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, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel, Writing

Miles per Pound of Trees

Diamond on forehead 2An excerpt from my book in progress:

Thembi, she of the evenly matched ears, long-lashed eyes, and diamond-shaped scar on the bridge of her nose, farts as she walks.  Big, burbling farts.

All the trees, grasses and leaves Thembi eats gather in her 10-gallon stomach, which is pretty much just a holding area.  From her stomach, roughage travels into her small intestine and then on into her large intestine.  Joining the two intestines is a junction called a cecum, where digestion actually takes place.  Her cecum is filled with billions of microbes, just like most mammals, including us.  The microbes break down the cellulose of leaves and trees into soluble carbohydrates Thembi can digest, but the process also gives her enough methane gas to power a car 20 miles each day.

I wonder, as I walk behind her, just how one could harness this gassy natural resource.  I live at the edge of a small town.  Twenty miles would more than cover my daily errands.  I imagine exhaust fumes smelling like fermenting grass.  I imagine driving down highways inhaling the scent of mulched trees.

I wonder, as I walk behind her, why I think of such things.

Percolating along, Thembi lifts her tail and farts again.  It’s a stupendous displacement of air.  In this just-right light, I can actually see this fart.  It looks like heat waves blasting from the back of a jet engine.

One advantage of Thembi’s size is food efficiency, miles per pound of trees.  An elephant eats four to seven percent of its body weight each day – four hundred to six hundred pounds of vegetation.  Mice eat a twenty-five percent of their weight daily and hummingbirds two times their own weight, or two hundred percent.  If hummingbirds ate trees, the forests of the world would already be gone.  Pound for pound, Thembi needs far less food than rodents or birds.  And with her size comes another advantage over smaller creatures – a longer life span.

We humans, with our penchant for measurements, have conjured up a precise formula for figuring out things like longer life spans.  The formula is called quarter-power-scaling.  A cat is about 100 times more massive than a mouse.  To calculate the cat’s age, take the square root of 100, which is ten, and then the square root of 10, which is 3.2.  The lifespan of a mouse is around 800 days, or just over two years.  Multiply 800 by 3.2.  The result is 2,560 days, or seven years, the average lifespan of a cat.

However, if a cat’s metabolic rate was 100 times faster than that of the mouse, all cats everywhere would spontaneously combust into feline fireballs.  Oddly enough, heart rate, the engine that drives the cat to chase the mouse, scales to the same formula, but in the opposite direction, to the minus quarter-power.  The resting heart rate for a mouse is 500 beats per minute.  Divide that by 3.2 and you have the average heart rate for a cat, around 156 beats per minute.

An elephant’s resting heart rate is a placid thirty-five beats per minute and a bit higher, around forty, when excited.  While the jittery mouse lives just over two years,  an elephant lives around sixty-five years, certainly long enough to power my car for the rest of my life.

 

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, 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.”