Elephants of Botswana

I gaze out the bus windows, a little dazed after two days of travel, and take in scenery that hints of wonders to come. Someone says, “Elephants!” Then our small group of traveling friends hear our tour guide, Wallace, exclaim, “Oh, they are crossing right in front of us!” with a sense of wonderment that belies the many times he has seen the very same sight here in his native land.

The driver stops the bus and patiently waits in the middle of the road, while a majestic matriarch leads her herd across the highway. We maneuver ourselves around the front windows and snap, snap, snap the first of hundreds of pictures that we will take on this safari. By the time our small bus arrives at the Botswana Camp, we have already seen so much, and then the employees, native men and women alike, joyfully welcome us with a chorus of their native ululations, each person in his or her own style. As we file under the thatched roof of the open-air lodge, our mouths drop open at the beauty of the Chobe River floodplain. This is where the elephants were heading. We are in awe – of the elephants, of the people, of the view. We are in Africa.

Wallace provides an orientation to our jet-lagged ears, telling us that the camp is named after the Baobab, a tree-sized succulent often called the “upside down tree”, because it looks like the roots are in the air. I have never heard of it, but Wallace promises that we will see many baobabs tomorrow. He goes on to warn us, adding rolled r’s to what he calls the King’s English, of the “squee-rrells” that will steal our food, and so we mark plastic bags holding our snacks and place them in a lodge cupboard. The first day, I think he is saying “squealers,” and am surprised that there are Squealer Monkeys in Botswana, then I see that that these are garden-variety squirrels, same the world over.

The cabins, our homes for the next three days, are canvas tents with a wooden frame, built high on stone foundations. All have a view of the floodplain. It’s beautiful. Even though dead tired, most of us wake often, if we sleep at all. We hear many strange noises. At one point I wake up, struggle to untangle myself from the mosquito netting surrounding our bed, and sweep a flashlight around the floor, sure that I hear small varmints running in the cabin. I see nothing. Maybe it’s baboons on the roof.

All night long, I hear heavy footsteps with sounds of scraping and breaking. Then, I hear a lion roar. I look at my watch – 3 AM. I hear more breaking and tearing. I hear what makes me think of raw meat being ripped from the bone and I picture someone trying to debone a huge raw turkey thigh. It sounds close. After listening a few minutes, I decide I can’t wait until morning to see what animal might be dead on the path outside our cabin. I get up and try to shine a flashlight out the window, but a plastic coating on the screens only bounces the light back at me.

Finally, at 6 AM, beating drums scare off any remaining wild animals and at the same time, awaken us. I look out in the dim morning light. I see nothing but nature, and hear nothing but raucous calls of morning birds. As I walk to breakfast, I keep looking around, certain that I will see a half-eaten carcass, or at least some blood, somewhere under a bush or next to a cabin foundation. Most of our group is quiet, still in a state of tired awe. I blurt out that I heard the lion at 3 AM. Six fellow travelers agree – they heard the lion also! Wallace says, “I heard only elephants.”

“Yes,” I say, “I heard the elephants too, but I heard a lion at 3 AM, and then I heard ripping and tearing of flesh from bones.” I repeat my lion story to every safari driver and camp worker who comes in for hot coffee or sorghum porridge. They laugh. Their laughter is polite, not rude. But still, they laugh.

We leave in two open safari jeeps for our first game drive of the trip and head down the rutted dirt lane. Before we even get to the roadway, the drivers stop and turn off the engines. We will wait while a herd of elephants crosses the road, on their way back from drinking at the floodplain waters. Again we snap, snap, snap photos because this herd includes an adorable baby. We are falling in love with these amazing animals, even as we notice that they are a bit thin.

Then an adult elephant trumpets. Aha! Now I know why the safari guides laughed. That ripping and tearing of flesh, and breaking of bones, were the sounds of elephants felling branches and pulling bark off trees. Our safari guides don’t laugh now; they are a patient people and know we are learning. We watch the elephants munch their way across our path.

 

Always on the move, elephants trudge along nature’s buffet line, chomping through 600 to 800 pounds of bark and foliage a day on their way to water and back again. An eating marathon, interrupted by an occasional nap. At a later camp, we will see a small mound of bark where once stood a 30-foot tall baobab tree, now completely destroyed. In fact that is one of the most amazing things that we will see in Africa – the destruction caused by these beautiful animals. In Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, our camp stands in the midst of a desolate area filled with dry stumps of mopane trees, all broken off at the same height – the height of the elephants’ powerful trunks. Although we are told that the area turns lush and green in the rainy season, it seems that it is on the way to becoming a desert as fewer and fewer of the trees will survive. The park, 15,000 square kilometers in size, is home to 45,000 elephants – too many, because it takes 1000 square kilometers of land to support each elephant for a year.

Clods of elephant excrement line the roadways and the pathways leading to watering holes – 60% of what is ingested is not digested, but rather is ground up and pooped out. In the national parks, the elephant dung cannot be picked up for burning or other uses. It must remain on the ground where it will spend years decomposing sufficiently to add richness back to the soil. I just hope that happens before this parkland becomes a desert.

Outside the park boundaries, natives put the dung to good use. Although it burns too fast to use as fuel for cooking fires, our guides manage to keep it smoldering in old paint cans hung on the front fenders of our jeeps. In Zambia, the smoke wafting back over us discourages the bothersome tse-tse flies. It smells somewhat familiar and my husband identifies it as a certain incense. Later, when we tell friends in the other jeep that the burning dung reminded us of incense at a Buddhist funeral, they say their smell memory was a fine cigar.

Gradually over the course of several safari drives, in this land where very little goes to waste, our guides share other uses for the omnipresent dung.   We learn that women, in the final weeks of their pregnancy, often drink a dung tea or squat over burning elephant dung so the smoke can help expand their birth canal. Native artists make a paper that we see covering a photo album, or sell small carvings made of vegetable ivory, a gift also from the elephant. We learn about these carvings at Lufupa River Camp, where our cabins are close to the water and we hear hippos at night. One morning, next to our small deck, I see a pile of dung containing small round balls about the size of a baseball. Normal clods are the size of large grapefruit or even small bowling balls and I’m wondering how an elephant could have become constipated with all the water available here. Then we are told that these balls are palm nuts. The elephant’s grinding molars have removed the outer shell, and natives will shave off the remaining hard brown coating so they can carve the white “ivory” nuts that hide inside.

With no natural enemies, other than poachers hunting for tusks, the elephants live a long time and die of natural causes only after they have gone through all six sets of molars that they are born with. Each set can last up to ten years. Once they are on their last set of molars, older elephants stay close to the water in order to eat softer food, and then die next to the river. When the rains come, the bones will wash up in piles sometimes called “elephant graveyards.”

All of the animals that we see in Africa look sleek and healthy – the one exception being the elephants. They are bony; skin hangs in folds from their hindquarters without enough supporting flesh. This is September, not yet the hottest of the dry season, but green vegetation is becoming scarce. Except for the thorny acacia trees that conveniently remain tall for the giraffes to eat, all of the trees are broken off at between five and six feet high. We learn why – a tree that is damaged or being eaten will produce tannins to protect itself, and breaking prevents the bitter tannins from being carried to the edible leaves and bark.

Isn’t nature amazing?

Of all the interesting sites and facts that we will absorb from Africa, the one most difficult to put into words is the elephant dilemma. Hunting is not an answer. In Zambia, we see first-hand how the elephants remember that jeeps sometimes carry guns. Whereas elephants in Botswana and Zimbabwe ignore the vehicles that carry us, in Zambia, one aggressive elephant mock-charges our jeep while others surround the baby in the group. We are maybe fifty yards away, but they don’t want us any closer. Our driver respects their privacy and doesn’t even stop for pictures.

Ivory poaching is definitely not a solution, although it’s understandable why certain nations used to encourage ivory gleaning to reduce a crop-destroying elephant population and, at the same time, increase their treasuries. Those areas where senior elephants have been killed, now host orphaned babies and herds of juvenile delinquents with no elders available to train the adolescents. In addition, some of those nations have used monies gained from harvesting ivory for terrorism or tribal wars, adding to the woes of the region. Poisoning a water hole is obviously not acceptable. A recent sad case had killed all the animals in one area.

How the nations are going to protect and, at the same time, control elephant populations in a manner politically and socially acceptable to the world in general, is beyond me, and I guess beyond them too. Because the elephants, while beautiful and smart and majestic, are, in those areas where given the run of the land, also destroying much of it for other animals and humans.

 

(Date of travel: Sept. 2013)

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