Posts Tagged With: endangered

 
 

Nature’s Genius – Elephant Feet

My trunk as a trombone

Check out my trunk!

I didn’t see an elephant for the first week and a half I was in the bush, which seems ludicrous given their immense size and the fact that I was out every single day, driving around game reserves looking for them. But elephants are surprisingly good at disappearing into the surrounding flora. And their dull gray colouring makes them often indistinguishable in a cluster of trees and bushes. If they don’t want you to see them, you won’t see them.

Despite their size, they can be remarkably light on their feet. The term ‘lumbering elephant’? Yeah, it’s a misnomer. In my experience, elephants move neither clumsily nor heavily. In fact, they move astonishingly quickly and lightly (almost bouncing as they go), even though they look like they are in slow motion much of the time. I guess it’s all relative – I mean, a single elephant stride is probably equal to about 15 of mine, so even though they look like they’re strolling, they’re crossing large swaths of ground quickly. And they are doing so without even trying. An elephant running will bear down on you a lot faster than your brain can process, precisely BECAUSE of that relativism. You may come across an elephant 300 meters away from you and think you’re far enough away to be in a safe zone, and then suddenly that same elephant is your face in barely enough time for you to blink. So I recommend you do not piss off an elephant.

Usually, the way you find elephants is by the sound of breaking branches. Sometimes by their low rumbling. Even occasionally by their bubbly farts, which really do sound like a kid blowing bubbles. But they can travel silently when they want to do so. And I do mean silently.

There have been many mornings when I’ve woken up and walked outside my tent to see fresh spoor from not one, but many elephants, just on the other side of my door. And I didn’t have the faintest notion they had travelled past in the night. I heard nothing. To give you some perspective, I am a light sleeper. As in if a mouse farted, I’d wake up. And yet elephants always manage to give me the slip, which is one of the many reasons I find them so fascinating – they are multi-tonne Houdinis.

Most people focus on an elephant’s trunk, which is a fantastic bit of evolutionary brilliance. It has no less than 40,000 muscles in it (and up to 150,000 portions of muscles). As a comparison, an entire human body has about 650 muscles. Total.

The trunk can be used as a snorkel when they swim; as a hose to wash them off; as a straw to drink; as a sort of hand to forage for food; and as an arm to throw things at whatever they don’t like. I know – I’ve had one throw grass at me when he got annoyed with the uninvited ‘guest’ (me) who arrived unbidden during dinner and just wouldn’t take the hint to leave. The grass-throwing was the final hint of his that alerted me to move off, as I (not always the fastest on the uptake) realized the elephant was truly getting annoyed at having his peace and quiet interrupted by a camera-happy human settled in and staring at him from a mere 3 meters away.

The trunk is dexterous and gentle enough to act as a finger to scratch an itch or rub gunk out of an eye. And it is even used when greeting other elephants, kind of like a handshake. But, rather than focus on that amazing appendage, I’m focused on the feet. Why the feet?  Well, to me, it’s incredible that an animal of such immense size can manage to navigate through forests and woodlands in almost total silence. And that’s all due to the foot structure. Nature, that genius of design, once again created a perfect combination of form and function to suit the needs of her children.

Because of the amazing engineering in the structure of an elephant’s foot, elephants can walk right past you without making a sound. This is made possible because of fatty connective tissue in their feet that acts like both a shock absorber for their weight and a sound smotherer of potential location giveaways such as cracking twigs. In fact, their foot structure is such that elephants walk around on the tips of their toes, meaning they pretty much tiptoe through life. Animals like horses, rhinos, and sheep also do this. But, and no offense to the other animals that travel digitigrade-style, I think it’s much more impressive that elephants do it. I mean, they ARE the size of a small house and all.

And what’s more amazing, they can HEAR through their feet.

If you ever spend time with elephants, you’ll likely notice the sounds they make. It’s hard not to notice them since elephants are rather chatty creatures. Sometimes they make a low rumbling sound that sounds a little like they’re humming a Gregorian chant. Sometimes they stomp their feet (which, in this particular case, DOES make a noise, though it’s still relatively muted when you think about all the weight behind each stomp). Sometimes they trumpet and scream. Yes, scream. Well, those sounds (and even lower seismic ones they produce that humans cannot hear) can travel great distances (as much as 20 kilometers!). And elephants can pick up the vibrations of those sounds (and what those sounds mean) through their feet. They ‘hear’ another elephant from miles away just by listening through their tootsies. I know I’m an animal nerd, but how can anyone NOT be impressed by the fact that an elephant can communicate with another elephant several kilometers away by listening through their feet?

If you want to learn more about this, check out:

Elephants “Hear” Warnings With Their Feet, Study Confirms – National Geographic

Elephants pick up good vibrations — through their feet – Science Daily

12 facts to change the way you see elephants – Mother Nature Network

And a few photos of those lovely feet, some trunk, and the whole package:

 

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Categories: adventure, Africa, Animal, Big 5, Conservation, Elephant, nature, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment
 
 

Lemur Love – Madagascar’s Unique Monkey-types

In honour of #WorldLemurDay, I decided to skip posts about anything in the area where I actually live and instead focus on a trip I took to Madagascar in January.

Madagascar is as cool as its name suggests. It is wild, it is rugged, it is magical, it is bizarre. A true land of extremes, it features a slew of inhabitants that seem to exist in a vacuum, and, in many ways, really do. Most of the wildlife on the island is endemic, meaning it occurs nowhere else in the world. And, as is the case in so many places worldwide, those species are disappearing. Quickly.

Aside from a short takeover stint from France, which decided to colonize the country in the 1900s, the Malagasy, their ways, traditions, and language have remained firmly footed and constant throughout the country and the centuries. And both the Western and the Malagasy cultures have often been at odds with the local wildlife.

Home to both the world’s largest and smallest chameleons, the looks-like-a-mongoose-on-steroids carnivorous fossa, and the ONLY place lemurs occur naturally, Madagascar is a stunning land of contrasts, rife with conflict and challenges. In fact, it feels like a Hollywood cliche – a kind of biological lost world torn between the technological advances foisted upon it by Westerners and the ancient traditions that bind the Malagasy people to their past.

Like so many African countries, Madagascar suffers from excruciating poverty, resource gouging by outside interests, and a complicated history stemming from colonial rule and subjugation. Cultural beliefs also often act as a hindrance to the conservation of the local wildlife. Fady is one such example. Fady are cultural taboos and prohibitions, and they wreak havoc on species like the island’s quirky aye-ayes.

Aye-ayes are a type of lemur that looks sort of like what you might get if you crossed Yoda’s hair with the face of a perpetually surprised and alopecia-addled mongoose with Mickey Mouse ears. So they are not only one of the less adorable creatures of the animal kingdom (unless you are a fan of the fugly, as I am), they are also believed to be an omen of death. Which doesn’t win you a lot of friends. The story goes that if one points its bony little finger in your direction, you are as good as gone. Not surprisingly, the aye-aye is not a fan favourite for the locals. In fact, one might say that these poor creatures are persecuted. Luckily, they are nocturnal, making their dalliances with humans less frequent. Had they been diurnal or crepuscular, they would’ve likely gone extinct long ago.

Though I wish I had, I did not get to see an aye-aye while I was visiting Madagascar, but I did see quite a few other lemur species, including a pair of rough-necked lemurs who lived in the trees above a lodge I stayed in on the tiny island of Ile aux Nattes. These particular lemurs made a low, almost demonic barking sound as they bounce about from tree to tree, feasting on mangos and dropped both their scraps and their poop on whatever is below them. One of them was very inquisitive and friendly, climbing down from the tree tops for a scratch behind the ears from a willing human now and again. This particular lemur also took a shine to my toothpaste, which I had to wrestle from her surprisingly tight grip more than once during my stay. Crest, just so you know, your ProHealth toothpaste has at least one lemur fan.

In contrast to the ruff-necked lemurs’ somewhat unnerving bark, the indri (also the world’s largest lemur) sing a hauntingly ethereal song as they cruise about the forests of Andasibe. With a musical symphony that begins at daybreak, their calls reverberate throughout the trees, pinging from one section of the forest to another as the primates get their day going and start their search for food. Their calls remind me a little of whalesong, with that almost whimsical sine curve of sliding arpeggios swinging high and dropping low. Indris also have impossibly long eyelashes, which I’m sure has nothing to do with their singing, but it’s just an observation. And while they are no less inquisitive than the ruff-necked lemurs I met, they don’t come right up to you looking for an ear scratch. Which is disappointing to someone like me, who would probably touch every animal I could if I didn’t think I might potentially lose a hand (or at least some fingers) in the process. I was that child in the store who could not help herself from picking up EVERYTHING. It’s shocking I still have all my limbs.

Anyway, in celebration of these beautiful animals, I thought I’d share a few pics of some of the locals I had the privilege of meeting on my whirlwind jaunt through this mystical island. Enjoy! And please, if you’re interested in visiting this amazing country, message me. I’m happy to offer suggestions and advice. It’s an epic adventure worth the challenges and the price tag. And you’d be doing some good for conservation AND humanity because the local communities (human and wildlife alike) could seriously use the tourist dollars.

Categories: adventure, Africa, Animal, Conservation, Madagascar, nature, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #100 – The Rise of the Cheetah Chick

cheetah up close

cheetah in watercolor

Soooo it looks like I’ll be hanging up my camp boots and strapping on my rehabilitation scrubs – I’m trading the savannah for the fynbos and the karoo, saying ‘sayonara’ to students and ‘sawubona’ to the fuzzy, spotty Ferraris of the veld. Starting this weekend, I will be heading to a private reserve further south to work in cheetah conservation. Not kidding, part of my daily routine will be walking cheetah. On a leash. I’d love to take them for a run, but really, who am I kidding? I’d have to tie them to the back of the Land Cruiser and let them cruise alongside the car for them to even break stride. They’d laugh at me in some bizarre, hissy, cheetah way if I even hinted at a jog.

So farewell to no electricity and hello solid walls, an actual plug and my own kitchen. Um, my own stove top and mini-fridge, as the case may be. While the fiance is keeping the baboons from raiding local dustbins, I’ll be chopping up game meat for 14 very large puddy tats. And that’s the way I like it, uh-huh uh-huh.  The new job will mean working with them all day long, doing such ridiculous things as taking them out for daily exercise, feeding and brushing and entertaining those that can’t be released back into the wild, monitoring their behavior, reintroducing them to other cheetah, and hopefully eventually helping to set up a breeding program to assist in repopulating the world with these incredible felines.

I don’t think I’d be off the mark if I predicted that the following blog installations will probably include quite a few messy moments from what is soon to become a human scratching post. Wish me luck!!!

Notes:

‘Sawubona’ (pronounced ‘sau bow na’) means ‘hello’ here
‘Veld’ (pronounced ‘feld’) is a field
‘fynbos’ (pronounced ‘feign boss’) and ‘karoo’ (pronounced ‘kah roo’) are two biomes (also known as vegetation types or ecological
areas) in South Africa
‘cheetah’, for anyone born and raised under a rock, is the fastest land mammal on
earth. These cats are elegant, beautiful and highly endangered. And they are about to kick my butt.

cheetah brothers in South Africa

 

All rights reserved. ©2010 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Bush, cheetah, Conservation, Education, rehabilitation, South Africa, Training, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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