Elephants; big & enthralling

Please consider the images (excepting the one that I note in the caption) as being copyrighted and ask permission before using in any way. Thank you. DEC

The largest land mammal wears a baggy gray suit and has more wrinkles than a botox doctor’s waiting room. They are not colorful. They eat all the time. They are family-oriented. They are not very vocal. They are actually a bit boring in many of our hyper-human ways of assessing things. But they are for many safari-goers (maybe) the coolest of the African animals. They are so human in so many ways – or perhaps we are so elephant in so many ways.

They are family oriented. They are gentle and slow-moving. They seem thoughtful (usually). The youngsters are often noisy and playful. The males wander a bit and the females are not unhappy about that. Adolescents are asked to move out and find their own homes. They are huge and daunting without seeming to be huge and daunting. They drink water by the gallon and eat hundreds of pounds of vegetation daily. Their droppings are huge and still rich in seeds and grass fiber that passed through the animal undigested. (Any Dung Beetle will tell you that there is still plenty of good food in there. In fires it creates a smoke that kills mosquitoes. The fibers can make a very nice paper. And so on…)

Research on African elephants has a long and wonderful (modern) history. Cynthia Moss at Amboseli in Kenya, near the Tanzanian border and Iain Douglas-Hamilton who studied elephants and elephant movement in the Lake Manyara area of Tanzania, were two of the earlier researchers. Cynthia’s work, and that of her crew, spanned decades as they looked at elephant families and impacts on the environment in a smallish national park. Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamiton studied elephants and their movements in Tanzania. Oria started Elephant Watch Camp in Samburu (northern Kenya). Saba, their daughter, ran the camp for many years . Another daughter Mara, has also remained in touch with the elephant research and family heritage. Saba continued with elephants and education. Iain and Oria worked together on books about elephants and the need for conservation: Among the Elephants and Battle for the Elephants.

Quite honestly Iain and Oria and the girls are a whole book on their own. Saba (7 in Swahili) is still raising money and appearing on BBC educational programs and Mara (Dudu -insect in Swahili) is doing the same. I knew the parents through many safari visits to the family home near Lake Naivasha in Kenya and enjoyed many meals and chats during those visits. Iain was a guy who probably enjoyed being outdoors, flying, and watching elephants more than he liked hanging out with visiting groups – but Oria was different. I always described her as a mix of Lady Di and Madonna; a bright captivating spirit and a wonderful hostess. And, one that also loved elephants and Africa. Over the years I got to know a few of Iain’s Samburu elephants, where he had a permanent elephant study camp. I rather enjoyed sitting up on the “roof” of the house talking with Iain; but that is not to diminish my time with Oria but rather a chance to both learn from Iain and get a break from the group setting. The story of the Naivasha house and Oria’s family is a book in itself. Her cousin wrote the Babar books for instance and much of their childhood has running with the local Maasai kids. Very very interesting.

I am beginning to realize that there are elephant people and elephant stories that will take more than one blog post – so let me get on with this one and continue with other elephant-topics in the future. Again I will use the captioning of the photos for the narrative .

Seeing your first elephant is a memorable moment. Seeing a family group is even better. But bumping into an elephant in an unexpected place and at an unexpected moment surely spikes the adrenaline. They are large animals; 13,000 pounds, six and a half tons, for a big male and up to 10,000 pounds for a full grown female. The females; mothers and youngsters and their youngsters, for many generations, stay together. The young males are asked to leave the group when they are ten to twelve years old and have become a nuisance to the ladies. These fellows will form small groups and occasionally hang with older males and learn the ways of the wild. A thirty to forty year old male is dominant and will usurp breeding rights with great vigor – but the younger males contend as best they can and soon find they might mate with the younger females. A matriarch may come into oestrus and attract an older male from some distance.
For this post I thought I’d include a few images that show that elephants and motorized tourists are simply independent big things on the African scene. The elephants will use roads, cross roads, and hang out on roads and thus meet and greet many vehicles. They will step aside and let traffic pass as if it were some small unimportant beast that they barely countenance. Individual males are often oblivious. In some cases they may be a bit territorial, usually when near a female in heat. At those times they may chase things including vehicles. They can be nervous and a bit aggressive if there has been poaching in the area. They don’ trust anyone then. In most cases they just stand off from you and the roadway and go on about their life – which, like many herbivores, means eating.
The sight of an elephant in the road is captivating. What a surprise, what a reward – just what you had hoped for. The cameras click at the first elephants no matter how far away they are. Cameras are soon used only when the light is right and the animal is in a nice setting. These big gray beasts become part of the scenery – a both wonderful and surprising aspect of the human condition. Oh yes, the same sense of deja vu happens with lions as well.
When a herd/group/family passes by we always count them. They can number five or fifty. There are some places, and some seasons, where a hundred for more may be seen in the same grassland. These groups are headed by females; a matriarch, her sisters, her daughters their daughters, and so on. There are males as well; until they are deep in puberty and need to “get their own place”. The groups are very intimate. They walk together, feed together, stay together, touch each other, and look out for all the youngsters. When the males get to be about ten years old they are interested in themselves and competing with others of their age group and thus are often rough and tumble. This , and their developing interest in females, causes the older females to drive them off. In the few cases where a vehicle I was in was banged by an elephant it was almost always a couple of teenage boys chasing and goofing that hit us – with no intent of hurting us.
After a while – what’s over here? The elephant passes by unveiled. Perhaps a Lilac-breasted Roller or Magpie Shrike has caught the tourists’ attention.
There is a lot to see out there.
They happen by boats as well. Elephants are very used to water. They drink prodigious amounts of water and swim well. They can be found in rivers, like here in the Zambezi in Zambia, and in lakes and swamps like the images below from Zambia and Chobe in Botswana.
If you build a lodge along a river’s edge you will get passersby. They may be anything from kingfishers (birds) to elephants. In most cases everyone simply gets on with life but occasionally things happen. Behind, and above, this elephant there is a fence. It has a gap in it. During one stay here I was walking with a guest along the path from my habitation to the lodge when a screaming young (but really big) female elephant came up from the river, between the sections of fence, and headed right for us. It was numbing. We actually bolted downhill a bit on a diagonal to avoid her charge and dived under a solar panel and the rickety fence. She bellowed and swatted with her trunk – leaving a long dirt mark on the other guy’s back. The staff came out banging on pots and pans and yelling and she went running down the walkway – never to be seen again. There were six other elephants with her and they all streamed off into the bush. We had no idea what prompted her or if she ever acted out again – we supposed that perhaps her group was from upstream and had been shot at or poached and they were moving territory and very easily aggravated. It could have been that she wasn’t the oldest female and was not used to making decisions – sadly it was likely the older and larger animal was killed in the poaching instance.
They are smart and do have a great memory. They remember trees that provide fruit for seeds and return seasonally to those places to enjoy the food stuffs. This elephant returns to this lodge to reach up for the legume seeds on the low roof. It is quiet and tame – but you should never assume that means they are passive and domesticated. They are wild animals and capable to inflicting great damage if irritated. Though scenes like this are memorable and seem almost romantic; they aren’t.
This elephant is walking by my deck.
This particular wetland had hippos, elephants, crocodiles, and lots of birds. A most entertaining place to sip a cold beverage and enjoy the view.
This is not my image – but I am also happy it is not my rental car.
This is the largest elephant that I ever saw. There were large “ellies” in Samburu (northern Kenya) and in the Ngorongoro Crater (northern Tanzania), but this guy, from dry and dusty Namibia, was a looming presence. It was stunning to see. As with many males he was alone and seemed to appear out of no where – easily a seven ton apparition. This is the kind of big old bull who might appear when the matriarch comes into heat. A woman of his own age so to speak. For the most part elephants of this size and gender are alone.

The old “elephant graveyard” story is both true and false. The early Europeans who appeared on the African scene were simply killing animals, lots and lots of animals. Occasionally they would keep skins or tusks or bones, but mostly they just reveled in the killing. Before the Europeans the animals were modestly used for food by tribal peoples but rarely slaughtered. As a matter of fact elephants used to grow old and wear out their teeth. Once the teeth were pretty much gone they would head for wetlands and eat the moist succulent vegetation, eventually dying of old age. Thus there was an accumulation of tusks around these wetlands and thus rose the myth of an elephant graveyard. It was where many died but not where they headed intentionally to die. They headed there to live as long as they could. The flesh was eaten by scavengers and microbes and the bones chewed crushed and scattered by porcupines and hyenas; leaving the hard and tough tusks to accumulate.

2 thoughts on “Elephants; big & enthralling

  1. You write a wonderful story! I felt the elephants presence as I read. That towering male “hugging” the rental car is my favorite picture! Thank you for sharing your experiences.


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