Friday, August 30, 2013

The Elephant Grandmother - A Story of Aging in the Animal Kingdom

At the conclusion of our "Bush on Foot" tour, we arrived back at the lodge to an older female elephant at the edge of our campsite eating on leaves and drinking from our pond that doubles as a watering hole. I took several pictures of her then, but I was not close enough yesterday to see the signs of her age. She too has a story. She was our elephant prelude this morning and we became more formally introduced. She walked very slowly and we were able to get unusually close to her. Without knowing anything about her, I commented that she looked "boney", but not thin. Her spine protruded with a pronounced "hump" and her head had several indentations that appeared to reveal the contour of her skull. She did not look sickly or thin, however. Just "boney" on a structure that still looked round and reasonably healthy. Foremen commented, "Yes, she is very old." "How old is 'old'?" I asked. "About 50 to 60," he responded. "Wow."  He added that she was too old and slow to keep up with the herd, so they had just moved on without her.  I thought this seemed odd given what little I thought I knew about the role of the matriarchs in elephant society.  While I understand the cycle of life, how "the strongest survive" in the wild and all of the balance that is and needs to be part of that kingdom, it still seems sad to me for these animals to be abandoned by their families as meals for the predators or to just find a pasture and lie down forever.

We found her family shortly thereafter -- my desired elephant herd sighting. 

As we were searching for our next great photographic moment, we passed the old matriarch elephant's recent droppings. Yesterday on our walking safari, while showing us the difference in animal droppings, Formen had explained that elephants do not digest very much of their food (about 40%), so their dung is largely undigested, and therefore quite recognizable with grass, berries, and even thorns. He had illustrated this by picking through a pile of elephant dung (with his hands - ick), and picked out a still nearly perfectly formed, long, white thorn eaten from one of the bushes. As we passed by the matriarch's recent droppings, he pointed out how little she is digesting - even lower than the 40% commonly associated with any elephant. Her droppings looked like a pile of leaves. Is she digesting anything? Formen verbalized what we were all thinking - she is not gaining much nutrition from her food. He further pointed out the difference in what she was eating vs. what we'd seen in other elephant piles - she is eating only the softest of foods. No bark, no thorns, no sticks; only soft leaves.

It is only a matter of time for her....will it be weeks, months or a couple of years left?  No one can tell. What is clear is that she has lived a long life and now is relegated to a life of solitude for her remaining time, just continuing an existence until her strength gives out and she can walk no further. When I think of her, I think of my grandmother....and how glad I am that she is not in a "survival of the fittest" family.

For more information on my safari lodge, see here: Tanda Tula
To see more of my pictures while on safari, see here: My African Safari Best Shots-1
and here: My African Safari Best Shots-2

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