Plump, babbling, feather-brained guinea fowl run ahead of us in silly mobs. Perched atop impossibly skinny blue necks, their noggins look professionally shrunk by headhunters. The morning air is hot, dusty, and soft as windblown sheets.
A faint sizzle above my head makes me look up. A pointed dart in the shape of a cross moves steadily across the pale blue sky, spawns a cloud of ice behind itself for a hundred miles or more. Its contrail broadens from a sharp point into a wide cottony smudge. One of the astronauts reported from space that contrails could be seen over all parts of the world, often radiating from major airports like the spokes on a wheel.
Morula and I mosey along at the rear of the herd, one foot in front of the other, each footstep connected to the next one.
I place my boot inside Morula’s huge footprint. The brand name of my boots is imprinted within the outline of my soles; a clever advertisement made with each step. My boots make deeper impressions than Morula’s feet because each one of my steps applies more pressure per square inch. All my weight transfers to my feet, my two small points of contact with the earth. Morula’s weight spreads over four large footpads the size of a medium pizza pan.
One week ago, looking down from a jet that took me across Tanzania, I was surprised to see crater after crater, giant ancient footprints, leading to Kilma-ngaro, the Maasai words for “hill of water.” At 19,340 feet, Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa and one of its oldest volcanic cones, providing water to the rivers of the Masa Mara.
Some of the cratered footprints leading to Kilimanjaro were shaped like the sharp tracks of zebras. Others were so worn down they were completely covered with vegetation, visible only from the air. The sequence of volcanic craters looked as if Kilimanjaro itself had marched up the eastern fault line of the Great Rift Valley, which is sort of what volcanoes do, given millions of years to do it.
From the air, I could see webs of roads and trails near the ancient craters – some leading up to their rims, some circling around them. Many of these paths are generations old, harmonious with the landscape, paths that flow around obstacles and toward places of safety and browse. Compacted by many feet, they are safe passages across treacherous quagmires that could swallow you and me. Some of them make so much sense to the feet that they can be followed in the dark. In Kenya, the old highway from Nairobi to Nakuru was once an ancient elephant route, zigzagging down to the Rift Valley floor.
Earlier in the afternoon, the elephants stopped to browse. I took a photograph of Morula resting against an eroded termite mound and noticed the bottoms of her feet were as cracked as dried mud puddles. They mirrored the ground upon which she walks.
Morula has four toes on her front feet and three on her hind feet. They grow at a rate that might be expected from an animal that walks twenty to thirty miles a day. In captivity, an elephant’s nails must be constantly trimmed, often on a daily basis; otherwise they become infected and ingrown.
Incarcerated elephants also have problems with the pads on their feet. Without wide-ranging activity the pads thicken and grow hard and must frequently be pared down. Otherwise their feet begin to resemble shoes with worn heels. The displacement of their gait will cause joint problems later on.
Tramping along in Morula’s wake, I’m beginning to get the hang of all this walking and browsing – less sweating, less reliance on my water bottle. I’m beginning to wish I could do this every day of my life.
There’s a lot of languid movement packed into the word: “browse.” Days and weeks and years of walking. Walking and stopping. Walking and stopping. Walking in one elephant’s lifetime the equivalent of 5 times around the circumference of the earth.
Morula’s round print, side-by-side with my boot print, tell a story of companionship, of human and elephant as equals. Our direction is not purposeful or hurried or even random. We take this path day after day, a normal occurrence. It’s a way of life.
Imagine that. A way of life.
In the spring of 1996, right before my first trip to Africa, I participated in a “behind-the-scenes” tour at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. During the tour, we were allowed into the close contact area of the elephant barn, an area separated from the zoo’s three elephants by strong metal bars. One by one, they were brought forward by their handler, and we fed them carrots from a 50-pound bag.
One of the elephants, Chai, was extremely interested in my sister’s leather coat, gently squeezing it at the shoulder, inhaling each square inch down to my sister’s elbow, as if asking, What animal is this? My brother-in-law, who is huge by human standards, was especially fascinating in his leather coat. Sniff. Squeeze. And who are you?
Trunk length from an elephant for the very first time, I was mesmerized by the meditative intelligence in her eyes.
Chai rumbled, the sound reverberating throughout the barn.
We hummed back at her, sang a low, wordless song, my brother-in-law’s voice especially deep and loud. She turned her head from side to side, as if trying to understand our oscillating meaning. Then the air around us condensed, washed over us in waves, pulsated just below our range of hearing. It was my first experience with infrasound, vibrations I could feel in my chest, vibrations my ears would never hear.
Chai slowly stretched out her trunk to accept a carrot from my sister, stuffed it into her cheeks and then slowly reached out for another. When her cheeks were as stuffed as a chipmunk’s, her handler said, “Okay, that’s enough,” and tapped her alternately above each knee with an ankus, an elephant hook. She backed up, swinging her head from side to side.
In 1980, when Chai was only a year old, she was separated from her mother and flown to Seattle by Thai Airways to commemorate the delivery of the first Boeing 747 to Thailand. She was only sixteen when I met her. Two years after our behind-the-scenes tour, Chai was shipped to Missouri to be bred to a bull named Onyx. By then several artificial insemination attempts had already failed to impregnate her.
After three days and 2,100 miles in a truck, she arrived at the Dickerson Park Zoo. On the third day after her arrival, the Dickerson Zoo’s staff beat her for two-and-a-half hours because she would not respond to their commands. (The zoo was later fined $5000.) Chai lost 1,000 pounds in the twelve months she was in Missouri.
Finally pregnant, she was trucked back to Seattle. Twenty-two months later, in 2000, she gave birth to a female calf. The naming contest for the new zoo resident gathered 16,000 entries. The Thai name selected, Hansa (pronounced HUN-suh), means “Extreme Happiness.” Once the calf was on view attendance at the zoo doubled and Chai proved to be a very capable mother.
But in June of 2007, Hansa died, infected with a new strain of elephant herpes – a highly communicable virus that had already claimed the lives of forty percent of young Asian calves in zoos. Hansa made a lot of money for Woodland Park, so Chai has been artificially inseminated again and again – a total of 112 times – resulting in just one other pregnancy and the miscarriage of that calf.
Day after day, Chai listens to hordes and choruses of unfamiliar human noises. She listens and moves slowly back and forth in her cage. Perhaps she mourns the loss of her Extreme Happiness. Perhaps after awhile it all blurs, like the background hum of an engine in flight.
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 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.
Hollow 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.