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.


beth said...

wordless....totally wordless....

okay, maybe...


PixieDust said...

I have to second Beth - WOW! Elephants are my favorite... :-)


Sherri said...

WoW! Very Cool! On my list of things to do.

Jeannette StG said...

Oh, totally cool- and you have so many good pics of the elephants!!
Thanks for visiting my blog:)

Ruth said...

What a thorough lesson with gorgeous illustrations! The first image of the tent just makes my heart beat faster.

The kiss, wow, I love how you described it.

You are just sooo in the minority with this phenomenal experience. Thank you for sharing it.

Vagabonde said...

What a total feast for the eye – your post is one of the best I have seen. Elephants are favorites of mine. I rode on an elephant in northern Thailand a few years back but did not have a digital camera then just plain film. Your pictures are exceptional.

totalwatsansrilanka said...

Hi! Nice post..
Follow my blog also to see the beauty of the
ELEPHANT in SRI LANKA…videos…. Videos… videos… videos.. videos.. videos….. videos… videos… videos… videos.. videos…..!!!!!!!!!!

paris parfait said...

Such a treat to see these great images of elephants in their natural habitat (rather than a zoo or circus)!

Relyn Lawson said...

Oh, what incredible images. Oh my! (I can feel more Moo cards coming on.) Oh, I don't even know what to say. sniffle, sniffle. Happy for you. Sad it had to end. Gleeful for you. Awed by those eyelashes. Just sniffle, sniffle.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear beth,
It was truly a WOW experience! I hope some day you will have a chance to experience a morning like this.

Dear PixieDust,
Elephants are remarkable animals. I felt honored to be in their presence.

Dear Postcards and Coasters,
I'm glad it's on your list. You and your family will adore this!

Dear jeannette stgermain,
Thanks! These elephants were quite photogenic!

Dear Ruth,
I was bowled over when Marula showed us her ear tricks!

The kiss was a thrill and gross all at once. If only it didn't leave slobber all over my sweatshirt...

Dear Vagabonde,
I am so honored with your compliment. Thank you! I'm sure you treasure your photos from Thailand. Taking photos of tamed animals is far easier than taking them in the wild.

Dear totalsatsansrilanka,
Thanks for the link. You do have many videos!

Dear paris parfait,
I agree. Elephants are meant to roam a large area.

Dear Relyn,
Thank you. Maybe some day soon you will have a similar experience ;-)

Margaret said...

My 3 year old son has loved elephants for a long time. I have got to show him this post. You outdid yourself!

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Margaret,
Thank you for dipping into the archives. I love how you foster your children's passions! I hope your little guy enjoys this post. It was a magical morning that will forever be seared in my memory.

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