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.

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

The Most Useful Appendage Ever Evolved

Since I have a huge cold and can’t think, I’m re-blogging this post from early in 2012.

An excerpt from my book-in-progress:

Morula plucks a branch from one of her favorite snacks, a bush-willow.  She holds the stem in her teeth, wraps her trunk from right to left around the branch, and sheers off leaves, top-to-bottom with a single swipe.  She drops the branch and transfers the leaves from the curl of her trunk into her mouth.

Morula is right-trunked, as I am right-handed, preferring to grab and wrap from the right.  Thembi is also right-trunked, but Jabu’s a lefty.

One of the ways to determine an elephant’s dominant tendencies is to inspect the underside of its trunk for green stains on either the right side or the left.  But before you do this, make sure you know the elephant and, more importantly, the elephant knows you.

Morula peels and discards branch after branch.  Shredded bushes mark her path.  She pauses next to a candle-pod acacia, easily recognizable by its upright seedpods.  It reminds me of a giant leafy candelabrum, holding a hundred or more candles in ruffled tiers.  Sharp curved thorns protect each pod.  Morula strips the acacia of a branch, then puts it in her mouth and eats it, thorns, pods and all.

She sidles close to Doug and curls her trunk against her forehead.

“Those round bumps on her forehead might be an old skin infection,” Doug tells me, “but we really don’t know.”

Morula waves hello

A light breeze feathers the hair in her ears as she stands slightly sideways and nods the tipof her trunk in a tiny Hello. . .   Ribbed muscles cross the underside of her trunk.  Bristles stick out like the legs of a giant centipede.

There is no other living creature on this planet that has a trunk.  If elephants were already extinct, which brave paleontologist would go out on a limb and reconstruct the trunk just from evidence of bony nostrils high on the skull?  Who could imagine a nose dangling close to the ground where scents abound?  A nose with the ability to pick up a single straw, rip a tree out by its roots, bench-press 600 pounds and untie your shoelaces without you ever noticing?

“Stand here,” Doug commands me.

I obey, my back to an elephant lineup.

With a little guidance from Doug, Thembi gently places the tip of her trunk on top of my head.  It feels like a big beanbag up there, but one that’s warm, wiggly, drooling and breathing.

As Thembi rubs nose slime into my hair, Doug places Jabu’s trunk tip on my right shoulder and then Morula’s on my left.

Jabu has trouble keeping his trunk balanced on such a narrow ledge.  He constantly fidgets and pokes my cheek with his bristles.  Morula’s trunk drapes over my shoulder like a slack hose with a dripping nozzle.  Her runny nose continuously drains to clear out inhaled dust – the common condition of all elephant trunks.

When I look down and to the left, I have a close-up view of the two “fingers” on her trunk.  Her top finger is more pointed than the one on the bottom.  The shape of it reminds me of a hooded cobra.  But perhaps that’s because I think of Morula’s trunk as thinner and “snakier” than Jabu’s spectacular snout.

Which is getting heavier by the moment.  With the peripheral vision in my right eye, I see two nostrils dotted with grains of moist sand, nostrils more flesh-colored than gray.  Each opening is nearly as wide as the “O” of my mouth.

All three trunk tips, I can attest, are not just sheer weights.  They sniff, snorf, squirm, wiggle, inhale and exhale.  They create an atmosphere of elephant breath around my head.

Doug lowers my camera and pronounces, “Allll-right.”

The weights disappear.  For a few steps I am oddly light, as if walking on the surface of the moon.

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

Windows of the Soul

Jabu's eyeLike us, like all mammals, an elephant’s eye has one large lens, its aperture always open, except for a blink, or in sleep.  Like us, like all mammals, Jabu’s round iris controls the amount of light that enters his pupil.  Like us, the lens of his eye focuses light images on his retinas, where they are converted into chemical and electrical impulses, and conveyed along the optic nerve directly into his brain.

The iris is the only muscle of our bodies not colored a shade of red.  It contains pigment instead.  The density of that pigment colors our eyes from brown to blue, mostly shades of brown for elephants, although a blue-eyed calf was photographed this year in South Africa.

Iris is the Greek word for rainbow.  When light refracts through countless prisms of rain, it produces that arched scatter of reds, greens, blues and violets that we call rainbows.  But what we see is only half the story.  Rainbows are perfect circles cut in two by the horizon.  It’s only possible to see a complete circular rainbow if you are in an aircraft and the sun is high enough behind you.  A round rainbow is named a “glory.”  A halo for the earth.

How did the Greeks know rainbows are round?

Hurtling towards earth at 186,282 miles per second, light from the sun is carried by subatomic particles called photons, which vibrate up and down in perpendicular motion to the direction of the advancing light waves, passing along their energy to the retinas of our eyes.  Photons are both the medium and the message, carrying waves like water carries waves, invisible surf lapping against the islands of my eyes.  The cells in my eyes, in Jabu’s eyes, are precisely one photon wide.

I blink, he blinks, photon by photon we gaze into each other’s souls.

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

Deja Vu

Jabu & the tree b&w

 

It’s an ancient feeling, this memory of a moment I’ve never had before, this exact smell of scuffed dust, this slant of light, the slightly spicy taste of sand, the warm brush of sunrays across my cheeks, the squint my eyes adopt as if they’ve always looked into the African sun.  It’s the way my bones melt, the acceptance in my mind and nerves that tells me not to run when a monster materializes from a clump of brush and moves to an arm’s length, breathing so quietly I wonder if it’s sleepwalking, I wonder if I’m sleepwalking, because everything that is happening, this monster, this place, my fog of serenity, must be made from dreams.

The monster moves closer.

A familiar monster.  One with a shape.  One with a name.

His eye, a huge topaz oval, stares down at me.  He’s motionless, concentrating.  I can’t even hear him breathing.

Like us, like all mammals, an elephant’s eye has one large lens, its aperture always open, except for a blink, or in sleep.  Like us, like all mammals, Jabu’s round iris controls the amount of light that enters his pupil.  And like us, the lens of his eye focuses light images on his retinas, where they convert into chemical and electrical impulses and whisk along the optic nerve directly to his brain.

What would it be like to think without words and recognize shapes without names?

Both of us, human and elephant, witness only a small portion of what is out there to be seen.  Francolins, mambas, tsessebees, zebras and lions – everything that crawls, swims or walks – witness the world in ways I cannot even imagine.

Even in the womb the eye of a fetus moves through its amniotic dreams.  Does it dream about the glories of a life to come?

“Hello,” I whisper.

 

The light from his eye just now reaches mine.

 

 

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Travel

The Most Useful Appendage That Ever Evolved

An excerpt from my book-in-progress:

Trunk in face

 

The tip of Jabu’s trunk hovers in front of my eyes, wet with mucous, dotted with sand, nostril hairs visible.

He blows into my face, gently.  I blow back, gently.  We exchange breath, distillations of our own personal atmospheres, particle-swarms of changed, exchanged air, brewed though all the cells of our bodies.

My lungs fill with the fragrance of crushed leaves, with saproots and spearmint-scented bark, all lightly fermented.  I think of the stagnant air that surrounds my daily life, air that is conditioned, filtered, deodorized, air that is bland.  Elephant’s breath is said to cure headaches.  And it just might, if I had one.

Jabu’s trunk tip investigates my right boot tip.  The scents I’ve picked up while walking tumble up two seven-foot-long nostrils – nostrils surrounded by nerves, arteries, veins and a staggering array of longitudinal and transverse muscles, the world’s biggest, longest and certainly most flexible schnozz.

A trunk is the most useful appendage that ever evolved.  Imagine having an arm in place of your nose, an arm long enough to reach to the top of a tree, and pluck a single leaf from its crown.  Imagine having a nose with which you could rip, tear, excavate, whack, and blow bubbles.  You could steal with your nose, suck on it, squeal, swat, poke and siphon with it.  You could take a shower, or reach over your shoulder and scratch your back with it.  You could even arm wrestle with your nose.

He chuffs, a hot gust of air directed at my feet.  Wet mist covers one boot top momentarily, then evaporates.

 

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

Lions, Part One

While standing in the shade of my tent, I look out over a lagoon of bent grass to the trees at its far shoreline.  A few of the stalks shiver and crosshatch in the lagoon as a mouse or grasshopper nibble at their stems.  Otherwise, the grass is motionless.

I stick my hands in my pocket and scuff dust with the toe of my boot.

Something rustles in the underbrush.  My sleepy senses come to full alert.  It’s an ancient world out there  – full of primitive memories storied at the bottom of our brains.  i spot one of the honorary camp staff, a francolin, scratching around a clump of buffalo grass.

We are all afraid of something.  Thembi gets in a tizzy over bees.  (Imagine bees up your nose!)  Eggshells horrify Jabu.  For Morula, it’s the fear of not belonging.

Are elephants afraid of mice?  No, but quick small things moving around their feet startle them.  I consider that a prudent reaction in a world full of snakes.

My fears are primitive, hard-wired into the base of my brain from the time when humans were prey to huge fanged predators – cats as large as grizzlies, bears as large as elephants.  My primitive brain is not comfortable when there are carnivores around, especially when I can’t see them.

Just last night a lion’s roar ripped me awake from a deep sleep: WAAA-AH-UNGHHH   UNGH  UNGH  UNGH  ungh  ungh. . . .It ended with those deep grunts lions cough up from their bellies.

A lion’s roar can be heard for five miles.  This one was incredibly loud and incredibly close, right at the edge of camp.

A cold set of fingers wrapped around my heart.  In the darkness my heart threw itself repeatedly against my ribs, then slowly backed into a corner of my chest.  Wary, it waited there for another roar, which never came.  I knew I was safe – no lion has ever dragged someone out of a zippered tent in Botswana.    But tell that to my primitive brain.

Four days ago, as I waited for Doug to pick me up from Stanley’s Camp, I had enough time before his arrival to join an evening game drive.  A young couple on their first trip to Africa climbed into the tier of seats behind me in the Landcruiser and held hands.  They were on their honeymoon.  John, our driver and guide, explained that two other vehicles from camp had found a pride of lions on the other side of the reserve – but it was too far away for us to join them and be back before dinner.

Kudu horns b&wSo we headed off in the opposite direction.  The young couple happily snapped photographs of zebras and impalas and baboons, giddy with the realization they were in the midst of their dream vacation.  A male kudu with magnificent horns kept us in one place for nearly a half hour as the couple peppered John with questions and marveled over the graceful curl of the kudu’s horns.

At dusk John parked at the top of a knoll.  With open grassland all around us it was safe to descend from the vehicle.  He prepared traditional sundowners – gin and tonics – and handed them around.

As I take my first sip a lion roared in the near distance.  “That’s not very far,” I said and looked at John.

“We could get lucky,” he looked at the couple with us.

They nodded, so we dashed our drinks on the ground, stashed our glasses back in their basket, and scrambled back into the Landcruiser.

Just down the road, where we’d been half an hour earlier, four large males lounged in the tall grass alongside our tracks.  One lifted his chin and roared, loud enough to rattle our hearts:  WAAUNNNNNNGH, UNGH, UNGH, ungh, ungh, ungh.

John sent a radio message to the other vehicles.  They will detour to join us on their way back to Stanley’s.

As we watched the four males, light faded from the sky and disappeared.  Blue became purple, then black.  Stars appeared, each one of them a cold clear diamond.

John switched on a spotlight.   A male sat in front of us, looking to our right, listening.

Spotlight off.  The couple behind me murmured to each other and tried to become small blobs, rather than humans with discernable arms and legs and heads.

Spotlight on.  Another male, on the left, folded into the grass, on his side, with a barely audible ufff.B&W male lion

Spotlight off.

A distant contact roar from one of the lions on the other side of the reserve.

Spotlight on.  The male in front of us headed to a wall of brush and trees, disappeared.

Spotlight off.  Shallow breaths through my open mouth.  A commotion to our left.

Spotlight on.  Another male, who was sitting off to our right, had moved across the road and was now rubbing the side of his face against the lion inert in the grass.  When he couldn’t get his companion to rise, he also slid into the bush.  A fourth lion, just up the road, ghostly in the spotlight’s shadow, followed the first two, disappeared.

Spotlight off.  Silence.

Then a faint roar, in the distance again.

The hair on my arm rose before I even thought about it, as I realized that next to me the grass hissed, hisss zissh, hisss zissh, as something large walked by.

“He’s right beside me,” I whisper without moving my lips.

Spotlight on.

The inert lion was gone.  John twisted his hand over his shoulder and the light caught the back of a lion just passing the front tire on my side of the vehicle.  His great head swung back and forth as he walked hisss zissh, hisss zissh through the tall grass.  The lion had walked around the back end of the vehicle without us hearing him until he was right next to me.  The skin on the back of my neck tried to crawl up to the top of my head.A Lion Walks By b&w

The lion turned his head toward the light.  The pupils in his yellow eyes shrank to pinpoints.

He was that close.  I saw his pupils shrink to pinpoints.

He huffed and swung around to follow his three brothers into the bush.  I exhaled.  Had I been holding my breath that long?

The two other vehicles appeared just in time to catch a glimpse of his back in waist-high grass.  They followed him, bouncing through the brush, their headlights tapping the tops of trees.

John turned in his seat and looked at us.  The spotlight in his lap illuminated his face and glinted from the eyes of the young couple, eyes that were now nearly the size of  their open mouths.

“I think it is enough,” he said.  “Let’s go to the hyena’s den before the others get there.”

Posted in Africa, Jabu, Morula, Thembi, Travel

The Tree of Life, Part Two

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

In 1998, the Disney Corporation opened the Animal Kingdom Park in Florida. It is, in essence, a 500-acre zoo, containing 1,700 animals representing 250 species, from Abdim’s storks to African zebras.  In the center of the park is a 145-foot-tall, 50-foot-wide sculpture of a baobab, representing the Tree of Life from the Disney film, The Lion King.  Much larger than any known baobab, the sculpture is molded around a refitted oil platform.  Its trunk is carved with 325 animals and contains a theater with 430 seats.  Upon its branches are 103,000 leaves dyed five shades of green, made of kynar, a flexible fluoropolymer resin.

Since opening, the park has averaged 9 million visitors annually, ranking seventh in the world in theme park attractions.  Disney’s resident herd of African elephants has produced six calves, three females and three males, all still living – the most successful breeding program in the United States.  The herd now consists of twelve elephants: four males and 8 females.

Here, in the Okavango Delta, our small herd of three elephants, one male and two females, browse through thick brush on one of the islands left stranded after last year’s flood.  As I might linger over a sunset, Jabu, the male, lingers over a small mopane tree, whose leaves have high protein content, an important year-round food source.  Thembi pulls out a single leaf from a young palm and chews on the sweet cane-like stalk.  Morula has entirely disappeared into a thicket, but I can hear an occasional crack from a breaking branch as she tugs it from a tree.

The white eye of the sun glares down upon us, blinding, melting the wax that held together a small, feathered breeze.  My bones soften, melting.  I lose my ability to soar.  Baobob in winter

The sun reflects from my camera’s metal buckle and penetrates my brain like a dull pickax.  It’s a burst bomb, pure and searing, a light behind my eyelids, a glimpse of the beginning of our solar system.  Halfway through its own lifespan, the sun is fueled by enough hydrogen to last five billion years more.

I move into the shadow of a nearby mopane.  Thick, dappled shade makes diamond patterns at my feet.  Slowly we begin to leave the island, the elephants more reluctantly than the humans.

Across a dried up lagoon full of grass, is a baobab, a rare species for this part of the Delta.  Its nude limbs, entangled as a root system, seem to search for moisture from the sky.  Kalahari Bushmen believe the trees appear fully-grown, planted upside down by the gods, with the tree’s roots in the air.  They also believe spirits inhabit the baobab’s large, waxy-white flowers, and if anyone has the audacity to pick one, they will be eaten by a lion.

This baobab is deciduous and luckily naked this time of year.  It’s around twenty-two feet in diameter and about seventy feet tall; a young tree that I would guess is 600 years old.  Its trunk is smooth and relatively unblemished.

Older baobabs have a tendency to rot out their heartwood, but completely heal around the hollowed trunk.  Rats and reptiles frequently invade them.  The African honeybee often establishes hives in crevices of a hollowed trunk.  Native to central and southern Africa the bees are actually a subspecies of the Western honeybee.

A single sting from an African bee is no more venomous than a single European or American bee sting, though African honeybees respond more quickly when disturbed and send out three to four times as many workers in response to a threat.  They also pursue an intruder for a greater distance from the hive – thus their reputation as “killer” bees.”

So the Honeyguide bird is more than willing to let another species take that risk.  Physically unable to break open a bee’s nest, it has developed a symbiotic relationship with humans, indicating the presence of a hive by continuously dive-bombing nearby, all the while uttering monotonous, squirrel-like chirps.  Alerted by the Honeyguide, intrepid Kalahari Bushmen pound pegs into the soft bark of baobabs to climb the tree, lull the bees with smoke and obtain a sweet reward for taking that risk.  Bushmen always leave honey for the birds, for if they should fail to do so, the Honeyguide will one day lead them to a lion, instead of a hive.

Smooth and pinkish-gray, the baobab across the grass lagoon has only a few hollows in its trunk excavated for bird nests, and a single scrape from an elephant’s tusk.   Older trees are often deeply scarred as high as an elephant can reach.

Baobab barkHollow baobabs have a long history of creative uses by humans.  During World War II, a baobab in Namibia was fitted with a toilet.  The toilet is still there, but the tree has grown around the door, which no longer opens.  On the lower Zambezi River, the Kayila Lodge has an operational toilet tree, used more for photo opportunities than necessity.  And on a private farm in Sunland, South Africa, an enormous baobab contains a wine cellar and bar, complete with draft beer, a dartboard, stools, and a wooden bench along the wall.  The tree is possibly the oldest baobab in existence – it has been radiocarbon-dated to the end of the Stone Age, around six thousand years ago.

In Kasane, Botswana, a baobab was used as women’s prison in the early twentieth century.  I imagine it also served as a deterrent – incarceration with potential rat and reptile cellmates would make any criminal think twice.  Although that baobab died in 1967, an offshoot now grows next to the remains of the jail.  Throughout Africa, hollow baobabs have served various purposes – as hiding places during tribal warfare, as shops, storage shelters, barns, chapels, burial sites, post offices, even a bus stop.

Almost every part of the baobab is edible.  Fresh leaves are eaten as spinach and condiments.  The shoots from germinating seeds taste like asparagus.  Bulbs from its roots make porridge.  Fluid extracted from the bark of the baobab is used to dilute milk. The ash from a burnt tree is a good substitute for salt.  Pulp and seeds of its fruit contain potassium acid tartrate as well as citric acid, an effective substitute for cream of tartar, and resulting in the Afrikaans name “Kremetartboom.”  Early settlers also used fruit pulp in place of yeast and added baobab leaves to speed up the fermentation process in winemaking.  The fruit pulp has the highest known concentration of Vitamin C.  It makes a slightly acidic, but refreshing drink when mixed with water.  Baobab seeds have the same protein value as domestic nuts and can also be roasted and ground into a substitute for coffee.

The baobab is often called “the Monkey-bread tree,” because baboons and monkeys eagerly consume its fruits.  Nearly all four-legged browsers eat the baobab’s fallen leaves and flowers.  The flowers open just before dark, produce copious amounts of nectar and last for only 24 hours.  Their heavy, carrion-like scent attracts nocturnal insects and bats, such as Peter’s Epaulleted Fruit Bat.

In times of drought, elephants strip the bark of the baobab and eat the spongy wood underneath, estimated to contain 40-70% water – classifying the baobab as the world’s largest succulent.  An individual baobab can store up to 32,000 gallons of water and weigh 266,880 pounds – or one hundred and twenty-one tons.   A big bull like Jabu can weigh up to 16,000 pounds or seven tons.  If you stacked elephants one upon the other, it would take seventeen or eighteen elephants to equal the weight (if not the mass) of the water stored in a large baobab.

The name baobab derives from North African Arabic, bu-hibab, “fruit of many seeds.”  Within life spans that reach six thousand years, the baobab nourishes countless species, takes in tons of carbon dioxide and releases equal amounts of oxygen.  It cycles and recycles, measures seasons by dropping its leaves, measures centuries by the blur of life beneath its limbs.  A baobab’s death is the death of an eternity, as measured by one of those species for which it provides.Savuti baobab 2 b&w