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Saturday, February 12, 2005

KICK THE BABY! Dysfunctional Elephant Families

Elephants, it seems, are only human.

Or, rather, they are a bit more human in their behaviour than previously thought.

I reached this conclusion after attending a wonderful talk on the habits of Forest Elepants that was sponsored by the Science department at our university.

One of the best things about teaching at Universities is that, well, they're universal. I've only attended or taught in Art colleges previously, so it's quite a concept to consider that I am a cartoonist who is teaching on the same campus as physicists, biologists, and industrial designers. I had a rare opportunity to see a presentation that did not conflict with my own classes.

The speaker was Ms. Katy Payne of the
No, she does not tap their wires. But she could be described as a pachyderm psychoanalyst.

Katy Payne is the lady who first discovered that Humpback Whales sing. Her sensitivity to low-frequency sounds led her to realize that the 'vibrations' she sensed near an Elephant enclosure in the Zoo, was an old female 'talking' to a bull separated from her by a concrete wall.

Sub-sonic equipment revealed a range of noises that were below the range of normal human hearing. Which is, on the whole, not too good by animal standards. We are the deaf men of the planet. Elephants, in the wild and in captivity, are communicating over large distances--and who knows what those two in the Zoo were talking about?
"Keep it down, Bruce, there's someone listening on the line."

The human species is totally anthropocentric. We think that we are the only ones who have a language or 'self awareness'. Other animals, and possibly vegetables, are talking around us all the time and most likely having a good laugh at our expense. Searches for 'intelligent life in the universe' are probably doomed because they assume that everyone will have radio communication and written literature. Most Human societies didn't have that until very recently.

Anyway, elephants may not have television but they have well developed soap operas. Rank and social status are very important in pachyderm communities (DUMBO was closer to reality than any of the filmmakers could have known at the time!).

Ms. Payne ran some remarkable footage obtained at a watching and listening post in the Central African Republic, whose dense forests are home to most of the remaining Forest Elephants. The forests are so dense that scientists normally travel along forest trails blazed by the elephants themselves, and observe only the Elephants' dung piles. These, when counted, indicate the probable number of elephants.

I question the accuracy of a poo census. Let's face it, what if one of the elephants just happened to have gotten into a bad batch of fruit? There could be an official population explosion. Subsonic monitoring will provide a more accurate, and certainly a sweeter-smelling, appraisal.

The Elephants only come out of the dense forest at a swampy clearing. They drink brackish water that contains necessary minerals.

It's not just the forests that are dense. Baby Forest Elephants are always wandering off and getting into trouble, like eight hundred pound
Bassett Hounds.

Occasionally a female elephant will 'kidnap' an infant she fancies. The baby can't seem to remember which elephant is really its mama. It will follow any stranger who offers the elephantine equivalent of red lollipops, and wander happily off with her.

Mama eventually notices that something is missing.
If she is of lower social rank than the interloper, she will approach backward, seeking to get between the baby and the kidnapper. The baby usually does not help much; it will happily follow the new mama.

Mama then usually has to get relatives to help her back up and box the baby into the center of the square. The whole thing resembles a slow motion traffic jam.

At other times the baby is just a pain, getting underfoot (though none have, to Ms. Payne's knowledge, actually been trodden upon). One baby who lingered behind a sibling during a private moment was only removed by a hearty backward kick that sent the smaller creature almost literally flying.

It's actually a little depressing to find that the elephants are not really nobler than us. They have jealousies, territorial imperatives, and sometimes they just have to give the kid a slap upside the head--for its own good, of course.

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