By Patricia Lee Sharpe
I promised to write about elephants, but there's a problem. Although I’m fond of elephants, I’m not so good at hyper hype, and elephants are definitely not beautiful. Viewing an elephant from the side, what I see is a billboard body with marble-sized eyes. Elephant tusks are weapons, as are the huge canines of a lion, but for some reason tusks lack the power to horrify at sight. Maybe that's because elephants, being vegetarians, never hunt humans. No thrill of fear. As for that trunk, it’s a sensitive, useful appendage with an earthworm's visual charm.
So, how can I do justice to these strange yet captivating creatures, which I hoped my grandson would also fall in love with? Let’s begin with big. Elephants are bulky, baggy and more stately than sprightly as they file through the landscape. Oftentimes they thread along through thickets, in which case it's very hard to see them at first. Their unshapely legs
turn into tree trunks, their bodies into shadowy blobs. In tall grass, their steel gray backs hump up like boulders.
Then those big ears waggle. Or that funny trunk does a little waving or curling. Ah ha! An elephant! Motion is the giveaway, though they aren’t exactly hiding. As adults, they have nothing to fear. Nada. So maybe, lost in greenery, they’re just following the food trail.
Elephants aren’t discriminating diners. They specialize in the tornado effect: small trees and branches snapped, leaves ripped off. Thanks to a very inefficient digestive system, elephants have to stuff in bushel after bushel after bushel, which means they also excrete a lot. This is not entirely bad. Elephant-processed seeds germinate very nicely, thank you. What’s more, elephant dung is so full of undigested twigs and cellulose that sunlight passing through a few drops of morning dew may set it aflame. The resulting fires help to maintain the savanna's fertility.
So ecologists greatly appreciate elephants, subsistence farmers hate them and tourists (like me) love them. Drive within 50 feet of an elephant, even a bull with battle-torn ears and mile-long tusks, and park. It stands there, in all its wrinkly massiveness, giving the intruders the once over—and also giving said intruders plenty of time to shoot. Foolish arrogant creature! Doesn’t an elephant know the difference between a bunch of camera-wielding gawkers and a band of killers out for ivory? Apparently not, although elephants are supposed to be super intelligent, and a she elephant doesn’t become a herd-leading matriarch for nothing. She spends decades learning the history, geography and botany that’s needed to keep the herd watered, fed and safe, which gives her the equivalent of a Ph.D. from a decent university, along with people—um, elephant skills, no doubt.
My grandson and I watched a beguiling demonstration of elephant child-raising and herd management one day in Ruaha National Park. What you need to know first is that elephants have a very well-defined marching order. The matriarch leads. Another experienced female serves as sweep. In between are the babies, the young kids, the adolescents and the lower-ranking females. (Herds do without adult males, except when they’re needed for mating purposes; boys get kicked out in late adolescence.)
As this herd passed by us, one very small elephant fell behind. I don’t think it was distressed. It was dawdling, as human children also do. The big female in the rear checked from time to time as the distance between maverick and herd increased. Eventually, a mysterious too-far-behind point was reached. Auntie stopped. She turned and did what looked like a little gesturing with her trunk, which I’ll translate into this: Enough, kiddo. A little freedom is fun. Too much is stupid. Did I hear a sigh from the miscreant? No. But there was, I think, a bit of hesitation before the little one scampered back to its proper place in line.
Elephant sociology. That, I think, is why humans like me sit, hour after hour, watching elephants, and why my grandson turned out to be no exception. However long we lingered in the vicinity of an elephant herd—or a pride of lions, for that matter, another very social species, he was never the first to whine it was time to move on. The elephant magic worked. He was entranced, too.
We never found elephants in the act of splashing about in the water, but watched, from a distance, as several of them rolled around on the ground, therapeutically perhaps but enjoying it, too, and we saw some others giving themselves dust showers. Result: red elephants sometimes—elephant body painting. And we learned that elephants dig wells. Shallow wells, to be sure, but during droughts such as the one now gripping East Africa a life-saving skill.
Seasonal rivers in Africa may look dry, but they continue to carry water, underground, out of sight. Often, as we drove around the savanna, we saw basin-like hollows in sandy river beds. Elephant-made, according to our guide, and one afternoon we saw some being made. Two male elephants were digging for water at some distance from one another. First, they kicked away the sand until they reached moisture, a pretty clumsy business, given elephant foot structure. Next, using their trunks, they sucked up the sandy slurry and flicked it out over the dry sand. On finally gaining access to clean water, they filled their trunks, opened their mouths and poured the life-giving fluid down their gullets. Don't be fooled by its tubular shape. A trunk isn’t a straw. It’s a glass.
A young fellow sauntered up to one the tuskers as he was digging away. Scuff! Scuff! Scuff! The little one hovered respectfully, to one side and slightly behind his senior, who ignored him. When the bigger elephant had assuaged his thirst and lumbered off, the younger one moved to the hole, noodled around with his trunk, then walked away, without drinking. What, I wondered, was that all about? Curiosity? A fragment of a lesson? A fox-and-grapes moment?
It’s tempting to anthropomorphize elephant behavior, an impulse that’s discouraged but isn’t entirely misguided. Elephants, like humans before higher education became essential, look after their offspring for 12-15 long years. Within the latter span of time the kids reach puberty and the males have a chance at surviving on their own. Also like humans, elephants live up to 70 years or more, which gives them time to accumulate (or fail to accumulate) a good amount of worldly wisdom in addition to any intelligence they’re born with. If only they’d smarten up, when it comes to psyching out humans, they might be able to survive in the vast zoos we call national parks and preserves. As it is, they multiply successfully only because some of us love them, despite their funny physiognomy and lack of consideration for farmers.
Back when I was first in Tanzania, ivory carvings, including enormous whole tusks reduced to three-dimensional lace-work, were being sold in every market place. Ivory necklaces, bracelets, brooches, earrings and finger rings were on offer for the more judicious to purchase. Last month, when my grandson and I visited a market so that he could seek out a keepsake or two, the only carvings on display or openly for sale were crafted of ebony or other hardwoods. That's progress.
People, me included, had already begun to boycott trinkets and treasures of ivory when I was working in Tanzania. My staff knew this. Irrelevant. At going away parties gifts, though discouraged, are inevitable. And so, when I left Dar-es-Salaam, I ended up with two ivory necklaces, among other examples of Tanzanian artisanship. I never wore them. I could hardly give them away for others to flaunt. I still have them. White elephants.
For Part I: Another Day, Another Lion, go here and for Part II: No Sable, No Sweat go here.