Posted in Africa, Hyenas, Nature

Hyenas Eat Hot Sauce

Photograph by Cheryl Merrill

This is an updated version of a post I did back in 2014:

During my first visit with Sandi and Doug, I heard about the thieving hyenas of Stanley’s Camp when its manager pointed to the banks of a nearby lagoon. “Hyenas dragged our sofa out there and ripped it apart.”

The leather sofa never had a chance. A pack of hyenas can devour a four- hundred-pound zebra in less than half an hour, eating its bones, skull, hair, even its hooves, leaving only a smear of blood on the ground. With a bite pressure of over a thousand pounds, hyenas pulverize and consume enough bone their scat is chalk-white.

They eat almost anything that moves: wildebeests, warthogs, rodents, hares, snakes, crocodiles, turtles, lizards, birds, caterpillars, termites, and every species of antelope in Africa. They eat things that don’t move – such as dung – or flesh so putrefied and full of maggots it’s the consistency of cottage cheese. They eat anything not locked up: boots, toothpaste, shaving cream, soap, even bottles of hot sauce. What’s glass to a creature that can snack on a zebra’s hoof?

At Stanley’s the hyenas climbed into the dining lounge in the dead of night, shoved aside several tables and chairs, pulled the sofa down a set of wooden steps and tugged it four hundred feet to the banks of the nearby lagoon. They ate its leather and left a gnawed wooden frame.

I asked the manager, “Why the sofa?”

“Just the oil from human hands.” He rubbed a palm across the sofa’s replacement. It was leather, too. Doomed, I thought.

Last night, I remembered the sofa and mentioned it to Sandi, asking her many sofas had been destroyed over the years.

She thought for a moment. “One or two,” she said. “And a couple of chairs.”

Then she told me the story of the hyenas who killed an eleven-year-old American boy at the Xakanaxa Campground, thirty miles to the northeast.

A mother and son on an overland camping safari stopped at Xakanaxa with their guide. The mother allowed her son to sleep by himself, against the guide’s wishes. According to some accounts, the boy left the zipper of his tent open, hoping to photograph the hyenas circling their campsite earlier in the evening. According to others, he may have even brought food into his tent to lure the hyenas closer.

Awakened by shrieks and crazed laughter, the guide saw a huge female hyena dragging the boy into the bush. Men from nearby campsites helped locate his body, drove away the hyenas, and guarded his remains until daylight.

Last night, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a clatter. Something was rearranging everything in the kitchen shelter. Aluminum chairs scooted across the concrete floor. Silverware rained. A large enamel pot crashed. A long, long silence followed.

I replayed what I’d just heard. Yes, that had to be the enamel pot we cook in, stored near the sink.

I reached under my cot, retrieved my glasses, grabbed my flashlight, rose and tiptoed to the rear end of my tent. Lying flat on my belly, I unzipped the mesh, then the canvas, just enough to allow out a beam of light. The sound of the zippers ripped through the darkness.

The light barely made it to the end of the kitchen shelter. Nothing. I flicked it around as best I could. Nothing. No reflected eyes, no movement, nothing. The silence was deafening.

I zipped the tent shut, went back to my cot, and, oddly enough, fell asleep.

We found the pot today on our morning walk. They tried to eat that, too.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Family, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Thembi, Writing

A Tribute to Thembi: Miles per Pound of Trees

On March 13, one of the elephants I who allowed me into her life died unexpectedly of colic and a heart attack.  I’ve written extensively about Thembi and her herd mates.  This is one of the pieces.

 

Diamond on forehead 2

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 Air, Beauty, Elephants, Nature, Photography, Stardust

Star Dust

World Elephant Day
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

“We are stardust/We are golden/And we’ve got to get ourselves/Back to the garden.” – Joni Mitchell

 

Yesterday I traveled by jet. Today I fall into place behind three elephants. My mind is having a hard time keeping up with a change greater than eight time zones and two hemispheres. I’m clumsy in this new world. The old one of concrete and cell phones trails me like a lost dog.

Flirting with each one of us in turn, the wind twirls ahead in small scrolls of dust. Its warm lips nibble on my ear and blow a kiss past my cheek. Fingers of wind brush back my hair. I’d forgotten what a coquette a breeze can be, how it can lead you out into the world and make you a bit impish, too.

Thembi knuckles her eye with the tip of her trunk, curled tight as a fist. As she rubs, a dark smudge, a triangle of tear, spreads like a delta from the corner of her eye. Morula’s leans against a lead wood, rasping her hip against its rough bark, satisfying an itch. Poofs of dust rise with each scrape

Enticed by a nearby tidbit, Thembi daintily picks a single leaf from a bush willow with the two “fingers” at the tip of her trunk. Morula and Jabu join in, not so daintily, ripping entire branches from the bush. Deft as magicians, they curl their trunks around the branches and strip off its soft leaves. Jabu smacks his lips as he wads them up and crams them into his mouth. He drags one foot and stirs up a gauzy curtain of powdered insects, mud, and the cells of sloughed skin from everything that moves or crawls in Africa. From his belly up, Jabu is slate colored. From his belly down, seen through the gauzy curtain, he’s a bit rosier, more dove.

Morula swings away from the bush and stops near a patch of sand. She snorts in a handful of sand, squeezes the accordion folds of her trunk, swings it upward, and blows dust across her back. She powders herself again and again, using the same sandy spot with its talcum of dust.

The breeze carries it to me and I sneeze.

Every atom we breathe was generated in stellar engines, white-hot blossoms that pollinated the universe. Each one of us is made from trillions of those atoms, which will never be assembled in the same way again. Ever. Identical twins may look alike, but sub-atomically they too are completely unique. If you could grab a handful of atoms from your body and hold them in your hand, they will not be alive and yet, when they are assembled within us, we live. Pick Morula and I apart atom-by-atom and we would be piles of dust, no longer living. Morula’s pile would, of course, be bigger.

It is only our dust that is immortal, endlessly carried on currents of air.

Posted in Elephants, Extinction, Mammoths, Mastodons, Nature, Pleistocene

Mammoth Dreams

society4
Rouffignal – The Cave of a Hundred Mammoths, France

I live at the edge of the continent, where an elbow of the world’s largest ocean juts into the far western side of North America, where ocean is trying to become land and land ocean. I live where elephants once roamed, where mastodons and mammoths ranged the southern edge of ice sheets.

They lived, literally, in my back yard. Thirty years ago mammoth bones and teeth eroded from the cliff just a half mile from my house.

Last night I had a dream, born, I guess, from the days when I lived in Seattle. As if my clock radio had gone off, I heard the voice of a male announcer in my ear.

Traffic Alert! The 520 bridge is slow, slow, slow this morning. Mammoths are beginning their annual migration from the Cascade Corridor into the Arboretum for salal berries! Let’s take a look at the traffic cams. Yep, cars are really creeping, trying to get a look, as the mammoths cross the Wildlife Bridge at Montlake. And now we’ve got reports of a couple of herds at the beach near the old Pier 51 site.

 Female voice: Wow, Clark, look . . .at. . .that! Ferry commuters are gonna get a great view from Coleman Dock. Isn’t that something!

 Male voice: Well, that’s the latest traffic update. Expect major delays into downtown this morning. Now, back to our top story . . .

 It’s dark, 4 a.m., and I awaken laughing and crying, wondering where dreams come from. Wondering if I’ve imagined an alternative present where mammoths and mastodons still migrate through our daily routines, safe from the closed door of extinction. Wondering what I would see if I rose in my dream and looked out my window: mammoths in the grass, in the moonlight, plucking the heads of dandelions one by one, mastodons stripping the bark of the cedar tree in my neighbor’s back yard. Elephant ghosts reclaiming their land.

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

A World Older Than Ours

 

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Grey Lourie, photograph by Cheryl Merrill

For long periods of time not one of us with the elephants speaks a single word. Plump, babbling, feather-brained guinea fowl run ahead of us in clumps. Their noggins perch atop impossibly skinny blue necks and look professionally shrunk by headhunters. The spooky laugh of a single hyena crawls in from the distance.

Sweat trickles from under my hat. No matter how many times I gaze ahead, the path remains the same two dusty ruts in the tall, lion-colored grass. Seed heads from dry stalks pop like tiny finger snaps in the heat. Sand fine as cake flower powders my boots, and I gasp as though I have gills.

As we trudge along, I catch a glimpse of a “go-away” bird, a Gray lourie, springing along the branches over my head. He leans down and reproaches us for being foolish enough to be out in the mid-day sun. Go-wheyyyyyyy, go-wan. Go-wheyyyyyyy. The lourie nods his pronounced head crest at us. Go-wheyyy. Wheyyyyy. Go-wan. Go-wheyyyyyy.

Bleached by the sun, the sky is no longer blue.   As we pass near a marshy waterhole, two blacksmith plovers bounce up and down, their call mimicking smithies tapping on metal: Klink!Klink-Klink!

In this season, the soundscape around me is filled with dry cracklings. With crickets who rasp their legs together and listen to each other with ears on their tibias. With the scrape of our footsteps. With the buzz of small flies seeking moisture at the corners of my eyes.

What would it be like to think without words and recognize shapes without names? But I hear these words in my head as I think them.

Later, in the afternoon, we flush a warthog family. One of the piglets stops and looks over his shoulder at me.

 

piglet
Warthog piglet, photograph by Cheryl Merrill
Posted in Africa, Atmosphere, Elephants, Nature, Photography

Sound = Life

soundlife
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

Every second of every day unheard worlds tremble past my dim senses. Occasionally, when I’m in Africa, the air around me begins to thicken as an elephant’s vocalizations lift from infrasound into a register my ears can hear. Airquakes. Fractures and heaves of oscillating air. Another language, one without words, without speech.

I almost know infrasound. No more than two miles from my home freighters push through the deep waters of Puget Sound. On flat black nights the thump-thump of their propellers travels through water, through air, churns into my bed, my bones and into the lowest threshold of my hearing. It’s a mechanical throb, born in the bellies and boilers of machines, carried along rotating shafts which turn the metal blades of propellers, which slice through water like a dull knife hacking flesh. . . . . Whummp . . . whummp . . . whummp . . . . . . . . .

Out in the bay that fronts the town where I live, aggregates of barnacles coat docks and pilings and rocks. Their shells open and close, open and close, as feeding appendages catch food on the tides. Barnacle larvae hone in on the vibrations of feeding and settle in with their relatives so that they may easily exchange sperm and eggs with their kin. The sound of a large bed of barnacles can be heard for up to ten miles underwater.

Sound moves in waves similar to light waves. Light can be carried in a vacuum such as outer space but sound cannot. It needs a conducting medium. There’s a terribly silent universe beyond the top layer of earth’s atmosphere. It’s cold, breathless, without wind, without water, without life. On the moon our alien footfalls fell without sound into its dead dust. No one hears anything, unless you are in a spacesuit, listening to your own breathing.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Jabu, Nature

Massive Molars

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

At birth, elephants have only two or three small cheek teeth. By the age of ten, big tectonic molars began to erupt in the back of their jaws, becoming part of a conveyer belt of teeth. As molars wear down near the front of an elephant’s mouth fragments of them break off in pieces and either fall out or are swallowed. Throughout its lifetime, an elephant will grow twenty-four molars in six sets – but only two tusks.

Each molar looks like a set of dishes drying edgewise on a rack, bonded together by enamel. The vertical ridges function like giant vegetable graters as an elephant’s lower jaw moves forward and back, rather than side-to-side like a cow. Each molar grows up to a foot long, has a maximum of ten ridges, and weighs eleven pounds apiece – perfect for grinding up tree branches.

Like human teeth, elephant teeth consist of cementum, dentine and enamel. Cementum holds the roots of a tooth in place, dentine surrounds the pulp and enamel crowns each tooth with a hard protective layer. Packed with nerves and blood vessels, the pulp cavities of elephant tusks extend two-thirds of the length of each tusk. Their teeth are as sensitive as mine are.

Doug asks Jabu to “Open up.” He curls his trunk back over his head and Doug stretches to his tiptoes, pulls his lower gums wide with his hands.

In his lifetime Jabu will have six sets of molars.  His sixth set will wear down by the time he is sixty.  Only ten percent of aging elephants grow a seventh set of molars.

“Very good, my boy. . . . veerrry good.”

Peering over Doug’s shoulder, I count four molars in his mouth, two on top and two on the bottom.

Doug lets go of Jabu’s lower jaw. “Allllright, Jabu, allllright.”

He drops his trunk but leaves his mouth open. Doug grabs a fistful of treats and slides his arm into Jabu’s mouth, all the way to his elbow. As he lets go of the treats he rubs Jabu’s tongue. He  flaps his ears.

“Elephants use their trunks to rub each other’s tongues. It’s kind of like a handshake,” Doug says.