Saturday, October 10, 2009

High-Style Picnic in Botswana

DSC08195 Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas)

After spending the morning with Douglas Groves and his elephants, we arrived at our lunch spot  to find this elegantly set picnic table with a crisp white tablecloth and napkins. If you look closely, or click on the photo, you can see the elephants in the background.

DSC08189 Picnic table in the bush

While we waited for the elephants to catch up with us, I used the opportunity to photograph the birds that shared their space with us. I think they tolerated us knowing that crumbs were on their way.

Even though Zazu of "The Lion King" is a red-billed hornbill and the one we saw was yellow-billed (opening photo), the similarity was so striking that I couldn't help but expect a Morning Report à la Zazu:

I think this Red-billed Francolin is a prime candidate to become a Disney character because the yellow ring around the eye makes this bird look like he has a perpetually perplexed look on his face.

DSC08217 redbilled francolin (francolinus adspersus)
Red-billed Francolin (Francolinus adspersus)

I heard the rapid "rat-tat-tat" long before I located this Cardinal Woodpecker at the top of a very tall tree stump.

DSC08200 Cardinal Woodpecker
Cardinal Woodpecker (Dendropicos fuscescens)

When Douglas Groves arrived, he placed some exotic African fruits on the table:

DSC08202 Picnic with the elephants

and he even showed us some elephant teeth:

DSC08204 elephant teeth

We enjoyed a delicious lunch while the elephants enjoyed more special treats of fruits and vegetables, their reward for patiently posing for photographs with every party at the picnic table.

DSC08206 Picnic with elephants

After lunch, the elephants continued their ambassadorship by giving each and every one of us a great big elephant trunk kiss on our cheeks. It was impossible not to flinch. The trunk was wetter, slimier, and hairier than I imagined.

DSC08233 elephant smooch cropped

Slimy or not, it was one of the most memorable send-offs I have ever received.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Living with Elephants

DSC08097 Elephant posing
African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana

Ta da!  I now reveal the identity of the textured photo from last week. Those of you who guessed elephant, go to the head of the class.

Our elephant adventure began when we stepped into the dining tent at Stanley’s Camp in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. My fifteen-year-old son immediately exclaimed “Wow! This is the best lunch ever!” I looked around to see what earned this declaration. The food was not in sight yet, so that wasn’t it. He wasn’t even looking at the cool way the tent gave the right of way to the sausage trees:

DSC07792 Stanley's Camp dining tent

When he saw my puzzled face, he exasperatedly gestured past the flap and said: “No there!”

DSC07789 Elephant at Stanley's

Our very first elephant sighting was of this exceptionally large bull, affectionately named Stanley by the camp staff. It seemed fitting that the camp would be named after this elephant rather than
the famous explorer. After all, the camp encroached upon Stanley the Elephant’s territory when it was built. On the other hand, the camp’s wildlife program helps protect Stanley and other animals in the region. Our guide Poniso was thrilled to see our son’s glee because he was certain that he would experience the “best vacation ever” with what was coming ahead.

On our last day at Stanley’s we spent an extraordinary morning with a trio of special elephants. Oregon native Douglas Groves, founder of Living with Elephants Foundation, and his two capable elephant handlers introduced us to Jabu, Thembi and Morula. Groves and his zoologist wife Sandi adopted them after they were orphaned by culling programs in South Africa and Zimbabwe. The controversial culling practice is used to reduce the burgeoning elephant population.

As soon as we met Groves he began sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of all things elephant. He rattled off facts about the elephant’s habitat, behavior, diet, anatomy, and morphology in rapid-fire succession. In the mean time, the threesome stayed within our sight eating everything in their path. Here Jabu gave  the Real Fan Palm several vigorous shakes with his trunk. It looks like the tree on the right got shaken a bit too vigorously in the past:

DSC08117 Elephant shaking real fan palm tree

His goal was to free these prized nuts, known colloquially known as vegetable ivory:

DSC08116 Real Fan Palm nuts

Once released, all three hoovered up this elephant delicacy:

DSC08120 Three elephants

The leaves of this palm appeared to be tasty too:

DSC08017 African Elephant eating palm

A branch of this juvenile raintree was within easy reach and with a snap and a “crunch crunch” the branch vanished within a minute, leaving only a stump behind.

DSC08146 Elephant grabbing a branch

DSC08032 elephant

Elephants spend sixteen hours a day foraging and need to eat an average of 300 pounds (140 kilograms) of vegetation per day to survive. It didn’t take long for us to learn how to recognize where elephants have trod:

DSC08152 Elephant with felled raintree

giving us a glimpse into the complex debate about the practice of elephant culling in many parts of Africa. I promise to do a separate post on this very complex issue.

Groves put his elephant training background to use when he taught the trio multiple maneuvers to teach us about their anatomy and behaviors:

My creation

Elephants rarely lie down, but when they do, they favor lying on the slope of a termite hill so they don’t get crushed by their own weight and to make it easier to rise again.

DSC08162 Elephant lying down on termite hill

Groves taught Jabu to trumpet on command and even how to make very funny kissy noises:

DSC08051 Elephant trunk

Groves understood how the livelihood of his beloved elephants depended on creating photo opportunities for his audience. Here he produced fruit and vegetable tidbits from his pouch to persuade Marula to flex her ears:

DSC08096 Douglas Groves directing elephant pose

I believe it was Thembi who liked to borrow hats:

DSC08148 Elephant stealing hat

DSC08149 Elephant returning hat

DSC08150 Elephant returned hat

She was also very talented at swinging her trunk in circles on command:

DSC08143 Elephant swinging trunk

As I observed these elephants in their natural environment, I had to keep reminding myself that we were not in a zoo or looking through the window of a diorama in a natural history museum. When I was reviewing my photos, this shot looked to me like it might have been taken on a set in Hollywood:

DSC08156 Elephant

After the entertaining and informative demonstration, Groves and his handlers mounted the elephants and rode to the luncheon waiting for us in a shade of a lovely grove of trees.

DSC08184 Elephant walk

It was difficult to take in the marvel of the morning we spent with these magnificent elephants. I'm sure you understand how I turned black and blue from pinching myself throughout this trip.
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