When Bucky asked me if I wanted to start a research project in the Okavango Delta in Botswana I was totally gung-ho.
I figured we’d be driving around on safari gazing through our binoculars at spectacular wildlife and documenting the incredible interplay of species struggling for survival in the African wetlands with our keen “super-scientist” powers of observation.
Then I remembered… we study dead things.
“What exactly are we going to be doing?” I asked, not really sure that I wanted to know the answer.
“Walking around looking for animal carcasses…” came the unfortunate reply.
“Of course,” I grumbled.
Now to be fair as a vertebrate paleontologist, I am used to studying skeletons… it’s just that, well, the animals have usually been dead for tens or hundreds of millions of years, so the “gross” factor isn’t really an issue. Even when I taught gross anatomy to med students, the cadavers were (thankfully) embalmed. To put it mildly, Botswana was a bit different.
Our first stop? An dumping ground with one dozen, I repeat, one dozen, fresh elephant carcasses baking in the hot African sun. (Thanks Bucky). Now you might ask, what might one dozen fresh elephant carcasses be doing in one spot? And that would be a fair question. I certainly wanted to know. Turns out that the government allots the local community here a certain number of permits for the hunting of elephants. In the Sankuyo Community this year that number was around two dozen. And this? This is where they compile the aftermath.
As a scientist, I generally take a matter of fact approach to data collection and I’m no neophyte when it comes to flesh and bone. So I was surprised to find myself suddenly surveying the morbid scene splayed out in front of me with a heavy heart. Having only seen elephants in the wild a few times in my life, they still held a certain majesty to me—an almost ethereal beauty—and it was hard to imagine a good reason for this loss of life. Later, in taking to the wildlife officer we learned that after the hunters flew home with their trophies (nearly all Americans and Europeans on the record books), the Community Trust distributes the elephant meat to feed the families within their care. (We’ll post more about this controversial and difficult topic later).
Sometimes the hardest part about being a scientist, is sticking to the data… but stick to the data we did.
After collecting our data on decomposition, predation and bite marks by hyenas, area of scatter, and so on, we paid reverence to the fallen elephants and headed off to find carcasses of animals that had died in the wild. Just as we were packing up to head out we witnessed a fleeting moment of beauty on one of the elephants, a Foxy Charaxes butterfly. We snapped a few photos for a colleague at NC State University who studies butterflies and went on our way.
As I climbed into the vehicle, my science-self was grateful for the reminder: in the natural world, death begets life.
In Africa, such reminders are not in short supply.