I didn’t see an elephant for the first week and a half I was in the bush, which seems ludicrous given their immense size and the fact that I was out every single day, driving around game reserves looking for them. But elephants are surprisingly good at disappearing into the surrounding flora. And their dull gray colouring makes them often indistinguishable in a cluster of trees and bushes. If they don’t want you to see them, you won’t see them.
Despite their size, they can be remarkably light on their feet. The term ‘lumbering elephant’? Yeah, it’s a misnomer. In my experience, elephants move neither clumsily nor heavily. In fact, they move astonishingly quickly and lightly (almost bouncing as they go), even though they look like they are in slow motion much of the time. I guess it’s all relative – I mean, a single elephant stride is probably equal to about 15 of mine, so even though they look like they’re strolling, they’re crossing large swaths of ground quickly. And they are doing so without even trying. An elephant running will bear down on you a lot faster than your brain can process, precisely BECAUSE of that relativism. You may come across an elephant 300 meters away from you and think you’re far enough away to be in a safe zone, and then suddenly that same elephant is your face in barely enough time for you to blink. So I recommend you do not piss off an elephant.
Usually, the way you find elephants is by the sound of breaking branches. Sometimes by their low rumbling. Even occasionally by their bubbly farts, which really do sound like a kid blowing bubbles. But they can travel silently when they want to do so. And I do mean silently.
There have been many mornings when I’ve woken up and walked outside my tent to see fresh spoor from not one, but many elephants, just on the other side of my door. And I didn’t have the faintest notion they had travelled past in the night. I heard nothing. To give you some perspective, I am a light sleeper. As in if a mouse farted, I’d wake up. And yet elephants always manage to give me the slip, which is one of the many reasons I find them so fascinating – they are multi-tonne Houdinis.
Most people focus on an elephant’s trunk, which is a fantastic bit of evolutionary brilliance. It has no less than 40,000 muscles in it (and up to 150,000 portions of muscles). As a comparison, an entire human body has about 650 muscles. Total.
The trunk can be used as a snorkel when they swim; as a hose to wash them off; as a straw to drink; as a sort of hand to forage for food; and as an arm to throw things at whatever they don’t like. I know – I’ve had one throw grass at me when he got annoyed with the uninvited ‘guest’ (me) who arrived unbidden during dinner and just wouldn’t take the hint to leave. The grass-throwing was the final hint of his that alerted me to move off, as I (not always the fastest on the uptake) realized the elephant was truly getting annoyed at having his peace and quiet interrupted by a camera-happy human settled in and staring at him from a mere 3 meters away.
The trunk is dexterous and gentle enough to act as a finger to scratch an itch or rub gunk out of an eye. And it is even used when greeting other elephants, kind of like a handshake. But, rather than focus on that amazing appendage, I’m focused on the feet. Why the feet? Well, to me, it’s incredible that an animal of such immense size can manage to navigate through forests and woodlands in almost total silence. And that’s all due to the foot structure. Nature, that genius of design, once again created a perfect combination of form and function to suit the needs of her children.
Because of the amazing engineering in the structure of an elephant’s foot, elephants can walk right past you without making a sound. This is made possible because of fatty connective tissue in their feet that acts like both a shock absorber for their weight and a sound smotherer of potential location giveaways such as cracking twigs. In fact, their foot structure is such that elephants walk around on the tips of their toes, meaning they pretty much tiptoe through life. Animals like horses, rhinos, and sheep also do this. But, and no offense to the other animals that travel digitigrade-style, I think it’s much more impressive that elephants do it. I mean, they ARE the size of a small house and all.
And what’s more amazing, they can HEAR through their feet.
If you ever spend time with elephants, you’ll likely notice the sounds they make. It’s hard not to notice them since elephants are rather chatty creatures. Sometimes they make a low rumbling sound that sounds a little like they’re humming a Gregorian chant. Sometimes they stomp their feet (which, in this particular case, DOES make a noise, though it’s still relatively muted when you think about all the weight behind each stomp). Sometimes they trumpet and scream. Yes, scream. Well, those sounds (and even lower seismic ones they produce that humans cannot hear) can travel great distances (as much as 20 kilometers!). And elephants can pick up the vibrations of those sounds (and what those sounds mean) through their feet. They ‘hear’ another elephant from miles away just by listening through their tootsies. I know I’m an animal nerd, but how can anyone NOT be impressed by the fact that an elephant can communicate with another elephant several kilometers away by listening through their feet?
If you want to learn more about this, check out:
And a few photos of those lovely feet, some trunk, and the whole package: