Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Photography, Travel

Why Grey Matters

THIS IS A GUEST BLOG from my friend the alliterative punster, Douglas Groves.  Doug and Sandi Groves live in Botswana’s Okavango Delta with their three elephants: Jabu, Morula and Thembi.  (You may have already noticed that I write about them in this blog and post pictures of them from time to time.)  Be sure to check the elephant’s Facebook page.

 

L to R: Jabu, Thembi & Morula, photograph by Cheryl Merrill
L to R: Jabu, Thembi & Morula, photograph by Cheryl Merrill

Humans and elephants have evolved the largest and most complex brains of all land animals.  Social brains, emotional brains, brains that change, connect, cooperate, compare and compete.  Our convoluted cortex and huge hippocampus help us to perceive, process and pass information down through the generations in a similar way.

Tender, strong, silly and smart, elephants tug at our emotions, and, perhaps, we at theirs.

We become self and socially aware as well as aware of the world around us, through our brains.  And the Earth, it has been said, has now become self aware through our collective intelligence.  Our brains make us resourceful, dynamic and adaptable but they can also get us in to trouble.

Common spawn of the same ancient African alchemy, we go way back together, our deep organic roots entwine through steamy primordial millennia.  Emerging from a marvelous melee of merrily mutating mammals, man and elephant, the two terrestrial titans began lording over the lesser lot. Nosey and manipulative in equal measure, our tribes and herds exploded out of Africa on an extraordinary evolutionary extravaganza, becoming very prominent features of the fauna far and wide.

High and mighty, yet down to earth, elephants embody the gentle soul, the sacred heart, the wonderful wild wisdom and the absolutely awesome and pivotal power of our almighty matriarch herself…  Mother Nature.

From aberrant ape and rag tag tribes to a great globalized superorganism, Man has drifted apart from the magic of nature and his great grey friends.  Our biological evolution has been usurped by lightning fast cultural and technological advances.  Ignoring planetary limitations we’ve become a geophysical force, reshaping the face of the planet and impacting the future of life.

We’ve created creeping confluent conurbia, fetid factory farms and monstrous mechanized monocultures, mining and megopoi!  We’ve altered atoms and modified molecules, tinkering with the very stuff of life!

Unlike our rapacious rat race, elephants utilize only renewable resources and the byproducts of their consumption become a biological bonanza. Ecologists call them a super keystone species and ecosystem engineer. When we conserve areas large enough for elephants we conserve whole ecosystems. Conservationists know that their role as a charismatic flagship species is essential in preserving wild habitat.

Today, for the most part, we live walled off from nature.  Gizmos and gadgets, distractions and devices dominate our lives. Isolated from the natural world we rely on luxuries rather than relationships for a sense of fulfillment. Much of the information we receive is carefully controlled and expertly edited, cherry picked, censored.  In this era of skyscrapers and screens when virtual reality has invaded our dreams, we desperately need something real, something big to believe in, we need elephants now more than ever before.

We are currently at a crossroads. We can stay on the same path, a business as usual course, in which case we will destroy our planetary life support systems or we can reconnect with our elemental foundations, get back in touch with nature and learn to live with ecological integrity.

Grey matters because things change as energy flows through us.  Our trajectory through time is limited. As we become more mature we often start examining existential questions and issues.  Why are we here, how can we help and will we leave a legacy worth living? Hopefully, as we grow older we will also become bolder in making choices that will benefit future generations.

 

Posted in Africa, Doug, Elephants, Jabu, Morula, Sandi, Thembi, Travel

Mammals Are Called Mammals Becuz. . .

As promised, I’m re-visiting the third most popular blog post of my blog in 2014:  an excerpt from my book, Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

 

 

Doug gets my full attention when he proclaims to his guests, “Thembi has a great set of knockers.”

“Thembi, leg.”

She obliges by bending her left front leg at the knee and raising it, exposing a clear view of her breast.  “See?  Elephant mammary glands are located on the chest, like humans.”

A Great Set of Knockers

I lean over Doug’s shoulder and look at two gray breasts with permanently erect nipples.  They’re about the size of a medium cantaloupe and, like human breasts, slightly globular, due to the pull of gravity.

“Alllllll-right, Thembi.”  As her foot touches the ground, she flaps her ears and her trunk snorfles around his feet.

“If you reach in like this,” Doug demonstrates, “you can feel them.”

Steadying myself with one hand on Thembi’s leg, I reach in and cup her breast with the other hand.  The skin of her breast is as soft as an old, creased leather bag.  Her nipple, as one might expect, is harder than the flesh around it.

Thembi emits a low, murmuring rumble.

“Oh you like that, do you, Thembi girl?”  Doug chuckles.

I quickly withdraw my hand and step away from her side.

“Anyone else want to try?” asks Doug.

Out of the seven of us, several people look away, several look down.  No one ventures forward.  I can’t tell if everyone is embarrassed or just reticent.  Feeling up an elephant may not be quite what they had in mind.  It certainly wasn’t what I had in mind.

“Well, OK.  Mammals are called mammals because . . . . ?”

One of the guests ventures, “Mammary glands?”

“Right.”  Doug continues his lecture: “Like all mammals, Thembi’s lactiferous ducts terminate in her nipples.  They point out a bit, while Morula’s nipples point down.  Thembi gets a bit of stimulation while she walks, don’t you, Thembi girl?”

Some of the guests look mildly scandalized, while others giggle and whisper to each other.

Doug rubs Thembi’s leg, which generates another snorfle.

Female elephants don’t have a row of teats, like cats or dogs.  They don’t lie on their sides, suckling a litter.  Elephant calves nurse standing up, with their small trunks flipped over an eye like a wayward curl.

All mammal breasts are modified sweat glands.  Some mammal breasts are located in the groin and some on the chest.  The breasts between Thembi’s front legs are in the same location mine would be if I walked around on all fours.  Her breasts weigh about four pounds each, .1% of her body weight.  Human breasts weigh .08% of total body weight, dogs 2%, rats 9%.

Do all mammals have larger breast size to body weight than humans?  I pull out my notebook to write down that question, but then decided I really don’t care, and put the notebook away.

“Is she pregnant?” asks the woman behind me.

Although Thembi possesses relatively trim tonnage in comparison to the other two elephants, she is significantly rounder – huge thighs, huge belly, a Rubenesque sort of girl with a really long nose – and very full breasts, unusually large for a non-pregnant elephant.

“We don’t think so,” Doug replies.  “We had her hormone levels tested about six months ago, and they were normal.  She’s an enthusiastic eater, so she might be a tad rotund because of that.  She might be incubating a surprise, but we doubt it.”

Sandi laughs. “That’s because she’s a bit of a flirt with the wild boys around here, but when things get serious she becomes quite horrified and scoots on home.”

Another one of the guests pipes up: “Has Jabu ever tried mating with her?”

“Yes, he’s tried,” Sandi replies, “But we’ve never yet seen him achieve intromission.”

Heads nod thoughtfully.  I can see intromission has thrown them a bit.  It’s not a word commonly used to describe sexual penetration, but I think most of the guests have a general idea of what it might mean.  Several of their heads swivel to gaze at Jabu, ripping apart a nearby bush.  Since he’s such a big boy, why couldn’t he just have his own way?

“Thembi doesn’t really favor him,” says Sandi, as if she’s reading minds.

“What if she had a calf?”

There’s not one second of hesitancy to Sandi’s reply: “Oh, we’d keep it.  It wouldn’t be easy, though.  Thembi’s never been in a breeding herd and has no clue about birth.  And she’s rather stuck on herself, you know.  We don’t think she’d be a good mother.  But if it happened, we’d make it work.”

Even though it’s not likely that Jabu and Thembi will become pachyderm parents, I can easily imagine Thembi as a pregnant princess, mood swings, food cravings and all.  As if to prove my point, she regally sweeps through a stand of grass, a princess on a mission.  She breaks off a few branches from a small thornbush, stuffs them against her back molars and chews with her mouth open.

Thembi has never been with an extended herd of mothers and sisters and aunts and hasn’t had the opportunity to learn the complex behaviors required to be a mother.  She’s never learned that newborn calves stay in physical contact ninety-nine percent of the time, either below or beside their mothers.  Although calves will begin to forage by nine months, they continue to suckle for about four years.  Elephants in zoos will quite frequently shun newborn calves.  So I can just about predict Thembi’s reaction to a calf:  What IS this thing following me around?

I glance over at Jabu.  He has nipples, too.  Guy nipples, nozzle-like nipples, surrounded with sparse hair.

A Guy Nipple

All mammals have three distinct features: hair, three middle ear bones, and mammary glands.  Even whales, dolphins, porpoises and manatees have hair, usually on their snouts or next to blowholes.  Elephants and manatees shared a common ancestor fifty-six million years ago, but the nipples of female manatees are now under their flippers, in their armpits.

A question comes from the back of the tourist group.  “What about Morula?”

Dear, Old Maid Morula.  The wallflower with big ears, large liquid eyes and a knobby forehead.

“If an elephant doesn’t breed by the age of twenty-five, they are unlikely to,” Sandi replies.  “Morula is already the ripe old age of thirty.”

Female elephants typically become active at a quite young age, around thirteen.  They can conceive as early as ten years old and possibly have 12-15 offspring by the time they are fifty.  Female calves will stay with the herd the rest of their lives.

Male elephants take a bit longer to mature and become sexually active around the age of twenty-nine.

Morula has missed the boat.  But I’ll bet she’d make a great aunty.  She stands close by, slowly opening and closing her great ears, patiently watching.

One of the Lactating Class

When he first developed his classification system, Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus originally called mammals Quadrupedia, after the name Aristotle gave them.  Later he became actively opposed to wet-nursing practices in the 1750s and wrote a book on the benefits of breast-feeding your own child.  As a political act, he reclassified Quadrupedia to Mammalia in later editions of his most famous work, Systema Naturae, defining mammals as a lactating class within the Animalia kingdom, a classification that has lasted to this day – all because women of nobility in Linnaeus’s time thought breastfeeding would ruin their figures.

Certainly that’s one thing Thembi doesn’t have to worry about.

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 Africa, Elephants, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel

Underwater

Trunk tip 2b&wAwash in a sea of scent, Jabu curls his trunk and samples wave after wave of odors breaking at his feet.  Redolent tides wash in, wash out, a floating realm populated with aromatic citizens.  Schools of scents cluster at his feet, swimming through the grass at the bottom of an ocean of air.

Sixty percent of his brain is dedicated to smell.  Jabu can distinguish between a million or more separate odors in the daily news that floats by on warm currents.  Just a few molecules bring him history and current events: stories of who was here, who is there, how long they stayed and in which direction they went.  Jabu can detect fellow elephants ten miles away.

He reaches out and flattens the tip of his trunk over a wet spot in the sand.  Eyes half closed, he stands completely still, as if lost in memory, his brain sorting through the various scents tumbling up his trunk.  He samples the air thoughtfully, as if listening to a quiet conversation, as if storing it, word by word, in those huge frontal lobes of his.

Flehmen flat trunkI remember that elephants see the world in yellows and blues, like color-blind humans.  I fasten a yellow filter over my camera lens, then a blue one.  Jabu turns aquamarine.  From far, far away, he snaps a branch from a shrub the color of kelp, chomps, munches, drifts closer.  His slow motions make perfect sense underwater.

I wade into a lagoon of grass.  Ankles, knees, waist, chest, neck.  Some of the grass stalks bob over my head.  My hands, my body, my thoughts, move slowly.

Immersed, my ears fill with a pure hum.  The sound of my passage whispers in seashell voices.

As Jabu drifts by, undertones of blue and gray shimmer against his flanks, reflections of seaweed and kelp.  I follow, sub-aquatic, at the bottom of air.  Carried by the current of my imagination, I am about to tumble downstream. Jabu aslant b&w

Then the breeze kicks up, feels as if it comes all the way from the bottom of the Kalahari, feels red, feels gritty, feels dry as a hundred-year-old skeleton left in the desert.  It sucks every bit of moisture from under me and lands me beached and gasping.

I lower my camera.  Red invades yellow and the world greens.