Elephant scientist Caitlin O'Connell has been studying elephant behavior for nearly thirty years, and has written dozens of scientific papers along with many feature magazine articles about elephants. Her new book, Wild Rituals: 10 Lessons Animals Can Teach Us About Connection, Community, and Ourselves explores our connection to animal rituals and how understanding them can help us improve our connections with others. She kindly let us run the following storyboarding narrative, which details one of the beautiful elephant rituals she has witnessed:
The air was still in the late afternoon as I waited for elephants to appear on the horizon. From the vantage of our research tower in the middle of the Namibian scrub desert, it often felt as if I were perched on the observation deck of an old three-masted schooner, looking for whale spouts in an empty expanse. Just as it was for a mariner, the horizon was visible in all directions. The only thing different was the color palette of drab grey rather than a rolling deep blue.
As a field scientist and science writer, I often take the opportunity to step outside the moment and ask myself what exactly it is that I'm seeing and feeling, and how my actions might appear to a outside observer, in order to better convey my experience to readers. These sensations in the moment help create a virtual reality experience for the reader. And my goal is to feed as much sensation as possible, without overloading the senses with too much information that would be confusing. Storyboarding each moment in my head as I write helps shape a narrative to be most effective.
There I was, hanging in the equivalent of a crow's nest on a great mast, feeling like Captain Ahab, commanding my crew to get set up for an encounter with a mighty beast. Only, for Ahab, the end goal was a treacherous whale hunt—and for me, it was the opportunity to collect detailed observations of a group of elephants.
In wet years, when elephant traffic tended to be low in the dry season, the only thing to breach the horizon were dust devils, like waterspouts spiraling across the flat bleak savannah after all the water had dried in ephemeral pools. There were several trees on the horizon that always tricked me into thinking that they were elephants having a dust bath. The illusion of dust being flung into the air by a grey elephant tree caught me every time, even though I told myself not to be fooled again, I couldn't help myself.
In dry years, however, the elephant traffic just before sunset was like clockwork, particularly after a very windy day, and this late afternoon was no different. Just as the sun hung low on the horizon, breaking the heat, the landscape softened from a harsh whitish grey to pastel pink and blue.
My arms spasmed from holding up my heavy binoculars just a little too long without a break, knowing the elephants could show up any minute. But my eyes were tired. And the dusting elephant trees were playing tricks on me again. Worse, due to the cooler air rolling in, the landscape had literally just turned on its head—a superior mirage at the edge of the horizon creating the illusion of trees floating upside down above the real ones. It was very disorienting.
I relaxed my shoulders and dropped my arms. I looked down at my chapped hands. And in that moment, I sensed movement out of the corner of my eye and lifted my binoculars again. There they were, grey boulders appearing on the edge of the clearing to the south, waiting for the opportune moment to break cover and head into the waterhole for a much-needed drink. Oftentimes there are too many families trying to come in for a drink, scrambling to be the first ones in.
For now, however, there was only one—a very small group. I could see from a large left upcurved tusk jutting sideways from one of the adult females that it was Left Hook, matriarch of the Boxers. I hadn't seen her since she split from her daughter's family the week before.
Families had been in splinters all season due to the high number of births from good rains two years prior. Given a gestation of twenty-two months, an increased birth rate tended to correlate with higher rainfall and more food a year or two before calves were born.
When it came time to give birth, pregnant family members had trouble keeping up with the rest of the family. They often broke into two or three smaller groups, where the immediate family would wait for their mother to give birth before rejoining the larger family that was led by the grandmother or great grandmother, or aunt.
When Left Hook and her small family group reached the middle of the clearing, there was a loud bellowing sound coming from the east. Suddenly, the forest erupted with elephants running into the clearing, causing Left Hook to momentarily pause, halfway to their much-needed drink.
Her family stood in a cluster rumbling and flapping their ears. This was strange as Left Hook was a dominant female in this region—why would she behave this way at the approach of another family, I wondered.
Then, I saw her daughter's inherited left hook, and it all started to make sense. Million Dollar Baby, Left Hook's daughter, and her family was poised to reunite with her mother. There was an added treat. Left Hook had a new baby that slipped my attention with all of the commotions. We were about to witness a christening ceremony, elephant-style. With much fanfare of ears waving back and forth, secreting from all orifices—temporal glands, bladders, and bowels—everything was flowing as the two families reunited with the presentation of the matriarch's new baby. It was one of those treasured moments in the bush—a storyboard panel to remember. But without the descriptions, the uninitiated would have no idea of what they were witnessing. My camera also helped reconstruct the moment and I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to immortalize the momentous occasion.