Adult Augur Buzzard ... not the one described in the vignette below.

Adult Augur Buzzard ... not the one described in the vignette below.

A facebook friend recently posted a short video clip of an adopted porcupine. The prickly quadruped was in an Alaskan home, had just been fed an apple and was turning wild circles on the floor very much as an excited puppy might after receiving a treat.

This precious clip reminded me that Mother Nature is consistent in one very prominent and singular way. That is … she never ceases to astonish. I’ve seen countless examples in the wildlife programs that I religiously record, but I’ve also been witness to a few in person as well.

The most recent instance was in February of this year. I’d just met my friend David Muteti at the Kenya/Tanzania border and we’d stopped for a tea break at a roadside shop en route to Amboseli. My table was set under a lovely arbor, heavily shaded by a thick weave of vines and leaves. Almost directly above me a large but apparently clueless bird sat wailing on one of the heavier sections of vegetation … and every few minutes, smaller birds would sidle up to it and place food into its wide open mouth. After studying all the participants for several minutes I finally realized what I was seeing. A very young and apparently orphaned augur buzzard was crying out for food, and smaller birds of different species were delivering the groceries. For those who may not be familiar with African birds, the augur buzzard is a predator, designed much more like an American hawk than a vulture. So … the buzzard’s plaintive cries had triggered some parental synapse in the brains of the songbirds and they were taking turns feeding a young (but much larger) bird that might some day prey on them.

Another example … this from a recent Wild Kingdom special titled “The Last Lioness.”

The Liuwa Plain is a large game reserve in western Zambia that has suffered mightily from illegal trophy hunting and incursions from warring parties in neighboring Angola. Many of Liuwa’s wildlife species have been decimated, but the lion population has certainly been the hardest hit. A South African wildlife videographer (Herbert Brauer) crossed paths with Lady Liuwa, the last survivor of the last lion pride in the reserve, and followed her over the course of several months.

 

Lady Liuwa ... taken from the UK Metro.

Lady Liuwa ... taken from the UK Metro.

Anyone who has seen lions in the wild knows they are by far the most social of the great cats. The lionesses greet their sisters with a loving touch of the head, and their communal care of the young ones is so indiscriminate and generous that it’s often difficult to tell which cubs belong to which mother. But Lady Liuwa has learned to thrive without the help of a family … and it was heartrending to see such an innately social animal eke out an existence in an absolutely solitary environment. After being followed by Brauer for four years, Lady L began to make unmistakable gestures of friendship toward him. She’d ease to the side of his vehicle and roll on her back with movements that bordered on the flirtatious. Eventually she began to loiter around his camp and follow him at a respectful distance, always in a non-threatening way. This very social animal was so starved for companionship that she attempted to adopt, or form a family with, a human being. Mr. Brauer was a professional throughout, allowing her a certain closeness but never offering any real encouragement. The balance of the episode describes the measures taken by Brauer and the Zambian wildlife authorities to alleviate Lady L’s unfortunate situation.

Several other examples come to mind. Saba Douglas-Hamilton did a special on a Samburu lioness with a penchant for adopting oryx babies. Joyce Poole provides a couple of wonderful illustrations of eccentric behavior in her book “Coming of Age With Elephants.” I’ll write about those another time, but would encourage anyone with similar animal anecdotes  to share a line or two in the “trackback” associated with this blog entry.

Animals are indeed amazin’, aren’t they?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,



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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,