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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Grant's gazelle and young one ... southern Serengeti.

Grant's gazelle and young one ... southern Serengeti.

A few decades back from Carl Sagan …

“Memories of events late in the first year of life are not extremely rare, and there are possible examples of even earlier recollections. At age three, my son Nicholas was asked for the earliest event he could recall and he replied in a hushed tone while staring into middle distance, ‘It was red and I was very cold.’ He was born by Caesarean section. It is probably very unlikely, but I wonder whether this could just possibly be a true birth memory.”

from “Dragons of Eden”

For reasons I would never try to explain, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to comprehend what the world must look and feel like to a newborn. I was in the delivery room for the birth of my youngest son and witnessed firsthand what must have been a very rude shock to his system … to pass from the warmth and security of his mother’s womb to the bright lights and controlled climate of the operatory. He was fortunate in many ways. A platoon of expert medical technicians was on hand to receive him and he was expeditiously cleaned, swathed in blankets and placed next to an exhausted but loving mother. He was safe from immediate physical harm and, unlike Sagan’s progeny, certainly has no memory of what must have been a less than pleasant accession to life on planet earth.

A newborn animal in the wild must surely be similarly bewildered and overwhelmed in the first few minutes of life. Spilling from complete maternal darkness to the powerful sunshine and pungent African earth must be a harrowing experience indeed. I suspect that the newborn initially sees nothing but blinding white light and hears a wild cacophony of strange and incomprehensible sounds. Within seconds, however, it would feel its mother’s presence and the quest for survival would begin in earnest.

An impala mother welcomes her daughter, just minutes old, to South Luangwa, Zambia and the world.

An impala mother welcomes her daughter, just minutes old, to South Luangwa, Zambia and the world.

Just beginning to try the new legs ... hope they work.

Just beginning to try the new legs ... hope they work. Notice the colors in the area mother selected for delivery ... a near perfect match to camouflage the newborn.

So far so good ... looking for Mom's teat.  This series of photos was taken by my son Joe.  One of the most special of many precious moments I've witnessed in the wild.

So far so good ... looking for Mom's teat. This series of photos was taken by my son Joe. One of the most special of many precious moments I've witnessed in the wild.

Unlike human offspring, animals born on the savanna are at risk for their very lives from the instant of their arrival. In addition to the inherent difficulties of adjusting to a new and hostile environment, a newborn’s challenges are compounded by the existence of other species that would view it as a quick and easy meal. Consequently, each animal has evolved protective mechanisms for the very young, but the effectiveness of these strategies varies widely from one species to the next.

The baby elephant is certainly vulnerable to lion attack, but the strength and size of its family are formidable obstacles against any and all potential predators. An elephant mother, aggressively supported by sisters and matriarch, is a determined and fearless protectress. This unique combination of family, size, strength and maternal love is usually sufficient to convince a hungry lioness to search for easier prey. For these reasons, elephant youngsters have a much higher survival rate than most species.

Elephant family steadying a new arrival.  The little guy was having difficulty navigating the uneven ground, but he had much love and help from a supportive family.

Elephant family steadying a new arrival. The little guy was having difficulty navigating the uneven ground, but he had much love and help from a supportive family.

More Amboseli elephants ... notice who's tucked away under the legs of the larger animals.

More Amboseli elephants ... notice who's tucked away under the legs of the larger animals.

The offspring of the great cats are in no way exempt from Africa’s trials. Mother cheetahs produce the cutest (and most photogenic) young of any African animal in my opinion, but those little ones are fragile, and susceptible to destruction by any number of natural enemies. Young leopards are subject to the predations of hyenas, pythons and even baboons. Lion cubs are also threatened by hyenas … and they are actively pursued by Cape Buffalo, who bear a hatred for lions that’s very nearly unprecedented in the animal world. And invading male lions always kill the young cubs when they assume control of an existing pride. This brings the females into estrus and enables the new leadership to mate almost immediately.

A lioness with her very young daughter at Amboseli.

A lioness with her very young daughter at Amboseli.

Tiny cubs in the Maasai Mara ... giving the nipple one hell of a workout.

Tiny cubs in the Maasai Mara ... giving the nipple one hell of a workout.

Survival is even more problematic for an ungulate offspring. A wildebeest calf must stand within minutes of birth and be able to maintain pace with the greater herd within three or four days. Baby gazelles have evolved an innovative survival strategy. They are virtually scentless at birth and instinctively become motionless when in the vicinity of a threat. Because their colors so closely match the savanna grass they are all but invisible and just barely detectable.

Another impala mom with little one in the central Serengeti.

Another impala mom with little one in the central Serengeti.

But none of these protective measures is perfect. Every birthing season is witness to the destruction of innumerable new arrivals. Nowhere on earth are the dual miracles of life and survival more visible than on the plains of the Mara and Serengeti. The birth, predator and prey cycle is one of East Africa’s most fundamental realities … and one of its most enduring fascinations.

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