The elephants constitute the Order Proboscidea, which contains two living species, the Asian elephant Elephas maximus and the African elephant Loxodonta africana.
The oldest-known stem-group elephant, Eritherium, appears in the fossil record 60 million years ago, just five million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs. Known only from a few teeth and jaw fragments, it weighed about 10 pounds, about the size of a modern-day woodchuck.
Phosphatherium, which lived about 56 million years ago, was about the size of a modern-day beaver. Like a beaver, it was semi-aquatic in its habits, living in or near rivers and eating freshwater plants.
Moeritherium, which lived 37 million years ago, stood 70 centimeters high at the shoulder, about the size of a modern-day pig or tapir.
Palaeomastodon, which lived 36 million years ago, stood from one to two meters in height and weighed up to two tons.
Deinotherium appears in the fossil record 20 million years ago and disappears 2 million years ago. Standing 4.5 meters high at the shoulder and weighing 10 metric tons, it was the third-largest land mammal that ever lived.
Molé National Park is one of the last remaining places in Ghana where you can see elephants in their natural state.
I escorted a group of about 40 of my students on a two-day outing to Molé, which proved to be an enlightening experience. Our first day began before the crack of dawn. Under the watchful eye of park ranger Abo, we learned how to estimate the density of a population of large mammals, in this case the kob.
We returned to the visitor center by late morning, and I strolled over to the village where the park staff and their families live to purchase some supplies. A couple of little boys began following me, and then a couple more, and a couple more. By the time I arrived at the village, I had acquired quite a retinue.
At a little hole-in-the-wall store, I purchased cheese and crackers and drinking water. The boys insisted on carrrying my groceries for me. On the way back, on of the boys, Edmond, who seemed a little more intelligent and serious than the rest, informed me that their soccer ball had busted and asked me if I would buy them a new one.
Now, giving money to beggars is something that makes no sense. You could give away every cent you had, and it wouldn’t make a dent in this country’s poverty. But there was something about Edmond’s manner that made it impossible for me to say No. After the boys deposited my groceries on the kitchen table, we went back outside and I thanked them for their assistance and handed Edmond a note for five cedis. Then I told them I had to go take a nap. I half expected that my minor generosity would generate a whole litany of new requests, but the boys simply thanked me and swiftly departed.
That afternoon we went out again with Abo, who taught us how to identify animal tracks and scats.
We saw elephant tracks.
We stopped by a watering hole and viewed the tracks of a crocodile, complete with the distinctive tails-marks between the footprints.
We could see half a dozen or more crocodiles sailing around, with only their nostrils and eyes protruding from the surface, but none of them would oblige me by getting out of the water and posing for a proper picture.
The next morning found us up again before the crack of dawn to go on safari. I was accorded the seat of honor, in the front of the bus, with the best view of any seat on the bus, right through the oversized windshield. Unfortunately I was to learn that the seat which afforded the best view was also the worst one for taking pictures. Taking photographs through a windshield never yields a good picture. We saw roan antelope, hartebeests, bushbucks, waterbucks, kob, and duiker, but I didn’t get any pics. Some tsetse flies were buzzing in through the open windows, looking for a snack, but fortunately for us they are slow and clumsy fliers and easy to kill.
And then we saw them.
Unless you’ve actually been there, you probably cannot imagine the thrill of seeing the world’s largest land animals, up close, in their native habitat. Seeing them in zoos just isn’t the same. The first glance seemed like something glimpsed in a dream. But these were real enough. I got out of the bus and crept up to the nearest one as close as I felt prudent. If he had objected to my presence, things could have gotten exciting, but he just kept going about his business, perhaps hoping if he ignored me I would go away, perhaps not caring one way or the other.
That afternoon we went on an outing to Larabanga to see the oldest mosque in Ghana. It was built in 1421, about the same time the Portuguese were looking for a way around the horn of Africa to get to Ethiopia and the Holy Ark of the Covenant.
We returned to the guest house mid-afternoon. We had a seminar scheduled for that evening at six, so I decided to grab something to eat before that. I procured cheese and crackers from my room and was heading for the dining room when I became aware of hundreds of ants running all over my arm and hand. I stood there looking down stupidly for a few moments before I realized that the package of crackers was literally crawling with ants. I went outside to throw the package away, but I couldn’t find a trash can, so I just set the package down outside the door of our bungalow.
I walked over to the village to buy some more crackers, and the boys greeted me like I was the second coming of Jesus Christ. They swarmed all over me, whooping and hollering, proudly showing off their new soccer ball. Afterwards they insisted on carrying my groceries back for me.
I wanted to take some pictures of us together on the soccer field with the new ball. It was already almost six. The daylight was already fading, and we were scheduled to leave the next day long before dawn, so I knew it was now or never. I realized I might miss the seminar, but I decided this was more important. I walked inside the bungalow and grabbed my camera. When I emerged, I saw that the boys had snapped up the package I had discarded and were devouring the ant-infested crackers as if they were the ambrosia of the gods.
We walked back over to the soccer field and snapped some pictures.
Here’s Edmond, wearing my shades and showing off the new soccer ball.
When I got back I learned that the seminar had been canceled. So I had definitely made the right choice.
The next morning we departed at the ungodly hour of 3: 30 AM. We stopped in a little village in Brong-Ahafo, where the villagers still worship the monkey god.
For a small honorarium, I was allowed inside to view the shrine of the monkey god and to meet the chief priest.
Then it as back to pounding pavement. We didn’t get back home until 11:00 PM.
And someone was waiting for me.
Eritherium fossil photo via National Academy of Sciences
All other stem-group elephant illustrations via Wikimedia Commons.
All other photos by author