Young orphan at the Sheldrick orphanage ... just polished off a bottle of milk and pretty happy

Young orphan at the Sheldrick orphanage ... just polished off a bottle of milk and pretty happy

It’s been my habit for some time to set the television to record all programs that even remotely relate to Africa or its wildlife. So I generally finish the week with many episodes of Big Cat Diary, Wild Kingdom, and Nature in the queue for possible weekend viewing. Sometimes I’m able to see a few of the shows, most of the time I’m not. Too much to do and way too little time, which I suspect is the story for most of us.

During this past week one of the old movie channels aired the 1950 film “King Solomon’s Mines,” which was based on the H. Rider Haggard novel of the same name. The story was set in East Africa, starred Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr … and its plot was wrapped around the search for a mythical diamond mine in uncharted territory to the west of an undisclosed Swahili speaking nation. I thought it might be interesting to evaluate the film as a piece of history … to see and assess its treatment of wildlife and indigenous peoples.

kingsol

As it turns out, there was no reason to sit through the entire picture. The dismissive attitude toward the African people transcended the film’s turn of the century setting. The “natives” existed solely for the use of the westerners, and the tone of superiority throughout the picture was absolutely pervasive … it represented far more than simple Victorian era arrogance. It was clear enough to me that the 1950 producers of the movie also viewed the dehumanized depiction of the African people as the right and natural way of things.

The treatment of the animals was far worse. In one of the movie’s early scenes, a procession of adventurers and porters en route to the illusory mine crossed paths with an elephant family in the bush. The animals were peacefully stripping acacia bark when they caught sight of the intruders. The matriarch feigned a charge and the humans reacted in the expected way. The round from the elephant gun struck the matriarch high on the forehead and she instantly collapsed. The other family members immediately formed a protective perimeter around their stricken leader. In panic and confusion, they repeatedly attempted to lift her to her feet, but she was far beyond help and hope. The entire sequence, including the matriarch’s death convulsions, was captured in the film. In fairness to the makers of “King Solomon’s Mines,” I don’t believe the animal was destroyed for the sole and specific purpose of incorporating the footage into the movie. It appeared to be a filmed hunt that was spliced into the scene for dramatic effect. Regardless, its inclusion was unnecessary, gratuitous and disturbing.

The damaged elephant family, which was small to begin with (perhaps eight to ten animals), probably depended very heavily on the experience of the matriarch for its continued existence in the wild. The matriarch would have been her family’s corporate memory. She would have known the best places to locate nutritious food through the changing seasons and where to find water during the severest of droughts. One wonders how the family might have fared after the mindless destruction of its leader. Times must have been challenging indeed.

Difficult days continue to be the norm for far too many of East Africa’s elephant families. Poaching is on the rise in many parts of Kenya, as evidenced by the constant flow of new orphans into Daphne Sheldrick’s orphanage on the outskirts of Nairobi. Each passing week brings new inmates to the compound … and all of them have been traumatized to one degree or another. Their stories, which are posted on the Sheldrick website, are powerful and moving. Here’s an extract from the profile of the young orphan named Sities:

“An unusual visitor walked into the Mgeno Ranch Headquarters, within the Tsavo Conservation Area during the morning of 22nd March 2010. This unusual visitor was a bellowing baby elephant, desperate for company and who sent all the Staff scuttling for safety, fearful that the baby’s mother might turn up to claim it. Eventually they ventured out, their sudden appearance frightening the little calf, who ran off a short distance, but then returned, desperate for company. Too young to know fear, being only about 1 ½ months old, the Staff tied it to a tree, and then called Dr. David Ndeereh of the Trust’s Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit, who in turn alerted our Voi Elephant Keepers that an elephant rescue was needed.

It is suspected that this baby is a poaching victim, although human/wildlife conflict cannot be ruled out since the Ranch has a lot of livestock and herdsmen. The Trust’s De-Snaring anti-poaching team has been sent to scour the area to confirm any evidence of possible poaching.

The calf, a beautiful female, responded well to the arrival of the Keepers who fed her a bottle of milk and rehydration water before loading her into their Pickup and driving it to the Voi Stockades. Once there she remained close to the Keepers following them around, until the Rescue Plane arrived from Nairobi to airlift her back to the Trust’s Nairobi Elephant Nursery.”

Sities was a fortunate young lady indeed. For every orphan recovered there are surely dozens left parentless to meet a lonely and agonizing death in the bush.

Orphan with keeper at the mud wallow

Orphan with keeper at the mud wallow

If poachers and hunters represent the worst in our nature, then the dedicated souls at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust must surely reflect the last precious vestiges of nobility in the human spirit. It was my pleasure to visit their orphanage recently. And I have to think that even the hardest heart would be touched by the love and care the orphans receive. The elephants they so meticulously nurture are slowly re-introduced to the wild when their keepers deem them ready. Anyone who reads through the orphan profiles on their webpage would surely agree that they’ve already produced a number of miracles with some of the more severely traumatized animals (please see the story of orphan Murka).

Life at the orphanage enables the youngsters to form friendships and social bonds ... this is critical to the development of elephant calves

Life at the orphanage enables the youngsters to form friendships and social bonds ... this is critical to the development of elephant calves

More buddies ...

More buddies ...

Like most conservation organizations, the Sheldrick orphanage depends exclusively on donations for its operations and continued existence. Their need is immediate and pressing, however, because orphaned elephants must eat every day. And they must eat large quantities. I would encourage anyone who visits Nairobi to spend some time at this sanctuary and observe the orphans as they visit the mud wallow for their morning feeding. It’s much more than an opportunity to see these extraordinary young animals … now so fortuitously blessed with a second chance to live, love and thrive. It also validates the possibility that there may actually exist some small measure of hope for our own species. The orphanage’s website is here …

www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org

Young orphan with keeper.  Image taken from DSWT webpage.

Young orphan with keeper. Image taken from DSWT webpage.

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In past blog posts I’ve written exhaustively about elephants, which I’ve repeatedly identified as my favorite animal. I also have a favorite photographic subject, which is the plains zebra. My blog post dated April 18th of this year describes my strategies for photographing their extraordinary range of behaviors. But there is another species that holds a special place in my heart for deeply personal and historic reasons. That would be the elegant and beautiful, but highly implausible Maasai Giraffe. Here’s why …

In 2001 I traveled to Tanzania with a couple of friends to climb Kilimanjaro. Thinking our trip would be a “once in a lifetime” expedition, we programmed a few extra days into the itinerary to see Africa’s wildlife. Understanding perfectly well that one cannot travel to East Africa without a camera, I purchased my first SLR … the lowest end Canon edition with a ludicrously cheap kit lens. Before leaving Tanzania my friends and I visited a very damp Arusha National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, and the dry and dusty plains of the Serengeti. During the course of that initial 15 day trip I captured about 780 photographs, which at the time seemed an astronomical total (that figure now represents about a half day’s work). I was completely captivated by Tanzania’s landscapes and wildlife and spent a disproportionate amount of time looking through my photos after returning home. The months marched on but the desire to return never dissipated, and I became obsessed with finding a way to do that – often – without being consigned to debtor’s prison. I’d received some warm praise for those first photographs I’d shot, and it’s just possible that some of it may have been sincere. There was one particular image – which happened to be my favorite from the trip – that elicited a stronger response than all the others. Because of the encouragement and feedback I received on that one picture I began to study the art and science of photography. Here’s the shot:

First ever morning in Africa with a camera.  Sometime in mid-July of 2001.  Captured by a clueless photographer at Arusha National Park with Kodak 400 speed print film.

First ever morning in Africa with a camera. Sometime in mid-July of 2001. Captured by a clueless photographer at Arusha National Park with Kodak 400 speed print film.

And voila … by 2007 my images were not only fully subsidizing my travel, they’d enabled me to purchase a world-class arsenal of Nikon photo gear. So the giraffe, from my perspective, is in a class of its own. That’s because I’m deeply indebted to the animal for a life-changing encounter on a gray and rainy morning at Arusha National Park in July of 2001. And it’s about damned time I started making payments.

More to follow on this …

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Solitary warthog in the Maasai Mara

Solitary warthog in the Maasai Mara

If pressed, most devotees of African wildlife would likely concede that they do indeed have a favorite animal. I’ve already written exhaustively about mine in a blog post dated 31 July 2009 (scroll to the “Older Entries” at the bottom a couple of times to locate it). I’ve also uploaded some thoughts on the animal that certainly qualifies as my least favorite (post dated 7 August 2009). Somewhere between those two reference species lies the remainder of the menagerie, far too many of which receive less notice and glory than they rightfully merit. I’d like to offer a few observations on one of them – the inimitable warthog – and explain why I’m inclined to believe it to be the most underrated animal in Africa, if not the world.

My favorite animals ...

My favorite animals ...

My not so favorite animal

My not so favorite animal

The warthog is a hopelessly unattractive creature. It is dark gray in color, but much like the elephant, it tends to assume the hues of the mud and dust indigenous to its immediate surroundings. Named for the unappealing “warts” that protrude from the upper portion of its cheeks, it sports scimitar-shaped tusks and a much longer face than most other members of the porcine community. Part of its head and most of its back are topped with a fairly thick mane … the rest of it is lightly covered with isolated strands of bristly hair. Its squat body and short legs are both a blessing and a curse. Its low stature enables it to hide effectively in the long grass but its stumpy legs make it vulnerable to speedier predators.

The warthog may rate low marks for beauty, but it more than compensates with its fierce nature and outsized heart. Warthog mothers can be formidable. Lions and leopards routinely hunt their little ones, but a warthog mother rarely allows the predation to go unchallenged. They are dedicated and ferocious, particularly in defense of their young. They are capable of inflicting serious injury with their tusks, and have been known to launch a courageous but suicidal frontal assault on much larger predators. On more than one occasion I’ve seen a warthog mom sacrifice herself in defense of her young.

One bad little Mama

One bad little Mama

Warthogs are also much more mentally adept than one might suspect. They sometimes dig their own burrows, but do not hesitate to occupy whatever holes in the ground are abandoned and available. They are acutely aware of their escape routes and have been known to elude what seemed to be certain death. They have frustrated many a lioness by disappearing quite suddenly into an old aardvark den.

Just a day or so ago a friend related that her father once told her that warthogs are so ugly they’re beautiful. I tend to agree with that assessment. But I think they’re more than beautiful … they are resourceful, plucky and, when need be, fierce. And, of course, underrated.

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Spotted Hyena

Spotted Hyena

I mentioned in a previous post that I’m often asked which African animal is my favorite. As I explained, it’s actually a tough question because there are so many worthy candidates. I’ve never been asked which animal I like the least, but that would certainly be an easy one to answer.
All animals that manage to survive and thrive in such a demanding environment deserve our respect. But I’ve found the spotted hyena to be the most difficult of all creatures to love. They are physically unappealing, with short rear legs and a sloping back that makes every movement a suspicious looking skulk. Their eyes are warm in color but cold in aspect, with a curious dead quality that reminds one of a shark’s eyes. They hunt on occasion, but prefer to steal their food if the opportunity is presented. The cheetah, because it is light and fragile, stands no chance against the hyena. If the cheetah brings down a gazelle within the sight or hearing of a hyena, then it has labored for nothing. The hyena will ignore the cheetah and move in directly to take the prey. They also steal from lions, but this requires a concentrated team effort by the entire pack. The hyenas swarm around the pride until the lions, annoyed and frustrated beyond their ability to endure, slink away and leave the kill to the pests.
Watching a hyena take a live animal is not a sight for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Lions, leopards and cheetahs kill quickly by clamping onto the throat of the victim. Once in the grasp, the prey animal is dispatched in mere minutes (cape buffalo is the exception owing to its size and strength). The hyena is not so merciful. They disable their prey, take it to the ground and begin to eat immediately. The “kill” is often still alive even after it is half devoured.
The cliché is true … the African plain is indeed “unforgiving.” When I see an injured gazelle or wildebeest — and there are many during the migration time — I make a silent wish that the hyena will be the last predator to cross its path. Better to die of dehydration in the sun than to become a meal for my least favorite animal.

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I’m often asked if I have a favorite animal. The answer is “yes” … twice over, in fact. My favorite to photograph is certainly the plains zebra. There’s something magical about their patterns and the way they manage to be beautiful against any backdrop and in any light. They seem to pose with even the slightest movement … and in groups they’re incomparable. They are at their most photogenic when they’re draped across each other and staring curiously at the camera. They’re also spectacular when they’re in a tussle, competing for the attention of the ladies, pulling the flesh on their opponent’s neck and snapping at each other’s forelegs.

But my real favorite animal is the African elephant. They are the epitome of physical implausibility, with their enormous leaf-shaped ears fanning the warm air and their pylon legs extending down to flat-bottomed feet that are truly unique in the animal world. Then there’s the gray corrugated trunk that represents an almost incomprehensibly sophisticated assemblage of muscles … so flexible that it can pick up a pea from the sand and place it onto the tongue but so powerful that it can rip a young acacia tree right out of the ground.

But these attributes are peripheral to what really makes this the most majestic of all creatures. The love elephants feel for their family members is both deep and permanent, extending beyond life itself. Elephants routinely visit the remains of their loved ones, lingering for hours, gently holding and caressing their bleached bones. Unlike so many other animals, their existence transcends the immediate present. They certainly recall the distant past and, I think, consider and prepare for the future.

Elephant researcher Joyce Poole relates the story of a mother elephant that refused to leave the body of her dead calf, standing guard over it for hours in the African heat. Out of pity for the mother, Joyce temporarily abandoned the scientist’s unwritten code of non-intervention and drove to camp to bring water to the grieving mom. She filled a tub from her water cans and then drove a short distance away to allow the elephant to drink. She repeated this kindness twice more, until the mother elephant sprayed herself with the water, signaling that she’d drank her fill. Joyce then settled into her land rover to wait with the elephant. But after a few minutes, the mother elephant cautiously moved to the driver’s side of the rover, paused, and in an unmistakable gesture of gratitude, gently placed her trunk into the vehicle and across Joyce’s chest.

I was moved, but not surprised by this story. The eyes of the elephants are as expressive as our own, and their feelings are at least as deep. Many times I’ve seen those eyes filled with joy, and on at least one occasion I’ve seen them lit with extreme displeasure (this was on the banks of the Zambezi River on the Zambia side … a sufficiently noteworthy incident to merit its own post later on).

Each animal of the plains is unique and interesting in its way. But the elephant surpasses all others in my estimation … not just because of its physical magnificence, but for the strength of its love and the power of its intellect. They are and always will be my favorites.

Male Zebras fighting at Ndutu, Tanzania

Male Zebras fighting at Ndutu, Tanzania

Young elephants at Tarangire

Young elephants at Tarangire

Elephant Family at Amboseli, Kenya

Elephant Family at Amboseli, Kenya

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