Chobe River, 2012
Dear Madame Elephant:
There is a hole in the space between us, filled with thrown dust. You stare down your nose with a don’t-mess-with-me look, but I am describing things in my language, not yours. Yours is a language of thunder, trombones, and a low, rumbling growl. Your breasts are full; your child hides behind you. We have come knockata-knockata noisy around the corner in a vehicle now halted before you. How quickly we became silent and supplicant, waiting with immobile slightly bowed heads, as you sample the scent of our intentions. We are watchers watching each other. Your eyes are deep brown pools. Your benevolence is the most important thing to us. We hope you will bestow it upon us. Dear Madame Elephant, what would you tell us in our language, if you could. Or did you already tell us: your forbearance louder than our beating hearts, louder than words.
A Thankful Human
Found mostly in seasonally arid areas, baobabs grow very slowly as they age, except for first years of its life, when 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.
Young baobabs have only single leaves per stem. Without their crooked branches and five-leafed stems, they are difficult to recognize. 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. 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 the Epaulleted fruit bat. The Kalahari Bushmen are right: the smell of a freshly-picked baobab flower behind your ear would make you bait for lions drawn to the carrion scent.
Older baobabs have a tendency to rot out their heartwood, but completely heal around the hollowed trunk. Rats and reptiles frequently invade them and African honeybees often establish hives in crevices of a baobab. 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, but 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.”
Physically unable to break open a beehive, the Honeyguide has developed a symbiotic relationship with humans, letting another species take the risk of being swarmed. A Honeyguide indicates 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.
“Pachycaul” is a scientific term used to describe a variety of thick-stemmed plants with few branches. “Pachy” is Greek for “large” and “caul” is Latin for “trunk.” Pachyderm is a term for describing large, thick-skinned animals such as elephants. In times of drought, elephants strip the bark of the baobab and eat the spongy wood underneath, estimated to contain 40-70% water – which classifies the baobab as the world’s largest succulent. An individual baobab can store up to 32,000 gallons of water. When pachyderms meet pachycauls, it is the baobab that suffers. Sometimes, during these times of drought, elephants will completely gird a tree, leaving it standing as if on its own pedestal, and yet the baobab will still survive.
Weighted with water, baobabs barely move in the wind. Even a mild frost will kill a baobab, so they are never found at elevations over 3,000 feet. The tree is also sensitive to both flood and extended periods of drought. In Madagascar, a sugar mill diverted water onto land containing baobabs, which subsequently stood in water year-round. The trees began to rot and topple over until the land was drained and the remaining 313 baobabs upon it were declared part of a conservancy area. A highway constructed near the Nomslang Baobab in South Africa brought thousands of visitors to marvel at its size. Unfortunately, their feet trampled the earth beneath it into hardpan, making the ground impervious to rainwater and the famous baobab died. Baobabs melt into a huge, fibrous mass within a few months after their death, leaving behind mounds of stinking pulp and a pit filled with a rotting taproot. Soft spots around dead baobabs also indicate locations of its root system, which may radiate just below the surface for 300 to 1300 feet.
Some species of plants and trees emit chemical signals when under attack. I wonder if the baobab talks to its long-lived kin as it dies. Baobabs live up to two thousand years, 730,000 revolutions of daylight and darkness. Perhaps its chemical whisper is Patience, perhaps it is Eternity, perhaps it is Dream.
The most comprehensive book ever written about baobabs is The Baobabs: Pachycauls of Africa, Madagascar & Australia, Gerald Wilkins and Pat Lowe
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. Fixed to its branches are 103,000 leaves dyed five shades of green, made of kynar, a flexible fluoropolymer resin.
Eight species of living baobabs exist: six in the dry deciduous forests of Madagascar, one in Australia and one which grows in West, East and Southern Africa. Baobabs on the Arabian Peninsula are the result of human settlements. All baobabs are deciduous. 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.
Hollow 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. This 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. Incarceration with potential rat and reptile cellmates might 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 bull elephant weighs 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. Used and re-used, a baobab cycles and recycles, measures seasons by dropping its leaves, measures centuries by the blur of life beneath its limbs, unaware of that strange human notion of time.
Across the grassy lagoon is a rare tree species for this part of the Okavango 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 the crawling creatures that existed in the ages before the dinosaurs.
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. He also wrote a masterwork of natural history, L’Ordre Universel de la Nature, but it was based on his own system of classification, a system totally different from that of his contemporary, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1788). Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae introduced binomial nomenclature – using an organism’s Genus, Adansonia, followed by a descriptive modifier such as digitata. Systema Naturae classified 4,400 species of animals and 7,700 plants.
In contrast to Linnaeus, 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 because it was too unwieldy. 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, and a vocabulary listing of 200,000 words, 40,000 drawings and 30,000 specimens. It was never published, but is preserved in the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At least his life’s work was not lost.
Elephants (you knew I’d get around to them, right?) 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, an amount weighing around one hundred and twenty-one tons. A big bull elephant weighs up to 16,000 pounds, or seven tons. If you stacked elephants upon a scale, it would take seventeen or eighteen elephants to equal the weight (if not the mass) of the water stored in a large baobab.
The wood of the baobab is soft, spongy and fibrous. A plank cut from a baobab will decrease in volume by 40% and shrink in length by 15% while it dries. Sometimes, during times of drought, elephants will completely gird a tree, leaving it standing as if on its own pedestal, and yet the baobab will still survive.
The bark on the baobab across the lagoon is smooth, pinkish-gray, and untouched by elephants, possible due to its proximity to the Okavango’s permanent water channels. I estimate this tree is about 22 feet in diameter and 70 feet tall. Mature baobabs have trunk diameters of 23 to 36 feet and reach heights of 98 feet. The Glencoe baobab, near Hoedspruit in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, is considered the largest specimen alive, with a circumference of 154 feet. In 2009 it split into two still-living parts, revealing an enormous hollow in its middle. The date 1893 is carved into its trunk.
Although 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 size is not an indicator of age. The baobab across the grass lagoon is probably – my best guess – around 600 years old, or perhaps even 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, probably first dropped its leaves during the Middle Ages, and will continue dropping them, annually, for several thousand years more.
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. While I’m at it, why not wish for an added one or two thousand years more to my life? Eternity is often defined as an endless length of time. Are two thousand more years enough time to witness this amazing world and the lives it contains? After two thousand years would I want more?
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.
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.
The sound of water splashing draws us away from camp. We leave behind dinner preparations and walk out into the sunset, our feet soft in the sand. My boots kick up dust the color and texture of crumbled parchment.
Musty, bacterial, moist as a swamp cooler, the evening air condenses into cold pools. Shreds of scent blossom. I inhale freshened earth, the damp beginnings of night.
We find the elephants in a lengthening night shadow, drinking from a metal trough. Trunks curled, heads tipped back, eyes closed – they siphon water from the trough into their mouths. The sound they make as they siphon mimics the sound of rain in gutters, only the water is going up, not down.
Three elephant trunks reach toward us, sniffing the shadowed, violet air. Jabu thonks the end of his trunk against the ground, as if testing a cantaloupe for ripeness. Then he places the tip of his trunk directly under the hose gushing into the trough. Thembi curls her trunk tight enough to be nearly round, like a tire. Morula waves a medium-sized Hello.
The honey-colored evening deepens to gold, then orange, shot through with veins of red, a saffron sunset. The elephants become a shade of rusty rose.
On our walk back to camp the last of the sun catches the top of a fan palm as the purple shadow of the earth spreads across the sky. The rim of the earth becomes the rim of the moon as it rises.
I dream of elephants. They stand around me in my sleep. Surrounded by legs, by their great gray columns, I feel them sway, hear their deep long breaths. A light tap from a trunk reassures me, reminds me of who is here and where we are, all of us dreaming together.
Night’s curtain pulls back as earth rolls out of darkness and into dawn. Black becomes purple becomes blue. The person I was in my dreams vanishes. Reluctantly, reluctantly, I step out into a new day, but my watch is unreliable now. It’s my heartbeat that I listen to, an echo from that soft machine that pumps on.
an excerpt from my book:
The elephants cross a dry lagoon abandoned by the Okavango River after last year’s flood. Enticed by a nearby tidbit, Thembi stops, sniffs at a bush willow, and daintily picks a single leaf to taste-test it. Morula and Jabu join in, not so daintily, ripping entire branches from the bush. Deft as magicians, they use the tips of their trunks to strip the soft leaves, as if conjuring playing cards from a stacked deck.
Jabu crams a wad of leaves into his mouth. He drags one foot and stirs up a gauzy curtain of powdered insects, ash, crumbled grass and dust. From his belly up, Jabu is all the colors of mud; from his belly down, seen through the dust, he’s a bit hazier, like an old, old photograph.
Reposting one of my favorites, from back in 2013.
Gray wave after gray wave surges out of the bush in small herds of twenty or less, first one group, now another, flooding the huge hollow that contains a waterhole. Dust rises in the air, a potent blend of manure, dried grass and sand. The backwash swells in our direction. Soon a sea of elephants surrounds us. We’re submerged in a roiling world of noise. Snorts, grumbles, trumpets, growling bellies and gargantuan belches resound. Some of the vibrations are too low to hear, but I feel them as they pass through my body, reverberate in my chest cavity, squeeze my heart. Eye after eye inspects us as eddies of elephants swirl past. An old world laps at the foot of our memories, extinguishes centuries of communal fires. The ropes that tether us loosen. We slip away from the familiar shore and set off towards unimaginable ways of being. We look around with wild hearts. We have become part of the herd.