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

Ivory, Part One

Jabu's tusk
An African elephant’s tusk

Carved ivory thrones are mentioned in the Bible.  King Solomon had one, covered with gold.  Tutankhamen’s casket had a carved ivory headrest for his pillow.  Cicero wrote of Roman houses where ivory doors opened onto entire rooms covered with ivory tiles.  Gladiators had chariots made of ivory.

In the 1800s, in Africa, ton after ton of tusks were transported thousands of miles to Zanzibar and Khartoum, carried on the backs of slaves.  By the 1980s, more than 300 elephants a day were slaughtered for their ivory, nearly 100,000 per year.

In Amboseli National Park, in Tanzania, a recessive gene is becoming dominant, occurring in 50 years instead of thousands, selected by poachers.

Year after year tuskless elephants are born.

Both male and female African elephants grow tusks – the largest upper incisors on this planet.  Tusks are defined as long teeth protruding beyond the mouth growing usually, but not always, in pairs.  Most tusks are enlarged canines, such as those of warthogs, wild boars, hippopotamus and walruses.  Enlarged canines in the myriad species of cats and dogs are called fangs.

Elephants and narwhal whales have incisor tusks.  The narwhal’s single tusk is a left front incisor that grows in a straight spiral.  Found mostly in males, narwhal tusks are believed to be the origin of unicorn legends.  Oddly enough, narwhals with two tusks are usually female.

By the time Jabu is sixty, his tusks could theoretically reach a length of 18 to 20 feet.  But in reality – if he does reach sixty – they will be much shorter, due to the wear and tear of everyday use.

Tusks on bull elephants can weigh seven times that of those on cows.  The biggest pair of tusks on record weighed 460 pounds, taken from an old bull killed in 1897 near Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya.

The longest tusks ever found came from an elephant shot in the Congo in 1907.  Its right tusk was 11.4 feet long; it’s left tusk 11 feet.

Such extraordinarily enormous tusks are a genetic trait, much the same as red hair is a genetic trait.  Over the centuries poachers and hunters have always targeted male elephants with the largest tusks.  As a result, the trait has disappeared from most elephant populations.

The same outcome would occur if redheads were systematically eliminated within family groups.   As their genes died out, the redheads among us would become extinct.

Posted in Nature, Photography

If It Were Possible

Through the Grass

If it were possible

To sleep standing up

To taste the many flavors of water

To tell each part of the day by its scent

To wear nothing but our own skins

To walk always barefoot in the grass

To watch the nightly migration of stars

To smell the stories brought by the wind

To be surrounded by family

To hear the symphony of their heartbeats

To trumpet to the skies and rumble to the ground

Could you then live the life you were given?

Posted in Elephants, Extinction, Nature

Mammoth Tree

“Look,” my friend says, “it’s an elephant.” I turn around.  We’re walking along a path above the tide pools at Salt Creek, on the Straits of Juan de Fuca.  It’s a cold, foggy morning, summer slipping into fall. She points to a western red cedar on a curve of the path.  “I see an elephant,” she says.

She’s right.  But where she sees a generic elephant I see a mammoth, a young Columbian mammoth, with a shaggy curl of moss on its domed forehead and layered fur all the way down its trunk.  Its small ear flaps forward and a rounded burl eye stares sightlessly out over the straits.  His trunk (by now I’ve already decided his gender) reaches down into salal and young firs, as if he is browsing while standing on the edge of a cliff where land meets sea.

Mammoth in Cedar

I reach out and touch this frozen young giant – about seven feet tall to the top of his dome.  He’ll be ten feet tall when fully grown.  Of course he’s impassive, wooden to my touch, but the swirl of his bark/fur makes him seem as if he just stopped as we rounded his corner, hoping to blend in before deciding on our intent.

I retrace my steps to the other side of the tree and discover that my gender assignment is completely wrong.  On the exact opposite side of the mammoth’s head is its unmistakably female rear end, two legs solidly planted on the ground, a hanging vulva in between them.  Even though shaggy fur covers her rump, anus and legs, her triangular shaped vulva can clearly be seen.  Male elephants have internal scrotum and their small hanging folds are tucked up and under.  This mammoth is definitely female.

Mammoth Cedar female

The western red cedar grows straight and tall from the middle of her back.  I assume she grew around a nurse log, forming her shape during a hundred years or more.  Cedars like this one will grow to 180 feet and live for a thousand years.  Mammoths disappeared ten thousand years ago.  But I wonder if giants remember giants and try to resurrect them however they can.

Posted in Extinction, Nature

That’s Life

An excerpt from my book, Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants:

As Doug and Sandi prepare for our morning walk, a nearby Cape mourning dove begins its chanting call:  hoo-HOO-hoo, hoo-HOO-hoo.  The dove is the same shape and color of the pigeons strutting the streets of my hometown, and belongs to the same family as pigeons, Columbidae.  Doves are generally smaller birds and pigeons are larger.

One member of Columbidae, the American Passenger Pigeon, was once the most abundant land bird in the world.  It’s been estimated that nine billion passenger pigeons were in the United States before colonization – more than twice the number of all birds alive in the U.S. today.  Up to a foot-and-a-half in length, the passenger pigeon had distinctive, even iridescent, coloration.

In the early 1800s a flock of passenger pigeons that numbered 2.2 billion birds flew between Kentucky and Indiana – a flock one mile wide extending 240 miles.  So many Passenger Pigeons were in that flock that if they were placed beak-to-tail they would have wound around the circumference of the earth nearly 23 times.  Audubon recorded an over-flight of Passenger Pigeons that took three days to pass, even though the birds averaged sixty miles an hour.  He likened their passage to an eclipse of the sun.

            One nesting colony in Wisconsin measured 850 square miles.  The rumble of wings erupting from that roost made the ground tremble.  Tune your stereo receiver to a place between stations, then turn up the volume until your walls shake.  That was the sound of huge flocks of passenger pigeons, a Niagara of birds.

Audubon's Passenger Pigeons
Audubon’s Passenger Pigeons

Audubon painted the passenger pigeon in 1824.  Printed plates of his painting show a female on the frosted upper branch of a tree feeding a male perched on a lower branch of the same tree – which is a bit of artistic license, since the pairs always stood next to each other on a branch.

The sexes of the passenger pigeon differed in coloration.  The female, with her drab, brownish-orange back and gray plumage on her belly, contrasted with the male’s brilliant blue back and deep pink breast.  In Audubon’s painting the male has a duller neck than was often reported  – a neck that glittered purple, gold, yellow and green iridescence.  Both sexes are depicted with their trademark pink feet and red eyes.

            Now the passenger pigeon is gone.  Snuffed out.  Not a single bird left.  Flocks in the millions whose wing beats sounded like thunder, whose descent to the ground in funnels looked like tornados, whose excrement rained to the ground like sleet, gone.  Flocks that blocked sunlight from the sky and moved in squalls, in weather fronts, gone.  Flocks that would have turned entire radar screens green, gone.

            Their extinction was not a natural one, caused by a meteor or ice age or disease.  No, we did it.  We destroyed their habitat, hunted them, killed them, ate them, fed them to livestock, stuck their feathers in our hats, and shipped them by the ton in railroad cars, five billion birds by the late 1890s.

            No one ever thought that five billion birds could disappear.  An Ohio legislator wrote in 1857 that the pigeons were “Wonderfully prolific.  No ordinary destruction can lessen them or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.”  But nets, guns and the railroads did their job.  Speedy travel meant that pigeon feathers and meat reached their markets in forty-eight hours.  Live pigeons were shipped for sport.  An estimated half-million pigeons were netted annually for use in shooting matches.  One trap shooter claimed he had personally shot 30,000 pigeons in his lifetime.  In 1875 three nesting areas in Michigan yielded 1,000 tons of squabs and 2.4 million live birds for consumption.

Martha, stuffed and mounted at the Smithsonian
Martha, stuffed and mounted at the Smithsonian

            And yet, scarcely 25 years later, a young boy in Ohio named Press Clay Southworth shot the last wild passenger pigeon on March 12, 1900.

On Sept 1, 1914, Martha, the only passenger pigeon left in the world, died at the Cincinnati Zoo.

I wonder what our skies would look like if the passenger pigeon (instead of the turkey) had been designated our national bird.

The probability of any human being alive is one in billions of trillions.  That’s

1,000,000,000,000

multiplied several billion times.

Life.  It’s not easy to come by.  And lessened by all that has been subtracted from it.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Extinction, Jabu

Ivory

Jabu’s tusk

Carved ivory thrones are mentioned in the Bible.  King Solomon had one, covered with gold.  Tutankhamen’s casket had a carved ivory headrest for his pillow.  Cicero wrote of Roman houses where ivory doors opened onto entire rooms covered with ivory tiles.  Gladiators had chariots made of ivory.

In the 1800s, in Africa, ton after ton of tusks were transported thousands of miles to Zanzibar and Khartoum, carried on the backs of slaves.  An estimated two million elephants were slaughtered from 1860 to 1882, their tusks fashioned into billiard balls and piano keys.

The decade between 1979 and 1989 was the deadliest ever for African elephants.  Over 691,000 died.  In a line, trunk to tail, enough elephants to cover the distance between Miami, Florida and New York City: 1120 miles.  Around 8800 tons of ivory was harvested in that decade.  The average weight of tusks traded in 1979 was 21 pounds.  Fifty-two elephants died for each ton of tusks.  By the mid-1980s the average weight had shrunk to just 11 pounds – and so more elephants, 100 of them, died per ton.

In just one decade, the elephant population of Africa was halved – from 1.3 million to 650,000.

In Amboseli National Park, in Tanzania, a recessive gene is becoming dominant, occurring in 50 years instead of thousands, selected by poachers.

Year after year tuskless elephants are born.

Posted in Extinction, Mammoths, Mastodons, Pleistocene

And Just Where Would We Put Them?

Theoretically, it is possible to reclaim extinct beings, to spin evolution backwards. To recreate a mammoth all you need are a few live mammoth cells, since each and every cell contains complete genetic information.  Red-furred segments of mammoth flesh are not uncommon discoveries in Siberia, usually found by sled dogs that eagerly gnaw on frozen haunches.  But cells die if stored above minus 94º Fahrenheit, even for short periods.  Still, the possibility of finding live cells does exist.  Paleontologists in Ohio have isolated 11,000-year-old bacteria from the stomach of a mastodon, the oldest living organisms ever found.

To recreate a mammoth, destroy the nucleus in the ovum of an Asian elephant.  Then inject live mammoth-cell DNA into the altered ovum and implant the artificial zygote into the uterus of an Asian elephant.  If the 22-month pregnancy is successful, you can expect the birth of a 100% mammoth baby.

Another method is to take mammoth sperm (selected to ensure female offspring), inject it into an elephant’s egg and wait 22 months for your mammophant, a half elephant, half mammoth calf.  Then wait until the hybrid is sixteen or so, breed it with more female-selected sperm, and in 3 generations of mammophants, say sixty years, the resulting pachyderm will be 90% mammoth with 16-foot tusks.  The obvious obstacle to this method is that hardly any non-degraded frozen mammoth cells exist, let along viable sperm.  And even if some were found, would two species separated by millions of years of evolution even be capable of producing offspring?

So let’s go back to the method that just might be successful.  Let’s find live mammoth DNA, or perhaps just replicate some of it, and join it with the ovum of an Asian elephant.  The resulting offspring would be a cloned mammoth.

Then what?

To get more mammoths you have to artificially construct more zygotes, which need more live mammoth cells, which would result in clones of clones –  unless you find a lot of live mammoth DNA from many different individuals.  And for such a project you need elephants as surrogate moms.  Endangered Asian elephants.  Even with a whole herd of resurrected mammoths, inbreeding could make the population nonviable.  Would a hyper-disease be resurrected too?  Could it jump to elephants?

And where would we put our newly minted species?  In zoos?  On reservations? In those isolated pockets we call National Parks?  While we’re at it, shouldn’t we resurrect some cavemen, too?  In Northern Siberia scientists are already attempting to create a mammoth ecosystem called Pleistocene Park.  Imagine the tickets they could sell to watch Neanderthals, our human cousins, hunting.

And where do we stop?  Do we bring back Saber-toothed Cats, Dire wolves and Giant Short-faced Bears? Do we re-create their habitats?  Lower the temperature of the earth four degrees in this time of global warming?  Bring back the Ice Ages?

Posted in Extinction, Mammoths, Mastodons, Pleistocene

The Last Mammoths on Earth

Around 1650 BCE (Before the Common Era), the last mammoth on earth died on Wrangel Island, a small outpost in the Chukchi Sea off northeastern Siberia.  In the same general period of time, the Shang Dynasty ruled China, the Thirteenth Dynasty began in Egypt, (it will be 300 more years before Tutankhamen is born), the Hittites sack Babylon and the world’s first wooden bridge was constructed on Lake Zurich.

Frequently ice-bound, Wrangel was visited by hunters before its mammoth population became extinct, evidenced by the various stone and ivory tools the hunters left behind.  Possibly a part of a vast Inuit trading culture, the hunters did what hunters do – feed their families.  They might, or might not, have known mammoths were becoming very scarce.  Large mammals such as reindeer and sea lions were their prey – why not the last mammoth left on earth?  Wrangel Island is now a sanctuary, a breeding ground for polar bears, with the highest density of dens in the world.

Most mammoth and mastodon populations became extinct during the transition from the Late Pleistocene (126,000 BCE to 12,000 BCE) to the Holocene, the age of modern man beginning at 12,000 BCE.  The word Holocene derives from the Greek words holos (whole or entire) and kainos (new) and the epoch encompasses all of the period from the last glaciations throughout the worldwide population growth of the human species and up to present day.  Animals and plants have not evolved much during the Holocene, but have undergone major shifts in their distributions, due to the effects of man.  It was also the period where the megafauna – mammoths, mastodons, giant bears and an entire range of predators – disappeared.

During the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene, the Stone Age came to an end with the advent of flint tool manufacturing, the first usage of advanced darts and harpoons, and the development of a modern toolkit including oil lamps, fish hooks, ropes, and eyed needles – all perfect inventions that indicate successful hunting-gathering techniques.  During this transitionary period, Neanderthals became extinct, clay figures were hardened in wood-fired ovens, the bow and arrow was invented, and cave painting appeared in Europe.  By 12,000 BCE, Asiatic peoples crossed from Asia to North America, entered South America as far as the Andes, and domesticated llamas.

Although climate change and human predation are considered the main causes for the extinction of the Pleistocene-Holocene megafauna, the spread of disease is also an extinction theory.  Scientists who believe that the catastrophic drop in mammoth and mastodon populations was due to a hyper-disease are studying frozen samples from the mammoths of Wrangel, hoping to find evidence of an Ebola-like virus in their DNA.   They theorize that the virus could have jumped from fleas to mammoths, which would account for an extinction rate that increased as humans spread across the planet.  (Rats, which carry fleas, caravanned right alongside us, as we propagated our way across the continents.)  To date, the DNA recovered from Wrangel is incomplete and fragmentary.

But climate change and overhunting are the two main theories for the Holocene extinctions.  During the last glaciations of the Pleistocene (19,000 to 20,000 BCE) most of the climate of the world was colder and drier.  Deserts expanded, sea level dropped, and rain forests were splintered by savannah.  Twelve thousand years ago, the last Ice Age ended.  The vast grasslands of Siberia froze under permafrost.  Trees marched north.  Humans moved into the more temperate regions, following game.  As habitat collapsed with the climate change, as mammoths and mastodons were confined to shrinking islands of refuge, they became easier to hunt.

Females and the young, the easiest and most numerous, died first.  And with the older females went the knowledge of where and when to migrate.  With fewer and fewer females, birthrates could not keep up with death rates.  Mammoths couldn’t pop up every spring like wildflowers. 

The longer it takes to find each elusive herd makes a difference on how long you stay and how much you overhunt it.  But even as places of refuge became further and further apart, it was still possible to find them.  And hunt again and again and again.

There’s a lot of return for killing mammoths, much more so than gathering grass seeds, which were the most abundant food item of the Pleistocene.  In the last twenty years tons of evidence has been unearthed, confirming the overhunting theory.  Below Krakow’s Spadzista Street in Poland, 8,000 bones of 73 individuals were found in a 40 x 40-foot square area, a mammoth mausoleum.  At a hunting campsite in Czechoslovakia, archeologists excavated more than a thousand mammoths.  In areas where wood was scarce, such as the Ukraine, shelter frameworks were constructed of mammoth bones, with skulls for foundations and interlocking tusks as arches.   One shelter, near Kiev, contained the bones of 95 mammoths.  And in Dent, Colorado, the bones of a dozen mammoths are clustered at the bottom of a cliff.  Scattered among them are stone spear points and large rocks.

Mammoths and mastodons survived through the Pleistocene and into the age of man.  Ten thousand years ago, North America resembled Africa, with huge migrating herds of elephant, camels, horses and antelope.  Following alongside the herds were Saber-toothed cats, Dire wolves, Miracinonx (the American cheetah that looked like an elongated cougar), Giant short-faced bears and American lions.  Then, in the blink of an evolutionary eye, within just eight thousand years, three-fourths of North America’s large mammals disappeared.