A Good News Story from Kenya

Elephant Friends, Amboseli National Park

I remember a day back around March, when we knew not much more about the virus than fright. On a walk in the park, I heard the return of birdsong and saw the first signs of coming spring. It made me realize that this may be a bad year for humans, but other life goes on without skipping a beat. It made me jealous of the squirrels.

Now today come holiday wishes via newsletter from the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, at the foot on Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s a reminder that life, indeed, does go on, and it’s uplifting enough to share:

In Amboseli the elephants have been doing exceptionally well. High rainfall in the first part of the year provided a rich habitat for them. The Kenya Wildlife Service, Big Life Foundation and the Olgulului game scouts have secured the ecosystem and as a result there has been no poaching of elephants this year. Life has been good for Amboseli’s elephants and for that reason we are thankful and happy.  Just to make 2020 even better for the elephants, there has been the most amazing baby boom. The last baby boom was in 2012 when 201 calves were born. A more typical year we might see 50-100 births. The unusual number of births in 2012 was the result of a terrible drought in 2009. Many calves died and the females stopped breeding. When good rains came again, many of the females were available to become pregnant. We thought we would never see anything quite like it again, but this year proved us wrong. There was a drought in 2017 and once again many of the adult females became available the following year. Twenty-two months later in 2020 there has been a record-breaking baby boom. So far this year 226 calves have been born, and we are expecting at least a few more this month. We celebrate all these new little elephants in our Christmas issue with a portfolio of photos. Enjoy!

Cynthia Moss, Director, Amboseli Trust for Elephants

You can subscribe to the Amboseli Trust for Elephants newsletter by filling out this form.

Elephants, and Our Place in the World

A few weeks back I wrote an article about giraffes that was informed in part by the early work of Dr. Cynthia Moss from her 1982 book Portraits in the Wild: Animal Behavior in East Africa. Dr. Moss is the director and founder of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants.

I got their latest newsletter yesterday. It makes me want to urge you to read into issues facing elephant populations for yourself. African wildlife has never been under more strain and it is just heartwarming that there are people like Dr. Moss and her team who have made a life of thinking globally and acting locally (and in Dr. Moss’s case, having a global impact).

My wife and I had the pleasure of visiting Dr. Moss in Amboseli a couple of years back, and if you’re looking for a cause, we can’t think of any more worthwhile than hers. We can’t wait to get back under the shadow of Kilimanjaro, to Amboseli.

Consider signing up for the ATE newsletter (from the newsletter link above), and if you do Facebook, like ATE there. For that matter, why not consider a trip to see elephants yourself? Promise, it’ll change your life.

This photo from the EarthPhotos.com Kenya Gallery comes from Amboseli (Click it to enlarge it). Get yourself to Nairobi and there are straightforward connections out to Amboseli, and affordable lodging at the perfectly lovely Ol Tukai Lodge, as well as several other, higher-end options.

We all get caught up in our daily lives, but for those who give at least the occasional thought to our place on the planet, and how we fit in with the larger world of wildlife, a trip into the bush will be way more rewarding than a shiny new big screen TV for Christmas. Promise.

Piano for Elephant

Esmond Bradley Martin

Elephant Rescue

They say it’s not that unusual but I’d say this is remarkable:

Swimming trunk: elephant rescued from ocean 10 miles off Sri Lanka coast

For the Benefit of Elephants

It was an honor and a privilege to meet Cynthia Moss, Director of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants and author of Portraits in the Wild: Animal Behavior in East Africa and Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family, among others, at her research facility in Amboseli last week. She does fine work.
cynthiabill

Unexpected Elephants

Got a little side-tracked. In the process of loading new Greenland and Finland photos from our recent trip onto the big computer, and I came across a photo from this time last year that caught my eye. These elephants live in Amboseli park near our base that trip, the very nice Tortilis Camp. Click the photo to view these guys larger on EarthPhotos.com.

AmboseliElephantsSmall

Do Animals Think?

My last African visit set me thinking about humans’ and animals’ place in the world. This is an early bit from my upcoming book on travel in Africa, due in early 2017.

gorilla

During Europeans’ first blunderbuss intrusions onto the African continent they denigrated the natives and abused wildlife. With the human superiority we’ve all been taught most of us still fail to consider the astonishing abilities other living things have.

Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, gives some examples:

  • Bacteria compare sugars, a food source, and move toward higher concentrations using a flagellum, a microscopic tentacle, to propel themselves.
  • The cataglyphis ant uses an internal odometer to keep track of outbound steps to then find its way home.
  • Honeybees, on finding a food source, perform a “waggle dance” to give directions to other bees.
  • Rats seem capable of creating maps, triangulating through their environment. Certain cells fire corresponding to points on a grid, others fire according to the direction the rat is facing and then a third neuron fires as a rat moves through an area it recognizes.
  • Albatrosses, petrels and other seabirds seem to sniff their way across oceans to  return to the obscure rock they call home.
  • Some migratory birds seem to navigate by the pole point, the due north spot in the sky around which the sky rotates.
  • And most remarkably to me, green turtles seem to use their own internal maps of the Atlantic Ocean. We will talk about a magical night we spent with egg-laying turtles on Ascension Island later in the book.

•••••

“Cogito ergo sum,” declared Rene Descartes, and that was that. “I think, therefore I am.”

Those three Latin words made the French philosopher sound so smart that the term Cartesian Logic has survived him by 400 years. But Descartes also thought language was a requirement for thought.

He wrote, “There has never been an animal so perfect as to use a sign to make other animals understand something which bore no relation to its passions; and there is no human being so imperfect as not to do so. . . . The reason animals do not speak as we do is not that they lack the organs but that they have no thoughts. It cannot be said that they speak to each other but we cannot understand them; for since dogs and some other animals express their passions to us, they would express their thoughts also if they had them. (CSMK 575)”

Cogito ergo sum for humans but not for animals.

That is not so smart.

•••••

vervet

In 1967 Thomas Struhsaker, then of the University of California, Berkeley, discovered that vervet monkeys have different calls with different meanings for different situations. In Stanford University professor of biology and neurology Robert Sapolsky’s example, they use different sounds to mean “Aiiiiii!, predator on the ground, run up the tree,” and “Aiiiiii!, predator in the air, run down the tree.”

Carl Safina has written a beautiful book called Beyond Words, exploring what animals think and feel. In it he writes that the vervets of Amboseli park have words for leopard, eagle, snake, baboon, other predatory mammal and unfamiliar human, among others.

Safina wonders why “… we maintain a certain insecure insistence that ‘animals’ are not like us – though we are animals.” When researchers played a recording of a family or bond group member,” Safina says, “elephants would return the call and move to the sound, but when they heard the recorded sound of strangers they “bunched defensively, raising their trunks to smell.” He thinks “Each elephant in Amboseli probably knows every other adult in the population.”

•••••

To biologist and author E. O. Wilson, “The human mind did not evolve as an externally guided progression toward either pure reason or emotional fulfillment. It remains as it has always been, an instrument of survival that employs both reason and emotion.”

If the mind evolved as an instrument of survival for humans why would evolution be different for animals? Why are chattering baboons not expressing fear of the lion down below as a way to further their survival?  Why is not the entwining of elephant trunks expressive of the emotions involved in friendship?

•••••

elephant

We say that humans have the capability for “complex symbolic thought … because showing … concern for the dead reveals the value placed on social-group members, as well as the cognitive ability to represent group members even after they have died.”

Elephants, too, have been seen to bury their dead. There are stories of elephants standing vigil over their dead mates, kicking and prodding them as if trying to bring them back to life, as if they wish their mates to hold on to life no less than humans.

To Safina beliefs like heaven, hell and reincarnation are “devices for keeping the deceased undead. The main thing humans seem to believe about death is: you never really die.”

Safina intuits some things backed up by research.

Natalie Emmons, a researcher at Boston University, writes that it appears people everywhere view death as a transition:

“belief in eternal life goes back tens of thousands of years. Some of the oldest documented evidence shows that modern humans were intentionally burying their dead with animal bones and shell beads in the caves of ancient Israel 100,000 years ago.

To which physicist Alan Lightman says,

“We humans living on our one planet wring our hands about the brevity of our lives and our mortal restraints, but we do not often think about how improbable it is to be alive at all. Of all the zillions of atoms and molecules in the universe, we have the privilege of being composed of those very, very few atoms that have joined together in the special arrangement to make living matter. We exist in that one-billionth of one-billionth. We are that one grain of sand on the desert.”

•••••

warrior

In The Old Way, A Story of the First People, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas considers where humans rank in the elemental hierarchy of protecting oneself in the animal world. “Our fists and feet are too soft to deliver meaningful blows, we have no claws, and over time our teeth have become too small to act as a deterrent.”

Safina seconds the notion. “Human senses have evidently dulled during civilization.” Meanwhile, “Many animals are superhumanly alert.”

The poet Amit Majmudar writes that “Animals are routinely superhuman in one way or another. They outstrip us in this or that perceptual or physical ability, and we think nothing of it.”

He hopes the time comes when we no longer regard animals as “inferior, preliminary iterations of the human—with the human thought of as the pinnacle of evolution so far—and instead regard all forms of life as fugue-like elaborations of a single musical theme.”

•••••

Photos from EarthPhotos.com.

My two previous books are:

Common Sense and Whiskey: Modest Adventures Far from Home and Visiting Chernobyl

Friday Photo #44 – Pachyderm Pals

ElephantFriends

Science asserts that humans have the capability for complex symbolic thought because showing concern for the dead reveals the cognitive ability to represent group members after they have died. Elephants are also known to bury their dead. They have this same cognitive ability.

The Maasai believe that only elephants and humans have souls. And souls or no souls, just look at these two. Smiling, caressing, these two are clearly pals.

See more in the Kenya Gallery at EarthPhotos.com, and see all the Friday Photos.

Elephants Display Emotion Just Like You Do

This photo was taken  last month in the Amboseli National Park, Kenya, and finished in Photoshop to resemble an oil painting.

These two elephants, one caressing the other’s head with its trunk, seem to be expressing clear camaraderie if not outright affection. Which has prompted me to track down two books, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, and the newly published Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina.  Reading for a very wet weekend here on the farm.

Click this to make it bigger.

ElephantPainting