Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The big and the small: elephants and mosquitos

Stanley – Thursday


Two interesting stories out of Africa this week: one about my favourite animal; and one about my least favourite animal.

My favourite animal, by far, is the elephant. 

What's not to love?

I have always regarded it with great affection because it has traits that I admire and enjoy. For example, it has a sense of humour. I share a bungalow in a game area called Ingwelala (the place where the leopard sleeps), an area of approximately 3000 hectares next to the famed Kruger Park. There is an apocryphal story of a group of inebriated university students who were making a helluva a row while watching a herd of elephants. Eventually one of the elephants, probably irked by the din, walked over to the Land Rover, picked up the front of the vehicle by the bumper, and dropped it. Drunken students noise no more.

Most of us have watched documentaries about how empathetic elephants are, particularly around their family and friends. I once saw a very different but moving example. A group of elephants were at a waterhole drinking. One elephant noticed a terrapin (a type of turtle) wandering precariously close to its back legs – the terrapin probably thought those big, round grey things were trees. The elephant gently pushed the terrapin backwards with one of its hind legs to get it out of range from being crushed. It repeated this several times until the terrapin got the message and retreated to a safe place.

The story out of Africa this week is about an astonishing effort to catalogue elephant behaviour – to create an elephant ethogram. To quote from the website,

An ethogram is a comprehensive list, inventory, catalogue or description of the behaviors or actions exhibited by a species. It is a library, or master list, of all known behaviors for a species that describes the characteristics and, where possible, the function of each behavior. The word ethogram comes from the words “etho,” meaning the characteristic and distinguishing attitudes, habits, beliefs, etc. of an individual or group, and “gram,” meaning to write down or record.”

It would be a waste of your time for me to describe what the website has to offer. Just go there and absorb all the characteristics of these remarkable animals. What does it mean when elephants rub ears? How far can elephants communicate with each other? How can an elephant produce quiet, gentle sounds as well as terrifying ear-bursting ones? Why do they intertwine trunks?

I suspect any question you have will be answered. Almost more interesting is the fact that the ethogram will answer questions you've never thought of.

Elephant affection

Elephant anger! Time to leave.

Elephant love?

With the population of elephants now less than 500,000 down from 5 million in 1950, the repository of knowledge contained in the ethogram can be used, not only by scientists, but as a tool for raising public awareness to the risk of losing one of the most intelligent and socially complex animals on the planet.

The ethogram is the brainchild of Dr. Joyce Poole and her husband Petter Granli, together with a variety of other experts. It contains data gathered data for over forty years from several African game reserves.

Elephant Voices is a gem.


Not only is the mosquito my least favourite African animal, it is also the most dangerous, killing an estimated 370,000 people in Africa in 2019. For children under 5, one dies every 2 minutes from malaria. 

The dreaded anopholes mosquito

Worldwide distribution of malaria

I am not a fan of any mosquito species, largely because I dislike the buzzing when I’m trying to sleep, but also because of the itching that I sometimes experience. It is the malaria-carrying anopheles genus that I dislike the most because of what it is doing to the African continent. Of the 460 anopholes species, only about 30-40 carry the malarial parasite Plasmodium falciparum which, so far, has resisted effective attacks from the medical community.

So why is it suddenly in the news again?

In a study published this week in The Lancetpromising new data on a potential vaccine was released. In a phase-two trial, based on 450 children, the R21 malaria vaccine candidate, developed in the UK, was 77 percent effective at stopping malaria, when compared against a control group. Children received three shots of the R21 vaccine over a period of two months, followed by a booster a year later.

The R21 is the first vaccine candidate for malaria to cross the 75 percent threshold, a goal the World Health Organization (WHO) first set in 2013. It now moves to Phase three trials. Let’s all hope it continues to be so effective.

Of course, much like the COVID vaccine, there are huge obstacles to overcome even if it is effective - cost and distribution being the biggest. 

If R21 continues to prove effective, and the cost can be kept very low, the impact on Africa will be huge.

The impact of malaria on families is huge.

This article from National Geographic provides much more information about malaria, in general. It is very interesting.



  1. What a gem of a link! I am obsessed with elephants as well, have sponsored a few in my time, so this is ideal for me.

  2. I wonder if there's anyone in the world who doesn't feel awe and wonder in the presence of elephants. You could literally watch them all day long and never tire. Every movement of theirs seems to be of great significance, even when we don't understand. What small mammal is oddly closely related to the huge elephant? (I know a lot of you know the answer.)

  3. Kwei. is that the wee rock hyrax chappie? Looks like a haggis with a smile?
    It has always puzzled me why there has been no vaccine for malaria, although knowing human nature, I suspect I can guess the answer...

  4. I love elephants. Even reading about their grieving process is interesting. I read about a mother elephant who tore a utility pole out of the ground because her baby was electrocuted by it. She wouldn't leave the spot where he died for three days.
    And the video of an adorable baby elephant, Echo, who was kidnapped by a group of females. Then her mother and her herd ran trumpeting to get Echo back from the other group. They were successful.
    I am glad to learn of this website, but will I ever leave it?

  5. Another anecdote: An elephant was brought to a U.S. sanctuary and was installed in a pen next to another elephant. The next morning, the staff found the metal well between them had been so bent out of shape the elephants could link trunks and communicate.
    Turns out they had known each other 25 years earlier at a circus. So these two best friends were united together, and strolled through the sanctuary grounds and down to the river every day, until one died. And no one should ever tell me animals don't have emotions?

  6. The stories of elephant emotions are fascinating. I wish I'd known about all of that when I was a child, because it might have inspired me to take a more serious interest in my neighbors. I say that because I grew up across a ravine from the municipal zoo, and came to accept the sound of a roaring lion or trumpeting Elephant as commonplace.