Our first morning at Shamwari volunteer camp, and we are instructed that we are on Elephant monitoring duties. What else is there? Building bridge – oh gee; I REALLY wanted to work on a bridge… Well, IW did, but CB and I just grin at each other and can’t believe our luck. First volunteer duty and we have to find elephants; could it get any better than that?
Since we had no idea what to expect, our excitement trebled when we realised we were going to have to go all the way to the north side of the game reserve to find a group that was spotted there earlier. On the way through who knows what we might see??? Well, impala, warthogs, springboks, eland, giraffe, red haartebeest, and an odd rhino or two are just some of the incidentals along the way. Pinch me, I’m dreaming…
We bags a spot on the game drive vehicle, driven by the intrepid Cindy, one of our coordinators who is spending a month recording the elephant population to keep track of how many there are, and to update the records for identifying them.
It goes like this: find elephants, photograph left and right ears, compare folds, holes and tears in ears to the diagrams drawn on sheets of paper, identify ellie. Each elephant will end up with unique patterns on their ears, all made up of damage caused by barging through some of the toughest undergrowth I have ever seen – including thorn bushes with spikes up to 10cm long and strong enough to puncture tyres.
If female, does she have a calf? If so, which one is it? (Usually one that is following her). What are they doing – grazing, browsing, drinking? If male, how many are there? Check ears and identify.
Try not to take too many random shots of elephants, so that we can keep track of the ears only, and don’t have to sift through several thousand photos to get the ones we need for the project.
Return to base, take photos of identified ellies and put them in the folder for that individual so there is a picture of two ears to help keep track of the ear evolution.
Well, easier said than done…. First off, finding an elephant in a thicket is harder than you might think. Sure, they are huge, and the average height of the bush is lower than they are. But, their hide is about the colour of a dead bush, or a termite mound, or a bare patch of ground…
My latest made up riddle: How do you make an elephant disappear? Get it to take a step to the left….
We see virtual elephants everywhere, and when we finally get to the other side of the reserve and someone spots them on the opposite ridge, it takes me several minutes to actually figure out what the others can see. Big blobs of brownish-grey moving amongst the scrub. Yeehaa – and off we go to get to them.
We try to memorise the landmarks that indicate where they are, so that we don’t lose them when we dip into the valley between us and them. And suddenly – there they are! Babies, mums, adolescents all moving around and browsing on trees and grass, and the odd prickly pear. Watching them delicately pick the green prickly pear with their trunks and popping them in their mouths is fascinating…
By this time I have so many photos of trunks, heads, babies, mothers, prickly pears etc it’s hard to remember we only want ears. All very well – I get a left ear, but by the time I have a right ear, I’m not sure it’s from the same ellie. And as for identifying mums with their bubs, the bubs all seem to be running amok, and I get lost in the cuteness. A few little boys (300kg or so, so not so little) flap their ears and blow challenging trumpets at us, and then seem to frighten themselves and run away. I feel quite incompetent in comparison with the gorgeous Cindy, who seems to be able to identify an ear at a hundred paces. Sigh – how will I manage to tease out the left and right ears from all the other body parts, let alone work out what nicks bumps and holes belong to whom.
I do my valiant best to ignore the big picture and focus, but it’s really hard when there are 40 of these magnificent creatures chomping their way through the vegetation only 10 meters from where I sit, breathless with excitement.
And I thought I’d be volunteering for chopping weeds, building schools, repairing roads. Yet here I am helping just by watching and photographing elephant families. Woo hoo, I’ve died and gone to heaven.
On top of our adventure with the observations, Cindy poses a couple of challenges for us.
The cinnamon challenge is accepted by four of the more adventurous young men in our midst.
Can you eat and swallow a teaspoonful of cinnamon in one minute? Well, that is a challenge because it would appear that cinnamon will remove every skerrick of a droplet of saliva within seconds of hitting your tongue – and it doesn’t taste that good when it’s on its own, judging by the looks on the men’s faces. There is a serious risk of cinnamon exiting via nostrils, but all four manfully (pardon the pun) get it down, with much dry tongue action. It’s a bit like watching a dog try to eat peanut butter – an awful lot of tongue movement without much result. We applaud loudy, swearing never to do that to ourselves, and only ever to consume cinnamon on top of a hot beverage, or with stewed apples.
While we are stopped for a break, Cindy suddenly bends down and picks up some little poo pellets, which she says is for the afternoon challenge. We stop for our tea break on the top of the most magnificent scarp with 180 degree views out across the reserve. It’s giraffe poo, as we discover, and the competition is who can spit it the furthest. It’s a bit like rabbit poo, but larger – about the size of a malteser, but nowhere near as tasty.
What would I know, I’m definitely not putting that in my mouth… The four cinnamon boys man up again, and are each given their very own poo pellet. Roll it around in the mouth to coat it with lots of saliva – either to add to it’s aerodynamic qualities or to prevent it directly touching your mucous membranes? – then take a run up to the start line and blow/spit it as far as you can…. And the winner is…. 7 meters!!!!
What a whopper of a spit! Now, where’s that coffee?
Panic and responsibility finally set in when I get back to base camp and I have to check my photos against the record and pop them in the right folder to update the ear markings. OK – you tell me the difference between those two elephants’ears?
Fortunately, Al, a seasoned pro who’s been helping with this project for four weeks already, demonstrates infinite patience in helping me sort the chaff into the right places.
I’ve done what I can, time for bed.