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.
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.
Heart shapes can be found in nature, if you’re lucky enough to see one. There’s a heart on this elephant’s trunk, a ridge of skin that feels like fine shoe leather. One of his wrinkles pierces the lower third of this heart shape, from left to right, straight as an arrow. His real heart hangs between his breastbone and ribs, a little to the left, just like mine does. But instead of having a heart with a single point, an elephant’s heart has two points at its apex – so it’s the wrinkled outline of a human heart that he carries on his trunk.
The human heart is approximately five inches long, three-and-a-half inches wide and shaped like a pulsing cone. It is the only muscle in my body that acts on its own – my heartbeat doesn’t need any messages from my brain. The cells in my heart tissue involuntarily constrict, all together, all at once, over and over, a soft perpetual-motion machine. Rip my heart from my body, chop it into pieces, immerse the pieces in a saline solution, and then give them a small jolt of electricity. The remnants of my cardiac muscle will contract . . . contract . . . contract – all on their own, sometimes for hours.
At birth, elephants have only two or three small cheek teeth. By the age of ten, big tectonic molars began to erupt in the back of their jaws, becoming part of a conveyer belt of teeth. As molars wear down near the front of an elephant’s mouth fragments of them break off in pieces and either fall out or are swallowed. Throughout its lifetime, an elephant will grow twenty-four molars in six sets – but only two tusks.
Each molar looks like a set of dishes drying edgewise on a rack, bonded together by enamel. The vertical ridges function like giant vegetable graters as an elephant’s lower jaw moves forward and back, rather than side-to-side like a cow. Each molar grows up to a foot long, has a maximum of ten ridges, and weighs eleven pounds apiece – perfect for grinding up tree branches.
Like human teeth, elephant teeth consist of cementum, dentine and enamel. Cementum holds the roots of a tooth in place, dentine surrounds the pulp and enamel crowns each tooth with a hard protective layer. Packed with nerves and blood vessels, the pulp cavities of elephant tusks extend two-thirds of the length of each tusk. Their teeth are as sensitive as mine are.
Doug asks Jabu to “Open up.” He curls his trunk back over his head and Doug stretches to his tiptoes, pulls his lower gums wide with his hands.
In his lifetime Jabu will have six sets of molars. His sixth set will wear down by the time he is sixty. Only ten percent of aging elephants grow a seventh set of molars.
“Very good, my boy. . . . veerrry good.”
Peering over Doug’s shoulder, I count four molars in his mouth, two on top and two on the bottom.
Doug lets go of Jabu’s lower jaw. “Allllright, Jabu, allllright.”
He drops his trunk but leaves his mouth open. Doug grabs a fistful of treats and slides his arm into Jabu’s mouth, all the way to his elbow. As he lets go of the treats he rubs Jabu’s tongue. He flaps his ears.
“Elephants use their trunks to rub each other’s tongues. It’s kind of like a handshake,” Doug says.
The morning air is as smooth and cold as marble. The last birds of the night are the first birds of the morning. They gab and jabber as if they had just newly discovered daylight. Six would-be-trackers and two rangers circle the fire, sticking our toes close to its embers.
I dunk my rusk into a cup of rooibus, red bush tea. Rusks are dry biscuits, resembling biscotti. Softened bits crumble and sink to the bottom of my tin cup. My last gulp of tea is mush.
After breakfast we walk out to the dirt road that leads away from camp and immediately find elephant prints where one sauntered down the road last night. It’s not surprising we didn’t hear him. The thick pads on elephants’ feet support their massive weight and distribute their tonnage. An elephant is a remarkably quiet animal for one so large.
Elephant tracks are easy to recognize – no other animal has a print like the impression of a large pizza-pan. Since their front feet are oval and back feet round, it’s easy to tell in which direction this one went. But when we find him, the bull is immediately agitated, even though we’re upwind.
“He hears us,” Syd says, “but he doesn’t know what we are.”
The bull’s trunk periscopes as he samples the air, trying to smell us. Then he sends a bluff our way, charging several feet, ears extended, a short blat indicating his displeasure. He’s a good hundred yards from us, but we take the hint and back away. An elephant could cover that distance in no time at all. After all, we’re here to study tracks, not get flattened.
The road is full of elephant overlapped elephant tracks. One track has a swipe through it where the elephant dragged his trunk. An impala’s tracks step across the road to the left, the prints of a Kori bustard head right.
Syd stops further on and sits on his heels near the side of the sandy road. “What are these?” he points at some small prints.
“Genet,” someone guesses, since the tracks are small and clawed, and the genet, a spotted cat with an elongated body, is nocturnal.
“Porcupine,” I announce, pointing at the long marks alongside the tracks where quills scored the sand.
Syd stands up and grins at me. “Very good,” he says, and I feel like I’ve momentarily gone to the head of the class.
“Then what are these?” He points to a set of padded prints left smack in the middle of the road, deeply imprinted into the floury sand.
“Too big for hyena,” one of my fellow trainees says, and we all look at each other, thinking as one: lion.
We reluctantly follow Syd as he walks and points out the direction the lion is headed. Same way we are. It’s a quiet class – we’ve all heard the recent stories about the lions of Kruger, the ones right next door, neighbors with no fence between us.
Illegal immigrants from Mozambique try to enter South Africa through Kruger. Lions have learned to hunt them. Several days earlier I had talked to a park ranger at Kruger and he cautioned that twenty “or so” evidence sites had been found. “But that’s just when there’s something left,” he said. “I’ve been stalked. Now I always carry a rifle.”
I swallow hard as we follow the tracks on the road, glad that Syd is also carrying a rifle. “How long ago?” I ask, meaning how long ago did the lion pass.
Syd smiles. “Yesterday.” He shows us where the tracks have degenerated, crumbles of sand filling the depression. “You can’t see the claw marks.” Maybe after a couple of years of following lion paw prints I’d be able to spot that. Or maybe my heart will always leap into my throat when I first see one.
Back at camp, Bernardo has heard that I have pictures of snow. He pores over them, trying to understand how the world could turn so white. I attempt to explain, using my hands as the sun and earth, tilting the earth first one way, then the other, moving it closer and further away from the sun. Bernardo is doubtful; his head has a permanent sideways tilt during my explanations.
Just before dark Syd gives a short class in how to hold and shoot the 45-caliber rifle that is our safety net in case one of us does something really stupid. We pay very close attention.
“How often have you had to use it?” I ask.
“In the last five years, maybe twice.” Ever the instructor, he uses the opportunity to ask, “Which way do you shoot?” We point to the ground, exactly where a warning shot should go. I am surprised we all have so much familiarity with guns.
“Good,” Syd says, “a bullet that goes up . . .” He leaves the sentence dangling, then adds, “It is too much paperwork to kill something.”
In a game reserve such as this one, careful monitoring is done of every nonhuman resident, since each animal is a huge investment. Most reserves are privately run, sometimes by huge corporations. The ability to advertise “Come see the Big Five! Lion! Elephant! Leopard! Buffalo! Rhino!” is an incomparable tourist draw. But wild animals do not behave quite like pets. When you swap lions with another reserve so that they do not inbreed, there’s no guarantee that those lions might not wander back, or off into Kruger, since there is no fence between the park and surrounding reserves.
As the light fades we sit near the fire and trade our full names: Bernardo Mkansi, Sydonea Hlatshwayo, Cheryl Merrill. Syd writes his name down on a piece of paper and shows it to me. “Can you say it?”
“Sure: Huh-lasch-WHY-o.” Syd and Bernardo gape. “Yes! How can you know?”
“I guessed, sort of like Bulawayo, that town in Zimbabwe.”
They both pronounce my name and make it sound like butterflies, each letter bouncy and full. “That’s it! Now teach me how to say it that way,” and they laugh, covering their mouths like schoolchildren. I practice saying my name several times, but I never quite get the hang of it.
The last thing I expected for Game Ranger Training was driver’s training, but right now I’m learning how to parallel park next to a bull elephant.
“A little right,” says Syd, and we flatten yet another bush with a loud crunch. Our noise doesn’t seem to bother the elephant. He’s placidly stripping the bark from a small acacia while I wrestle the wheel.
“Okay,” Syd says, “shut off the motor, but leave it in first gear.” As soon as I do, cameras click and whir as five other trainees happily snap pictures. My fingers tremble on the keys and my left foot goes numb on the clutch while I watch the elephant’s mood. He’s no more than ten feet away, browsing out of a patch of sunlight and into shady thornbush. The cameras cease clicking.
“Move over there,” Syd points to the other side of the elephant. “Light’s better.
Good positioning for photo ops is probably an important skill to acquire to guide tourists through the wilds of Africa. But getting to where Syd points will not be easy. There’s a log to crawl over and a hole to avoid that’s big enough to swallow a rhino. But the real trick to driving a 12-passenger Land Rover is not to bounce anyone out of the last tier of seats. It’s a good five feet off the ground. Already I’ve navigated a 30-degree slope out of a sandy riverbed without losing anyone over the side, even though the backend of the vehicle fishtailed as if on ice and all I saw was the sky until all four wheels were on level ground again. I figure if I get close to the elephant again, I’ll pass this informal driver’s test for sure.
Down, up, squeezed between two large tree trunks, the Rover crunches dry branches under its tires, making more noise than the bull, who’s busy dismantling a large rainbush. Without any directions from Syd I park at an angle that gives everyone a clear shot. I turn off the motor. Engine vibrations cause blurry photographs.
“Oooo, good light,” someone says and the cameras resume their consumption of film.
Syd smiles at me. I’ve passed. He hands over my camera. “A very calm elephant. You can take pictures, too.”
As I focus the bull begins to look a lot like the elephant who hangs around our camp, the one with the chipped left tusk. Like all good teachers, Syd’s built in a little insurance to make the hard stuff easier. We’re here on a crash course with only three days to earn our training certificates. Safari guides study for months and years, both in and out of the field, so we won’t qualify for a change of careers. We only want to learn skills that might come in handy for the next leg of our trip – overland camping thorough Botswana.
Syd’s initial surprise at our wrinkled faces and gray hair was evident when he met us at the Skukuza airport. The surprise quickly turned to puzzlement as we dropped our duffels in the dust.
“Where is your luggage?”
“This is it,” I replied. “We’ve all been to Africa before.” I point to two women in our group. “They’ve been here thirteen times.”
“Is it?” Syd whistled through his teeth, the South African equivalent of really?
The camp Syd works for is located in a private conservation area on the southwest edge of Kruger National Park. It’s between the fork of two rivers, the Sabi Sabi (meaning “Danger! Danger!”) and the Sand River, now a dry and treacherous streambed filled with boulders – the site of my diver’s test.
The bush we drive through was once the home of the Shangaan, whose land was sold to a private concession. Syd takes us to the place where his father had a rondavel and kept cattle. Flattened areas mark the spots an entire village once occupied.
“My father received no payment from the former government,” Syd tells us. However, the new South Africa is talking reparations and Syd is proud of this. “Our government is trying. It is all we can ask.”
Although two luxury bush lodges are close by, we’re definitely roughing it. We pump our own water, take bucket showers and eat meals around a campfire. We live in tents set up on platforms above a concrete pad. In the warm season the elevation keeps snakes and smaller creatures from crawling into sleeping bags, but now, at the height of winter, nothing but cold air creeps under our cots.
Last night I wore my gloves, stocking hat, long underwear, sweatshirt, socks, sweater – nearly everything in my duffel and still woke up shivering.
This morning I burst out of my sleeping bag’s cocoon, jam my feet into boots, then simultaneously dance into my pants and pull on my coat. I scamper to the fire and shove my boot tips into the coals.
A blackened coffeepot simmers inches away.
“It snows where I live,” I say to Syd, “and it’s not this cold.”
“I don’t believe you,” he laughs.
“I’ll show you.” I jog back to my tent and fetch a small album I brought, photos of my house, of family and friends.
Syd stares at the picture of my car, a white lump, identifiable only by its black side mirrors sticking out like ears. He stares at the picture of our road – blanketed fir trees bracket a single set of tire tracks. He points to a fir.
“Christmas,” he says, “your Christmas.” He has never seen these dark conical trees with needles. “They are still green.”
I tell him that I was warmer then than I am now.
“No, no,” he laughs and points to the picture of our house; his finger traces the furrow my legs made through the snow. “No, this is colder.”
I stamp my feet to waken my toes.
A few minutes later Syd takes us out on foot to read spoor and learn the botanical lay of this land. In the soft early morning light the trill of a coucal follows us, sounding like water dripped into an empty metal bucket. Doo-doo-doo-doo. . . doo . . .doo. . . do.
The coucal’s rust-and-black feathers provide perfect camouflage in the dry winter bush. We peer into the scrub, but do not see him.
Most of the rattles and flutters we hear as we walk are birds, but each one makes us scan the bush nervously. We’re on foot with lions, leopards, snakes, and elephants all around, and absolutely dependent on the knowledge of just one man.
Syd shows us how to sort out the difference between the tootsie-roll droppings of wildebeest and giraffe – a wildebeest stands in one spot, thus a pile, while a giraffe walks, spreading droppings along its path. In contrast, hyenas eat enough bone that their scat looks like chalk. Syd picks up a piece and it crumbles in his hand. We step over the dung of an elephant, easily identified by quantity – a five-gallon bucket of compost dumped into a pile.
Just in case we might need it, Syd also shows us weeping wattle, which can be used for toilet paper or bed stuffing – its leaf clusters soft as any paper product on the market.
As we walk we sample the sweet, fibrous inner lining of acacia bark, a favorite of elephants. We taste a creeping vine called elephant pudding; its succulent leaves have the flavor of salty green beans. Syd gives us a single leaf from a Magic Guarri to chew, but I quickly find out there’s nothing magic about it. Guarri has so much tannin that it tastes like a never-cleaned copper teapot. Even elephants won’t eat it, and elephants eat almost anything. Syd doesn’t tell us that until after we spit out the bitter leaves.
Our hike takes us past a Marula tree, which bleeds a sap red as blood. Dye is made from its bark and sweet liquor from the fruit. The fruit has four times the Vitamin C of an orange. Just next to the Marula is a potato bush, which exudes the scent of fried potatoes, but only at dusk as its sap rises.
Later on, in the evening, Syd proves himself as good a cook as he is a teacher. Tomatoes fry in one cast iron pan, while a chicken stew simmers in the other. He deftly drops dumplings into the stew, covers it, and pulls it to one side of the fire. He passes out tin bowls and spoons. We scoop and set speed records for consumption, wash our bowls with sand and rinse in a tiny amount of water.
Night falls fast in Africa. In the gloom deepening into blackness we climb aboard the Rover and wrap ourselves in felt-lined blankets. The temperature is quickly dropping, just like in high deserts: shirtsleeves at noon, long underwear right after sundown.
Syd drives us to one of the nearby luxury lodges where we pick up Bernardo, a tracker. He is young, with a wide, brilliant grin and an obvious deference to Syd. We have the feeling he is in training also, and Syd confirms this. “I was once a tracker like Bernardo.”
Bernardo wants to know the results of our driving test.
“Who is the best?” He asks Syd.
Syd points to me.
“Is it?” Bernardo glances doubtfully at the only male in our group. I smirk and reply, “He drives too fast.”
How either of them will find anything in the gray twilight is a mystery to me, but Bernardo settles onto a canvas seat perched on the front of the left fender. Although it’s a little like riding a mechanical bull, from there he’s able to see any tracks in the sandy ruts before we drive over them. In ten minutes we are on the trail of a rhino.
Syd and Bernardo are excited. They leave us in the vehicle and walk ahead, trying to read the rhino’s intention. Bernardo waggles a finger at us when they return.
“You are very lucky,” he says, his smile a sunbeam through the gloom, “not many rhinos here.”
Ten minutes more and we find him, right beside the road. It’s doubly lucky that he’s a male; females with calves will charge anything that moves. The rhino ignores us. He’s found some fresh green grass, an unusual treat in the dry winter season, and he’s busy cutting a large swath through it, snorting as he eats.
Fhufff. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp. Fhuffff. Chomp. Chomp. He sounds like the world’s largest steam-driven lawnmower.
We sit in silence, watching a prehistoric creature. I half-expect a dinosaur to emerge from the surrounding bush and join in the grazing. Mist rises from the wet grass and obscures the black outline of trees against a sky that is now dark violet. The rhino moves off, disappearing into a smudge of brush. But we can still hear his progress: Fhufff. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp.
On our way back to camp I catch a glimpse of movement in the tall grass. “Leopard!” I whisper and tap Syd on the shoulder. Bernardo turns in his fender chair and quickly spots him too, motioning with an arm. Syd drives in a wide circle, cutting across a clump of brush. Even though we’re making more noise than the rhino did, the leopard is intent on something far more interesting: the nearby snorts of jittery impala.
He crosses the road behind us, then changes his mind and walks down the middle of it, in our wake. We stop and Syd shuts off the engine. The leopard lopes by on the right, too fast for my camera’s shutter speed. He passes under Bernardo’s feet.
Bernardo is frozen. He doesn’t even look down. By remaining motionless, he becomes part of the vehicle and the leopard ignores him.
When the leopard is twenty feet away Bernardo exhales, relaxes. He turns to us with his sunburst grin. “Oooooh you are lucky! A rhino and a leopard!” He shakes his head from side to side. “You are very lucky!”
Elephant air-conditioning, for a creature that produces enough heat to warm a small house. Elephants are pachy-dermed, thick-skinned. Some of Morula’s blood vessels are buried as deep as one-and-a-half inches under her skin. Since she doesn’t have sweat glands, her ears act like giant heat exchangers, regulating her body temperature. As her ears open, her body size increases by roughly one-fifth and her ears provide a huge area for thermoregulation. The air moving over swollen arteries on the surface of each ear cools her blood as much as nine degrees before it returns to her body.
I take a photograph of her ear in mid-flap. Where Morula’s ear attaches to her shoulder, wrinkles give way to rising rivers of blood, pumping five gallons per minute across the surface of her ears. The pattern of arteries on an elephant’s ear is as unique as a fingerprint, and often used for identification.
The breeze she creates dies before it reaches me. I take off my cap and fan my own neck.
My teeny, itsy ears are built somewhat the same as hers are, with an upper rim of cartilage and a fleshy, lower lobe. But I don’t have an auriculo-occipitalis, an ear muscle the size of a weightlifter’s bicep. I can’t flap my ears. I can’t even wiggle them.
In the late morning heat Morula’s ears are in constant motion.
Ears of African elephants resemble huge maps of Africa. Ears of Asian elephants flop forward at the top and hang like small, wrinkled outlines of India. Morula’s ears fold backward, giving them a smooth, tidy appearance, a map pressed flat. Although the ears of all elephants have a similar construction – cartilage covered by a thin layer of skin – Morula’s ears are roughly three times larger than those of her Asian kin. African elephants have the biggest external ears of all mammals, perhaps the biggest of all time. Each one weighs approximately one hundred pounds.
And no two elephant ears are the same. As pliable and soft as worn canvas, the leading edge of an elephant’s ear is often caught and torn on branches or by the tusks of other elephants. In Kenya I watched an adolescent flare her ear and trace its outline with her trunk like a matador holding out her cape. Backlit by sunlight, three perfectly round holes on its border reminded me of diamond studs. Nearby, a huge bull posed for my gulping camera as I shot an entire roll of film in less than two minutes. Only later, with the film developed and the prints in my hands, did I notice the edges of his ears were as scalloped as an old lace tablecloth.
Here’s a little fairy tale: Once upon a time, elephants lived to a rhythm of their own making. There were no elephants in captivity. They were captured only in legend, in song, painted onto walls of caves, etched on the flat sides of rocks. There were no elephants on reservations, in circuses, in sanctuaries, or zoos. No elephants were murdered solely for their tusks. They were not orphaned by the slaughter of their families, nor made to endure solitary confinement, leg irons, beatings, prods, and electric shocks. They were not enslaved. They were not used as vehicles of war. They were not made to wear radio collars, jeweled headpieces, or bear intricately carved wooden howdahs on their backs. They did not carry princes, or hunters, or loggers, or performers, or tourists. They were not forcibly relocated from the land of their birth. Most died of old age. Once upon a time elephants knew a landscape without fear, without fences, a landscape empty of humans. Once upon a time, elephants were everywhere.
I rock back and forth, toe to heel, toward the fire and away from it. My boots touch coals while stars crowd close around, peering over my shoulder, whispering ancient stories in my ears. Only moments earlier giraffes reflected the setting sun, but now their silhouettes fade, blur and disappear. Soon, out there beyond this fire, hyenas will make short work of bones.
In the darkness elephants are on the move, and almost without sound, except for the occasional rifle shot of a cracked branch. I wish I could hear condensed air – infrasound – soft rumbling kisses brushing my cheek. The compacted silence is completely full of presence, of huge milling bodies on padded feet. A herd of mountains relocates during the night while my thoughts swirl, embers stirred by wind.
Suddenly to my right, trumpeting, perhaps furious at being left behind, an elephant thunders by, an outraged trombone blowing past. I lift my head to follow the sound, but it’s my ears, not my eyes that see.
In the morning, no more than a half-mile from camp, we encounter a herd of sixty elephants. Nervous mothers guide their newborns away with their trunks, shield them from us with their bodies. Young punk males show off for each other, make small charges to see if our vehicle will bolt. Huge bulls, intent on mating, barge past like runaway cement trucks.
We sit in the middle of a herd. Two males give us a rear view of old men in baggy pants. A jumbo-jet sized matriarch leisurely crosses right past our front bumper. Her ears are perfect replicas of the map of Africa. Like fingerprints, no two elephant ears are the same. As pliable and soft as worn canvas, their leading edge is often caught and torn on branches and scrub. Hers has a neat, perfectly round hole near the bottom of Africa, right about where we are in Zimbabwe.
A young female strolls by, scans us as if we’re department store mannequins. She’s so close all I can do is snap a picture of her eye. She stops, blinks, and regards us with the air of a disinterested shopper. I look down at her feet, round in front, oval behind. The round one is about the size of a medium pizza pan. I glance back up, directly into her eyes. She stares back and shakes her head so hard that her ears flap. A great cloud of dust rises from them. Then she moves on.
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.
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.