Off in the distance zebras nod as they plod past a line of trees. Yes, this is the right way; Yes, this is the right way. Several stop to look our way.
They are nature’s bar codes, no two alike. Quintessential Africa.
In his book, Origin of Species, Darwin speculated on whether a zebra was a white horse with black stripes or a black horse with white stripes. He compiled examples of the occasional striping on all horses, arguing that a trait from a distant common ancestor, white on black, is brought to full fruition in the zebra. His examples noted that some zebras are born with white dots and blotches, incomplete stripes on a black background, Morse code instead of bar code, natural proof that a zebra is a black horse with white stripes. The white is lack of pigmentation.
I think I’ve taken at least 300 photographs of zebras, of their herds, their stripes, their tails. Tails of Africa: I have a whole album of animals turning their backs just as I press the shutter. Portraits of elephant butts, giraffe butts, baboon butts (not a pretty sight for those who don’t get an immediate visual image), impala butts, even bird butts. None of lions, however. They tend to circle, keep you in sight. The most butts in that album belong to zebras, notorious for twirling away just when I have a great shot lined up.
The zebra family of striped horses (Equidae) has four members: Plains zebra (Equus burchelli), Mountain zebra (Equus zebra), Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) and Wild ass (Equus africanus). I’ve never seen a Mountain zebra or a Wild ass (no jokes, please), but I’ve been fortunate enough to add plenty of photographs of the Plains zebra and Grevy’s zebra to Tails of Africa.
The Grevy’s zebra is the largest of the family members and looks a lot like a mule, with large rounded ears and a short, thick neck. Their brush-cut manes are stiffly erect, broom-like, and sometimes extend all the way to the tail. Stripes on a Grevy’s are narrow, close-set, brownish, and extend to the hooves. Their bellies and the area around the base of their tail do not have stripes: Grevy’s zebras have white butts. Foals are born with brown stripes that darken as they grow. Found in Kenya and Ethiopia, there are only 2,000 Grevy’s left in the wild due to habitat loss.
Like all zebras, the stripes on a Grevy’s extend up through their manes. Their muzzles are brown, and so is the whisk at the end of their tails. Their lips and nostrils are gray.
In contrast, Plains zebras are nearly everywhere, from Ethiopia to East Africa, to Southern Africa, but usually no more than nineteen miles from the nearest water source. Smallest of the zebras, it has horse-like ears and is thick-bodied with short legs. Their stripes are vertical on their bellies, but swing more to the horizontal on their hindquarters and make neat collars around their necks. Adults have black muzzles; foals are born brown and white. Southern populations also have “shadow stripes,” a brown stripe in between black ones. Their stripes extend nearly to their hooves.
You might think such a boldly patterned animal is easy to spot. For humans, yes – we are used to bar codes and are able to string together space between vertical black slashes as part of the whole. For lions, not so much, because cats can’t see color. If they did, we would have cats with butts like baboons during mating season, a lovely (to baboons) come-hither red, or cats with blue balls, like those of Vervet monkeys. (My blue balls are bigger than your blue balls.)Then again, maybe blue balls might work for lions, because they see mostly in blues and greens.
Stripes work to interrupt the outline of a zebra’s body – a lion sees only blobs of a lighter color of blue-green as an unrecognizable pattern – since no two zebras are striped the same it would be impossible to memorize a pattern as zebra! Black stripes are seen by lions as blank spaces. Add in a screen of bush and a hungry lion might walk right by an immobile zebra. And when lions flush a herd of zebra, all those flashing stripes together give the herd a psychedelic pulse that make it difficult for lions to visualize individuals in the herd.
Zebras have thick, tough hides. Healed scars from attempted lion take-downs often result in misaligned stripes.
But for photographers, even the butt end of a zebra is fun to capture – because, for the most part, their tails are striped, too. And sometimes the light is just too perfect to resist.
Every second of every day unheard worlds tremble past my dim senses. Occasionally, when I’m in Africa, the air around me begins to thicken as an elephant’s vocalizations lift from infrasound into a register my ears can hear. Airquakes. Fractures and heaves of oscillating air. Another language, one without words, without speech.
I almost know infrasound. No more than two miles from my home freighters push through the deep waters of Puget Sound. On flat black nights the thump-thump of their propellers travels through water, through air, churns into my bed, my bones and into the lowest threshold of my hearing. It’s a mechanical throb, born in the bellies and boilers of machines, carried along rotating shafts which turn the metal blades of propellers, which slice through water like a dull knife hacking flesh. . . . . Whummp . . . whummp . . . whummp . . . . . . . . .
Out in the bay that fronts the town where I live, aggregates of barnacles coat docks and pilings and rocks. Their shells open and close, open and close, as feeding appendages catch food on the tides. Barnacle larvae hone in on the vibrations of feeding and settle in with their relatives so that they may easily exchange sperm and eggs with their kin. The sound of a large bed of barnacles can be heard for up to ten miles underwater.
Sound moves in waves similar to light waves. Light can be carried in a vacuum such as outer space but sound cannot. It needs a conducting medium. There’s a terribly silent universe beyond the top layer of earth’s atmosphere. It’s cold, breathless, without wind, without water, without life. On the moon our alien footfalls fell without sound into its dead dust. No one hears anything, unless you are in a spacesuit, listening to your own breathing.
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.
The storm grows throughout the night. Gusts of wind slap and pummel the side of the house with open palms and a horde of fists. It moans around the edges of the front door. The arms of my chair tremble with each blast.
I push the tip of my pen across a piece of paper, try to quiet the storm of voices inside my head. The world is sealed outside, my thoughts sealed within. An ant climbs onto the paper where I’ve written these last few words, bumps into the ink marks, recoils, bumps into them again, recoils again, and gives a wide berth thereafter to ink. I empathize with the ant. None of my words are the right ones. The damp animal scent of fear chases them into the darkness beyond the candle on my desk.
The power is out. The candle is a miniature sun. It creates light the same way the sun creates light, by consuming itself. But a candle burns faster, has a much shorter lifespan. It flickers in the drafts flowing through the house like ghosts.
The rain picks up its tempo and sounds like hundreds of nails thrown against the window behind me. Squalls beat against the glass as if the storm has gone mad. An image forces itself into my imagination – an image of the furious wind taking the house in its hands and shaking it.
I write until the candle gutters and I have just enough of its light to find my bed. I cannot sleep. Words swirl and dive and surface and sink. My useless eyes stare into the dark. My heart beats as if it is marching to its doom. The house shakes and shakes and shakes. Finally, bone-weary sleep overtakes me.
I dream a night-full of quicksilver dreams, of wild-haired crones, potent seers and wisdom that fades with dawn. The absence of wind awakens me. Emerging from the cocoon of sleep, I go outside.
Long fingers of light spread behind the mountains, the palm of the sun still hidden. The few stars left burn out. All that distant, distant past up there – before humans, before dinosaurs, before one-celled lumps of life began wriggling in the sea.
Clouds with gray weighted bottoms float behind the wake of the storm. Their fluffy tops begin to glow. Rooted to one spot like a sunflower, my head turns toward where the sun will rise. And I wait.
When I least expect it, Beauty fells me with a roundhouse right, pummels me with soft fists, dazzles me with her quick feet. Sometimes it’s a glancing blow to the chin; sometimes she doubles me up by a quick swing to the solar plexus. Right, left, right, left – she’s danced me round and round the ring until I’ve lost my breath. She’s left me in my corner, dazed and gasping. She’s held me in a clinch, face to face, with nothing more to say. To some Beauty is just another heavyweight contender, but in bouts with me she’s always the champ, always the champ.
The morning air is as smooth and cold as marble. The last birds of the night are the first birds of the morning. They gab and jabber as if they had just newly discovered daylight. Six would-be-trackers and two rangers circle the fire, sticking our toes close to its embers.
I dunk my rusk into a cup of rooibus, red bush tea. Rusks are dry biscuits, resembling biscotti. Softened bits crumble and sink to the bottom of my tin cup. My last gulp of tea is mush.
After breakfast we walk out to the dirt road that leads away from camp and immediately find elephant prints where one sauntered down the road last night. It’s not surprising we didn’t hear him. The thick pads on elephants’ feet support their massive weight and distribute their tonnage. An elephant is a remarkably quiet animal for one so large.
Elephant tracks are easy to recognize – no other animal has a print like the impression of a large pizza-pan. Since their front feet are oval and back feet round, it’s easy to tell in which direction this one went. But when we find him, the bull is immediately agitated, even though we’re upwind.
“He hears us,” Syd says, “but he doesn’t know what we are.”
The bull’s trunk periscopes as he samples the air, trying to smell us. Then he sends a bluff our way, charging several feet, ears extended, a short blat indicating his displeasure. He’s a good hundred yards from us, but we take the hint and back away. An elephant could cover that distance in no time at all. After all, we’re here to study tracks, not get flattened.
The road is full of elephant overlapped elephant tracks. One track has a swipe through it where the elephant dragged his trunk. An impala’s tracks step across the road to the left, the prints of a Kori bustard head right.
Syd stops further on and sits on his heels near the side of the sandy road. “What are these?” he points at some small prints.
“Genet,” someone guesses, since the tracks are small and clawed, and the genet, a spotted cat with an elongated body, is nocturnal.
“Porcupine,” I announce, pointing at the long marks alongside the tracks where quills scored the sand.
Syd stands up and grins at me. “Very good,” he says, and I feel like I’ve momentarily gone to the head of the class.
“Then what are these?” He points to a set of padded prints left smack in the middle of the road, deeply imprinted into the floury sand.
“Too big for hyena,” one of my fellow trainees says, and we all look at each other, thinking as one: lion.
We reluctantly follow Syd as he walks and points out the direction the lion is headed. Same way we are. It’s a quiet class – we’ve all heard the recent stories about the lions of Kruger, the ones right next door, neighbors with no fence between us.
Illegal immigrants from Mozambique try to enter South Africa through Kruger. Lions have learned to hunt them. Several days earlier I had talked to a park ranger at Kruger and he cautioned that twenty “or so” evidence sites had been found. “But that’s just when there’s something left,” he said. “I’ve been stalked. Now I always carry a rifle.”
I swallow hard as we follow the tracks on the road, glad that Syd is also carrying a rifle. “How long ago?” I ask, meaning how long ago did the lion pass.
Syd smiles. “Yesterday.” He shows us where the tracks have degenerated, crumbles of sand filling the depression. “You can’t see the claw marks.” Maybe after a couple of years of following lion paw prints I’d be able to spot that. Or maybe my heart will always leap into my throat when I first see one.
Back at camp, Bernardo has heard that I have pictures of snow. He pores over them, trying to understand how the world could turn so white. I attempt to explain, using my hands as the sun and earth, tilting the earth first one way, then the other, moving it closer and further away from the sun. Bernardo is doubtful; his head has a permanent sideways tilt during my explanations.
Just before dark Syd gives a short class in how to hold and shoot the 45-caliber rifle that is our safety net in case one of us does something really stupid. We pay very close attention.
“How often have you had to use it?” I ask.
“In the last five years, maybe twice.” Ever the instructor, he uses the opportunity to ask, “Which way do you shoot?” We point to the ground, exactly where a warning shot should go. I am surprised we all have so much familiarity with guns.
“Good,” Syd says, “a bullet that goes up . . .” He leaves the sentence dangling, then adds, “It is too much paperwork to kill something.”
In a game reserve such as this one, careful monitoring is done of every nonhuman resident, since each animal is a huge investment. Most reserves are privately run, sometimes by huge corporations. The ability to advertise “Come see the Big Five! Lion! Elephant! Leopard! Buffalo! Rhino!” is an incomparable tourist draw. But wild animals do not behave quite like pets. When you swap lions with another reserve so that they do not inbreed, there’s no guarantee that those lions might not wander back, or off into Kruger, since there is no fence between the park and surrounding reserves.
As the light fades we sit near the fire and trade our full names: Bernardo Mkansi, Sydonea Hlatshwayo, Cheryl Merrill. Syd writes his name down on a piece of paper and shows it to me. “Can you say it?”
“Sure: Huh-lasch-WHY-o.” Syd and Bernardo gape. “Yes! How can you know?”
“I guessed, sort of like Bulawayo, that town in Zimbabwe.”
They both pronounce my name and make it sound like butterflies, each letter bouncy and full. “That’s it! Now teach me how to say it that way,” and they laugh, covering their mouths like schoolchildren. I practice saying my name several times, but I never quite get the hang of it.
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.
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.
Here’s a little fairy tale: Once upon a time, elephants lived to a rhythm of their own making. There were no elephants in captivity. They were captured only in legend, in song, painted onto walls of caves, etched on the flat sides of rocks. There were no elephants on reservations, in circuses, in sanctuaries, or zoos. No elephants were murdered solely for their tusks. They were not orphaned by the slaughter of their families, nor made to endure solitary confinement, leg irons, beatings, prods, and electric shocks. They were not enslaved. They were not used as vehicles of war. They were not made to wear radio collars, jeweled headpieces, or bear intricately carved wooden howdahs on their backs. They did not carry princes, or hunters, or loggers, or performers, or tourists. They were not forcibly relocated from the land of their birth. Most died of old age. Once upon a time elephants knew a landscape without fear, without fences, a landscape empty of humans. Once upon a time, elephants were everywhere.
It’s 5:30 a.m., overcast and dark, very dark. Driving to work from the country into town, I’m jittery and wide-awake after two cups of coffee. In fact, I might be the only one who is awake – I meet no other traffic. It’s the time of year when I go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. I live far enough north for hibernation.
The headlights of my car fan out before me and tap the tops of trees as the road rises beneath me to the crest of a small hill. As I reach the top and start toward the bottom, right in front of me, no time to brake, there is a wolf in the road. Full of surprise, his yellow eyes meet mine.
I drive right through him.
No contact, no impact.
Stunned, my mind searches for answers: That was a wolf! No, it wasn’t a wolf; you didn’t hit anything. But it was a wolf: long thin muzzle, gray and silvery ruff, rangy legs. It wasn’t a coyote; it wasn’t a dog; that was a wolf! It couldn’t have been a wolf, because it wasn’t there! No, it was there, I saw it! How could you see a wolf? They haven’t been here for a hundred years. If it wasn’t a wolf, then what was it?
Parallel universes? A hundred-year tear in a moment of time? Science Fiction? No, it was a wolf! I saw it!
I glance into the rearview mirror. Darkness, total darkness beyond the faint red glow of my tail lights.
Perhaps there is a wolf out there, loping away among dark trees, unnerved at his encounter with a huge two-eyed roaring monster that froze him in his tracks and disappeared at the moment it came close enough for him to smell its stinking breath.
We shake our heads, the wolf and I, trying to dislodge the strange scene, which disappeared as fast as it appeared. Two convergent creatures tangling out-of-sync, caught in a collision of lives, of timelessness, creating for both of us an instant of absolute astonishment. Above us, the whirling constellations leave fading paths across the sky.
I rock back and forth, toe to heel, toward the fire and away from it. My boots touch coals while stars crowd close around, peering over my shoulder, whispering ancient stories in my ears. Only moments earlier giraffes reflected the setting sun, but now their silhouettes fade, blur and disappear. Soon, out there beyond this fire, hyenas will make short work of bones.
In the darkness elephants are on the move, and almost without sound, except for the occasional rifle shot of a cracked branch. I wish I could hear condensed air – infrasound – soft rumbling kisses brushing my cheek. The compacted silence is completely full of presence, of huge milling bodies on padded feet. A herd of mountains relocates during the night while my thoughts swirl, embers stirred by wind.
Suddenly to my right, trumpeting, perhaps furious at being left behind, an elephant thunders by, an outraged trombone blowing past. I lift my head to follow the sound, but it’s my ears, not my eyes that see.
In the morning, no more than a half-mile from camp, we encounter a herd of sixty elephants. Nervous mothers guide their newborns away with their trunks, shield them from us with their bodies. Young punk males show off for each other, make small charges to see if our vehicle will bolt. Huge bulls, intent on mating, barge past like runaway cement trucks.
We sit in the middle of a herd. Two males give us a rear view of old men in baggy pants. A jumbo-jet sized matriarch leisurely crosses right past our front bumper. Her ears are perfect replicas of the map of Africa. Like fingerprints, no two elephant ears are the same. As pliable and soft as worn canvas, their leading edge is often caught and torn on branches and scrub. Hers has a neat, perfectly round hole near the bottom of Africa, right about where we are in Zimbabwe.
A young female strolls by, scans us as if we’re department store mannequins. She’s so close all I can do is snap a picture of her eye. She stops, blinks, and regards us with the air of a disinterested shopper. I look down at her feet, round in front, oval behind. The round one is about the size of a medium pizza pan. I glance back up, directly into her eyes. She stares back and shakes her head so hard that her ears flap. A great cloud of dust rises from them. Then she moves on.