Posts Tagged With: elephant

#WorldElephantDay and Another Jane Goodall Life Lesson: Value Your Family

I will honestly admit I forgot about these life lessons blogs. Well, I didn’t forget about the life lessons. I just forgot to create more blog posts around them. But with #WorldElephantDay upon us, I can’t think of a more pertinent life lesson that hits the heart of what elephants are facing today than this one – the need to value family.

I dedicate this blog to elephants not just because they live in family groups and value each other, but because they are part of our animal family, and we are not valuing them. Unless they are dead. And I think that’s pretty kak, to borrow a word from South Africa’s vast and creative repertoire of words.

Elephants are highly intelligent, sentient beings. They mourn their dead. They celebrate the living. They play, they fight, they hold grudges. They remember. Yes, they remember. Haven’t you ever heard the saying “I have a memory like an elephant?” There’s an excellent reason for that analogy. Don’t believe it? Piss off an elephant. They won’t forget you, and they won’t hesitate to get retribution. You don’t want an animal that can weigh up to 7 tons and can blast through forests and flatten cars without breaking stride targeting you for retribution. I have seen them take down fully grown trees without even uttering as much as a tiny grunt of exertion. It was awe-inspiring. And humbling. And it made me reevaluate how much (or, more appropriately, how little) I could rely on my vehicle to protect me in the event of a committed charge from an angry pachyderm.

Solo elephants are fun to watch, but – to me – it’s elephant social dynamics that are most fascinating to see. Herds are led by a matriarch, the oldest elephant in the group. She and the other elder females pass on knowledge and wisdom to the rest of the members of the group. The matriarch remembers migration routes and imparts that information on to her younger siblings, daughters, and granddaughters and their offspring.

Males stay with the herd until they reach the teenage years, at which time they are permanently ousted from the group and seek their fortunes in finding love elsewhere.

The elders take a vested interest in teaching the young, and all members of the herd take a vested interest in protecting each other from outside threats. They rally around their own and put up an impressive front when threatened. And this isn’t just the females, which dominate the herd dynamic. Bull males will often mentor younger bulls. Kill the elder elephants and you kill the teachers, which is why so many ‘rogue’ male elephants end up getting shot as ‘problem animals.’ They haven’t been taught how to stay in line. They are teenagers with no guidance and nothing to lose, mainly because they don’t know any better. No different than human teenagers in the same situation.

It is no longer surprising to me that the main reason for these ‘problem animals’ is human activity.

Elephants are a keystone species, which means ecosystem stability depends on their existence in it. Yet elephants, like every other animal on this planet, are under threat from that very distant and selfish relative who manages to cause infinite damage to nature without even batting an eyelash or bothering to consider the ramifications of its actions. Yep, good ol’ humankind. Elephants are losing the battle to survive because of humanity’s tendency to take without thinking, to take without giving back, and to take without considering the cost. And that cost is life. Life of elephants.

All for ivory.

Elephants are under massive threat because we like their teeth. Which, if you think about it, has to be one of the most ridiculous things in the world. We kill them for their teeth. We kill these incredible, sentient beings with families, histories, and personalities, for their teeth. And not all their teeth. Just those two big ones that stick out. The tusks. When did humans become so enamored of enamel? And why? Why are we the only species in the world that will happily destroy a species so we can put a trinket around our neck or on our mantle? Or a head on a wall?

Though elephants are the largest land animals on earth, they are in many ways a mirror of ourselves. They work together and figure things out. They are curious. They are caring. And they are disappearing at a rate of close to 50,000 per year. They are running out of time. We are running out of time to save them.

To see them go extinct will be catastrophic not only for the ecosystems they keep in balance, but for future generations of our own, who will never know the magnificent, clever, generous, tender, and formidable nature of these unique life forms. If we allow them to go extinct, we allow the worst of our nature – greed, ignorance, and ego – to win out. If we lose them, we might as well admit we lose a part of ourselves, and a good part at that. And we can never get it back.

Please, let us value our family. Don’t buy ivory products. Don’t ride elephants. Don’t shoot them for sport. Let us come together to ensure elephants survive long into the future.

If you want to learn more about the poaching crisis decimating elephant populations (and see if you might be unknowingly contributing to the damage) consider watching a documentary called The Ivory Game. This isn’t a blame game. It’s an awareness game. And if we’re not willing to educate ourselves about our potential role in a problem, how can we expect to fix the problem, right?

If you’re keen on learning more about elephants in general, check out the following links.

Also, I’m going to be posting some of my elephant stories in the upcoming weeks, so keep an eye out if you want to hear about some personal experiences with these gray giants.

Defenders of Wildlife: Basic Facts About Elephants

Smithsonian: 14 Fun Facts About Elephants

Africa Geographic: 10 Fascinating Facts About Elephants

TED-Ed Blog: 12 Amazing Facts About Elephants

Scientific American: Elephants Are Even Smarter Than We Realized

San Diego Zoo Zoonooz: Dangerous Road – Demand and Greed Drive the Market

 

 

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Categories: adventure, Africa, Big 5, Conservation, Education, Elephant, environmental management, Jane Goodall, Life Lessons, nature, poaching, science, South Africa, trophy hunting, Wildlife, wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Interlude #1 – Animals I’ve Neglected

Okay, so after two weeks of avoiding the baboons (yes, I actually HAVE been avoiding them as much as I can), I’ve realised I need to get back to some of the other wildlife out here. And there’s so much of it. Considering we haven’t covered the Big Five in depth yet – and that’s what most people want to see when they come here – I’ll begin there, starting with….Trunk and toes Elephants! elephants29

Some notes on Loxondonta africana (also known as ellies) – they live in matriarchal herds, with males splintering off when they hit puberty (somewhere between 7-15 years old) to sow their oats. You will often find bull elephants puttering around in twosomes, an older male mentoring a younger male (and also keeping the younger male in check). In fact, if you come across a solo male, odds are there’s another male somewhere in the area, which is useful to know when you have to drive around blind corners and in dense vegetation.

You’d think you couldn’t possibly miss seeing an elephant, but even a several ton being blends into the bushes in a matter of seconds. However, you certainly won’t miss smelling them, and doubtful you’ll miss hearing them. An elephant, much like a rhino, has a very earthy smell, not surprising since they eat nothing but greenery. They are the largest vegetarians you will come across on this fine planet of ours. And their digestive systems aren’t exactly the most sophisticated, meaning they leave a lot of undigested their food behind in their dung. In fact, when you come across elephant dung that’s been sitting around for a few months, you might be inclined to dismiss it as a hay bale that simply fell off a truck a while back.

Like rhino (who also leave behind piles of undigested goodies), elephant are hindgut fermentors, which means they don’t digest cellulose. When you eat nothing but plants, that means you don’t digest a LOT of what you eat. Rabbits and horses are the same. In fact, some of our hindgut fermentors even practice coprophagia, which means they eat their poop. No joke. But not elephants. They just keep eating and eating. In fact, they eat for about 20 hours a day. According to the African Elephant Specialist Group (http://www.african-elephant.org), these heavyweights eat somewhere between 100-300kg a day (220-600lbs), and they drink a small river system’s worth of water, somewhere around 200 litres (or 50 gallons) a day. They can drink this all in one sitting as well, which is pretty impressive, considering they could also probably mow down a city immediately afterwards if they got sufficiently pissed off. In fact, a single trunkful measures somewhere in the 4-8 litre category. It would appear that unlike me, who might as well hibernate because I’m so bloated after drinking a measly 1.5 litre bottle of water, elephants could theoretically go out clubbing after one of their slurps and not have a single cramp.

While I’ve fallen in love with many of the sounds of the bush, I have to admit, the elephants make one of my all-time favourites. No, not the trumpeting. While that’s nice to hear when you’re trying to track them, it’s also a little disconcerting when they’re close by and running straight at you, ears flapping madly and eyes burning like little copper fire bolts. Nope, the sound I love is the low-pitched rumbling sound they make, an almost therapeutic baseline that literally reverberates through your body when you’re in close proximity to them. They make a whole range of noises even lower than the rumble, but it’s so low as to be out of our range of hearing, which is pretty common with animals, I’ve found. We miss a LOT of their communication because our ears are simply not as fine-tuned as theirs. In fact, their ears are so fine-tuned, they can hear each other rumbling up to 20 miles away. The rumbles travel is seismic waves, and the elephants can actually hear them with their feet.

Elephants are probably my favourite large animal to sit and watch, mainly because their level of social interaction is fascinating to me. And the little ones are so playful and funny, especially before they’ve mastered the use of their trunks (which takes a few years to get under control, considering there are a few thousand different muscles in there to control). Of course, when you have one appendage that acts as hand, arm, nose, straw and vocalization device, you need it to be a highly developed body part, essentially a well-oiled machine of versatility. So it’s not surprising it takes a while for them to get every part of it to work together. Once they get it down, though, they are capable of lifting items as heavy as 250+kgs (or 600lbs).

On top of that, elephants actually play with each other. They knock each other over, they whack each other with their trunks, they nudge each other and roll over each other. And they shoot water at each other, their trunks a modified version of water pistols. In fact, elephants in water are a joy to watch. You can actually see the change in their behaviour when they encounter a waterhole, even if it’s a small puddle. They LOVE water! And considering the babies can suffer from sunburn, water is also a nice opportunity for them to cool off from the sun’s intense rays.

I had the privilege on many occasions to sit and watch elephants, both in giant herds, in duos and trios, and solo. After a while, you learn to read certain behaviours about them and can get a good sense of when they’re happy, when they’re aggravated and when they mean business. Of course, you are never right 100% of time, which is why they (as well as any other animal) should be respected. Keeping a healthy distance and letting the animal come to you as opposed to you coming to it is always the rule of the day.

Oh, and don’t try to outrun one. They’ll trump you every time. No pun intended.

Learning how to drive a manual transmission is also a joy when elephants are a potential road obstacle. Unlike potholes and tree branches, elephants aren’t easy to avoid, and they move (often towards you) when you try to get by them. My fiance and I almost had to ram a car behind us once when we were driving through Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve and we came upon two bull elephants. (By the way, like cattle, ellies are bulls for males and cows for females.)  The elephants were casually chowing on some trees on the side of the road, minding their own business. We stopped the car and watched, my fiance filming and me just enjoying the moment. Eventually we realised that a pile of cars had lined up behind us. We were blocked in.

The bulls started to tussle, the larger one asserting his dominance as only an elephant can – slapping the crap out of the younger one with his trunk and tusks. The younger one started moving backwards down the road straight for us. And no one in the other cars thought it might be a good idea to reverse. We slowly started moving backwards, hoping the car behind us would get the hint. But nothing. And the elephants were closing fast. They were now both facing us and running straight at our front bumper.

I was getting a little worried, since not only was I new to the whole ‘driving a manual’ thing, I was new to driving around elephants. My fiance waved frantically to the car behind us, signaling them to move. With the gap between us and the now pissed-off elephants closing more quickly than I imagined possible, my fiancé turned to me and said, “Put the car in reverse and just go. If you hit these idiots behind us, they’ll get the hell out of the way.” They finally got the memo and, probably realising that the elephants were now a mere meters away, gunned it out of there.

As a side note, if you are ever driving around elephants, you shouldn’t gun the car. Ever. Not in reverse; not in drive. They will chase you, and for such giants, they’re lightning fast. Better that you try to get out of the way, not run away.  And if you’re going to drive in areas where they roam, do yourself a favour and learn a bit about their behaviour before you do, such as their warning signs. It might save your life. Really. Several tons can do a lot of damage to a car, and even more to you.

Incidentally, I should mention that poaching of elephants has increased significantly in the last decade. Numbers are going down quickly. Once again, it appears ivory is on the menu, and in spades. I hope one day all humans learn to respect our natural resources…which include the rest of the animal kingdom….and prefer those resources intact and alive instead of dead and in pieces on a mantle somewhere, or bedecking someone’s wrist as an ivory bangle.

Okay, off the soapbox now. If you have a hankering for all things elephant, check out some more information at: http://www.elephantconservation.org/elephants/african-elephants/ http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/html/elephant_conservation.html http://www.elephantcenter.com http://www.elephanttrust.org

Here’s a little gallery of some pachyderms I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in my journeys thus far. Enjoy!

Song for the day: It’s a tie between ‘Baby Elephant Walk’ by Henry Mancini and ‘Nelly the Elephant’ by Toy Dolls

At attention

At attention

shielding baby Bull elephant coming to say hello peanut sniffing the air

Looking out my front door

Looking out my front door

Optical illusion of ellies

Optical illusion of ellies

This is my waterhole!

This is my waterhole!

Just about to fade into the scenery

Just about to fade into the scenery

tying the knot

Sharing a laugh

Sharing a laugh

tapping heads, elephant-style

tapping heads, elephant-style

Little ellie showing who's boss

Little ellie showing who’s boss

Look at how nice they look!

Look at how nice they look!

elephant at the riverside dust bathing

any way you can get it

any way you can get it

Baby close-up

Too many years in the sun with no sunscreen

Too many years in the sun with no sunscreen

 

All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Bush, Conservation, Education, poaching, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

South African Adventure #617 – How finding beauty is about finding yourself

In light of the recent horrific events at the Boston Marathon, I felt compelled to turn to the good things in life.  It’s so easy to see the bad everywhere. Our media worldwide thrives on it, focusing on the pain, the misery, the misfortune. Misery loves company, right?  And I’ll be honest – I’ve fallen into the bottomless pit of the half-empty glass, wallowing in the endless streams of broken hearts and dreams. But not today.

While I’m usually the first person to seek out evil and string it up by its toenails, at this moment, I can’t think that way. Because fighting fire with fire is useless.  We need water to put out the flames, not more flames.  So yes, we should be angry, sad, frustrated, confused. But we should also remind ourselves of good ol’ Mr. Rogers, who so sagely said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers–so many caring people in this world.”  There is beauty, and in spite of the darkness, we need to remember the light that always finds a way to shine through even the darkest nights.

In the wild, animals don’t wallow in misery.  They wallow in mud. And they love it like a mole loves a hole. That’s the kind of wallowing I want to focus on today. Which is why I’ve decided to focus this blog on beauty, and not the skin-deep kind.

What is it that makes something beautiful to you?  I just did an exercise asking me to name 10 beautiful things. It felt like such a loaded question, and I swear I sat paralysed for the first few moments as I desperately sprinted through my brain to think of anything pithy, profound or perfect to say. I don’t know why I cared what I came up with, since no one but me cares about what I think.  Plus beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we are taught, is it not? So what I find beautiful may not be beautiful to you or anyone else.  To each their own. Still, I stressed out about this a little too longer for my own comfort. What does that say about me? That’s another blog for another day.

What I found most interesting about this question was that once I started coming up with my answers, I found most had a unifying thread woven through them (or in some cases were the equivalent of a full-on tapestry).  We seem to find beauty in pockets, in oddly linear elements that we probably don’t recognize on a daily basis, yet this predilection we have for certain things (colours, smells, juxtapositions, emotional puppy dogs licking our toes, whatever you want to think up) is a fundamental picture of who we are, what we hold dear, and what makes us tick tock around the clock.

Why do I bring this up in a blog about living in the bush?  Well, a part of that answer is obvious – I find the bush a whole entourage of beauty. But also I find that discovering what tickles our fancies offers tantalizing clues to who we are as individuals. And damned if I’m not somewhat obsessive about understanding human nature, the most difficult nature to unravel in a vast sea of challenging natures.  Living in the bush challenges you to see things differently. It challenges you to question yourself, your motives, your beliefs.  It tests you to see if you are worthy to share in everything it holds. Some days I wonder if I’m worthy. And some days I say, “Hells yeah, this Jane belongs in this Tarzan movie!”

I think because I’m an artist, I see beauty quite often in shapes, patterns, colours and random elements taken out of context. That’s not to say I don’t find the whole of a fever tree blissful, with its vibrant green snot bark, and its broad (but not too much junk in the trunk) canopy. But what I find myself most drawn to are the little nuances you can’t see in the big picture – the one gnarled root at the base that looks like it’s trying to claw its way out of the earth and break free, or the way the tree still glows a paranormal green even in the darkest night.  I am in love with an elephant’s eyelashes, and the wild, amber colour of its eyes.  I get goosebumps from seeing the mist rising off the ground or over a body of water early in the morning. Actually, any water, even a filled bathtub, gets me goggly.  I get teary-eyed when I see a baby rhino squeaking and galloping about its mother, almost skipping along and oblivious to the concept of ‘poaching’, which I also hope it never has to learn. And most importantly, I find beauty in the way it all seamlessly ties together everything – life in all its trials, tribulations, ups and downs. Out here, you learn to see beauty even in things you never imagined you could find beautiful, simply because it all brings to light how amazing our little blue and green floating ball is.

So what is it that you find beautiful?  Then think: What does my appreciation, my love, my admiration of these things say about me?  Cherish what is beautiful to you, whether it’s a single moment or a lifetime of them.  And always be on the lookout for more flashes of beauty, like those sparklers you can’t blow out, to keep with you in your heart for those times when hope fades a bit (or a lot, depending on the situation) and darkness creeps back around.

On this note, I dedicate this blog to the beautiful people of Boston, and all those who travelled to that wonderful city to either run in the marathon or cheer the runners on. And for everyone else who believes there is beauty in this world, despite those who do their best to convince us otherwise, I say, “Keep fighting the good fight.”

There are so many songs that come to mind that would fit with this blog, but I’m going to include just a handful. Take your pick. I hope at least one of them will fill you with a warm, happy feeling, which I think many of us could use right about now.

“A Wonderful World”  – Louis Armstrong (or Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole)

“The Fighter” – Gym Class Heroes

“Beautiful Day” – U2

“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – Diana Ross

“Good Life” – OneRepublic

and because it just seems necessary

“Imagine” – John Lennon

 

All rights reserved. ©2010 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Bush, Conservation, Education, South Africa, Western Cape, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

South African Adventure #2 – The Topic of Poo

So the question is, if a bear poops in the woods and there’s no one to step in it, does he really poop?  Or how do you know if it was a bear?  While you chew on that philosophical piece of literary magic, we will move on to discuss the validity and necessity of knowing how to identify animal poo.  This is a very useful skill to possess in the bush, especially when you come across still-steaming scat from a predator and you’re a kilometer from the closest car, building with solid walls, or even large tree.  You need to know what animal is nearby so you can accurately assess your situation.  If it’s a porcupine who made the tracks, you’re probably not going to run into a problem.  If it’s a lion, you might. You might run into several problems, in fact.

You also learn that predator poo is called scat.  Herbivore poo is called dung.  BUT omnivore poo is simply called, well, poo.  I don’t know why.  And I promise you, I’ve actually asked.

Spoor, which is another term you learn, has NOTHING to do with poo, though to me it sounds like it should.  Spoor is animal footprints or tracks.  There are trackers here who can read spoor like the Sunday paper and can tell you not only which animal walked by the spot in which you are standing, he can tell you when the animal walked by, whether it was actually walking, strolling, galloping, or bolting, and what the weather was like on that day at that particular moment.  I’ve honestly questioned some of them simply because I could not see where they were getting their information from when all I could see was the following: two tiny indentations, a small skid mark, and what looked like a dragging string that intermittently disappeared.  These trackers looked at that same abstract combination and said, ‘monitor lizard, female, moving east towards the river to get out of the midday sun’.  What???

I admit, I’ve gotten better, and now I can even spot the spoor, scat or dung AND correctly identify all of it from a car.  I don’t even have to be standing on top of it (and ideally am not standing on top of it anyway) to do so.  I can tell you that cat spoor (aside from cheetah) does not have the tiny indentations from claws because cats draw their claws in when they move about.  Cheetahs are the feline exception to this – they have semi-retractable claws because their preferred method of hunting depends on their running, and they need those claws for traction at top speeds.  Cats also have three lobe marks at the back of the heel pad – two bigger lobes on the outsides and one smaller middle lobe.  Don’t know why.  Sorry.

Members of the dog family have two lobes at the back of the heel pad AND claw marks.  Hyena also have the same set-up, adding to the confusion as to which animal species they fit into.  However, hyena are NOT a dog OR a cat – they are a species all their own.  And they are probably one of the coolest and most interesting animals out here.

Elephant spoor looks a bit like someone bounced a really large ball on the ground.   Each print of a full-grown adult is about twice the length of an adult human male’s, and about three times as wide.  And though the tracks do differ slightly according to species, both black and white rhino spoor looks like something from the Rorschach ink blot test.

Antelope spoor is dainty and pointed, like an arrow.  Level of pointiness is based on the species.  Zebra and giraffe spoor looks like varying degree of horse hoof.  Warthog spoor looks like the ‘track’ of a woman’s stiletto heel.  Interestingly, that’s also what they resemble when walking – a woman wearing stilettos.

Baboon and monkey spoor, not surprisingly, looks eerily similar to human hands and feet.  Otters, oddly enough, does a bit as well.  Then you get porcupine, polecat, mongoose, honey badger, monitor, and all other manner of small mammal and reptile.  Their spoor all has its own identifying features.  Porcupine in particular is interesting because it looks like a puzzle of varying- shaped splotches.

And then you have snakes.  Those tracks are VERY helpful to know.  Some resemble an ‘S’, which is the kind of a track you would probably assume a serpentine creature would create.  However, some snakes, such as pythons, move more like a caterpillar, picking their bodies up and sort of throwing themselves forward a bit at a time.  It’s called rectilinear movement.

Spoor I have a handle on.  Scat and dung, not so much.  The good thing is, I can at least tell you if it’s a predator’s poo based on whether there are hairs in the droppings, though I still can’t necessarily tell you WHICH predator left the present.  All of it stinks, regardless.  There’s nothing quite like the smell of half-digested meat, especially when some predators will happily feed on a decomposing carcass.  Of course, when you’re a lion and your kill rate can be less than 50%, plus your prey runs away from you, you can’t afford to be particularly choosy about what you’ll eat.

As for dung, I can tell if it’s an elephant (size is an easy indicator here – think small piles of oversized, brown softballs), or which type of rhino dung it is based on what the dung consists of.  Black rhinos are browsers with a prehensile upper lip.  They break off bits of their favorite munchies by tearing pieces off the branches, creating sharp, 45-degree angular spears, and since they don’t digest particularly well, their dung has plenty of these little daggers in it.  White rhinos are grazers and eat primarily grass, so their dung is fairly uniform and stringy.  Buffalo leave the equivalent of cow patties, and the smell is just as potent.

With antelope, I’m a lost cause.  Giraffe dung is about the same size as an animal half its size.  Duiker, springbok, nyala, impala – their dung is all almost the same size and shape, which is interesting since the animals themselves range in size significantly.

So many amazing ways to ‘read’ the local newspaper of who’s been in and about camp each day.  I will get it all figured out some day.  For now, the fact that I can distinguish between potentially dangerous game and Bambi is enough.  I’ll get there.

I’ve included some spoor/actual animal feet to help you understand a bit about this topic.  Unfortunately, through poor labeling, I can’t seem to find all the tracks I took pictures of over the months I’ve been in the bush.  So I hope you don’t mind that the picture pickings are slim.  I elected to NOT include scat/dung, just because.

On a completely unrelated note, because I’m not really sure if the term ‘spoor’ is technically a plural or singular, I’m not quite sure which tense should be used in many of these sentences.  Please bear with me on this editorial conundrum.  Sadly, I have actually given this a lot of thought.  You’d think I had nothing better to do….

Song of the day: “I Want to Be Like You” from Disney’s The Jungle Book

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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