Bonding with pachyderms
Imagine sitting in a car for 20 hours in 100-degree heat waiting for something to happen, not wanting to make a sound, peeing in a paper cup and doing it by choice. A whole Nederland family, unaware of the discomfort, focused on what might show up outside the windows of their beat up Land Rover.
You never know what the people you see every day, at the grocery store, filling their tanks with gas or walking their dogs, do when they’re not being ordinary residents. Their parkas and Sorels mask super people who do amazing things that few people know about.
Who would guess that Laura Brown and Rob Ramey and their two daughters, Annika and Eva, are actually scientists who study elephant poop when they are not working on genetics or high school homework? Last month the couple gave a presentation at the Nederland Community Library. They showed pictures of their most recent trip to Namibia that were a mixture of beauty and tragedy as they explained the plight of the hunted creatures. One of their goals is to spread the word of the devastation that is occurring in the southwest Africa country.
The couple works for a living, but their passion is Africa and the plight of the elephant. In 1990, Laura and Rob made their first trip to study elephants in Zimbabwe. Specifically they were researching the acoustics and genetics of pachyderms, how they communicate over long distances and send ultrasound signals through walls. They tracked the movement of the elephants and through high tech equipment were able to see what the elephants were seeing.
After their successful trip in Zimbabwe, the couple, because of politics, was unable to return to Africa until 2005, but they had always wanted to go back. They went to Namibia this time to do some genetic work and have returned to the same place, the same population of elephants ever since.
Laura said they have been doing it on their own with the help of several small grants. They have published articles on their genetic work and shared their research with colleagues in Namibia, the scientists, the land management and the tourism entities, making many connections and networking.
“We wanted to safeguard elephant protection so local people can share the information with tourists. We also wanted the people who live on the ground with the elephants to know and understand them and to be more informed about the elephant versus human conflicts over water and crops,” explained Laura.
The couple has been trying to get more recognition for their work to attract funding and has recently set up a 501 (c) 3 tax status so people can donate to the cause that has emotionally gripped them for so long.
The Nederland Community Library was packed during Laura and Rob’s presentation. They went on a journey to a desert landscape where a small refrigerator with cold water was the biggest relief after a day in the heat and sand.
They recalled the time when their gas tank fell out of their vehicle and they used a satellite telephone to call Udo Sille of Peak to Peak Imports in Nederland to find out what to do. The first thing Udo said was to park somewhere where there was no sand.
After days of sitting in their vehicle watching, the lions and the elephants got used to them and would approach the vehicle. The family took close up pictures of lions mating, of an elephant giving birth, which, Laura said, is one of the highlights of her life.
Elephants have a high infant mortality rate, with only 30 percent surviving, making it hard to build up herds. The herds walk at night from water hole to water hole. One newborn baby walked 25 km in 48 hours. Rob and Laura recorded the births and the herd’s activities to keep the babies safe.
The family became familiar with individual elephants, identifying them by their ear patterns and their unique tusks. They got to know the elephants’ personalities. When the family saw a herd of elephants, they would drive up close, turn off the engine and sit, letting them approach the vehicle.
As the Ramey family learned more and more about the Namibia people, they were more aware of the lawless society, realizing that an elephant who bothered a village was bound to be killed, its carcass left to rot under the relentless sun, its tusks harvested to be sold to China.
Rob and Laura know that the elephant’s journey is part of the circle of life, but they hope their research will ultimately help the South African elephants’ population to grow and thrive.
For more information on the elephants and how to donate, log onto desertelephantconservation.org