There’s a late afternoon glow on all the animals at the waterhole. Giraffe bones from a lion kill the previous season glisten white to match the springbok bellies as they spring across the clearing. Scratchy, our resident black rhino and mascot, has just decided to spray our microphone hide, rocks and dry thorn bushes now covered with his territorial marking.
For Tim’s birthday today, the kitchen crew is chopping veggies in preparation for a fine Mushara Starlit Café goulash dinner in honor of the guy that quietly makes all the technology work in the background, while an Amarula crème brulee pie chills in the 12V fridge. But in the foreground, everyone waits for the call—a spotting of an elephant family group in the distance for a late afternoon session in the bunker for more i.d. photos. I knew we were probably all thinking the same thing. Could we be so lucky? Much of our family group research has had to take place during night watch from 6 through 10 p.m.
The last time we had a late afternoon visit, there was so much chaos at the waterhole with over a hundred elephants at one point, allowing us to update our photo i.d. catalog of Big Momma and the Pharaohs—both of which had been visiting under the cover of darkness for the past week.
Finally, we were able to see babies romping with sibs and cousins in the water and around their favorite dusting sites in the light of day.
Smokey came prancing in to visit all of his lady friends at one point just to make doubly sure that no one had slipped into estrus without him knowing it.
Lots of new babies had the families on high alert when hyenas approached the waterhole, but otherwise, we were able to score the interaction between matriarchs, Big Momma coming in ahead of Bent Ear in the ongoing quest to understand family group dominance in elephant country.
Caitlin O’Connell, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Stanford University School of Medicine, and a world-renowned expert on elephants. Her twenty years of research has resulted in numerous scientific publications and popular books, including the internationally acclaimed The Elephant’s Secret Sense. The Elephant Scientist won five awards, including both the Sibert and Horn Book Honors. An Elephant’s Life and A Baby Elephant In The Wild depict the complex social lives of elephants through images. Her more recent books included Elephant Don (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Ivory Ghosts (Penguin Random House ebook imprint Alibi, 2015), and the sequel, White Gold. Ivory Ghosts will come out as a graphic novel with Kymera Press. ELEPHANT KING, a documentary about her research, won the CINE Best Environment & Nature Award.
Caitlin’s earlier research into seismic transmission and detection of elephant vocalizations was been funded in part by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration.
For more information, visit her nonprofit organization Utopia Scientific website (utopiascientific.org) and her author site at caitlineoconnell.com. She and her husband, Tim Rodwell, write the tumblr blog elephantskinny.tumblr.com. Also follow her on twitter: Mushara
Author photo credit: Max Salomon