Okay, so after two weeks of avoiding the baboons (yes, I actually HAVE been avoiding them as much as I can), I’ve realised I need to get back to some of the other wildlife out here. And there’s so much of it. Considering we haven’t covered the Big Five in depth yet – and that’s what most people want to see when they come here – I’ll begin there, starting with…. Elephants!
Some notes on Loxondonta africana (also known as ellies) – they live in matriarchal herds, with males splintering off when they hit puberty (somewhere between 7-15 years old) to sow their oats. You will often find bull elephants puttering around in twosomes, an older male mentoring a younger male (and also keeping the younger male in check). In fact, if you come across a solo male, odds are there’s another male somewhere in the area, which is useful to know when you have to drive around blind corners and in dense vegetation.
You’d think you couldn’t possibly miss seeing an elephant, but even a several ton being blends into the bushes in a matter of seconds. However, you certainly won’t miss smelling them, and doubtful you’ll miss hearing them. An elephant, much like a rhino, has a very earthy smell, not surprising since they eat nothing but greenery. They are the largest vegetarians you will come across on this fine planet of ours. And their digestive systems aren’t exactly the most sophisticated, meaning they leave a lot of undigested their food behind in their dung. In fact, when you come across elephant dung that’s been sitting around for a few months, you might be inclined to dismiss it as a hay bale that simply fell off a truck a while back.
Like rhino (who also leave behind piles of undigested goodies), elephant are hindgut fermentors, which means they don’t digest cellulose. When you eat nothing but plants, that means you don’t digest a LOT of what you eat. Rabbits and horses are the same. In fact, some of our hindgut fermentors even practice coprophagia, which means they eat their poop. No joke. But not elephants. They just keep eating and eating. In fact, they eat for about 20 hours a day. According to the African Elephant Specialist Group (http://www.african-elephant.org), these heavyweights eat somewhere between 100-300kg a day (220-600lbs), and they drink a small river system’s worth of water, somewhere around 200 litres (or 50 gallons) a day. They can drink this all in one sitting as well, which is pretty impressive, considering they could also probably mow down a city immediately afterwards if they got sufficiently pissed off. In fact, a single trunkful measures somewhere in the 4-8 litre category. It would appear that unlike me, who might as well hibernate because I’m so bloated after drinking a measly 1.5 litre bottle of water, elephants could theoretically go out clubbing after one of their slurps and not have a single cramp.
While I’ve fallen in love with many of the sounds of the bush, I have to admit, the elephants make one of my all-time favourites. No, not the trumpeting. While that’s nice to hear when you’re trying to track them, it’s also a little disconcerting when they’re close by and running straight at you, ears flapping madly and eyes burning like little copper fire bolts. Nope, the sound I love is the low-pitched rumbling sound they make, an almost therapeutic baseline that literally reverberates through your body when you’re in close proximity to them. They make a whole range of noises even lower than the rumble, but it’s so low as to be out of our range of hearing, which is pretty common with animals, I’ve found. We miss a LOT of their communication because our ears are simply not as fine-tuned as theirs. In fact, their ears are so fine-tuned, they can hear each other rumbling up to 20 miles away. The rumbles travel is seismic waves, and the elephants can actually hear them with their feet.
Elephants are probably my favourite large animal to sit and watch, mainly because their level of social interaction is fascinating to me. And the little ones are so playful and funny, especially before they’ve mastered the use of their trunks (which takes a few years to get under control, considering there are a few thousand different muscles in there to control). Of course, when you have one appendage that acts as hand, arm, nose, straw and vocalization device, you need it to be a highly developed body part, essentially a well-oiled machine of versatility. So it’s not surprising it takes a while for them to get every part of it to work together. Once they get it down, though, they are capable of lifting items as heavy as 250+kgs (or 600lbs).
On top of that, elephants actually play with each other. They knock each other over, they whack each other with their trunks, they nudge each other and roll over each other. And they shoot water at each other, their trunks a modified version of water pistols. In fact, elephants in water are a joy to watch. You can actually see the change in their behaviour when they encounter a waterhole, even if it’s a small puddle. They LOVE water! And considering the babies can suffer from sunburn, water is also a nice opportunity for them to cool off from the sun’s intense rays.
I had the privilege on many occasions to sit and watch elephants, both in giant herds, in duos and trios, and solo. After a while, you learn to read certain behaviours about them and can get a good sense of when they’re happy, when they’re aggravated and when they mean business. Of course, you are never right 100% of time, which is why they (as well as any other animal) should be respected. Keeping a healthy distance and letting the animal come to you as opposed to you coming to it is always the rule of the day.
Oh, and don’t try to outrun one. They’ll trump you every time. No pun intended.
Learning how to drive a manual transmission is also a joy when elephants are a potential road obstacle. Unlike potholes and tree branches, elephants aren’t easy to avoid, and they move (often towards you) when you try to get by them. My fiance and I almost had to ram a car behind us once when we were driving through Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve and we came upon two bull elephants. (By the way, like cattle, ellies are bulls for males and cows for females.) The elephants were casually chowing on some trees on the side of the road, minding their own business. We stopped the car and watched, my fiance filming and me just enjoying the moment. Eventually we realised that a pile of cars had lined up behind us. We were blocked in.
The bulls started to tussle, the larger one asserting his dominance as only an elephant can – slapping the crap out of the younger one with his trunk and tusks. The younger one started moving backwards down the road straight for us. And no one in the other cars thought it might be a good idea to reverse. We slowly started moving backwards, hoping the car behind us would get the hint. But nothing. And the elephants were closing fast. They were now both facing us and running straight at our front bumper.
I was getting a little worried, since not only was I new to the whole ‘driving a manual’ thing, I was new to driving around elephants. My fiance waved frantically to the car behind us, signaling them to move. With the gap between us and the now pissed-off elephants closing more quickly than I imagined possible, my fiancé turned to me and said, “Put the car in reverse and just go. If you hit these idiots behind us, they’ll get the hell out of the way.” They finally got the memo and, probably realising that the elephants were now a mere meters away, gunned it out of there.
As a side note, if you are ever driving around elephants, you shouldn’t gun the car. Ever. Not in reverse; not in drive. They will chase you, and for such giants, they’re lightning fast. Better that you try to get out of the way, not run away. And if you’re going to drive in areas where they roam, do yourself a favour and learn a bit about their behaviour before you do, such as their warning signs. It might save your life. Really. Several tons can do a lot of damage to a car, and even more to you.
Incidentally, I should mention that poaching of elephants has increased significantly in the last decade. Numbers are going down quickly. Once again, it appears ivory is on the menu, and in spades. I hope one day all humans learn to respect our natural resources…which include the rest of the animal kingdom….and prefer those resources intact and alive instead of dead and in pieces on a mantle somewhere, or bedecking someone’s wrist as an ivory bangle.
Okay, off the soapbox now. If you have a hankering for all things elephant, check out some more information at: http://www.elephantconservation.org/elephants/african-elephants/ http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/html/elephant_conservation.html http://www.elephantcenter.com http://www.elephanttrust.org
Here’s a little gallery of some pachyderms I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in my journeys thus far. Enjoy!
Song for the day: It’s a tie between ‘Baby Elephant Walk’ by Henry Mancini and ‘Nelly the Elephant’ by Toy Dolls
All rights reserved. ©2013 Jennifer Vitanzo