Friday, 27 April 2018

No.62 - The elephants’ women: in memoriam Daphne Sheldrick

Daphne Sheldrick, one of the African elephants’ greatest friends, has died at the age of 83. I met her once, very briefly, possibly in 1984, at her orphanage on the edge of Nairobi National Park in Kenya. I was in the company of my mother’s older sister Anne, who was then living in nearby Langata and was herself an honorary ranger on the Park, rather idiosyncratically studying bushbabies and hyenas (which she called “Poofies”). At the orphanage, we nuzzled baby rhinos and young elephants, some of the over 200 orphans Sheldrick and her team had saved from human destruction. Born near Gilgil, in western Kenya, not far from where my grandparents farmed, Sheldrick left only to study in the US. In the 1960s she worked with elephant pioneers Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, and married David Sheldrick, then Warden at Tsavo National Park. When David died in 1977, Daphne set up the David Sheldrick Elephant Trust, and the orphanage just outside the Kenyan capital, in his honour. It will continue to run under the management of her daughter Angela.

Daphne related some her experiences – importantly the terrible drought of the early 1970s in Tsavo, which killed a lot of elephants and became a benchmark for pro-culling arguments subsequently – in her book The Tsavo Story (1973). In this she became the first of a remarkable group of women to research and write about the African elephants.

To focus on these women – in their way the Jane Goddalls and Dian Fosseys of the elephant world – is in no way to diminish the achievement of the even more numerous and committed male researchers, from Ian Parker in Kenya to India’s Raman Sukumar and South Africa’s Rudi van Aarde, nor of innumerable Africans whose critical role in conservation is too easily effaced. But I do think the women writers have collectively contributed uniquely to elephant studies.

In 1975, Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton published Among the Elephants, relating their experiences and studies amongst the elephants of Manyara in northern Tanzania. The rather unconventional Iain had pursued a PhD at Oxford, supervised by the equally unconventional zoologist Nico Tinbergen (Tinbergen also supervised the distinctly odd Lyall Watson, who would write the quasi-fantasy Elephantoms about the Knysna elephants). Among the Elephants boasts a Foreword by Tinbergen, in which he highlights Oria’s unique contribution.

Oria Rocco, a French-Italian who had been farming near Naivasha, fell in love with the “rather shy” Iain as well as the Manyara elephants, and wrote a substantial part of Among the Elephants. Iain loved the elephants, had learned to walk with confidence just feet away as he observed and mapped their intricate family dynamics, and writes well – but Oria’s narrative is more personalised, lyrical at times. More than researching animals, she became animal: “Our senses became so alert that like hunters, we could smell and track elephants long before we saw or heard them. ... Living amongst animals one becomes more like them. ... Distances had no limits, time no meaning ... I knew by the colour of the trees, the bushes and the flowers, which month it was.” After she gave birth to their daughter Saba, it was the matriarchal mores of the elephants to which she turned for maternal direction, for their “old fashioned virtues: loyalty, protection and affection”; stability, loving communication, females taking on “male” roles. It was often heart-breaking, rough, dangerous, this wild life, but they often felt themselves to have entered a “continuum” of “completeness and serenity” with the elephants. This sense of communality surfaces repeatedly amongst the women researchers.

Among the Elephants mentions other researchers only in passing (indeed, they are all rather reticent about each other – professional courtesy, I suppose), but includes Daphne Sheldrick and Sylvia Sikes, who would go on to write A Natural History of the Elephant (1971).  Inspired by the Douglas-Hamiltons, with whom she worked in the late 1960s, on the almost-neighbouring park of Amboseli, Cynthia Moss had set up another elephant research centre under the auspices of the African Wildlife Trust. She set about tracking the infinitely complex and fascinating family dynamics of the Amboseli elephants, writing four books and several films, notably centred on an elephant dubbed Echo. Echo became world-famous, probably doing more for the public’s understanding of elephants than any other pachyderm personality.

Moss followed Iain’s scientific methods, and eschewed the idea of a two-way friendship with the elephants she observed; she was not a participant; though she cared profoundly about their preservation, they did not realise it. Yet, like a novelist, she opens her book Elephant Memories (1998) with an account of elephant living that, while behaviourally precise and authentic, is not what she is observing; it is ‘imagined’. And when a matriarch she has been following for a decade or more is unnecessarily shot, or culling is mooted for the Amboseli elephants she has come to know in their every gesture, you can feel the heartstrings break beneath the measured surface of the prose:

I feel sick when I think of a team of marksmen, skinners and butchers moving into Amboseli and slaughtering whole families along with all their knowledge, their traditions and their memories. ... Elephants are not so many rodents to be exterminated; they deserve something better than that and I am not afraid to say that ethics and morality should be essential considerations in our decisions for their future.

Moss’s work has continued through many trying times – opposition, drought, poaching – for forty years. Joining her from time to time was a young biology major, like Moss educated at Smith College – Joyce Poole. Contrary to expectations that women would study matriarchal structures, Moss directed Poole to study the bulls – and discovered lots of fascinating things about musth behaviour and other boytjie things. The experiences were formative for Poole, who had grown up partly in Kenya and penned a deeply personal memoir significantly titled Coming of Age with Elephants (1996).

Poole found herself taking a keen interest in the investigations of another American woman, Katy Payne. Payne, along with her then husband Roger Payne, had been working on recording infrasonic (below human hearing-range) whale song. Now Katy was adapting the technology to record similarly inaudible communications between elephants. Silent Thunder, she called it in her 1998 book of that title. This book, like most of the other women’s, is written like a novel, full of conversations with fascinating people, places, societies, as well as accessibly showing that elephants do communicate infrasonically across great distances. Still, Payne remained humbled before the deep mysteries that remained; she compares scientists to fishermen, pulling up bits almost by chance from beneath swirling and beautiful but opaque surfaces, and often strangely “driven by unconscious motivation”. And science could not entirely shield her from emotional attachments to her subjects: “The women do not show the same composure as the men ... grieving has so exhausted them.”  She had to cope with the aftermath of culling in Zimbabwe’s Sengwa reserve, where she worked with Rowan Martin. Many of the elephants she had tracked and accompanied for months had been killed. She tries to devote her science to the memory of those lives cut short, quoting the World War One poet Wilfred Owen: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?/ Only the monstrous anger of the guns.” That devotion “started as a desire for them to have passing-bells, and for myself to ring them in the face of the grand indifference.”
Does the evident complexity of elephant communication, albeit untranslatable, amount to a “culture”? Canadian novelist Barbara Gowdy thought it a distinct possibility and, drawing on Poole and Payne’s work, wrote The White Bone (1998), a scintillating story of the world from within an imagined elephant consciousness – a kind of Watership Down for pachyderms. As for Zimbabwe, another woman, Australian Sharon Pincott, has been pursuing a lonely, ultimately rather despairing crusade on behalf of the so-called Presidential Herd of elephants of Matetsi in western Zimbabwe, recounting the story in a series of books including In an Elephant's Rumble (2004) and the Elephants and I (2009).

Building on Payne’s work, yet another American scientist, Caitlin O’Connell, began discovering, through some nifty experiments with wild Namibian and some captive elephants, yet another dimension – that in addition to airborne infrasonics, elephants can communicate quite nuanced messages through ground vibrations, picked up through the soles of those great padded feet. O’Connell, like her predecessors, was publishing articles in hardcore scientific journals, but her account for the general reader, The Elephants’ Secret Sense (2007), is I think the best-written of all of these narratives. She has since followed up with Elephant Don – the ‘biography’ of a particular individual she tracked, observed, understood. Through all the behavioural studies, this shines through – that every elephant has distinct and complex personality, and belongs – where we humans have not destroyed it – to a society that shows every sign of being a full, rich culture.

It would be too easy to stereotype these and the many other women studying and loving elephants as ‘emotional’ beings, and men as objective and detached. It would also be inaccurate to call them feminist, though some have deployed elephantine matriarchal structures in support of feminist agendas. Nor is it true that they care only for the animals to the exclusion of people, especially African people: one thing that links all these accounts is the awareness that human and elephant (and all other animal) cultures have co-evolved, have been and remain intricately intertwined, and are equally vital to the ecological and psychic health of our shared planet.

This is the burden of ecologist and psychologist Gaye Bradshaw’s brilliant book, Elephants at the Edge (2009). Like many of the field researchers, Bradshaw “felt wedged between worlds and struggled to bridge the chasm between the collectivity of science and [the] personal nature of suffering – between my role as objective scientist and the subjective experience of a living, feeling, sentient member of the animal world.”  Bradshaw’s subtitle is “What animals teach us about humanity”, but she doesn’t romanticise this relationship. Like much of humanity, she writes, elephant society is

riddled with violence, has had ethnic ... strife, has lost elders and the coherence of traditions, and suffers with no hope of restitution. Elephant society is also embedded in human cultures struggling with similar challenges and histories ... They and humans are asked to re-create culture, to redefine meaning in new contexts ... We are able to harness the volumes of scientific knowledge with the wisdom of indigenes, elephants and other animals to help re-create human culture. Once the shock of trauma sinks in, the possibility for renewal begins. ... 
The elephants have called. It is time that we join them.


Dan Wylie’s Elephant is available from Reaktion Books; and his new study, Death and Compassion: The elephant in southern African literature, is due from Wits University Press in July.


Sunday, 15 April 2018

No 61 - Wonderful, many-legged life

White-barred gypsy moth - but what's with the green
bubbles around the head?
In my parents’ bookshelf, which I pored over endlessly as a child, was a book entitled The Living House. It wasn’t a gothic horror, nor did it mean “the house that one is living in”, though the pun occurred to me. It was a book about all the seen and too-small-to-be-seen creatures, mostly with six legs or more, that scurried across your ceilings and behind the skirting-boards, that lived in your carpets and inside the wood of your socks-drawers and even in the socks themselves. There were also (it still makes my nose itch to think of it) mites that lived in your left ear by day, and the right ear by night, and daily made an invisible trek across your face to get there.  So we were told anyway.

Our house, which is now close on a century old, was ideally decrepit to host innumerable such critters. So is my present abode, which may be just as old, and just as riddled with rot and hospitable cracks and crannies. Just the visible spectrum of  my diminutive housemates is endlessly fascinating. Most people, of course, regard themselves as desperately at war with the insect world – not entirely without reason. But most people fail to recognise that we could scarcely exist without insects, that the world of vegetation and oxygen and fertility on which we depend is intimately and irreplaceably serviced by them. Insects preceded us by millions of years, they outnumber us by an order of hundreds, and they will almost certainly outlive us. However our demise might transpire, it will very likely leave behind what Jonathan Schell, in his book on nuclear holocaust, The Fate of the Earth, dubbed “a republic of insects and grass”.

Who was it said caterpillars are longer-lived, more complex,
and just as beautiful as the butterflies they become?
Our war on insects has nevertheless succeeded in many places, and not only in our sterilised new urban architectures and pesticide-saturated monocultured fields. One perhaps unlikely place I experienced this was Germany’s Schwartzwald (Black Forest), within which I illicitly overnighted once. It was 1979, the days of acid rain, and forest life of all kinds had been devastated; all that night there was not a sound – not a cricket, not a bird – nothing. Brought up in a teeming African forest, I found this unnerving and lonely. Another place was a farm near San Diego, California – a farm, in summer, surrounded by orchards presumably pollinated by bees – yet their nights too were dead: not a stridulation, not a song, not a single moth fluttering to the lights. And I once saw a boy in England driven to the edge of hysteria by the presence  of a single fly in his sanitised house. All these incidents happened some time ago; now, entomologists tell us, a quarter of all flying insect species in large parts of Europe have been extinguished just in the last twenty years. A genocide of sorts.

Handsome fellow - a longhorn beetle?
I do not sentimentalise insects. Some sting, some are downright dangerous, and I’d be an idiot not to powder the fleas the cat brings into the bed, or squash the ticks that might kill her with biliary, or spray the mosquito plaguing my ear in the night – even if it’s a Bush Mosquito with its rather pretty stripy legs. But I am perfectly happy to coexist with the vast majority of them and, some minor altercations notwithstanding, valorise their short but complex, exquisitely mysterious, even miraculous lives.

This has to be the sweetest defence mechanism.
There are the many-legged ones, like the harmless nodding chongololo millipedes that apparently breed up in the ceilings, because they seem to drop out of nowhere, wander haplessly across the walls, or end up, desiccated and starved, dying behind a couch or cupboard before I can find them and put them out in the green world. And there’s the occasional centipede, swift and glossy as toughened plastic, a sting worse than a wasp’s but really just wanting to hide, with no malice aforethought.

Flattie snacking on a damselfly.
Always there are spiders, tiny ones that might bite, others like pinheads that abseil from the light fittings on filaments spun endlessly out of their own bodies. The daddy-long-legs perch on their overnight webs in the corners, shivering into paroxysms of defensive shaking, or lurch away from the duster on stilty legs as fine as horse-hairs. Always, of course, the Anyphops “flatties”, scooting behind the paintings to escape the cat. They seem panicky and vulnerable, but they too are predators, nabbing mosquitoes and moths and damsel-flies in their lunging pedipalps. Even each other. It’s an insect-eat-insect world. Now and then I find one of their nurseries – a shallow pale dome of sheerest silk stuck to a wall, which suddenly begins to appear bruised around the edges – until you look closer and the dark stain resolves into a spreading cloud of a couple of hundred of the tiniest flattejties, each one hardly a millimetre across. Just as well for us that not so many survive. The survivor grows, and periodically grows too big for its own skin, and so, niftily, just reverses right out of it, leaving it hanging in public like a golden ghost of itself, complete down to its very leg-hairs.

The six-leggers are even more numerous and varied than the eight-leggers – partly because many of them also have wings and like to gather at the windows at night, trying to get in, or inside during the day, trying to get out. Dozens of moths of unidentifiable species, even the tiniest of which are beautifully marked on close examination; and lost butterflies – Painted Ladies and Green-banded Swallowtails and, most commonly of late, Garden Inspectors. An occasional dragonfly flashes blue and frantic and metallic along the windowsills. Wasps of various kinds – the Polistes Paper wasps who build their clustered nests under my porch eaves, the Potter wasp who leaves her little amphora of mud stuck to a window pane, and the leisurely but menacing Yellowjacket, legs all a-dangle – an imported foreigner, like me. Flies, of course: big galleon-like flies off the neighbours goose-pen, down to the tiny fruit-flies hovering over that neglected banana, and the soft little triangular guys, Psychodid Moth Flies. who favour the toilet-bowl.

Philoliche aethiopica - I think.

Finally, one will never escape the ants, that most accomplished of all terrestrial societies. There is an occasional raid on my honey by a couple of glowing Spotted sugar-ants, but mostly it’s the little guys – the mop-it-ups – who find their way with uncanny speed to anything tasty or dead and swiftly devour and cart it away. On at least two corners of the house, trains of Argentine ants travel up and down, in greater numbers when it’s about to rain, servicing heaven knows what vast, diffuse cities beneath my roof and riddling my foundations. Not termites, thankfully, though every so often a suspicious drift of light brown shavings of something structural accumulates on the edge of the bath...

Chequered ladybird
So many more, from the giant red-and-black locusts to the powdery Ctenolipisma fishmoths that secretly devour the spines of my books – all feeding and breeding and building and swarming and, like the krill in the ocean, being in themselves the vital substrate of nourishment for hundreds of species above and around them. Apart from such ecological utility, though, so many of them are simply beautiful, and beautifully complex. Living with and alongside them all, keeping confrontation and damage to a minimum, could be a model for living with all kinds of vital wildlife.