Posted in Africa, Cancer, Elephants, Nonfiction, Photography, Writing

Why Don’t Elephants Get Cancer?

 

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

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.

 

Posted in Africa, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography

A Bucket Shower

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

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.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel, Writing

Drinking It In

Photograph by Cheryl Merrill
Photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

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.

 

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel

The Sound of Water

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

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.

Posted in Africa, earth at night, Elephants, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography

The Soft Machine

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

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.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel, Writing

Like an Old, Old Photograph

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

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.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel

The Ear Hair of an Elephant

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

An excerpt from my manuscript:

Morula’s luxuriant ear hair catches the sunlight. Flakes of mud cake the opening of her ear.

Just as in humans, an elephant’s ear hair grows longer and longer throughout its life. Hers is cinnamon-colored, has black roots, and is six inches long. It reminds me of the color of a lion’s mane.

When I reach up, the patch of hair feels like the underbelly of a longhaired cat.

Posted in Elephants, Extinction, Mammoths, Mastodons, Nonfiction, Writing

The Great Ones

 

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

Outside my window shaggy shadows move among the firs. An immense shape assembles and disassembles in the wind.

Fourteen thousand years ago, mastodons and mammoths roamed North America, grazed alongside the buffalo. Paleolithic peoples followed the woolly giants across the Bering Bridge to lands as game-rich as the Serengeti. Projectile points can be found embedded in the bones of their prey.

But now the great ones are nearly everywhere gone.

Time twists as I stare out the window at the huge ghost facing me. A giant form conjured from a smear of rhododendrons and shadows lifts his trunk into the wind, changes back into a bush beast with flowers in his stomach, and is extinct once again.

 

Near a small, bog-rich pond, a pussy willow rattles pearl-gray catkins in the driving sleet. Ice coats the bare branches of a soopolallie growing at the water’s edge, frozen red berries clinging to their stems. Upslope from the pond, in a brushy part of the tundra, a herd of elk seeks shelter from the spring squall. Higher still, the mountains are sheathed in glacial ice.

The temperature drops and the sky clears. When night falls curtains of light shimmer in the north, an aurora rippling in solar winds. Oxygen atoms bombarded by geomagnetic storms turn the whole hemisphere red. Glazed with the colors of fire, the pond flickers and burns throughout the night.

A muskrat surfaces and swims towards her burrow. The legs of a frog dangle and twitch from her mouth. The wake behind her broad tail sends ripples through the aurora’s reflection shimmering on the pond’s surface. The ripples pass through a black, four-legged silhouette in the middle of the pond. Looming over his own night shadow, an old mastodon bull curls his trunk into his mouth and releases cold clear water down his throat.

All day, during the icy storm, the mastodon browsed on sage, spirea, rosehips, frosted buttercups, wormwood and sedge as the wind left ice crystals in his eyelashes. He trudged across a marshland through sticky, hydrated clay, each footstep making a loud, sucking sound. Sunshine and snow, both opalescent, washed over him in waves.

All day long on the tall-grass prairie, through blowing clouds of sunshine and snow, he saw herds of equus and pricus, horses and bison, standing with heads lowered, their backs to the stinging wind. He saw a shaggy outline sweeping the tall grass clear with her curled tusks. Barely visible, a small calf nuzzled the fur between her front legs and suckled from a hidden breast.

Recognizing her high domed cranium and sloping profile, the mastodon did not cross the prairie to meet her, though he has seen her foraging at this place before. She is a mammoth and not of his low-browed kind.

At a gravel bar he crossed a crystalline river formed from glacial outmelt. A goose feather spiraled down from a migrating flock. His pace was slow and he often stopped, his trunk resting on the ground. An Arctic fox circled in behind him, veered away when he wheeled and held his huge tusks high.

Finally, in the middle of the night, he reached the pond and waded in.

Now he drinks and eats listlessly, pulls out hippuris, water plants with long tails and sweet green stems. The sky is clear, cold, and the blood-red aurora flames and dances over his head, wildfire in the sky. Cattails chatter in the wind.

He staggers toward the bank of the pond and into boggy mud – rich, black, and carnivorous. He touches his side, where the hole-that-hurts still bleeds. Mired, he closes his eyes, sways, falls.

Near dawn the two-legged hunters find him on his side, half in water, half out. They build a fire and settle to their work.

 

Fourteen thousand years later, in the summer of 1977, near the town of Sequim in Washington State, Emanuel Manis decided he wanted a duck pond in his front yard. His backhoe brought up a couple of blackish curved logs. His wife Clare thought they might be tusks and started making phone calls, eventually contacting Washington State University. The resulting excavation lasted eight years and attracted 50,000 visitors to the Manis farm.

In the loam of an ancient pond the archaeological dig found a mastodon. The left side of the skeleton was intact, all the bones in their correct anatomical position. The bones of the uppermost side, the right side, were scattered upslope from the pond and the mastodon’s shattered skull faced backwards, as if staring at its own remains. Many bones had scratches, indentations, rectangular gouges and sharp-edged cut marks – the type of fracturing done in large-scale butchering, butchery less like gutting a fish and more like chopping up a tree.

But the star of the excavation, the reason so many people journeyed to the Manis Mastodon site, was a fragment of rib that had a bone spear point embedded in it.

The first direct evidence that humans hunted mastodons.

Originally researchers thought the spear point was made of elk bone, but later analysis confirmed it was fashioned from another mastodon. It was sturdy enough to penetrate thick hide, ten inches of muscle, and three-fourths of an inch into the rib. The rib was healing, so the mastodon may have died of infection, old age, or many more wounds that did not show on his bones.

Three charcoal beds, one on top of the other, were unearthed near the pond, evidence of the oldest human occupation yet found in the Americas. During a later phase of the excavation, twelve separate layers of human habitation were discovered, ranging from 7,000 to 14,000 years ago.

The site was occupied again and again by people hunting and butchering other large mammals, such as bison, that gathered at the ancient pond. The partial remains of two more mastodons were excavated. Radiocarbon dating determined that their bones – which also had the square-cut marks of butchering – were even older than those of the mastodon originally discovered. In 1996, the remains of a mammoth were found near the site. The two elephant species lived there together, 14,000 years ago.

Emanuel and Clare Manis were more than generous. They built a fence, arranged parking, allowed researchers to construct a laboratory and storage sheds, gave tours and turned their barn into a theater for audio slide shows. And to the skeptics at the time who questioned whether or not humans hunted mastodons, Clare Manis had a short, curt reply. “What, did an elk explode?”

After the excavations were finished in 1985, the ancient pond was reburied to protect the bones that remained. The site officially became part of the National Registry of Historic Places in 1978. “Manny” Manis died in 2000; Clare Manis Hatler eventually remarried. In 2002, the land was donated to an archaeological conservancy.

Not long ago I visited the museum in Sequim, near the site of the Manis farm. Some of the mastodon’s bones remain there, caged behind glass, chop marks clearly visible from the butchering. A huge tank holds the tusks underwater so they won’t dry out and become brittle. On a shelf nearby is a rib bone labeled “Please touch me.” It’s highly polished by the thousands of hands that have done so. And just as thousands of hands obeyed the impulse to caress its delicate, yellowed length, so did mine.

I missed him by only 14,000 years, an eyelash of time.

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill
Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Photography, Travel, Writing

Larger than Life

 

Here are the first few pages of my manuscript, Larger than Life: Eye to Eye with Elephants.  Having read this much, would you go on reading the rest of the book?  I’d love to have feedback.  Thanks!

 

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

There is nothing like him on earth. His head alone is more immense than an entire gorilla.

Jabu is one hundred times larger than I am. His trunk is larger than I am. A single leg is larger than I am.

He rests his trunk on the ground and the tip of it lifts, opens, inhales my scent. I reach out and run my fingers along his warm tusk.

Do you recognize me, Jabu, do you?

  *   *   *   *   *

The pilot lets me sit up front.  As his clattering Cessna lifts straight into the sun, we pass a line of small aircraft and a block-and-brick terminal only slightly larger than the Air Botswana 727 parked next to it.  We leave behind a flattened land where the tallest structure is a water tower, where the olive-green scrub spreads as far as can be seen, and where footsteps have no echoes in a country mantled by sand.

We gain altitude and Maun slides under us.  The last town before venturing into Botswana’s Okavango Delta, Maun is an odd frontier mix of trading companies, outfitters, curio shops, supermarkets, cattle in the streets, and an airstrip long enough for daily international flights.

We fly higher.  Haphazard, barely paved roads meander to round stockades – bomas, fenced by thornbush.  Each boma contains a hut plastered with mud and roofed with straw, or a small square cinderblock covered by rusty corrugated metal.  Only a few corral a cow or a goat.  Behind us the last buildings disappear into a curtain of shimmering haze.  Maun melts into the desert.

The shadow of our Cessna passes over thin dirt tracks, which lose their way and vanish.  A waterhole appears, an orphan left behind by last year’s flood.  Another comes into sight, and then another.  Etched into the sand by countless hooves, game trails wander through the dry landscape, headed to those life-giving pockets of water.  Few animals follow the trails in the heat of the glaring sun.  A small herd of zebra.  A single giraffe.

Suspended above what could be considered a great emptiness, I remember the map I studied a week ago.   Printed alongside the log of GPS coordinates for airstrips – some of them makeshift, many little used – I read another list of handy notations. “Tourist road, 4×4 required . . .Top road extremely sandy, takes very long.”  Eighty percent of Botswana is covered by sand, some of it a thousand feet deep, but the airstrip where we’ll land is barely above water.

Swollen by November rains, the Okavango River floods south from Angola, arrives in Botswana in May or June, fans out, and then stops when it bumps into a barrier of fault lines near Maun.  Landlocked, the river penetrates deeply into the Delta before it dies in the Kalahari sands.  Not a single drop reaches the sea.

As the river pushes south, it creates, in the midst of a vast desert, an oasis – a floodplain the size of Massachusetts containing an ark-full of animals.  Dependent upon the rainfall in Angola, the river swells or shrinks.  In the dry season, it leaves behind ponds no bigger than puddles, abandoned lagoons that shrink into brackish swamps, and waterholes reflecting a cornflower blue sky.

 Last week I reviewed the latest satellite photograph of the Delta – four skinny channels with several webs of water between them.  The river is beginning to flood.  The photograph reminded me of a duck’s giant footprint pressed into the sands of southern Africa.  I located my destination, a dry spot between two of the bird’s toes.

Twenty minutes after leaving Maun, the pilot pushes in the throttle and the Cessna’s clatter mutes.  We drop lower.  A thousand waterholes are a thousand mirrors signaling the sun.  Lower still, the mirrors turn back into waterholes, some of them connected  in long braids of water.

Right before we land on a strip of dirt, we glimpse a cheetah sprinting for cover.  With that single spotted blur, my life divides once again between home and Africa.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Photography

Monuments

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

As we make our way down the two-rut road, a mob of Helmeted guineafowl runs ahead of us.  They dart from one side of the road to the other, a bunch of silly old biddies, with shrunken featherless heads, thick bodies covered in spotted dark gray plumage and large rumps that bounce when they run.  Blue jowls on their necks flap back and forth under their beaks.  They never once consider flying to get out of our path.

The guineafowl call excitedly to each other as we flush them: Keck, keck, keck, keck, keck, keck, KECK!!!!!!!  Eventually they dash to the side of the road and disappear into the bush.

Ignoring them, the elephant in front of us steadily treads down the right rut of the road.  His pace is unhurried, measured, constant.  A shoulder lifts, a leg straightens, accepts weight, and the foot splays out.  A back leg moves forward, toenails scraping sand, straightens, accepts weight, and the foot splays out.  A creature bigger than most monuments is on the move.

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill