This season marks the 25th year of the Mushara Elephant Project, but the first few days were a little too chaotic to absorb the magnitude of this momentous occasion. We arrived at Mushara the first night of the waxing moon with much to set up before nightfall. A few bulls came and went as we got ourselves situated, allowing ourselves a break at sunset to soak in the beauty of this remote oasis.
After sunset, we got back to work organizing the kitchen, sleeping arrangements, and dinner. And once the sliver of moon slipped below the horizon, we were left to contemplate the vastness of the Milky Way, while a lion roared somewhere beyond the clearing in the south.
It had been a particularly wet year, which meant a lot of grass at the field site, which translated into an abundance of mice. All food had to be secured before we turned in for the night, including the nuts, snack bars and cookies the volunteers brought, not realizing how well stocked the Mushara Starlit Café would be.
The next day, we were extremely busy getting the observation deck up and running with solar charging station, video recorders, spotting scope, data logs and training on each of the data stations. But just before sunset, we were up and running and collecting data on our first family group, with the Pharoahs that arrived from the north.
After sunset, the night watch team donned extra jackets and red headlamps, and were ready for our nighttime observations using low-light imaging equipment attached to our video camera. For the untrained eye, searching for elephants on a grainy green monitor, with a spotter trying to follow individual elephants with an IR flashlight, felt a little like swimming in a vast ocean at night without any reference points, occasionally bumping into elephants floating by in a three-dimensional landscape. It took a while to adjust their perspective to a very different set of observation challenges.
The next few days brought heavy family group traffic at night, but no activity during the day. This meant our eyes were trained on the bull’s comings and goings, punctuated by high drama, starting with the arrival of Smokey.
When Smokey appears on the horizon, it’s as if the earth suddenly gave birth to a giant granite boulder, that, once it hits the tree line, morphs into a larger-than-life being, full of pomp and circumstance befitting of his title as land’s largest creature. Smokey’s exaggerated gait and head held high gives away his musth state, as he swings his trunk from side to side, waving one ear forward and then the other, curling trunk across his face and dribbling urine at an alarming rate. When no elephants are at the waterhole, he marches in, takes a sip and then heads out in the direction of the previous night’s female traffic, ever searching for a female in estrus.
While the adult bulls try to keep tabs on Smokey’s comings and goings, several of the younger bulls are spreading their wings and pushing the boundaries with their elders, Spock being particularly tenacious in his sparring with William yesterday.
The season is now in full swing, and we’re eager to fill out the dominance scorecard within and between family groups, while hoping for more day-time visits. In as much as it doesn’t feel possible that twenty-five years could have come and gone, seeing some of my favorite elephants feels like coming home and that feeling makes all the years make sense.
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). ELEPHANT KING, a documentary about her research, won the CINE Best Environment & Nature Award.
Caitlin’s research into seismic transmission and detection of elephant vocalizations has 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