It’s the exact moment of daybreak. Outside my tent window the sky brightens from black to blackberry. A call from a nightjar floats in through the mesh of the window, gurgling and untuned against the silence beyond it. Other birds begin to shift and rustle in the bush at the tiny hint of light in the sky. A damp coolness shifts upward a degree.
I emerge from the cocoon of sleep, roll over and watch blackberry become gray. I hear a lion’s roar, faint and comforting in its distance. The light turns curry, then yellow, then the pale blue of an egg. The shifting birds flutter, then fly free from the bush as if released from cupped hands. Air dries and lightens, and the sky turns to a transparent blue.
By the time I leave my tent the sun blooms between clefts in the hills. I stop and face east. My body is covered with downy sunlight, soft and warm as peach fuzz. Little coolness remains; the day is already sweet with possibilities.
This collared elephant, photographed in Botswana’s Chobe National Park, has a large breast mass – most likely mastitis, an inflammation or abscess of breast tissue often caused by blocked milk ducts. Although harmful bacteria may be present in her milk, nursing might relieve her mastitis symptoms. I don’t know the outcome for this mother, but it’s highly unlikely her breast mass was cancer related. Why? For elephants, the overall lifetime chance of dying from cancer is less than 5%. The mortality rate for humans is 20%.
Why should a mammal with 100 times more cells than we do have such a low cancer rate? Oddly enough, there is little relationship between cancer rates and body size of mammals – even though the cells of elephants will divide many more times throughout their lifetimes than ours will, simply because they have so many more of them. Elephants ought to have a greater quantity of random mutations predisposing them to cancer than we do. But they don’t.
Studies using the autopsy reports of 36 mammals at the San Diego Zoo (ranging in size from mice to elephants) and the database of 644 captive Asian and African elephants confirmed that the relationship of cancer to body size did not matter. But those studies also found something highly unusual in the blood cells of elephants. African elephants have twenty TP53 genes (and therefore 40 alleles of that gene); Asian elephants have fifteen. TP53 is sometimes called the “guardian of the genome” for its ability to create a protein that suppresses tumors.
Humans have just one gene and two alleles of TP53. (An allele is basically a copy of a specific gene at the same position on a chromosome. Chromosomes are located in the nucleus of cell and contain DNA, the genetic instructions that make mice mice and elephants elephants.) In humans, one allele is inherited from each parent – both crucial to prevent cancer. Having only one allele causes Li-Fraumeni syndrome, which is characterized by a more than 90% lifetime risk of cancer.
TP53 codes for the protein p53, a crucial tumor suppressor that stops cells with damaged DNA from dividing. TP53 goes into action when cells suffer DNA damage, churning out copies of its associated p53 protein and either repairing the damage or killing off the cell. But instead of repairing DNA damage, compromised elephant cells have evolved to always commit suicide rather than pass on potentially harmful mutations acquired in trying to repair itself. Once the damaged cell is dead and gone, it can’t turn into cancer.
Most of the elephant TP53 genes are retrogenes, which evolved into their genome at a later time than the original gene. Two factors explain why elephants developed more TP53 genes: a long gestation period (22 months) and a reproductive lifespan that lasts well into their 50s (elephants live 60+ years in the wild). Unlike mice, elephants don’t reproduce often – thus they pass along the extra copies of TP53 even in old age, and their progeny benefit.
In contrast, humans reproduce only into to middle age and most of our cancers are diseases of aging. We are the legacy of short-lived ancestors (compared to modern life expectations), who mostly didn’t get cancer throughout their years of reproduction and raising children. As modern humans age, our chances of contracting cancer become greater since we have less suppressing genes than elephants do. And any cancer-fighting mutations within our genes don’t get passed along in our older years.
Do elephant genes hold the secret of a cure for cancer? Researchers are investigating. Meanwhile, elephants are being slaughtered for their ivory, for short-term gains. What if elephants were our saviors, our partners in longer, healthier lives? What if elephants were worth much more alive than dead? #worthmorealive Spread the word.
Melting from yellow to orange the swirled, stained-glass sun hangs round and unfastened, rolling down a line of bush. The last hot breath of the day exhales and in a single moment the sun drops and is gone.
A lemon sky turns violet. Moisture thickens as plants exhale and shadows deepen. As light fades, smells condense – the cold iron of stars, the ancient, clean smell of cold sand under my feet, sage on my fingertips, smoke in my hair.
Palm trees fan black silhouettes against the stars.
I look up at a sky filled with diamonds where the giant, gem-studded belt of the Milky Way girdles the full belly of the night. By its light alone I pick my way to my tent.
The moon sails west, round and immense, shining a clean, pure light that has a whiff of blue about it. The brush is full of crickets, each one singing in a different rhythm. I hear a few individuals among the many – soloists. I hear collective phrasing – the choir. And right before I sleep I hear them singing even more loudly to the sizzling stars.
I turn my head toward the sun’s white-hot eye. Behind my closed eyelids burn a thousand childish sketches of red suns. I hear one of the regular camp staff scratching around my feet for crumbs: a Red-billed Francolin, who believes his territory includes the kitchen shelter and its surroundings. The color of his legs, feet and bill match, but they look more orange than red to me. He’s plump as a pillow, with a bright yellow circle around each eye – but woe to any other francolin who trespasses. The resulting chases are explosive, noisy, and continue until he’s satisfied the intruder is back in the bush where he belongs. Male francolins have spurs on their legs, and they don’t hesitate to use them in fights. When he’s this close I can see the tiny black claws at the end of his toes, and hear his soft chuckles when he finds another crumb.
We tell old stories in order to see anew. All of us take the same journey from life to death, though our paths are never the same. We begin as an explosion of infinite possibilities and then, for the rest of our lives, fall back upon ourselves, grabbing at some of those possibilities during our fall. Our trajectory, which touched the very rim of life, descends toward the center, ending at zero, at what some see as a portal and others see as finality. Falling, always falling towards the center of ourselves, the huge unknown universe within, our journeys are all the same.
A metal pail hangs over my head, fixed by a rope and pulley to the limb of a tree. The bottom of the pail has a showerhead with a spigot to control water flow. I stand on sand within a rectangle of stones while a loose, slat-sided fence protects my modesty. Vines climb up and around and through the slats. Sunlight filters through the overhanging tree while the sky above it snaps blue, blue, blue with the upbeat tempo of a jazzy song.
Naked, my skin softens as buttery light melts into my pores. Naked, I create my own breezes as I wash. Naked, I smell saltish, metallic, as if newly risen from the sea. Naked, I am clothed in myself.
Cool water the color of weak tea trickles down my neck and across the landscape of my body. Each sluice takes a different path: one rivulet down an arm, another makes it all the way to my ankle. The water becomes darker and turns into rivers full of dust as it washes away islands of soap. A small puddle gathers around my feet and sinks immediately into the sand.
As I dry off insect noise boils shrill as a teapot. I dress and step around the edge of the fence.
The afternoon hunkers down and sits on its heels – occasionally fanning itself with a short breeze,perfumed with the faint scent of hot, dry wood. Faint whisperings rustle through the grass, prayers for rain. If there were clouds I would lie on my back and watch them.
I sip hot oxygen in tiny gulps, panting.
Life, perishable life, rests in the shade, its thin legs tucked under, safe for the moment, waiting, even-eyed, for the predators of the dark to awaken.
Not far from here jungles of papyrus lean their feathery seed heads over the clear blue channels of the Okavango River, tall stands of reeds 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.
With the river will come crocodiles and hippos and other denizens of its deep, running water. When the river reaches this part of the Delta, a new population of birds will arrive with it: Wattled cranes, Egyptian geese, Reed cormorants, Darters, Avocets, Black crakes, Red-knobbed coots, Sacred ibis, Hamerkops, Fish eagles, and Saddle-bill storks.
Standing shoulder to shoulder on a mat of trampled reeds, two 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. Corkscrew spirals spill from their mouths, patter like rain on the surface of the lagoon. Sky-blue ripples spread from one edge to another, bounce back images of a thousand suns.
Believe me: you could spend the rest of your life watching this.