Bull elephant surviving without the business end of his trunk

Bull elephant surviving without the business end of his trunk

My favorite character in the 1997 movie Jurassic Park is the quirky Dr. Ian Malcolm, ably played by the talented Jeff Goldblum.  Dr. Malcolm is a bit of an eccentric, a devoted proponent of some mystical concept he refers to as “chaos theory.”  The good Dr. Malcolm also has the annoying habit of being right just about all the time.  In one of the movie’s most pivotal scenes he is egregiously and presciently accurate.  He rejects Jurassic Park management’s insistent assertion that the dinosaurs they’ve generated are incapable of reproduction.  After a rousing debate on the issue, he solemnly and thoughtfully declares … “life finds a way.”  Discussion ended.

The eminent Dr. Malcolm was referring to life writ large, of course.  But life on the grandest scale cannot “find a way” without isolated incidents of improbable survival.  Life persists and, in fact, thrives in some of the earth’s most inhospitable regions.  In the seething, sulfurous thermals along the ocean floor faults, 700 degree Fahrenheit gas vents into sea water with temperatures barely above freezing.  In that boiling, methane-laced cauldron that never sees even a trace of sunlight, a variety of microbes have adapted and found a way to subsist.  In the most implausible of spots, life has found a way.  Our own remarkable species, much more physiologically complex, has existed for centuries in the icy world of the arctic and in the arid deserts on four separate continents.  We too, have “found a way” in some unlikely places.

From time to time I’m reminded of life’s resilience when I’m in the field taking photographs.  In 2010 I’d just finished a long and productive day in Ngorongoro Crater and was en route back to my lodge when I drove past a bull elephant on a steep hillside on the south rim.    This big guy caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  For starters, elephants don’t much like slopes.  Their great bulk and flat-bottomed feet cause almost insurmountable balance issues on precipitous terrain.  But the young bull seemed very much at his ease on the incline.  The second anomaly was the animal’s trunk, which was visibly and curiously abbreviated.  We stopped the vehicle near him to watch and learn for a bit.   After just a few minutes in the elephant’s presence his predicament became clear. He’d lost the end of his trunk at some point in the distant past.  He was most likely the victim of hyenas at a young age, maybe lions, or perhaps even an unfortunately placed snare.  Regardless, the primary vehicle for delivering food to his mouth was completely inoperable. But the elephant had “found a way.”  By braving the steep slopes he was able to use the elevation differential to his advantage.  With the grass on the hillside at mouth level he could access the bushes and tall grass that would keep him alive.  He was nearly full grown, and judging by his body mass, he was completely healthy.  I think the photo above offers compelling testimony to his will to live.

There was another time.  A couple of years earlier I’d been riding with my friend Chris McBride on the Kafue River in Zambia.  On three successive mornings we’d seen a young male lion stretched out on the riverbank about a mile above Chris’ camp.  He related the story of the animal as we cruised past on the third morning.  The lion was apparently a creature of habit, a daily fixture on that stretch of the Kafue.  Some time ago, – certainly not recently, he’d lost the better part of a back leg to a poacher’s snare.  As the lion hobbled into the forest, Chris’ wife Charlotte told us how she’d come to admire and respect this disadvantaged animal.  She’d reverently named him Triton after the trident wielding messenger of the sea.  Triton’s case was particularly sad.  His maiming was the direct result of human malice.  By some miracle, he was physically healthy, probably having adapted to a life as a scavenger.  On three legs he would never be a hunter.  And although he was magnificent by most any standard, he would never become the patriarch of a pride and live the social existence that seems to be so central to the lives of lions.  But he was alive… and that in and of itself was impressive.

Wildlife photography is, in many ways, the study of life.  Above and beyond the desire to capture images, it is this disproportionate fascination with the creatures of the earth that keeps people like yours truly in a perpetual state of planning and preparation for the next trip.  So I’ll end this with a note of respect for the bizarre character of Dr. Ian Malcolm.   Life does indeed find a way, and the struggles of our fellow creatures must be acknowledged, understood and appreciated.  And yes …. photographed as well.

Male lion on the Kafue

Male lion on the Kafue

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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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Mating lion pair in the central Maasai Mara.  This shot captures the PCS.

Mating lion pair in the central Maasai Mara. This shot captures the PCS.

We depart from the Sarova Lodge (the glories of which are discussed in an earlier post) at 0830 on September 10th. It’s about 40 miles to the Mara River and the Serena Lodge, and the transit is fascinating, as always. Just a few kilometers from our destination we stop to observe another mating lion pair sprawled in the grass by the roadside. Photographing lions in this mode is not difficult, but some patience is required. They average 2 to 3 “events” per hour (24/7) for an extended period … sometimes 5 or 6 days. The “events” are brief … 10 seconds or so, and generally only minimally interesting. The key to a good photo is capturing what I refer to as the Post-Coital Snarl, or PCS. Unfortunately for the female, the male appendage is actually barbed and its withdrawal is always painful for her. At the conclusion of each “event” she predictably turns on the male and growls her displeasure via the PCS. The male, not to be intimidated, usually responds with a much deeper and more frightening PCS.

The migration in the late afternoon ... Maasai Mara September 2009.

The migration in the late afternoon ... Maasai Mara September 2009.

The guides are correct about the location of the wildebeest … the migration is here in astronomical numbers. On our first afternoon in the central part of the reserve we visit the banks of the Mara River and observe a column of wildebeest queuing to cross. They carefully survey the river, the rocks and the crocodiles and then very prudently change their minds. As the day winds to a close, a gorgeous sunset illuminates the hills, accentuating the beauty of the migration in the red glow of late afternoon. I tell Kevin that there’s no place on earth I’d rather be at this moment. The beauty of the Maasai Mara at this time of year, and in this light, completely defies all descriptive powers.

Part of a 2 male coalition ... just finished feeding on a wildebeest.

Part of a 2 male coalition ... just finished feeding on a wildebeest.

Early the following morning we find two lions ripping up a wildebeest carcass. This is a coalition of older males … apparently well past their prime. Their manes are dark and the coloration of their noses indicates that they are in their later years. They were probably pride males at one time, but were supplanted by an even more powerful coalition. Long gone are the days when these lions sprawled in the grass while their lionesses worked to kill. But they are physically imposing nonetheless, and based on their round stomachs and the size of the wildebeest carcass, it’s fair to say that they are still very effective hunters.

Wildebeest running the crocodile gauntlet in the Mara River.

Wildebeest running the crocodile gauntlet in the Mara River.

At about 10 a.m. on a bright morning David places us high on the banks of the Mara River. Sure enough, a dark line of wildebeest forms on the horizon and works its way to the water’s edge. As always, the animals take the time to assess the danger and make a few false starts, but eventually they take the plunge (see my blog post dated 29 July 2009 for more on the crossing procedure). The river is very low this year because of the extended drought, and at no point do the animals have to swim. This actually gives them greater mobility and facilitates their ability to evade the river’s most dangerous predator. Within a few seconds, however, a large crocodile glides to within just a few feet of the splashing wildebeest, and then actually invades the column. It makes repeated lunges at the wildebeest, but never manages to take one. Finally, a yearling attempts to leap over the croc and is captured in mid-air. The croc turns downstream, the prey clamped firmly in its jaws … the confused wildebeest struggling to keep its head above water. It bawls pitifully until more crocodiles converge and end its torment. About twenty minutes after the last animal struggles up the bank on our side of the river, a single female wildebeest re-appears at the river’s edge, looking back at the opposite bank. She stares upriver, then down … and then safely re-crosses back to the open plain where she stood with her lost calf about half an hour ago.

Wildebeest in motion.

Wildebeest in motion.

Wildebeest graze and loiter without form or design. But when they move from point A to point B, it’s always done in a column … and at times that column can extend for many miles. Their instincts are admirable if not incredible. As they coalesce into a long line it’s difficult not to wonder what’s happening behind those flat faces and dull eyes. One of the tens of thousands must assume a leadership role, the others must unspeakingly acknowledge the leader and fall in behind, and then the whole column must magically move in the direction of more nutritious grasses. And season after season, year after year, decade after decade, millennium upon millenium … it all seems to miraculously work according to plan.

David Muteti and me at the Mara Serena Lodge.  Photo courtesy of Kevin Woisard.

David Muteti and me at the Mara Serena Lodge. Photo courtesy of Kevin Woisard.

A friend of mine – a photographer — recently told me that the Maasai Mara is his favorite place on earth. I think I agree with him … and I will be a repeat visitor for as long as I have the time, resources and health to do so.

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