Elephant farts

Here’s a thing I didn’t know about elephants (but I guess I should have known): elephants fart! And man is it funny when they do.

(this is an Asian elephant, but it sounds just like this…though they replay it a bunch of times (couldn’t find a better video and didn’t want to spend tooooo much time googling elephant farts))

Ah, the majestic elephart…I mean elephant!


Happy Friday!

Chasing elephants in Tsavo


Well, not actually chasing per se. I worked with a grad student in Kenya who was studying the foraging choices of elephants. What kinds of plants do they like and what nutrition do those plants have? Her project involved driving transects through Tsavo National Park and then trying to watch elephants eat for an hour at a time. The main challenge involved with this are that elephants don’t like it when people watch them eat!

The PhD student, George, observing elephants from the roof of the land cruiser

In practice, this involved careful attention to wind patterns so that we always approached the elephants from downwind, and a lot of hoping that they wouldn’t be skittish. The females and family groups tended to be more skittish than the males, especially when young elephants were present. We did our best, but often the elephants would move off before she finished a full hour of observations.


While my friend George was watching elephants, I was out sampling bees. Bees have never been sampled in Tsavo, and for good reason. There are a lot of dangerous predators out there known for mauling humans. One time when I was sampling, my friend Esther spotted a lion on the horizon. We all stood on the roof of the land cruiser watching it through binoculars for a while, then I got out and continued sampling. After a while, I realized I had lost track of the lion and thoughts of being eaten by a lion while sampling bees filtered through my mind.


Of course, a lot of great scientists have died for their science. 😉

Anyway, this was an incredible opportunity for me and I learned a ton, not just about bees, but about elephants!

For example, most elephants spend the hottest part of the afternoon hiding in the shade, and older elephants get the best shade.


And elephants are really sensitive to smells and don’t like the smell of humans at all.

*more sniffing*

Also, elephants play with their food a lot…they smack themselves with it (probably knocking off flies and swing it around). They also eat a lot of really thorny bushes!


Playful juvenile elephant

One of the things I learned about elephants is that they are incredibly playful and intelligent animals. They could see us watching them at the watering hole and occasionally they would try to interact with us. I especially liked this little juvenile elephant that danced around on the far side of the watering hole. He pranced back and forth, flipped his trunk over his tusk, and flapped his ears at us. I’m sure the elephant was doing all this for us, because he was completely focused on us the whole time! I tried asking some of the elephant experts about his behaviour, but they just shrugged. “He’s just playing!”

“Oh, hello there!”
He spent a lot of time prancing back and forth
Gotta reach waaaaay out there
This was my favourite face haha

Baby elephants at the watering hole

It’s pretty hard to compete with baby elephants on the cuteness scale (okay, there’s honestly a lot of cute out there, but baby elephants have their fair share).

A big family group coming into the watering hole
Baby hiding in back
Baby butt
Baby swimming (the adults won’t let her in much deeper than that)
Family departing
Bye elephants!

My first wild elephants

I have to specify “wild” because I worked at a zoo for a while, so I was very familiar with elephants (and especially their poop, that was my job). I’m just going to share a bunch of photos today.  You better believe I took hundreds, so I’ve worked hard to narrow these down to some of the best.

This was actually my first view of elephants…way off in the distance!
This is the Voi Wildlife Lodge…we went here once a week to use the internet and watch the wildlife coming into the giant watering hole. This is where I got a lot of my elephant photos (and all of the ones I’m sharing today)
There are some elephants on the horizon…hope they come in!
They came! (We were in the middle of a drought, so the watering hole was pretty irresistible to a lot of animals.)
I like the way they look when they drink, so I took a lot of these photos, full disclosure
Sometimes they rest their trunk on their tusks and it is very cute!
I like the crane between their legs
To give you an idea of the landscape (Tsavo National Park)
Headin back to the bush
One of my favourite elephant photos
Tsavo is known for its “red” elephants because the mud is red and they love to rub it all over themselves
A solitary elephant eyeing a family group coming in
Time to pllaaaaaaay
Up periscope
This would be me if I were an elephant
I just like this one because he looks like Cthulu

Ok now for R rated photos (you’ve been warned)
Elephant pooping!
And peeing…I know, it’s pretty alarming to me too

Elephant week: Elephants are scared of bees

Beehive fence

I love this photo because you can see the beehive fence, and Wabongo’s hedges look like an elephant in the background, hehe

To celebrate Earth Day (or maybe just because I feel like it), I’m going to have a full week of elephants!  I had the opportunity to interact with them pretty closely when I was in Kenya because I was working in a human-wildlife conflict zone.

The background is that Tsavo National Park has two large sections (together they are the same size as Lebanon!). Elephants and other charismatic megafauna (i.e. interesting large mammals) used to be able to migrate back and forth from Tsavo East to Tsavo West with no problems.  Then humans installed a railroad right down the middle of the two parks (see The Man-eaters of Tsavo). This was a problem, but the problem got a lot worse recently when the Kenyan government decided to “modernize” the railroad.

The modernization of the railroad was funded by the Chinese government (or so I was told by a few disgruntled Kenyans), and they decided that a massive and robust 4 meter fence on either side of the railway was necessary to keep the wildlife out. (Here’s a helpful article on it.)


This had unintended consequences, naturally.  One consequence of the new fence is that large herds of elephants that were trying to move from Tsavo West to Tsavo East hit the fence and started spilling north, into heavily settled agricultural areas. Elephants looooove maize, so they begin crop raiding. I arrived at the research camp in the heart of this agricultural area in the middle of an “elephant crisis”. More than 150 elephants were raiding crops throughout the community.


Tooooo close…and he’s giving us a good sniff

Elephant crop raiding is bad for everyone; it’s bad for humans because many of the farmers are subsistence farmers completely reliant on their crops for food and very close to extreme poverty even in a good year. It’s bad for elephants because disgruntled/starving humans are more likely to either kill elephants or hide poachers who kill elephants.


Don’t hurt this elephant…so cute!

Fortunately, researchers are on top of this problem. Dr. Lucy King* learned during her PhD research that elephants are scared of bees! She invented a “bee-hive fence” This basically operates as an elephant deterrent by stringing honeybee hives together with wire in a perimeter around the crops. If the elephant disturbs the wire, the bees come spilling out of the hive and sting the elephant on its sensitive nose, eyes, and ears.


This tickles me because I LOVE mutualisms of all sorts, and everything mutually benefical, and this is just so perfect (it also plays in perfectly with my research that searches for mutually beneficial solutions for conservation and agriculture). It’s good for elephants, because people don’t shoot them, it’s good for the farmers because they get to keep their crops and they get honey, which is an incredibly valuable asset.  In practice, the whole process is a little more complicated, as I learned. The hives require maintenance and African bees are not the same as our lovely domesticated honeybees.  They once chased my friend Esther and I across a field and we had to kneel and keep our heads down for a good 45 minutes before they calmed down.


Esther carefully escaping the bees after bravely rescuing our traps. You can see the beehive fence next to her.

However, in principle this is just lovely and I felt so lucky to get the opportunity to work there, although my project was slightly peripheral to the main theme of the research (my five year old self is horrified, but apparently I’m more of a bird and bee nerd***** than a mammal nerd). Even though I was probably the least useful person at the research camp, I had the privilege of learning so much about such a pressing conservation issue.  It was really a thrill!


So this week, I’ll share some of the photos I took and facts I learned about the largest land mammal on Earth!

*I have a total academic crush on her! (and she’s an awesome person too, even though I’ve said a number of very stupid things in front of her**)

**Such as, “Literally every person I’ve met from Oxford is snobby.” While forgetting that she was educated at Oxford.***

***And also confusing Kenya with Botswana when I told her that I loved the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (in my defense, those books are seriously awesome)****

****Open mouth, insert foot is kind of a modus operandi for me, so I’ve learned to just roll with it

*****Don’t say it…this is the only time pun is not intended

On the Fifth Day, by Jane Hirshfield

In honor of the international March for Science!

On the fifth day

the scientists who studied the rivers

were forbidden to speak

or to study the rivers.


The scientists who studied the air

were told not to speak of the air,

and the ones who worked for the farmers

were silenced,

and the ones who worked for the bees.


Someone, from deep in the Badlands,

began posting facts.


The facts were told not to speak

and were taken away.

The facts, surprised to be taken, were silent.


Now it was only the rivers

that spoke of the rivers,

and only the wind that spoke of its bees,


while the unpausing factual buds of the fruit trees

continued to move toward their fruit.


The silence spoke loudly of silence,

and the rivers kept speaking,

of rivers, of boulders and air.


Bound to gravity, earless and tongueless,

the untested rivers kept speaking.


Bus drivers, shelf stockers,

code writers, machinists, accountants,

lab techs, cellists kept speaking.


They spoke, the fifth day,

of silence.

– Jane Hirshfield