Okavango, tall stands that line the permanent footprint of the Delta.  The river is inching southward, breaking the boundary between water and desert.  Soon it will flush this lagoon, scouring out the sweet muck at its bottom to spread among grassy floodplains, and the desert will green.  With the river will come crocodiles and hippos and other denizens of its deep, running water.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder on mats of trampled reeds, the elephants blow a concert of bubbles, bassoons under water.  They shower their spines, poke their trunks into the back of their throats and release gallons of water at a time.  As they remove their trunks some water spills from their mouths.  An odd mossy smell rises.

My mind wanders, wondering what it would be like to follow quicksilver fingers of water season after season, migration bred into my bones.  When the river reaches this part of the Delta, a new population of birds will arrive: Wattled cranes, Egyptian geese, Reed cormorants, Darters, Avocets, Black crakes, Red-knobbed coots, Southern pochards, Sacred ibis, Hamerkops and Saddle-billed storks.

Jabu sloshes up the embankment and heads for his ration of fresh alfalfa spread under nearby trees.  His feet and ankles are covered with mud.  He looks like he’s wearing socks.  His trunk is relaxed and curled slightly, to keep the tip of it out of the mud.  Although this is just a backwater of the Okavango, huge trees line the shore behind him.  No wonder elephants grew large in Africa: there was enough room and food to do so.

I slap dust from my pants and follow, as eager as he is to tuck into lunch.  I watch him stash a chunk of alfalfa between his tusk and the upper lip of his trunk, pick off mouthful after mouthful as if eating peanuts from a bag.  He smacks his lips as he eats.  When the grass is gone he drapes his trunk over his left tusk.  His eyes close and he dozes.

In a shady grove near the lagoon a table covered with a white linen cloth dazzles the tourists.  Fresh branches of mopane decorate the surface of the table; the leaves on each branch fold modestly like small olive table linens.  Knives rest across linen napkins on white china bread plates. Pepper grinders, water glasses, oil & vinegar decanters and wineglasses complete the illusion that we’ve stumbled into the al fresco dining room of an elegant restaurant.  Nodding at murmured compliments, the staff from Stanley’s hand out cold beer, which has been uppermost on many minds.

They’ve set up a buffet complete with chafing dishes.  White lace doilies edged with heavy colored beads protect the salads from flies.  It’s odd how fast we re-civilize.  All morning long the tourists had been mostly silent, filled with awe at walking next to elephants.  Now they sprawl in camp chairs and compare camera lenses.

A cake of soap sits in the fork of a bush next to a white basin on a folding wooden stand.  I use the murky water in the basin to lather my hands.  One of the camp staff holds a pitcher of clean water for rinsing.  The water in the basin turns even grayer with dirt.  I empty the basin and small puffs of dust rise from the force of the water hitting floury sand.

Then I too re-civilize, join the human conversation.

Posted in Africa, Doug, Elephants, Jabu, Morula, Thembi

Squh-week

Doug calls out, “Jabu here.”

Then he turns to Stacey.  “Time for a photo-op?”  I leave off drawing diagrams in the dust, stand up, dust off my pant cuffs, and join them.

Stacey fishes a disposable camera from the pocket of her shorts, “Do you mind?” and hands it to me.  I smile; she had a camera after all.

“Ears,” Doug says to Jabu in a conversational tone, in the same tone a mother might remind a teenager, “Dishes.”

But Jabu’s way ahead of him.  As soon as the camera came out he spread his ears and posed.

Stacey cuddles his trunk; I turn the camera horizontally in order to squeeze them into the frame.

“How many?’ I ask.  Practically the entire roll, it turns out.  Jabu with Stacey.  Jabu with Stacey & Doug.  Jabu and Doug.  Just Jabu.  Then Jabu with Stacey again.  It’s hard to fit all of Jabu into the frame of a point-and-shoot without Stacey appearing to be a mere speck.  I do a couple of close-ups.

Behind me seedpods rattle their tiny gourds as Thembi swishes through the grass.  Her ears ripple as she walks, a wave going through them, top to bottom.  She’s giving up eating to find out what’s going on.

Stacey joins me.  I hand over her camera.

“Squhweeek, Jabu.”

Doug’s voice rises an octave between “Squh”  and “weeek.”

Trunk tip squeezed together, Jabu obliges, emitting a series of squeaks similar in sound to rubber tires leaving skid-marks on pavement.

“It’s an inhalation,” Doug comments.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with Jabu, Thembi joins in.  And over in the brush, with her back to us, Morula squeaks too.  Like a kid in a corner, she keeps on practicing.  Her squeaks sound more like a finger rubbed across a balloon.

“Talk.” Doug says to Jabu and Thembi.

First one “talks” and then the other.  They rumble, leaning back and forth, abdomens filling and emptying like bellows, sounds made by exhalations.

It’s a rhythmic conversation.  Jabu and Thembi’s low bass tones carry layer upon layer of vibrations.  I close my eyes and imagine giant, reverberating oboes.

Is there an under-current of conversation going on between them?  Silly humans.  They get so pleased over the littlest things.

Morula saunters over.  The tip of her trunk curls against her forehead, waves Hello.

“Morula has something to show you, too” Doug says.  “Morula, open,”

First Stacey, standing on tiptoe, reaches in, and then I reach in to rub Morula’s tongue.  It’s much bigger than mine is, but feels pretty much the same – wet, soft, fleshy.  It’s flecked with bits of leaves.

There’s a common but erroneous belief throughout Asia that all elephants are tongue-tied.  It’s also believed that if the tip of their tongue were not tied down at the front of their mouths, each and every one of them could speak.

Morula pushes against Doug’s fingers with her strong tongue.

What if Morula could speak?  There’s not a single one of us who do not wish that the great beasts of this world could whisper into our ears the secret of life, could answer our questions in a language we might understand.

But would we want to hear what they have to say about us?

Something tickles the underbrush, a small rustle from a smaller body.  Insects buzz in the background, a white noise that echoes the beginnings of the universe, a biological chorus constantly singing.

 I listen as if I am a young species, as if my life depended on