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

Goodbye, Hello

Jabu, Thembi, Doug, Sandi, Morula

In 2007, this was my last glimpse of Doug and Sandi, and their three incredible elephants.  Tomorrow I get on an airplane and begin a long two-day journey to return to the Okavango Delta in Botswana, to turn from “Goodbye,” to “Hello.”

Posted in Elephants, Jabu, Morula, Sandi

Sleight of Trunk

An excerpt from my book:

The tip of Morula’s trunk, like that of all African elephants, has two opposing fleshy extensions of muscle called “fingers,” one on the top of the tip, one on the bottom.  Asian elephants have only one “finger” on the upper side of their trunk tips.  To pick up objects, Asian elephants grasp an object between their single digit and the thick, stumpy underside of their trunk tips.

With her “fingers” Morula can remove a thorn, uncork a bottle, turn on a faucet, write with a stick in the sand, pick a leaf from a branch without making the others quiver, hold a cup by its handle, and swipe loose objects with the dexterity of a pickpocket.

Morula pinches the cap on my head and lifts it.

“Morula, behave yourself.”  I hear Doug’s voice behind me.

My cap plunks down, askew.  I take it off and examine a two-pronged smear of mud on its crown.


I had no sensation of her huge trunk hovering over my head.

Morula backs away, gazing sideways and down, caught in the act.

Who me? says her body language.

An exultant thief, Morula looks in every direction but at me.  If she could giggle, she’d be doing it now.

”Morula,” Doug tone is scolding, but all of us laugh, humans and elephant together.  Morula’s mouth is open and curled at the ends and she becomes, if possible, lighter on her feet, cross-stepping away from me.

Doug once wrote in his field notes:  “To experience these creatures fully, you have to be anthropomorphic.”

I agree.  How do humans measure anything but against themselves?

Stacey can’t wait to join the sleight-of-trunk game, but her hat is brand-new.  It’s not even dusty.

“Here,” Doug says, and plunks his hat, stained multiple times by his elephants’ trunks, on Stacey’s head.

“OK,” he says, “Jabu.  Take.”

Jabu fingers the hat, swipes it, and lifts it to the crown of his head.

Jabu takes a hat

“Jabu, Allll right,” Doug says, and Doug’s hat is returned to Stacey’s head, one more smear on its discolored crown.

She turns it in her hands before handing it back to Doug.  “Wow,” she says.

But I’m more impressed with Jabu’s quick assessment of the change of rules in a game he’s played over and over again.  This hat game wasn’t a simple one.  Jabu had two side-by-side bare heads upon which to place Doug’s hat.  And Doug’s hat would smell like Doug.  Yet Jabu knew which head was which.  And he knew Doug’s hat did not belong on Doug’s head this time.

Out in the field ahead of us Morula and Thembi continuously wrap and rip grass out by its roots, zzzzzzt,  zzzzzzt.  They beat the grass on the ground to remove sand and then place the thatch sideways in their mouths.  Bits of it fall to the ground as they grind their massive molars together.

Sandi stands near the road, watching them patiently, a mother with bright, exuberant children.  Her eyes slide sideways as I walk up next to her.  “Do you ever get tired of this?”  I swing my arm, trying to encompass the entire scene.  Four inches shorter than I am, Sandi tilts her head to look into my face.

“No.  We’re family,” she says.  I don’t have a reply to that simple statement so we both watch the elephants.  Then she says, “Sometimes I miss lipstick and makeup and movies.  But not often.”

I turn around to look at Stacey and Doug behind us.  Doug stands under Jabu’s head and Stacey is next to him.  Deep in conversation, they have their backs to us, looking in general direction of the way we came.  Jabu curls his trunk down and awkwardly to the right, exploring the scent of Stacey’s hair.  Even though the tip of his trunk is out of his range of vision, it hovers an inch from Stacey’s face as she, absentmindedly, touches it with one hand the way a child might reach for the arm of a mother brushing her hair.

Posted in Hyenas, Sandi


An excerpt from my book:

I zip shut my tent, first the inner mesh, then the heavy outer canvas flap, fastening the zippers all the way to their ends – a precaution against unwanted visitors such as scorpions, snakes or the thieving hyenas of Stanley’s Camp.  Two days ago, in the late evening, I waited for Doug while the camp’s manager kept me company.  He handed me a cold Tusker and pointed to the banks of a nearby lagoon.  “Hyenas drug our leather sofa out there and ripped it apart.”

The sofa never had a chance.  A pack of frenzied hyenas can devour a four- hundred-pound zebra in less than half an hour, eating everything: bones, skull, hair, even hooves – leaving only a smear of blood on the ground.  With a bite pressure of over a thousand pounds, hyenas pulverize and swallow enough bone their feces turn chalk-white.  They will filch anything not locked up: boots, toothpaste, shaving cream, underwear, soap, even bottles of hot sauce.  What’s glass to a creature that can eat a zebra’s hoof?  In the case of the sofa, they ate the leather and left a gnawed wooden frame.

“Why the sofa?” I asked the manager.  I imagined the scenario: in the dead of night the hyenas climb a set of wooden steps into the dining lounge, shove aside several tables and chairs, pull the sofa from the lounge down the steps and drag it the length of a football field to deposit it at the lagoon.

“Just the oil from human hands.”  He rubbed a palm across the sofa’s replacement.  It too is leather.  I tried not to think of it as also doomed.

A well-known hyena den is very near the main road to Stanley’s Camp.  Since I had some time before Doug arrived in his 3F, one of the guides drove me over to the den just at dusk.

As we sat quietly, motor off, a lone Spotted Hyena tentatively emerged from the den.  She had the usual hyena slouched profile: massive head and shoulders tapering to small, tucked-in hindquarters – a hybrid creature: half fearsome predator, half coward.  The second largest carnivore in Africa, (after the lion), the Spotted Hyena is larger than her Brown Hyena cousins.  Her family is more aggressive, too – a single adult, weighing at the most 140 pounds, is capable of hunting and killing a bull wildebeest of 600 pounds.  Although hyenas kill ninety-five percent of what they eat, they also loot the kills of leopards, lions and cheetahs at every opportunity.  Lions can’t digest hair and bones, but  hyenas are happy to do that for them.

Grinning her famous false smile, the hyena sat at the entrance of the den and turned her black, empty eyes toward us.

Less than a moment after, black fuzzballs erupted behind her.  As she returned each pup to the den’s entrance, another escaped and then another.  The grinning, panting, anxious nanny seemed to be having a nervous breakdown.  I would have considered the pups cute, except for the hyena’s awful reputation.

Last night, when I mentioned the sofa, Sandi told me that hyenas had killed an eleven-year-old American boy several years ago at the Xakanaxa (Kah-khan-a-kah) Campground, thirty miles northeast of here.  Despite the young age of her son, the mother allowed him to sleep by himself.  Awakened by crazed laughter, the guide saw a huge female hyena dragging the boy’s partially eaten body into the bush.   Guides from nearby camps helped locate what was left of the decapitated body, driving away the hyenas and guarding it until daylight.  For two years afterwards, his mother haunted the streets of Maun and the area around Xakanaxa, carrying her son’s ashes, looking for clues as to how he died.  Did he leave his tent unzipped?  Did he have food in his tent?

In the parks and game reserves of Africa, you never, never sleep with your food.  At Doug and Sandi’s kitchen shelter anything even remotely edible is secured in heavy metal lockers or inside a propane-powered refrigerator.  Over at Stanley’s, food is kept behind the heavy doors of a wood-frame kitchen.  Watchmen patrol the camp.

Last night I double-zipped myself into my tent – first the heavy outer canvas flap, then the inner mesh.  Hyenas are opportunistic and would walk right in if my tent were open.  Hyenas hunt in packs and mostly at night, so I was grateful to find an enamel chamber pot on my side of the zipper.

My tent

This morning, I emptied the pot into the “African long-drop” located near my tent.  The “long-drop” is a plastic commode fitted over a hole in the ground that’s about five feet deep.  No walls, no roof, no door – just the surrounding bush, a hole in the ground and me.

Next to the commode a small shovel sticks upright into a pile of ash.  I raise the lid, empty the chamber pot, and shovel in ash and close the lid.  No smell, no flies.  I much prefer African long-drops to American outhouses.

I rinse the pot from the spigot outside my tent, throw the water out into the brush, stash the pot back inside the tent, wash my hands in a basin under the spigot, toss that water, replace the basin, stash the soap back inside my tent, and zip it shut.  No hyena’s gonna scatter my stuff all over Africa.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Jabu, Morula, Sandi

Maps of Africa

An excerpt from my book:

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

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

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

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

The veins in Morula's ear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jabu, be nice to Morula,” she says.

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

Jabu, Sandi & Morula
Posted in Africa, Doug, Elephants, Jabu, Sandi, Thembi, Writing

The Elephants Who Accepted Me as Part of Their Herd

An excerpt from my book:

Jabu, Morula and Thembi live in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.  I don’t need radio collars or binoculars or even 4-wheel drive vehicles to study them.  They are companions, who allow me to walk alongside them, close as an eyelash.  Adopted as orphans from culling operations by Doug and Sandi Groves, they spend their days as most wild elephants do: strolling and eating.  But they are also willing ambassadors between the elephant world and the human world.

Walk with me.  Stroll with three unfettered and unfenced elephants in a world where the thin-skinned sky is a bare reminder that the earth is covered with air, where clouds stampede as if chased by lions – a world  without asphalt, without cell phones, without that strange human notion of time.

I hope you enjoy and follow this blog.

Jabu & me