Adopted by an elephant

Chota looking coy crop

Last evening a lion wandered through camp at dusk – just yards from where we were finishing up work for the day. It skirted the fire, and walked calmly down the path, between the tents and out onto the floodplain to join its mate. We live with lions. They are a constant presence but we don’t often see them in camp during the day. They are normally crepuscular – walking around the periphery, brief silhouettes glimpsed through openings in the Dovyalis, as they skirt the floodplain. We hear them though – their nocturnal roars are the soundtrack to camp nights. When a pair are mating, the regular post-copulatory snarls can go on for days. They make it possible to track the couple’s progress through the night.

Leopard are here too, but we rarely see them. Recently, one killed a baboon in the grove of figs behind us. We never saw it, but we heard the pandemonium that the attack caused in the troop, and heard the crack of bones in the night. The next morning, Mzee Musili, camp cook and first to rise, found the drag mark it had left. Before feeding, leopards often partially pluck their prey. We discovered tufts of baboon hair, snagged on acacia thorns. We inhaled the musk-sweet baboon smell that lingered. We followed the tracks to where the leopard had climbed, with the carcass, into a Dobera tree next to Etienne’s tent. It had dropped down with it just before dawn, when Musili’s soft footfall, the fanning of the kitchen embers and the smell of brewing coffee, prompted it to move to where it could finish its meal in peace.

Besides the cats, we share the camp with an alphabet of animals – from agamas to zebras. Some, like the squirrels, are constant and chattering. Others, such as cobras, are shy and silent. It is elephants however, more than any other animal, that we are most aware of – they pass by on their way to the shade of fig trees. Sometimes they’ll linger and trunk-twist the Sporobolus grass that grows around camp. Occasionally young bulls venture closer – their nervousness temporarily subjugated by curiosity. They never stay long though and elephants, generally, rarely come right into camp.

Last week, that all changed. We were visited by a magnificent bull, who calmly and deliberately walked into camp and stood there looking around. He couldn’t have wished for a better entrance – everyone put down what they were doing and stood there in awe. Silence. As if assured of the impact he’d made, he started to feed. No one moved. Such was his presence, that it would have been difficult to look away had we wanted to.
It was a while before we started to move around, looking to record the moment. The bull stayed for an hour, and then melted back into the Dovyalis scrub from where he’d come.

 

Chota in camp - low angle

The next day he was back. The effect he had on us all was the same – we spoke in hushed tones, we smiled more and we couldn’t keep our eyes off him. Whatever we were doing, our gaze would slide over, or we’d find an excuse to walk to the kitchen, where he stood feeding quietly, next to the washing line.
The next day was the same. I wondered why he kept coming – the grass in camp was no better than that on the floodplain nearby, and it was nearly exhausted. There was clean water in the riverbed two hundred yards away – both were good reasons to stay in the area, but to come right into camp?

His behaviour was very different from any bull we’ve known. Bulls are normally more approachable than cows – some Tsavo bulls are happy within 5 -10m of a vehicle, but would flee from anyone on foot. Many more are nervous; some are aggressive; some are so wary that they run from a vehicle almost a kilometer away. Our camp bull, or ‘Chota’ as we came to call him, was happy with people only 5 -10m away, upwind, and on foot.

I didn’t think he came for food or water, instead it felt as if he just liked ‘hanging out’. If a elephant family came past, he’d wander out to greet them. Sometimes he’d go and feed alongside them, and then he’d drift back into camp. It might seem fanciful, but my impression was that he came for company. It felt almost as if he’d adopted us.
Interspecific relationships amongst ‘higher’ mammals are rare in the wild, but not unknown. I only have to think back to my childhood spent on the Fal Estuary in Cornwall, when I met a wild bottle-nose dolphin, known locally as ‘Donald’, who actively sought out human company. There have been others since.

 

Chota framed by tent

I wondered if perhaps Chota was one of the ‘ex-orphans’ that had been reared by the Sheldrick elephant orphanage. I didn’t think they went back that far, but I checked their records online – the first orphaned bulls raised in Tsavo were in 1987 – the likes of Olmeg, Taru, Ndume, and Dika – but, as elephant society demands, all left the orphanage when they were about ten years old, to join herds of wild young bulls. Most were last seen at least a decade ago.
Chota is in his prime, probably about 30 years old – if he’d been orphaned in 1987, he’d be 27 now … it would explain his ease around humans, but it would be remarkable if he had returned.

Almost all Tsavo bulls have had contact with poachers and bear the scars and arrow wounds to prove it. They’ve grown up in a culture of fear – a fear of our kind.
Traditionally, elephants here were hunted by Waliangulu – hunter-gatherers who used longbows to deliver poisoned arrows. Then came Europeans with guns – now they are poached by Somalis and Wakamba, using both.
The extraordinary thing about Chota is that he doesn’t have a mark on him. His flanks are clean, indicating that he’s never been close enough to poachers to take a poisoned arrow.

I don’t know what Chota’s story is, but I am intrigued. Is he an ex-orphan who, almost thirty years later, has returned to the area that he was raised in?
That would be remarkable – a real success story, and a lasting and living testament to the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

If not, he might just be that ‘one in a thousand’ – a wild Tsavo bull who has never encountered humans that have meant him harm. That would be extraordinary.

I will try and find out.

 

 

© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Haunted by a photograph

 

756 - blog

 

I came across a photograph recently that, every time I see it, causes an involuntary intake of breath, followed by a silent ‘wow!’. The first time it happened was twenty five years ago when I came across Peter Beard’s extraordinary ‘756’, a photograph of a huge number of elephants on the move – a ‘super-herd’. For me, it is one of those iconic images that after you have seen it, life never seems quite the same again – like Nick Ut’s photograph in Vietnam of Kim Phúk running naked down the road, to escape from burning napalm.

What drew me to ‘756’ was the ‘big picture’ it depicted – East Africa at its wildest and finest. A glimpse back into the Pleistocene … when huge herds of mammals roamed the land. I loved that I couldn’t see where the herd ended – how that is left to the viewer’s imagination. I wondered if I was alone in my reaction, perhaps my ‘over’-reaction to ‘756’, but whenever I’ve shown it to others, the response has always been the same – the acronym OMG, followed by, “that’s amazing!”

The experience was bittersweet though – for at the same time ‘756’  illustrated what had, so recently, been lost. We’d arrived in East Africa little more than a decade after the photograph was taken. In the time that elephants have existed, a decade is merely an eye-blink – but I knew we would never see elephants in those numbers. It made me feel very sad.

 

On seeing the image again recently, there was something about it that slightly disturbed me. I couldn’t tell what it was. Possibly, my perspective had changed. We now live in Tsavo. We are much more sensitized to elephants. We fly over the same waterholes and shake the same red dust from our sandals, as Beard did in the 70’s.

When we fly over Tsavo, we see nothing like ‘756’. Over the last few years, we have flown over tens of thousands of elephants, sometimes in large herds, but they’ve never had that ‘feel’ about them.

At first glance, ‘756’ was just as I remembered – hundreds of huge animals on a grand African canvas. Beautiful, epic and historic.

The closer I looked though, the more intrigued I became.

I’ve always assumed ‘756’ is an aerial photograph, but the elephants in it don’t appear to be reacting to a plane. Normally, if you fly above elephants like that, at least a few will turn around to see what the noise is. If none are reacting, it suggests that something else is more important.

We’ve seen herds of up to five hundred from the air, but they have always been much more spread out, with less sense of direction – less feeling of intent. There is something deliberate about the elephants’ movement in Beard’s remarkable image. It almost feels as if they are migrating. Swap elephant for wildebeest, and it could be Serengeti’s ‘Great Migration’.

Migrating elephants though, tend to follow traditional routes, along well-worn paths, ‘elephant paths’ – some of which are more like highways – parallel lanes, centuries old and worn deep into the soil. There are none in the photograph.

Whenever we’ve seen elephants congregate, it’s always been in the wet season, when food is abundant and the habitat can support a higher density of animals. It is when female herds come together into clans, and bulls join them – searching for any cows that might be in oestrus.

The herd in ‘756’ has none of the feel of those aggregations, when elephants tend to meander, on a broad front, feeding as they go. When a mating occurs, elephants nearby rush around in excitement. From the air it looks like little pockets of chaos, that form one moment, and disappear the next. In the photograph, there is none of this. There is no interaction – just a feeling of intent.

 

When I looked closely, many of the elephants seem to have rounded foreheads, characteristic of bulls. It would be tempting to think it is a bull herd – but extraordinary if it was. Bull herds rarely number more than fifty in Tsavo. In the time we’ve been here, we have never seen more than thirty bulls together.

I started looking for females. The easiest way to tell a cow from the air, is if she is trailed by a calf. They almost always are, especially if they are on the move.

Most cows we see, have at least one calf in tow, sometimes two. It struck me then, just how few calves there are in ‘756’.

These days, the threat of poaching is never far from our minds. Many large mammals tend to bunch up if they feel threatened. We’ve seen huge pods of hundreds of hippos, huddled together in the middle of a lake – for protection against poachers. Within the structure of a family, elephants will do the same. Cows form a protective cluster around their calves – a circle of protection, like a Boer ‘laager’, facing out towards danger. I wondered if this enormous herd had been fleeing from poachers, bunched together for protection – it would be horrifying if it had.

Poaching wouldn’t explain the lack of calves though, for poachers prefer to target bulls – they carry the largest and most valuable tusks. If poaching was the cause there should be fewer bulls.

What possible reason could there be for so few calves? It seemed that the lack of calves held the clue to the mystery.  Today, calves make up to a quarter of the individuals in every herd we see.

Perhaps the lack of them explained my sense of unease that the image provoked.

 

Sitting outside the tent that evening in the pink after-glow of a scorching day, I watched a male red-billed hornbill fly past with the last insect of the day for his family. It’s his second brood in just three months – every day he has to catch enough insects for himself, his mate and three chicks. The only other time I’ve heard of hornbills raising families back-to-back, was in the early sixties when prolonged rains followed a severe drought.

 

Drought.

 

Seven letters that make a full stop of a word – a word that brought images flooding back. I remembered the drought we’d witnessed in Amboseli, in 2009, on the first shoot we’d done for our current film. Three years of very poor rains that had produced the worst drought for decades.

As one dry month followed another, a slow-motion tragedy unfolded. As the vegetation was grazed down to dust, wildebeest and zebra starved – and then died in their thousands. Elephant families stood listless; their trunks drooped on the ground; they chewed on dead wood and thorns; the calves became thinner and weaker. They were the first to die. They were terrible times.

Could drought possibly explain the make-up of the herd in ‘756’?

Without access to Peter’s book,’The End of the Game’, all I knew was that he’d had taken the picture in the mid ‘70s, in the greater Tsavo ecosystem.

 

I turned to elephant researcher, Barbara McKnight, who has been monitoring Tsavo’s elephants for decades. I didn’t have to look far, as her website page on the history of Tsavo (http://www.tsavoelephants.org/history) states:

In the late 1960s, there were approximately 35,000 elephants in the Tsavo region. This population has suffered two population crashes

The first was the drought in the early 1970s when an estimated 6,000 individuals died and over the next 4 years, with low rainfall and lack of vegetation, weakened females and young elephants died.”

 

I looked at ‘756’ again, and estimated it contained between four and five hundred elephants – of which only a handful were calves. There should have been over a hundred. The full horror of what I was looking at slowly sank in. This wasn’t a photograph of good times when food was abundant, it was a photograph of terrible times, when elephants were starving and most of their calves had died.

 

For years, that photograph has haunted me. I am still haunted by it, but for an entirely different reason.

I had been devastated at the thought that we’d never see that scene again.  I know now, that I would be devastated if we did.

 

© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

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Elephants – why bother?

 

Elephant baby at waterhole

 

A few months ago, at a dinner in New York, an aquaintance got into a conversation where a guest asked, “Why all the fuss about elephants – they mean nothing to me personally. Why should I bother whether or not they go extinct?”

The comment, and the attitude it reflected, has concerned me ever since. I don’t know if it was made out ignorance, arrogance, an attempt to provoke, or the desire for genuine knowledge. I prefer to think it is the latter.

So I asked myself, why should they bother? What should elephants mean to someone who has never had the good fortune to meet them?

The scientist in me was the first to answer, for diversity in ecosystems reflects a more vibrant, interesting, and robust life-support system for the planet. Elephants play an important role. They are key-stone species, terrestrial-ecosystem architects, and gardeners without parallel.

In tropical rain forests elephants spread seeds up to fifty kilometers from where they ate them. The seeds of a particular species of Balanites tree are dispersed only by elephants. It is simple – no elephants, no trees. We still don’t know how important that tree is, but we do know that similar trees, whose seeds are spread by elephants, support hundreds of different species of animals and plants.

We spent two years making a film about an extraordinary African tree called a sycomore fig (The Queen of Trees: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xy86ak2fQJM ). It is an ecosystem of a tree. There are animals whose lives so depend on the tree that they cannot exist without it, and vice versa. In the two years we spent filming, we barely scratched the surface of the web of interconnectivity that the tree was central to. The sycomore fig is vital to animals ranging from ants to elephants. It is important in ways that, when we started the journey of making the film, we could barely imagine. I think that if we looked closely at most living things, we’d find much the same.

Once you start to look at elephants in a wide-eyed and curious way, even their simple act of sheltering from the midday sun in the shade of a tree becomes an act of gardening – for that is where their dung ends up. Compost delivered straight to the tree.  Compared to their forest-dwelling cousins, savannah elephants are more akin to tree surgeons and landscape gardeners. It makes what they do even more obvious. Overall, their effect is the same – to increase biodiversity, from mites up to mammals. It is the ‘utility’ argument – the concept of ‘usefulness’ – first to the ecosystem, but eventually to us all

 

A philosopher might add that there is a strong moral argument that we simply don’t have the right to push another species into the abyss of extinction. We are the most powerful species on the planet. In my view, it is incumbent on us not to abuse that power. I’d go further, and suggest it be used, not just for our good, but for common good. A common and equal ‘right to exist’ for all species sounds quite straight forward, but we find it easier to apply it to elephants than bacteria – partly, I think, because we are fundamentally anthropocentric. We tend to admire qualities in other species that we recognize in ourselves. We home-in on shared attributes. It makes it easier for us to relate to them. As a result, we empathize more with gorillas than guppies.

Sometimes just a simple, shared attribute is enough – I suspect many of us think more kindly of owls than other raptors – probably because their eyes, like ours, face forwards. A bottle-nosed dolphin has prodigious intelligence, but, despite this, I think we’d be less kindly disposed towards it, if the genetic lottery hadn’t set its jaw in a permanent ‘smile’. When most of us think of a penguin, we are more likely to visualize a shuffling, portly, maitre’d, than a highly-adapted, counter-shaded, marine predator.

Elephants are lucky – for they share more attributes with us than most animals. We can ignore their un-human appearance in favour of their consciousness, their extraordinary communication, good memory,  similar lifespan, strong sense of family, their ability to plan into the future, and their uncanny awareness of death.

 

A cultural historian might think that our anonymous diner in New York would be more impressed by the elephant’s contribution to human culture – from Hindu deity Ganesh, via Salvador Dali’s surreal stork-legged elephants, to Disney’s ‘Dumbo’. It is the sort of theme that might inspire an exhibition at the Guggenheim, and appeal more to an urban mind. Artists, spanning the millennia, from cave painters to Banksy have felt the need to represent elephants, and they have ranged from being the inspiration for Warhol to war machine.

However we rationalize the importance of elephants, I think it provides only part of the answer. To really appreciate elephants you have to experience them.

I would invite our anonymous diner to sit with me in a land-rover next to a waterhole at dusk, as families of elephants came to drink, and play, and greet each other. Only then would would our dinner guest start to get to ‘know’ them.

They would feel the rumbles, smile at the squeals of delight as calves jostled in the shallows, and laugh out loud at a baby elephant’s loss of control of its trunk. I’d point out the subtle shifts in body language as herds came and went – those that waited, those that greeted or waded straight in. We’d notice family traits – how some prefer to coil their trunks and rest them on their tusks. We’d watch their differing reactions to our presence. Some would ignore us. Some, if the wind changed and blew our scent towards them, would form a nervous protective circle round their calves – trunks held high like snorkels. Ears out, heads up, eyes wide and fearful. We’d share the horror of witnessing fresh arrow wounds on the flanks of those with the largest tusks. We’d also share the delight of witnessing how other animals benefitted from the elephants’ presence: the low-flying dung-beetles skimming the grass, and egrets that darted between their legs, plucking flies from the air.

Resting trunks

 

More than anything, I would like to take our guest out walking – armed only with our wits – in a wilderness that is still the kingdom of the elephants. There, they could feel, perhaps for the first time in their lives, just how insignificant humans can be. It might show them, that to be anthropocentric, is not the only way to view the world – and how to step outside the protective bubble we surround ourselves with, can make us feel so much more alive. They’d feel part of the natural world, not apart from it.

Above all else, I hope they would see that elephants are the rightful and dominant force in their ecosystem, and conclude that we have no right to take that away.

I’ll probably never get the chance to meet that dinner guest, or sit with them at a waterhole – our outlooks and our lives are thousands of miles apart. Very few of us will ever have the privilege of experiencing elephants in the wild, and that’s why we are making a film about them – to attempt to convey the wonder we feel, when in their presence. It can never be the same as experiencing them first hand, but, by making the film and telling their story, we hope to share our passion, convey the wonder, and perhaps inspire people enough to make them care – and answer for themselves, the question, “Elephants – why bother?”

 

 

© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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A day shared with elephants

 

calves

 

When Vicky and I first arrived in East Africa we had a lot to learn. We’d spent thousands of hours filming underwater, but very few on land, and none in Africa – we were, quite literally,  wet behind the ears. We were plunged into Serengeti. It was total immersion – with shiny new film cameras bolted to our Suzuki 4WD and a book in each hand: Cynthia Moss’s excellent ‘Portraits in the Wild’ and ‘Footprints and Tracks’, by an author, whose name I can’t remember. The former was invaluable, the latter next to useless. It would probably have enabled me to distinguish a rhino footprint from a dik-dik’s but as rhino were ecologically extinct by then, it wasn’t a skill I needed. My biggest frustration with it was that it made no mention of how to identify a large snake track that I’d spotted just a week after arrival . Elephants had crossed the path, and the fine dust they had left in their wake had taken the imprint of the giant reptile. One evening, I mentioned my frustration with the book to a gathering of scientists, and the intensity of mirth and glee it caused stays with me to this day. What I’d mistaken for a giant snake track, turned out to be the scuff mark left by a elephant’s penis as it swung from side to side while its owner dragged it through the dust.

I was reminded of it this week, when I came across similar tracks on a muddy flay. Twenty five years ago I would have said it looked as if an army of giant snakes had been in pursuit of a herd of elephants; today, it confirmed that the ‘mating pandemonium’ I’d just heard, lay up ahead.

 

We’ve had an extraordinary wet season in Tsavo. The short rains have merged with the long rains without the usual interlude of a three month dry season. It has been fascinating to see how animals have reacted.

In December, a pair of red-billed hornbills nested in the trunk of a Dobera tree outside our tent. They usually nest once a year if the rains are good. They raised three youngsters, which broke out and fledged a week or so ago. The male and female courted briefly for a morning and immediately she sealed herself back inside again. She’s molted her new feathers, and laid another clutch of eggs.

Grey tree frogs normally have an orgy after heavy rainfall – they did, but there has been no let-up, no time to recuperate. They have carried on mating sporadically but the frogs are now spent. They are shriveled wrecks. Now when it rains they can barely muster the energy to call to each other, let alone get together.

 

Food for elephants is everywhere and its abundance has allowed them to form large loose-knit herds – sometimes hundreds strong. Family herds have joined together and they are followed by bulls. When a bull finds a cow in oestrus, pandemonium breaks out. The squeals and bellows get everyone going – large bulls rush in to try and break up the mating pair, younger bulls mount each other, and cows run around trumpeting, trying not to lose their calves in the melee. The testosterone is almost palpable – it is as if you could strain it from the air and bottle it.

There are temporary waterholes scattered throughout the bush. The elephants aren’t tied to permanent sources of water as they are later in the year, so they can move where they want. Last week, they flowed through camp. The first we heard was a mating pandemonium in the fig trees behind us. As the morning warmed up, the elephants became quieter and drifted into camp. Soon every available tree shaded a family. One beautiful matriarch had such long tusks, that she rested them on the ground to support her head. Calves and adolescents lay down and slept at the feet of dozing females. Gentle snores set the the tempo for the day – even the white flitting of the butterflies seemed slower, as if overtaken by a glorious languor. For an hour or two, it was as if the entire world was at somnolent ease.

It felt right – humans and elephants sharing the cool green oases of shade that the trees provided. There were so many elephants that it was impossible to walk the length of camp or drive out. As we sat quietly eating beneath a tarpaulin slung between the branches, a bull calmly wandered to within a few yards – and we had to tap gently on the table to remind him we were there.

Later, as the shadows lengthened, we counted over two hundred elephants moving out onto the flood-plain to feed. We watched as they walked down into the river bed at dusk and started to dig in the damp sand, their forelegs penduluming backwards and forwards – more kicking than digging. There was no urgency to it. It was really a social gathering and their desire to drink cleaner water than the muddy waterholes provided.

digging in riverbed

The river had only recently stopped flowing, so the water wasn’t far beneath the surface. As they dug, the females would gently block the youngsters. They’d blow the first few dirty trunkfuls away and wait for clean water to fill the hole. They’d drink their fill, then step back to let the calves in. Inevitably the youngsters would collapse the sides and the process would be patiently repeated.

We left them when it became too dark to see and drove the short distance back to camp. We had no need to speak about the day. It is days like that, that give us hope – when for a few hours we forget the threat of poaching, the loss of habitat, the human-elephant conflict, the politics – and instead are given a privileged insight – a glimpse into what life for elephants can be like, and a glimpse of what life with elephants should be like.

The next morning, the elephants had gone. They’d moved on – their visit had been just a footstep on their endless journey of following the rain.

 

 

© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The butterfly and the elephant

Brown-veined white - B&W

 

Yesterday, in Tsavo, a topi ran across the track in front of me. I smiled, as it suddenly felt like a day in which anything might happen.

The topi is an antelope I’d never seen before in Tsavo. I’d normally associate it with Serengeti or the coastal plains at Amu. It ran across the track at a lazy gallop that reminded me of the loping gait of a hyena. It crossed in a pleasing blur of chestnut flanks driven by characteristic ‘bruised’ hindquarters – the hue of the swollen storm clouds that, lately, have built up each evening. It wasn’t being chased, the countryside was open – it was simply running.

One of the joys of making films the way we do, is that it rewards curiosity. I like to think that curiosity is a moral virtue although I suspect that the pleasure it can bring, smacks more of vice than virtue.

I wondered briefly where the topi had come from and where it was going, but chiefly I questioned why I’d not seen topi here before. I put it down to Tsavo’s original ‘Nyika’, the dense bush that would have been unsuitable for them. It covered much of Tsavo before the pressure of building elephant numbers in the 60’s destroyed many of the trees and opened up more of a mosaic of habitats. I suspect the topi is here now because of the changes to vegetation the elephants caused then. There was so much damage to the  habitat at the time that there were calls for the elephants to be culled – to ‘manage’ their population. Thankfully the warden, David Sheldrick, resisted – sensing that it was probably part of a decades-long cycle. In that era it was a brave decision.

To me, the sighting of the topi was an example of how the presence of elephants can increase biodiversity. It was also the catalyst to look around and wonder what else elephants had enabled in the Tsavo landscape.

I didn’t have to look very far, for as I watched elephants walk through stunted Boscia bushes on the plains, clouds of white butterflies would lift briefly from their shade and then settle. They were ‘brown-veined whites’, a description I’d always thought more appropriate for weathered ‘colonials’.

Like the topi, the brown-veined white is a species that prefers grass-lands. The butterfly’s caterpillars feed on the Boscia bush, which is also eaten by elephants. I’d tried eating the leaves. They are astringent and brittle, laden with aromatic oils – well suited to retaining moisture in the dry season. I wondered if the seemingly unpalatable leaves transmitted their bitter taste to the caterpillars – maybe I should try one…

Perhaps their choice of food was less about palatability and more about building a chemical defence, as with Monarch butterfly caterpillars and milkweed. I couldn’t remember if I’d ever seen birds eating the caterpillars or butterflies – my only memory of ‘brown-veined white’ predation was limited to seeing driver ants hauling a butterfly carcass along a trail in Serengeti.

I liked the thought of the butterfly caterpillars competing with elephants for food though, and wondered if the connection led further and if it was something we might film. I find connections between species intriguing. Sometimes they are causal, sometimes more tangental –  this felt the latter. The process of making a film allows us to explore them. If they are strong enough, and fit well with the story, we can include them and share them. It is exciting.

A week before, a colleague who’d been logging the film footage had pointed out to me how so many of our shots contained the butterflies. They weren’t the subjects, or even incidental characters – but they drifted through in the background – like cherry blossom that gets carried through a park on a gust of wind.

It reminded me of a time I’d driven from Mombasa up to Tsavo at the beginning of filming, when I’d seen brown-veined whites in their millions. I’d been intrigued as there seemed to be purpose and direction to their movement. I stopped to check the wind. The butterflies flew against it – heading north east. I counted a sample and then drove through them for the next 100 miles. I estimated that almost a billion a day passed by on their move over Tsavo. It wasn’t a true migration, like wildebeest or elephant can make, as there was no round trip involved – it was the result of them having exhausted their food supply and so having to move on. I wondered what made them decide on the direction to take – were they reacting to  environmental cues? – the sight of distant storms, the infrasound of thunder… as elephants do to travel to where it’s rained to find a flush of new growth.

 

butterflies flying

The butterflies’ behaviour couldn’t have be learnt; their lifespan wasn’t long enough to make the journey more than once. Perhaps it was programed deep in their genes.

I didn’t give the caterpillar-elephant idea too much thought after that. The prospect of being able to film them both at the same food source seemed remote, and hugely challenging. Something about the butterflies had seemed familiar though – but the more I tried to pin it down, the further it slipped away.  Perhaps it wasn’t surprising. They are probably the commonest butterfly in Africa and I’d seen them everywhere, even at sea, out of sight of land.

Elephants passed by camp that night and the next morning the piles of dung they left became a banquet for the butterflies. Each would hover briefly, then land and uncoil its proboscis to suck moisture and salts. Brilliant ‘grass yellows’ and ‘brown-veined whites’ jockeyed for position – it was just what we needed to film. It showed how important elephants are to the ecosystem in a much more visual and elegant way.

butterfly cu

 

The more I thought about the butterflies, the more I noticed them. I started seeing them everywhere. At night I noticed them roosting just off the ground outside our tent, always returning to the same clump of grass. When I looked closely I thought there were two different species, but when I tried to identify them I found that I was seeing two different morphs of the same species – one a dry season form, the other the wet season form. As the days past and the wet season progressed, so one gradually replaced the other.

I’d forgotten all about the niggling familiarity until I chanced on the brown veined white’s latin name in a book – Belenois aurota.

Seeing it written, triggered a cascade of memories.

It took me back to my childhood bedroom in Cornwall, decades ago. To encourage my fascination with wildlife, my parents had given me a glass display case of butterflies and moths. It hung on the wall next to my bed. It was my pride and joy. In the centre of the case was a giant Atlas moth, and scattered around it, like planets circling the sun, were swallowtails, ‘birdwings’ and charaxes. In the lower right-hand corner was a group of three small butterflies – mounted vertically on a strip of polystyrene, glued onto blue baize. Consigned to the margin, they were the least glamorous specimens.

The pins that secured the bodies also held their name tags and I’d make a point of reading the latin names before going to sleep each night. The lowest of them all was a small white butterfly with dark veined wings, pinned through the underside. The typed card alongside it read: ‘Belenois aurota – wet season form’.

Over forty years later, we’d finally met again. It made me smile.

 

 

© Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Posted in Tsavo | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Satao: last of the great tuskers

Satao bull drinking

Ever since we started filming in Tsavo we’d looked for a big tusker – but they are elusive. It’s the reason they are still alive. They are also very rare. They are bulls with tusks so large that they can rest them on the ground.

There are probably only a dozen of the fabled ‘100+ pounders’ left in Tsavo’s 16,000 square miles.

Kruger used to have its ‘magnificent seven’ – no longer. Tsavo’s collection of great tuskers is now the last in the world. They should be national treasures, cherished by Kenyans and protected by presidential decree, but they are not.

After two years of filming around Tsavo, we heard of one of the fabled bulls. He was living on a community ranch, notorious for its gangs of armed Somalis that poach elephants.  According to our source, the huge bull hid in very thick bush during the day – only emerging to feed when it was dark. Much as we wanted to film a true ‘tusker’, we felt we couldn’t risk searching for him. We’d only draw attention to the area he hid in, and that would put him in danger. There was no alternative but to wait.

Seasons passed without sightings.

We decided to change plans, and have one come to us, and so the idea of the ‘box’ was born – a metal hide dug into a bank beside a waterhole. It’s essentially the same technique that poachers use to ambush elephants, for elephants must come to water every 2-3 days.

My relationship with the ‘box’ underwent a brief honeymoon period. I loved the toe-nail height view it gave us of elephants, and for the first few days there was the thrill of the unknown. We had no idea how the elephants would react to it. We didn’t expect an attack, but neither did we expect the box to be able to withstand one. If the worst happened, we just hoped it would crumple gracefully.

The honeymoon ended very suddenly when, after a few grey days, the sun came out. It transformed the ‘box’ into a ‘hotbox’, and me from a filmmaker into an extra in ‘Django Unchained’.  Days in the cramped, 4’ x 4’ ‘hotbox’ turned into weeks – and it became a test of endurance. Once the lid clanged shut, with it went the breeze, the light and the sky. Each day started well, but by late morning the metal lid and upper walls became too hot to touch. For 10-12 hours, there was no getting out to cool down, stretch or urinate. The only respite from the mind-numbing heat was to strip, douse myself with water and curl in a foetal position on the muddy floor, around the tripod.

I was about to do that one day, and took a last look out of the filming ‘window’ when I glimpsed something through the heat haze. Initially I thought the sun had reflected off the windscreen of a distant vehicle, but there were no tracks close by. Whatever it was disappeared, then glinted once more. Alert now, it was several minutes before I saw it again. I came to the slow realization that what I was looking at was sunlight reflecting off an elephant’s tusks. Gradually, like in the opening scene from ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, their owner materialized through the shimmering haze.  A mirage from the Taru desert – a magnificent, dusty behemoth.

Other elephants stood sleeping, clustered in the shade of acacias, apparently unaware of the bull’s approach. He didn’t walk straight to water. It took him almost an hour to cover the final kilometer as he slowly zig-zagged from one bush to another. The glint I’d seen, came whenever he turned his head and appeared to bury it in a bush. Each time he did, he’d wait a few minutes, partially hidden, then continue zig-zagging upwind, scenting the air, to check there wasn’t a poacher hidden at the waterhole.

I was mystified at the bull’s poor attempt to hide – until it dawned on me that he wasn’t trying to hide his body, he was hiding his tusks. At once, I was incredibly impressed, and incredibly sad – impressed that he should have the understanding that his tusks could put him in danger, but so sad at what that meant.

As he neared the waterhole, other elephants left the shade to gather round and greet him. He was a magnificent bull; unmarked, apart from a diagonal scar on his trunk. He had the largest tusks I’ve ever seen. I’ve shown pictures of him to others, and his tusks are of such a size and sweep, that even elephant experts of 40 years standing, have had an audible intake of breath.

We saw him a number of times after that. Initially, I wondered if my interpretation of his behaviour was fanciful, just a filmmaker’s frustration at not being able to get a clear view, but whenever we saw him, he tried to hide his tusks and I am convinced that it was deliberate.

That was last year.

Last week, we had a call to say that a big tusker might be in trouble. We were told only that it was an old bull with very large tusks. He had been seen and filmed a week before by a foreign crew for a film about the current pan-African elephant census by scientist Mike Chase. In reviewing the footage, Mike had noticed two weeping wounds on the bull’s flank – probably from poison arrows. It needed following up. We became involved as, if the bull needed to be immobilized and his wounds treated, the film company wanted it documented.

We’d been sent images, and I suspected that the elephant might be the same magnificent bull we’d filmed from the ‘hotbox’. The shots were too distant to see the tell-tale scar, but the overall ‘giss’ was uncomfortably similar. I was concerned.

The bull we’d known never built up a pattern that would allow poachers to predict his movements. His visits to water were irregular. He would turn up a few times, but never at regular intervals, and then disappear for months.  It’s what had kept him alive.

We set off before dawn. It was cloudy and cool It boded well, not for filming but for immobilization, as elephants risk overheating once they go down. We met Richard Moller, of the Tsavo Trust, at a remote airstrip just after sunrise. Somehow, I managed to fold my limbs into the rear of the Trust’s Supercub, 5Y-ACE, and we set off to try and find the bull. Richard takes great pride in the cub’s history – she’s flown over Tsavo for decades, long before there were tracks and tourists.

The ‘cub’ knows her way around Tsavo, and she didn’t let us down – within half an hour Richard spotted the bull. We circled him once. We were high, to avoid frightening him, so I couldn’t see if he had a scar on his trunk, but his tusks looked enormous and disturbingly familiar. As we flew back, I had time to wonder whether the ‘cub’ had flown over the bull before – perhaps as a calf in the early ’60‘s, one of the first to be born into an independent Kenya. I felt she probably had.

On landing I looked around at the assembled people and vehicles. I was struck by how all the elephant conservation organizations in Tsavo were pulling together to go to the help of the iconic old bull. KWS was responsible overall. Tsavo Trust had been monitoring him;  but what we were about to do wouldn’t be possible without the Sheldrick Trust’s funding and equipping, of the park’s wildlife vet.

We drove out to the bull. As the vet, Jeremiah Poghon, examined him through binoculars, we fell silent. We all recognized the risks inherent in immobilizing an elephant that size – but it was compounded by the bull’s huge tusks which, at more than 50 kgs /side, might hinder him getting to his feet.

When the vet made the decision not to immobilize him – there was a collective sigh of relief. One wound had stopped weeping and the other didn’t look swollen. Neither appeared to be bothering the bull much. Elephants have a huge capacity to heal. The vet explained that, as the wounds didn’t appear too infected, he thought the bull would be OK, but he would be monitored over the next few weeks, to check that his condition didn’t deteriorate.

As the vet drove away to attend another case, we had time alone to film the bull. We parked well ahead and downwind. We had to reposition a couple of times as It proved difficult to get a clear view – there always seemed to be a bush in the way. The old bull got to within 25m before we could see him clearly – but long before that, I knew that when he turned, there would be a diagonal scar on his trunk.

I was silent as we drove back that evening – exhausted by the day and the mix of emotions.

I was thankful that the bull’s wounds were healing and that we hadn’t had to dart him, but I was devastated that poachers had somehow managed to predict his movements and get close enough to fire two poison arrows into him.

I am appalled at what that means – that the survival skills that the bull has painstakingly learnt over half a century have been rendered useless by the poachers’ use of mass-produced Chinese goods; GPS smart-phones, cheap motorcycles and night vision goggles.

I think the old bull knows that poachers want his tusks, and I hate that he knows.

More than anything, I hate the thought that poachers are now closing in on one of the world’s most iconic elephants.

For over half a century the vast expanse of the Taru desert has provided him with refuge –  but it no longer seems vast enough.

Satao bull sunset

© Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The sweet smell of petrichor

BLX vs thunder storm

A week ago in Tsavo, we had an unseasonal storm of rain. We’d been flying, doors off, searching for the matriarch that we’d not seen for a while. As the cloud thickened and lowered, and dark skeins of rain descended to hide Musinga Hill, we headed back towards the airstrip, lest we get rained out. We landed with minutes to spare. We’d just got the camera off and doors on before the first violent gust arrived that whipped the rudder over, and set the plane rocking on it’s under-carriage. Neither of us cared that the search had been cut short though, because with the wind came the smell of rain – the sweet smell of petrichor.

Everyone has their own favourite smell – it might be that of new-cut grass, the bruised leaves of lemon verbena, freesia flowers or linseed oil.

For anyone that has lived in rural Africa, the smell of petrichor is likely to be high on the list. I didn’t know the word existed until a year or two ago, when it was mentioned by a geologist friend. For such an evocative smell, the word has a hard, scientific edge to it – as if wrought from decades of lab work, academic etymology and too little time spent outside, with a smile tilted up to the rain.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the term was coined by two Australian scientists from the greek words petrus (rock) and ichor (the fluid flowing through the veins of the gods). I might not like the word, but I do like what it describes: rain soaking into the soil, freeing botanical molecules that have been trapped by clay and rock – volatile essential oils that rise to the surface and are carried on the wind that rolls out across the ground from thunderstorms. It is why we couldn’t smell it from the air – petrichor is for earthlings.

For me, the smell conjures up images of vast Serengeti landscapes, where wind-lashed grass heads are topped by churning skies. I like to think of cold petrichor-laden air sinking into termite mounds, and waking winged alates. It rarely disappoints. Elephants turn their trunks towards the source minutes before the cold wind arrives – that stirs and then bends their ragged ears. Impala and gazelle hunch, backs to wind. Ostrich crouch low to the ground. Out on an exposed branch a grey tree frog shifts its position almost imperceptibly – the first move it has made in months. Then the first fat drops fall, and spatter on the backs of Tsavo elephants. Rivulets flood their wrinkled skin, before pooling, ochre at their feet – leaving them fresh transformed, grey once again.

Skeins of rain

Smell is so important in the bush – I remember locating our first pack of hunting dogs, the legendary ‘painted wolves’, by following an unfamiliar smell – a sharp, acidic smell of sweat laced with musk that we’d caught while driving past a hidden erosion terrace in Serengeti’s Gol mountains. It led us to their den.

‘Follow your nose’ is still a common expression but most of us live in a world so noisy and confused with manufactured smells that it is difficult. We spray them around where we live, lather them on us, seep our vehicles in them, wash our clothes in them, and enhance them in what we eat and drink. Subtle smells are swamped . I pity a lilly-of-the valley in a room full of ‘Rozee’ air ‘freshener’.

To really follow a scent you have to move in and out of the odour plume at an angle to it. To find a fresh pile of elephant dung, airborne dung beetles home in on the odour by following a zig-zag flight path against a concentration gradient, turning more frequently as they approach the source.

I did the same recently with a colleague, Etienne, in the Arubo Sokoke forest.  We’d gone looking for frogs but found the waterholes were dry.  We’d not walked far, when Etienne caught the faintest scent of a carcass. We walked slowly upwind a hundred meters apart, quartering – calling to each other, now and again, as the smell got stronger or we lost it completely, and had to double back. After half an hour and almost a mile we arrived at a horrifying scene – a baby elephant had been caught in a wire snare. It had been butchered – its meat, cut into strips, hung from drying racks suspended from branches, out of reach of scavengers. The maggot-ridden entrails were the source of the smell. The skull, skinned and abandoned in the dirt, had  two tiny holes where the finger-sized tusks had been removed.

It was distressing; more so when we saw the acacia that the snare had been fixed to – the wire had sawn an inch or more deep into the trunk as the baby had struggled. It had taken hours, possibly days to do that, and the baby had quite likely still been alive when the poachers returned.

In Tsavo, poachers have learned to cover the carcasses of elephants with brush, so they can’t be seen from the air – by vultures (which might attract the attention of rangers) or pilots.  A pilot flying anti-poaching patrols told me recently that he flies low and slow, with his windows open, so he might catch the smell of a poacher’s cooking fire or the scent of putrefaction.

It set me thinking why we find the smell of putrefaction almost universally abhorrent. In the course of human evolution, to be able to recognize the smell of rotten flesh must have conferred a strong selective advantage. It still does. We recoil at a strong ‘fishy’ smell – and that helps us avoid food poisoning. What we take to be the smell of fish though is actually the smell of rotting fish. It emanates from the formation of amine chemicals given off by bacteria breaking down protein, as they rot fish flesh.  ‘Follow your nose’ is just as good advice when it comes to sourcing fresh fish. Interestingly, citric acid in lemon juice neutralizes alkaline amines and reduces the ‘fishy’ smell – its use with fish may have originated as a way of concealing the smell of rot.  I might be biased but I think live fish smell glorious – and very different from each other. I can easily distinguish mackerel from mullet, and pollock from bass in the same way that I can smell the difference between oranges and lemons.

What I find fascinating, is the powerful ability smell has to unlock distant memories. It is almost as if it can bypass the rational, left side of the brain altogether.

In the course of filming, we spend a lot of time around elephants and we smell elephant dung almost every day. It is a familiar smell and not offensive – it is redolent of the farmyard with an almost silage-like sweetness to it. It is quite different from the pungent, protein-sticky odour of a carnivore’s dung.

On two occasions though, when I was thinking about something completely different, I have smelt elephant dung and it has conjured up a powerful and distant memory – transporting me back instantly to being a small boy on a wet winter’s day, snug in a green quilted anorak, holding onto my mother’s hand. The place was Bristol zoo. I was four, giddy with excitement from a day trip up from Cornwall, and wide-eyed with wonder at all the different animals I’d seen.

What I remember most though and what my recollection of that entire day is based on, is how, long before we saw the elephant – I smelt it.

BLX in rain

 

 

© Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Posted in Tsavo | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 37 Comments