BIGFOOT: The terrestrial whale

Through the thin gauze window of the tent we watched the stars that were like pin-pricks in the black belly of the night.
Issue date : 12 September 2008

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Through the thin gauze window of the tent we watched the stars that were like pin-pricks in the black belly of the night. Far out on the lake the bellowing of hippos echoed and down from the water’s edge came the piping of few water dikkops and the occasional splashing of a fish. It was the sounds of darkness that mingled with the monotonous purrp of a little scops owl in the tree above us. T hen, suddenly, we heard a branch snap and when the sound of breaking branches became louder, I knew the elephant were coming.

Earlier that day when we made camp at Charara, on the shore of Lake Kariba, told old Simon, my Tswana-bushman henchman who had accompanied me for over a decade on my wanderings through Africa, not to pitch his tent under a huge, tall star-chestnut tree Sterculia appendiculata. It was a dangerous thing to do where there are elephant, as the tree was full of fruit. But he liked the tree and so did the elephants.

The sound of breaking branches came closer and closer until it sounded all around us in the darkness. When eventually heard the rumbling of an elephant’s stomach close by, also distinctly heard the zip of a tent being pulled open. As quietly as could, sat up, took the Maglite and switched it on. To my horror saw a huge elephant bull, standing spread-eagled over Simon’s little orange one-man tent, stretching and almost squatting on his hind limbs to reach the fruit, high above.

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Between his hind limbs two wide white eyes peeped from the partly open tent, straight into the elephant’s whatsisname. “Lie still, don’t move Simon!” shouted as put on my hat, rushed outside and got onto the quadbike, which stood in front of our tent. As started the bike, the big bull moved slowly backwards, away from his feast and turned to face me. He seemed quite surprised at what he saw. As this was some 10 years ago still had some strength in my legs and managed to hoist myself up onto my feet to stand on the foot-pegs.

This made me look taller and shouted at the top of my voice, while flashing the lights and revving the engine as approached him. He had seen enough – he turned tail and ran. When turned around, my wife stood in front of our tent, holding the lantern aloft with one hand, while with the other she recorded my heroic escapade for friends and family on the video camera. must add that in such hot climates don’t sleep in pyjamas. All wore was my hat. By the light of day next morning, we witnessed something remarkable.

The huge footprints of the bull were clearly visible on both sides of Simon’s tent and only centimetres away from the pegs, but from Simon’s testimony and what saw, he neither touched nor upset either tent, ropes or pegs. Simon, however, was not convinced and henceforth whenever in elephant country, he slept under the trailer, preferring to be bitten by mosquitoes than to be trampled by an elephant. Elephant are not only the largest land animals, but possibly the most remarkable. The two species alive today are the survivors of a huge order of animals, with no fewer than 352 different branches, which during the past 60 million years spread over all continents of the earth.

Their closest living relatives, believe it or not, are dassies and two marine mammals, mistaken by sailors of yore for mermaids – the dugong and manatee. Many researchers in fact believe that elephant descended from marine mammals, whose ancestors originally were land animals. They must have made the switch twice, which is highly unusual, but could explain why they share so many anatomical characteristics with marine mammals. They have internal nostrils, emerging above the eyes, like whales, cheek teeth that move forward as they wear, found only in manatees, and a unique oblique diaphragm such as in whales and dugongs, and their unusual genitalia all support this suggestion.

The huge, fully retractable penis of the bull, the vaginal canal of the female that opens on her belly and follows a route unknown in any other terrestrial mammal, is very similar to that of a whale. The fact is that elephant are devoted water lovers and the best long distance swimmers of all land animals. Aided by their buoyant skulls, they often swim through big rivers and lakes and even to offshore islands, using their trunks as snorkels. It’s on record that a marked elephant calf on the Andaman Islands got lost and was found 12 years later 350km away on another island.

Other unique characteristics
If elephants were extinct and only fossilised bones remained of them, we would have had no idea what they looked like, because their most remarkable feature – their trunks – would be missing. The trunk of an elephant is not only unique, but perhaps the most versatile tool in existence. Consisting entirely of flesh and 60 000 muscles, it is both as strong as a vice and as delicate as a baby’s fingers. It can pick up a match stick or push down a tree.

An elephant can use it to lift things up and to push things down, to breathe, to smell, to drink, to eat, to bathe in water or in dust, to caress or crush and even when it needs to do so, to call out loud. An elephant is the only land animal that has a brain larger than that of a human and although its memory is legendary, we are only now starting to realise what it is intellectually capable of. Training of Indian working elephants revealed that they can learn the meaning of up to 60 spoken commands. Observations suggest that they even have a sense of humour, and of rhythm and music.

Experiments demonstrated other capabilities – like the ability to distinguish abstract symbols, like letters or numbers to replace spoken commands, and that these were later successfully substituted by written versions of the words. Is this not how we learn to read? How little we know about elephants is proven by the fact that we only recently discovered that they communicate over long distances with infrasound, another trait only shared by whales. Indeed an elephant is nothing else than a land-whale.

 The fact that elephants do display more emotion than most other animals and can even cry and produce tears when distressed, does not mean we should interpret it in an anthropomorphic sense, but it does not prevent one from being highly fascinated by them in a more positive way than in the past. Humans have revered and hunted elephant for millennia. First it was for food and later for tusks, of which it has the largest of all animals.

The regard for this white gold has its roots in the early Stone Age when the extermination of the mammoth was brought about by Paleolithic man. And the slaughter and the relentless quest for ivory has never ceased and has continued throughout history until now. The high esteem for ivory is both mystical and inexplicable. Gold does not tarnish nor corrode, but ivory cracks, breaks, warps, changes colour and is eaten by rats, but lifetimes have been spent to carve astonishing artworks from it, and countless were the monarchs, from King Solomon to Queen Victoria, who sat on ivory thrones.

Even more difficult to understand is the illogicality of humans. In countries where rats, cows and dragons are sacred, fortunes are paid to have elephants slaughtered to make trinkets from their teeth. Nations whose queen sat on ivory and who were on the forefront of elephant hunting, and the development of elephant rifles, now influence African leaders to burn mountainous piles of elephant tusks and scream the loudest when we need to cull elephant to protect their environment. The demand for a commodity like this will never disappear simply because we make it more scarce – on the contrary, it will grow.

As long as there are elephant, the demand for their ivory and the urge to hunt them will never disappear and the only thing we can do to prevent their ultimate extinction is to manage both the elephant and their ivory in a sustainable way. Of course it involves their protection against poachers in parks, but this protection alone will not save them if the masses around the parks derive no tangible benefit from the park’s existence. We saw this at Tembe, Ndumu, and Kruger where poachers recently destroyed 50km of fence.

The bulk of elephant habitat in Africa in any case lies outside parks. The crux of the elephant problem is not the quest for ivory, but the quest for living space. Elephants need a lot and we’ve swallowed up most of it. If we allow them to destroy the small spaces we left for them through overpopulation, we sentence them to death by starvation. If there’s one thing in which elephants most closely resemble man, it’s their destructiveness, but like whales they’re born as great wanderers, which protected the land. But mine cables and electric fences changed all that. Outside of parks they’re super crop-raiders and the local people must bear the brunt of this. If they derive no benefit from elephant that far outweighs their losses, they will kill them. The key to elephant conservation is simple.

Raise the value of an elephant way above the value of its tusks. This can only be done by ecotourism and trophy hunting in which the locals, not governments, must earn the bulk of the income. With hunting fees of R250 000 for an average big bull and almost double that for a really big tusker past his prime, no community who substantially benefits from this controlled hunting or tourism would tolerate anyone in its midst who kills an elephant merely to earn a few bob for its tusks. This is the reality of Africa. If we continue refusing to do this, our so-called love for elephants is nothing but hypocrisy, which ultimately will ensure that these marvellous animals go the way of the mammoth. – Abré J Steyn Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail [email protected] |fw