Beasts of Botswana–Family Style

In the Animal Kingdom, animal magnetism has evolved over time–shifting between monogamy and polygamy, to cheating and outright promiscuity–something humans have been wrestling with since walking erect.

Every animal species is wired to adapt, survive, and pass along the blood line, no matter what, and the behavior dynamics are fascinating to observe.

For instance, the primary male lion roams with a harem of ladies in his pride, but will momentarily pledge himself to the lioness who bears his cubs.

nuzzling lions

However, a rival male to the pride will kill his predecessor’s offspring to force the pride’s females into ovulation.

2 female lions

Male and female Grevy’s zebras live apart until food and water are plentiful. Female Grevy’s zebras are polyandrous and will breed with many different males in succession.

Zebra family

Male Grevy’s zebras establish territories that lie along paths to water, often intercepting an ovulating female while passing through. And then it’s on to the next.

Zebras B&W

African wild dogs live as a monogamous breeding pair supported by a small pack.

2 dogs prowling (3)

The litter of pups is first cared for by the alpha female and guarded by the alpha male…

Nursing 3

who doles out hunting and caretaking responsibilities to subserviant wild dogs within the pack.

wild dog pups

A dominant impala ram will manage a harem of 10 ewes and their lambs, keeping them in line with his constant braying, biting and boasting. Young bucks continually challenge the ram in charge, insuring ewes will always deliver the strongest gene pool…

alpha male impala

thus providing a defense perimeter of plebes to discover danger from every direction.

herd of impalas

Baboons run in troops ruled by social dominance. When it comes to mating, any male of the troop will accept any female’s offer should she present her swollen rump to his face; however, the social rankings between males will often lead to aggressive fighting.

mother and child baboons

Females are the primary caretakers of the young, although males on occasion will babysit to win a female’s affection. 

baboon discipline (2)

Hippo bulls are polygamous by nature and insecure creatures by design. When the cows of the pod are fertile, the bull whips up a piss and dung cocktail that he atomizes with his propeller-like tail to capture their attention.

Great heron with catch and hippos

He will repeat this process until all the cows have been serviced. Should any of the offspring be male, the cow will protect it by hiding it near the fringe of the herd, lest it be killed by the bull.

hippo clash

Consequently, the bull fears his mature son will someday challenge him for control of the pod, and mate with his mother, creating a Freudian nightmare of hippo proportions.

grazing hippo

Rival bulls that follow a female tower of giraffes will often “neck” together (spar with their necks) for the attention of a fertile cow.

tall family

The victor will smell her urine to determine her readiness, and court her by resting his chin on her back.

sniffing urine

The females and their calves remain loyal to the tower, while the males move on, in search of long legs and firm hind quarters.

tower of giraffes1519442324641718967..jpg

Ostriches have seemingly taken their cue from the Mormons, where the dominant and polygamous cock will mate with many hens, while the hens remain monogamous.

Ostrich pair

The flock of hens have their own pecking order. As one female emerges as the dominant majority hen, she uses the minority females’ eggs to ring around her eggs as an extra layer of protection.

3 males_1 female

Dominant kudu rams will keep company with three to five kudu ewes within a herd of females and their calves.

2 kudus

Usually the ram comes a-knocking when it’s time to mate. Otherwise, the ram is a solitary creature that enjoys alone time.

kudu (2)

Male warthogs are not very selective. They will mate with any of their female counterparts wherever and whenever they may be found.

warthog in the grass

Maybe that’s why they are considered pigs.

Pumba

Several cow crocs may reside within the dominant bull croc’s territory, and each one is fair game for mating. The bull courts his cow in an elaborate and sensual dance that is certain to win her scales and tail.

big daddy croc_cu

It so happens that bull crocodiles are always ready! They keep their ever-erect penis tucked inside their body waiting for the right moment when both bodies are properly aligned under water.

croc at sundown

Dominant cape buffalo are distinguished by the thickness of their horns. They set the rules of their herd–

buffalo_cu

deciding whether to tolerate an overt act of copulation by a defiant subordinate bull, or keeping the cows in heat to himself by staving off all rival advances.

Cape buffalo herd

According to Kimberly Yavorski in “How do Elephants Mate?”:

“Elephants are social creatures and live in complex hierarchical communities. Each herd has one female that is the matriarch. She dictates where the herd goes and helps to teach the younger elephants proper behavior. Female elephants, or cows, live in multigenerational family groups with other females. Males stay with the family until they reach 12 to 15 years of age, when they leave the herd and live alone or join up with other bulls. Male and female elephants live separately with bulls only visiting when some of the females are in their mating season, known as estrus.”

elephant family walking by the river

“Elephants mature later than many other animals. Females reach sexual maturity at 10 to 12 years of age, males at around 25. A male doesn’t generally start breeding until age 30, when it has reached a sufficient weight and size to compete with other breeding males. At that point, it will start to seek out females in estrus.”

elephants' mudbath

“Bulls enter a state called musth once a year, and older bulls tend to stay in musth longer than younger bulls, up to six months. During this period, they have increased levels of testosterone. They secrete a fluid from their temporal gland between the eye and ear and will actively seek a mate. Dominant males, which are older, tend to come into musth when a large number of females are in estrus, and the males exhibit physical behaviors, such as flapping their ears and rubbing their head on trees and bushes to disperse the musth scent. They also have a particular rumble, a low frequency vocal call, used to attract females who are also ready to mate. Females sometimes respond with their own call, indicating interest. While a cow can mate with any male, those in musth may be more attractive to females in estrus.”

family of elephants drinking

“When a male approaches, a female in estrus may at first show wariness, but if she is interested, she will then leave the family group, walking with her head up and turned sideways to watch the male as he follows behind. The male may chase the female if she retreats and will chase off any other males. Elephants may stroke each other with their trunks before the male mounts the female from behind, standing almost vertically as they mate. Elephant sex lasts for up to two minutes and afterward, he will stay near the female and guard her from other males. Females may mate with more than one bull in each estrus cycle, which lasts up to 18 weeks. While elephants do not mate for life, a female may repeatedly choose to mate with the same bull, and bulls are sometimes seen being protective of females.”

mom and baby elephant

“At 22 months, elephants have the distinction of having the longest gestation period of all animals and give birth to live young. Pregnancy almost always results in a single birth; twins are rare. When it is time to give birth, female elephants move away from the herd and then return to introduce the new member, who is inspected by each other member of the family. At birth, babies weigh 90 to 120 kg (198 to 265 pounds) and are typically around 3 feet tall. Baby elephants tend to be hairy, with a long tail and a short trunk that grows as its diet changes. Offspring are weaned at two years, though some may continue to nurse up to age six and a half. Because of this long gestation and nursing period, estrus cycles are between four and six years apart. On average, a female elephant will give birth to seven offspring in her lifetime.”

2 month old elephant

 

 

 

Critters

To be sure, one of our many objectives while streaming thru America was spotting and capturing photos of as much wildlife as serendipity would allow, for it’s rarely nature’s way for wildlife to wander into my camera frame and pose at will. So the game of being at the right place at the right time, and putting ourselves in position to witness the spectacle of earth’s mighty creatures became somewhat of an obsession.

Yet, seemingly, whenever Leah and I set out to search for a particular species, we invariably turned up empty. For instance, lying low at Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley for a chance encounter with bighorn sheep escorting their new babes down from Mt. Washburn at the beginning of summer season never happened, despite a solid hour of wait time, and occasional reassurances from park rangers that the prospect was highly likely since no wolves had been sighted in the meadow where the mares prefer to congregate to lick the salt from the rocks by a Yellowstone River runoff.

Instead, when we were least expecting them, we’d found them gathering by a trailhead parking lot in the Canadian Rockies,

bighorn flock.jpg

and worshipping the moon on the cliffs of Muddy Mountain while returning from a hike through Nevada’s Valley of Fire.

sheep and moon (4)

and surveying the brutal Badlands while cruising the Loop Road in our air-conditioned F-150.

Badlands bighorn sheep

Related cliff dwellers included mountain goats from Glacier National Park…

Glacier NP mountain goat

and the Columbia Icefields of Alberta.

Columbia Icefields mountain goat

In the early months of our journey, our frustrating search for elusive alligators along the bayou and delta landscape led us to create a call that crocodilia were apt to ignore: “Here, gator, gator, gator!” (see Where Have all the Gators Gone?)

However, we would not be denied while airboating through the Florida Everglades…

snout underwater

gater head

Everglades alligator

Lesser evasive reptiles encountered along the way ranged from a bloated rattler…

Joshua Tree rattler

and a horned toad camouflaged against a terrain of cholla cacti within Joshua Tree…

Joshua Tree horned lizard

to a greater earless lizard basking on a Big Bend boulder…

Big Bend lizard

a lounging iguana from the tropics of Quintana Roo…

Playa del Camen iguana

and an angry gopher tortoise from Hobe Sound.

Hobe Sound turtle

On the other hand, squirrels and chipmunks were ubiquitous throughout the entirety of our trip…

and never shy, if there was the faintest chance they could scavenge a meal discarded by humans.

Joshua Tree squirrel

Although, their close cousin, the prairie dog was less apt to wander from the safety of its network of burrows at Prairie Dog Town in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Teddy Roosevelt prairie dog

Equally as omnipresent, and just as opportunistic were the many ravens that crossed our paths: from Bryce Canyon;

Bryce Canyon raven.jpg

to Arizona’s Painted Desert;

Painted Desert raven

to the perch atop the Cathedral of St. Helena.

Helena Cathedral raven

Other fowl that caught our attention included a variety of cranes and herons from multiple coastal habitats…

Carmel crane

Sarasota crane1

Everglades sand cranes1

Redwoods crane

Everglades great blue heron

and pelicans fishing from the Gulf of Mexico…

Naples pelican.jpg

to the Pacific Ocean.

Carmenl pelicans

But what really captured our imagination were the wild horses that always stood out in a crowd;

Teddy Roosevelt wild horses (2)

the Yellowstone black bear that we’ve never grown tired of beholding;

Yellowstone black bear

and the beasts that have defined our heritage as a nation–whether it was the descendants of Death Valley’s Twenty Mule Team…

Death Valley mules

or the mighty bison on the open range.

Teddy Roosevelt buffalo road

Yellowstone buffalo.jpg

Yes, the animal world is prolific; it’s divided between domestic…

Smoky Mountain cows

St. Louis Clydesdale

and wild;

Eureka Springs tiger sanctuary

cariboo (2)

common…

Grand Canyon elk

and sublime.

Channel Islands blue fox

But regardless of the patience required to collect this anthology of imagery, it pales in comparison to the understanding and energy that must be required to keep our environment intact. Of the approximately 2 million animal species identified on our planet, over 16,000 species are rapidly dwindling, due largely in part to habitat destruction and climate change.

According to Endangered Earth,

“There are now 41,415 species on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List, and 16,306 of them are endangered species threatened with extinction. This is up from 16,118 last year. This includes both endangered animals and endangered plants.

The species endangered include one in four mammals, one in eight birds, one third of all amphibians and 70% of the world’s assessed plants on the 2007 IUCN Red List that are in jeopardy of extinction. The total number of extinct species has reached 785 and a further 65 are only found in captivity or in cultivation. In the last 500 years, human activity has forced over 800 species into extinction.”

We must be resolute and vigilant as conservationists and global citizens to ensure that future generations share the same joy of experiencing wildlife in their lifetime, lest we only have these and other photographs to offer them by default.

Happy Earth Day!

Rocky Mountain elk

Battle Lands

It was 103 degrees outside and we were melting. “Where are the trees? There aren’t any trees here,” moaned Leah. There were no shadows to hide from the relentless sun. Even the clouds had forsaken us. Fortunately, they had drifted into the distance, providing the coveted contrast that landscape photography almost always requires.

Cedar Pass peaks

With the mercury steadily rising over the Black Hills of South Dakota the past few days, and the forecast not cutting us any slack from the heat, we bit the bullet we dodged in Belle Fourche, and decided to leave early the next day for Badlands National Park.

Except it was almost noon by the time we got underway. We really did try to get leave on time, but life got in the way, and in a small way it was a small blessing. We mapped a route to our destination with a way-point to Walmart, since we needed an assortment of groceries and dry goods, and I needed a new camera chip, having filled the last chip with nearly 4000 shots–half of them from StreamingThruAmerica locations.

“Make sure when you format this chip, that it’s compatible with your camera,” the associate advised. “Otherwise, you have three days to return it.”

“When are you planning on doing that?” Leah asked.

“As soon as we get back to the truck,” I answered, “I’ll insert it into the memory card slot, and I’ll know right away if it’s working.”

That’s when I discovered that I left the camera battery charging in the Airstream.

So we rode back to Rapid City to retrieve the battery and stow the groceries. “But if I hadn’t bought the chip in the first place,” I rationalized, “then we would have driven all the way to Badlands, and realized that the camera was useless. No battery, no camera; no camera, no photos; no photos, no blog.”

“Right! Meanwhile, it’s cooking outside! And we’re going to get there, and not be able to do anything. Why don’t you put that in your blog?” Leah announced with a healthy dose of sarcasm. The heat had definitely taken a toll on human relations. From that moment, neither one of us felt like making the trip, but we also couldn’t imagine missing a National Park, so we d(r)ove into the fire, hoping to adapt to our inhospitable surroundings, much like Badland’s earliest pioneers.

We drove across a 45-mile stretch of I-90 East, counting 60 Wall Drug billboards and road signs along the way.

“We should go there,” Leah informed.

“It looks like another South of the Border,” I hedged.

“But it looks like fun,” she tempted.

“We’ll see,” I relented.

We arrived at Badlands National Park during the hottest part of the day. Even the bugs were in hiding. Crossing into the park at the Pinnacle Entrance, we took an early side-road to Sage Creek Basin Overlook in the hopes of spotting wildlife along the prairie. But the animals had better ideas other than baking in the blistering sun.

Instead, we admired the scarred lunar landscape of Pinnacles Overlook,

Hay Butte Overlook

and claws of vulcan mounds crawling across the Hay Butte Overlook. It resembled a box of burnt streudel.

fields on fire

We backtracked through Roberts Prairie Dog Town–mindful not to pet a varmint potentially infected with bubonic plaque–and continued along Badlands Loop Road to Ancient Hunters Overlook, trying to imagine early tribes scouting the lowlands for buffalo,

Ancient Hunters Overlook

much the way I was location-scouting for worthy photographs of black Pierre Shale.

rock brittle

We continued our air-conditioned trek to Yellow Mounds Overlook, where the surrealism was so profound, we had to leave the comfort of the cab to explore by foot…

yellow mounds

receding yellow mounds

leaving us to wonder how 35 million-year-old fossilized soil could weather into something so beautiful, yet other-worldly.

Burns Basin Overlook, while stunning in its desolate vastness, was beginning to look like every other overlook. I feared we were becoming “geo-jaded”.

Burns Basin Overlook

But that feeling quickly faded after we sighted a bighorn sheep lounging on a breezy slope, surveying the best way to Wall Drug.

bighorn sheep look out

I stealthily walked around the cliff edge as far as I could to score the best possible angle without falling into the abyss.

bighorn profile

It was a standoff–both of us locked into position. She remained frozen as a statue, but I held my crouch under the blazing sun until my subject finally cooperated.

Bighorn CU

Leah was waiting in the truck with the air conditioner running. “I can’t take much more of this,” she vented. “It’s just too hot out there, and I can’t even bother to get excited about any of this. You’re out there taking pictures while I’m stuck in the truck, and it’s not fun for me.”

“Tell you what,” I negotiated, “We’re at the point of no return, so we have to finish the park drive. But I’ll make it quick, and I’ll buy you an ice cream at Wall Drug on the way home.”

Fortunately, the road opened up to grasslands on both sides, and a 45 MPH speed limit. We made good time until we arrived at Panorama Point, and the light was perfect.

“Go ahead,” she conceded, “we’re already here.” I tight-roped across a knife-edge ridge as far as I dared…

striped-cliffs.jpg

to capture the enormity of the jagged peaks.

Panorama Point

Just around the bend, I discovered the Big Foot Pass Overlook, on the right side of us,

Big Foot Pass Overlook

followed by the White River Pass Overlook on the left side of us.

White River Valley Overlook

Cedar Pass Fossil Area (2)

It was overwhelming.

We ended our tour at the Ben Reifel Visitors Center, where Leah enjoyed the film presentation, while I strode across the prairie grass for a closer look at The Wall.

The Wall detail

I kept my promise to Leah, driving to Wall just as the weather was quickly changing.

Wall Drug silos

The silos at the end of town re-created an ironic juxtaposition to the Badlands scenery.

Rain clouds gathered against gray skies, and the temperature dropped enough to cool rising tempers. But after a diet of Badlands drama under theatrical settings, I found it nearly impossible to buy into the Wall Drug über-kitsch experience.

Wall Drug Frontier Town

Occupying 76,000 sq. ft. of retail space in downtown Wall, it’s a fascinating rags-to-riches story from the Great Depression, and it stands as a titanic testament to American consumerism.

But it’s really a shit show, with “wall-to-wall” tourists.

Still…the donuts were fresh, and the 5⊄ coffee was hot,

…and most importantly, it brought a smile to Leah’s face.

Gallery

Horsing Around—South Unit

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a tribute to the man who became a conservationist out of his love for the North Dakota badlands. In fact, he credits his North Dakota experience as early preparation for his ascension to the Presidency. It’s easy to understand Roosevelt’s attraction to the hardscrabble prairie,

prairie pups

prairie dog town look-out

the steep rolling mounds of shrubs and cottonwoods,

badlands overlook

the wrinkled cliffs with ribbons of paint,

coal vein

and the densely populated wildlife that freely roam the roads…

Git along

and plains.

eating and drinking

While not a park that is overwhelming in beauty, it is a park that speaks to the power of preservation, as herds of bison, elk, bighorn sheep and feral horses have been reintroduced to the landscape, and continue to flourish.

getting ready

mounting

oh yeah

Ahhh

She's mine

There is a solitude and serenity that surrounds the rugged territory that originally attracted Roosevelt to the area. Fortunately, the sparse crowd allows the same chance for an immersive covfefe with the wilderness, where the quiet wind carries an energy that seems to rejuvenate the senses and soothe the soul.