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

Baobabs, Part One, Eternity

Baobab sunset reflect

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?

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, 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 Elephants, Zoos

An Elephant Named Chai

photograph by San Francisco Chronicle
photograph by San Francisco Chronicle

Chai died yesterday, less than a year after being moved to the Oklahoma zoo from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington.  This excerpt from my book is a memorial in words of her life:

 

In the spring of 1996, right before my first trip to Africa, I met a female Asian elephant named Chai at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. I participated in a “behind-the-scenes” tour – allowed into the elephant enclosure, but safely separated from the elephants by strong metal bars. One by one, the elephants were brought forward by their handler and we fed them carrots.

Chai was carefully interested in my sister’s leather coat, gently squeezing it at the shoulder, inhaling each square inch. I saw her mind at work: What animal is this? My brother-in-law, who is huge by human standards, was especially fascinating in leather. Sniff. Squeeze. And who are you?

Trunk-length from an elephant for the very first time, I was mesmerized by the meditative intelligence in her eyes.

She was close enough she could hear our hearts beat, a frequency audible to elephants. Her large ears flared, listening not to the wind that blew from our mouths, but to the music of our bodies. She rumbled.

We hummed back at her, sang a low, wordless song, my brother-in-law’s voice deep and loud. She was mesmerized, motionless, trying to understand our oscillating meaning. Then the air around us condensed, washed over us in waves. The sounds of an unknown world pulsated just below our range of hearing.

She stretched her trunk to accept a carrot we offered, stuffed it into her cheeks and then slowly reached out for another. When her cheeks were as full as a chipmunk’s, her handler said, “Okay, that’s enough,” and tapped her with an ankus, an elephant hook, alternately above each knee. She backed up as slowly as she had taken carrots, swinging her head from side to side.

In 1980, when Chai was only a year old and not yet weaned, she was separated from her mother and flown to Seattle by Thai Airways to commemorate the delivery of the first Boeing 747 to Thailand. Only sixteen when I met her, at the age of eighteen she was shipped to Missouri to be bred to a bull named Onyx. By then several artificial insemination attempts had already failed to impregnate her.

After three days and 2,1000 miles in a truck, Chai arrived at the Dickerson Park Zoo. On the third day after her arrival, the Dickerson Zoo’s staff beat her for two-and-a-half hours because she would not respond to their commands. (The zoo was later fined $5000.) Chai lost 1,000 pounds during the twelve months she was in Missouri.

Finally pregnant, she was trucked back to Seattle. Twenty-two months later, in 2000, she gave birth to a female calf. The naming contest for the new zoo resident gathered 16,000 entries. The Thai name selected, Hansa, means “Extreme Happiness.” Once the calf was on view attendance at the zoo doubled.

photograph by the Seattle Times
photograph by the Seattle Times

In June of 2007 Hansa died of elephant herpes – a highly communicable virus that has claimed the lives of forty percent of young Asian calves in captivity. Since then, Chai has been artificially inseminated a total of 112 times, resulting in the miscarriage of one other calf.

Day after day, from the time she was just a year old, Chai listens to hordes and choruses of unfamiliar human heartbeats. She listens to loud unknowable noises beyond her bars and moves slowly back and forth in her cage. Perhaps she mourns the loss of her Extreme Happiness. Perhaps after awhile it all blurs, like the background hum of an engine in flight.

photograph by the Friends of Woodland Park Zoo
photograph by the Friends of Woodland Park Zoo
Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel, Writing

A Sea of Elephants

 

Reposting one of my favorites, from back in 2013.

sea of elephants

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.

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 Africa, Elephants, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel, Writing

Black Mamba in Toilet!

The most popular post in 2015:

Dated 5/26/12, Reconfirmed 5/30/12!

First, for those who are unfamiliar with black mambas, here’s a little background information:

Black mambas (Dendroaspis polytepsis) are the longest venomous snakes in Africa, measuring up to 14 ½ feet.  Mambas are not black – they’re more olive or greenish gray, with a narrow, elongated head the shape of a coffin.  It’s the inside of their mouths that are black – hence the name.  Mambas are also extremely aggressive and may actively attack without provocation.  I use the adverb “actively” with reason – a mamba can strike in all directions, even though a third of its body is raised above the ground, and it can chase you in that upright position at speeds up to 20 mph.  If you are bitten, your death will occur within 20-60 minutes.  An anti-venom for mamba bites exists, but it must be administered immediately, requiring 10-20 vials of solution.  But if you are struck in the face or neck (quite likely, since the head of the mamba chasing you is 4 feet off the ground), you will die in ten minutes. That black mouth will be the last thing you see.

On that cheery note, on with the story:

In the Moremi Game Reserve, east of the Okavango Delta, is an elevated platform overlooking a large hippo pool in a bend of the Khwai River.  Six of us, our guide OT (“just like Overtime!”) arrive in our Land Rover.

“What’s that?” I point.

It’s a large piece of stiff white paper taped with duct tape to a tree.  We climb out, read it, and immediately start swiveling our heads, trying to look in all directions at once.

“Anyone want to go look?” OT laughs.

The toilet, roughly the size of those cartoon outhouses with the crescent moons carved in their doors, is a cinder block building with a tin roof.  It’s about fifty feet from our Land Rover.  The painted green door on the toilet is ajar.

Certainly I’m not tempted to look inside.  After all, the second message (“Confirmed 30/5”) was written just three days before our arrival by someone a lot more curious than I am about deadly snakes.  The mamba is most likely still in there.  Who wants to reconfirm a reconfirmation?   Mambas are territorial; they will always return to their lairs, although that’s usually in an abandoned termite mounds or a hollow tree, rarely, I’d bet extremely rarely, in a toilet.  A mamba is diurnal, active both night and day.  It could be sleeping in there.  Or not.

In my opinion, I’m already standing way too close to that toilet.  Trying to look both at the toilet and at everything else, I walk slowly backwards.  Mambas don’t like sudden movements.

Besides, I firmly believe, even though I haven’t seen it, that this toilet is not a Western ceramic throne, but a mere hole in the cement.  I’ve had enough experience with toilets-in-the-middle-of-nowhere to also believe that the area around the hole is likely none-too-clean.  That bush over there looks a better.  A few minutes later, after careful reconnoitering and quickly taking care of business, I can confirm that no mambas are lurking around it.

As I climb the steps to the viewing platform I look for mambas wrapped around posts.  On the creaky platform I look for mamba’s hidden in corners, or nestled into the thatch of the roof.  I look for mambas slithering across the branches of the trees that lean dangerously close to the rails.  A rustling noise among the branches spikes my heart rate to a gazillion, but it calms when I see it’s only a Burchell’s glossy starling, squawking for handouts.

Burchell’s starling

The view from the platform is wonderful.  A massive cloud hangs over the hippo pool and puffs of other clouds reflect in the tranquil water.  A dozen hippos rise and sink, burbling like submerged tubas.  Tracks in the grass are hippo paths, where the hippos come out of the pool at night to feed, foraging as far as three miles for sweet young shoots.

At the bottom of the platform a dozen water monitors, some six-feet long, slither into positions that defend his or her portion of the bank, using the hippo paths as small highways.  The smaller monitors end up with the worst spots, constantly harassed in slow-motion chases by the larger lizards.  As I watch their typical reptile behavior, I think it’s lucky for us that the age of dinosaurs ended a long time ago.

Khwai River

 

On the far side of the river, specks in the distance, a huge herd of elephants splashes along the edge of a reed bed.  After I check for mambas, I lean on the rail of the platform to steady my camera.  I use the digital zoom to take a picture, already knowing it will be an extremely low-pixelated shot.  The elephants are in constant motion, appearing and disappearing in the reeds, so the photo turns out fairly blurry, but at least I have proof that those specks were really elephants.

Elephants on the far bank

On the way down from the platform I look for mambas wrapped around support posts, coiled under steps, and hidden in the framework of the flooring.  I scan for slithery movements in the brush and wait for someone else to climb in the Land Rover before I do.  I doubt the mamba has exchanged one lair for another, but still, you never know . . .

The viewing platform has its own GPS coordinates.  So if anyone wants to look at that mamba and reconfirm one more time that it’s really there, I can tell you exactly where to go!