Category Archives: Thembi

A Tribute to Thembi: Miles per Pound of Trees

On March 13, one of the elephants I who allowed me into her life died unexpectedly of colic and a heart attack.  I’ve written extensively about Thembi and her herd mates.  This is one of the pieces.

 

Diamond on forehead 2

Thembi, she of the evenly matched ears, long-lashed eyes, and diamond-shaped scar on the bridge of her nose, farts as she walks.  Big, burbling farts.

All the trees, grasses and leaves Thembi eats gather in her 10-gallon stomach, which is pretty much just a holding area.  From her stomach, roughage travels into her small intestine and then on into her large intestine.  Joining the two intestines is a junction called a cecum, where digestion actually takes place.  Her cecum is filled with billions of microbes, just like most mammals, including us.  The microbes break down the cellulose of leaves and trees into soluble carbohydrates Thembi can digest, but the process also gives her enough methane gas to power a car 20 miles each day.

I wonder, as I walk behind her, just how one could harness this gassy natural resource.  I live at the edge of a small town.  Twenty miles would more than cover my daily errands.  I imagine exhaust fumes smelling like fermenting grass.  I imagine driving down highways inhaling the scent of mulched trees.

I wonder, as I walk behind her, why I think of such things.

Percolating along, Thembi lifts her tail and farts again.  It’s a stupendous displacement of air.  In this just-right light, I can actually see this fart.  It looks like heat waves blasting from the back of a jet engine.

One advantage of Thembi’s size is food efficiency, miles per pound of trees.  An elephant eats four to seven percent of its body weight each day – four hundred to six hundred pounds of vegetation.  Mice eat a twenty-five percent of their weight daily and hummingbirds two times their own weight, or two hundred percent.  If hummingbirds ate trees, the forests of the world would already be gone.  Pound for pound, Thembi needs far less food than rodents or birds.  And with her size comes another advantage over smaller creatures – a longer life span.

We humans, with our penchant for measurements, have conjured up a precise formula for figuring out things like longer life spans.  The formula is called quarter-power-scaling.  A cat is about 100 times more massive than a mouse.  To calculate the cat’s age, take the square root of 100, which is ten, and then the square root of 10, which is 3.2.  The lifespan of a mouse is around 800 days, or just over two years.  Multiply 800 by 3.2.  The result is 2,560 days, or seven years, the average lifespan of a cat.

However, if a cat’s metabolic rate was 100 times faster than that of the mouse, all cats everywhere would spontaneously combust into feline fireballs.  Oddly enough, heart rate, the engine that drives the cat to chase the mouse, scales to the same formula, but in the opposite direction, to the minus quarter-power.  The resting heart rate for a mouse is 500 beats per minute.  Divide that by 3.2 and you have the average heart rate for a cat, around 156 beats per minute.

An elephant’s resting heart rate is a placid thirty-five beats per minute and a bit higher, around forty, when excited.  While the jittery mouse lives just over two years,  an elephant lives around sixty-five years, certainly long enough to power my car for the rest of my life.

 

Your Daily Elephant: Portrait of Thembi

She has very smooth ears, don’t you think?  A well proportioned, if a tad round, elephant.  Thembi is an enthusiastic eater.

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

Your Daily Elephant

A continuing series of elephant photographs.  That beautiful evening light.  Eye level with Thembi in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

Mammals Are Called Mammals Becuz. . .

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.”

“Thembi, leg.”

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.”

A Great Set of Knockers

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.

A Guy Nipple

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.

One of the Lactating Class

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.

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.”

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

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.

Pula, Pula Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

Wetlands are highly productive ecosystems – an interweaving of myriad plant and animal species that defies an easy analysis.  The previous four times I came to the Okavango Delta were in “dry” years when water tables were low and the floods barely reached as far as Stanley’s Camp.  I saw two, maybe three Burchell’s coucal (Centropus burchellii. ) Now they’re everywhere – rising from the grass to look for snails, frogs and toads, new opportunities for these predators with fierce red eyes.  Interestingly, it is mostly the male who incubates the eggs.  At dusk, as the elephants head back from their evening forage, I often hear the liquid song of a coucal:  Doooo, doo-doo-doo-doo, doo – the sound of water dripping into a wooden bucket, or pan-pipes rapidly descending a scale.

 Water is rare and precious in Botswana – so much so that the pula, the equivalent monetary unit as the dollar, is the same word used for rain.  The lack of water leaves much of Botswana’s desert areas uninhabitable.  Paradoxically, so do the floods, two months downstream from the rains in Angola.  The fickle nature of the Okavango’s channels defy permanent infrastructure, such as paved roads.  Often vehicles become immersed up to their floorboards.

 Each time I follow the elephants to another section of flooded road I’m both delighted and chagrined.  Delighted at the number of secret waterways – so numerous, so new, that no one can memorize them over the length of a year.  Chagrined, because I will need to wade.  My pants are already stained by decayed plant muck.  All of this water, and I cannot drink a drop of it.  Thankfully, the pipes at Doug and Sandi’s camp tap well water.

Some of this year’s road-channels are deep enough for mokoro, canoe highways, but not deep enough yet for crocodiles and hippos.  Bits of plants tumble along in slow clear currents down previous roads; water lilies and reeds fill entire channels, remind me of paintings by Monet.

Even elephants can get lost behind huge stands of palm and grass.

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

Mammals Are Called Mammals Becuz. . .

An excerpt from my book, Larger than Life:

Doug gets my full attention when he proclaims to his guests, “Thembi has a great set of knockers.”

“Thembi, leg.”

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.”

A Great Set of Knockers

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.

A Guy Nipple

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.

One of the Lactating Class

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.

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