08.05.09

Africa journal part 2: elephants

Posted in Family, Travel at 6:05 pm by ducky

Of all the charismatic megafauna in Botswana, elephants are perhaps the most charismatic and definitely the most mega. We are also friends with Jake Wall, an elephant researcher working with Save the Elephants (see the National Geographic article that he’s featured in!), so we probably knew more about elephants than any other of the Botswana animals. Good thing, as we saw lots of elephants. LOTS of elephants. I am certain that I saw at least one hundred, and maybe two or three hundred.


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We saw the biggest herds from the Chobe river next to the Chobe National Park, near Kasane.

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There are 50,000 elephants in the 11,700kmĀ² park, and in the dry season, many of the ones in the north go to the river in the late afternoon to drink. There are so many elephants there that there are practically traffic jams!

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Not only that, but the herds do not run away from tourists in boats. I don’t know if they are just habituated to tourists and how much of it is that groups of primate predators in boats aren’t as threatening as groups of primate predators on land. (How do they know we are predators? Predators have eyes that face forwards.) The elephants kept wary eyes on the boats, but they weren’t spooked enough to move away. Later on the safari, we mostly got to watch animals’ backsides as they moved away from the scary tourists; the river cruise was one place where we saw their frontsides.

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In the same way, because we were in boats, the elephants weren’t a threat to us. That meant that the boat captains could bring us quite close. I estimate that we got to within four or five meters of elephants (and crocodiles and hippos!) sometimes.

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On our second river cruise, a bachelor herd (males only) swam across the river RIGHT IN FRONT OF US. I knew that elephants could swim, but was quite surprised at how they swam. Unlike dogs or horses, their heads are almost completely submerged and their bodies are completely invisible. All you can see is a little bit of trunk, acting as a snorkel, and the tops of their heads. Their heads rock forwards and back as they swim.

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Elephant swimming across Chobe river

All fourteen of the bachelor herd got into the water, but one young male turned abruptly back after walking in up to about his shoulders. Our guide surmised that he was new to the area and afraid of the water. As we left, he was wandering back and forth on the shore, looking across the river at his buddies. I imagined him feeling bereft and forelorn, hating being separated from his herd but also afraid of the dark waters in front of him.

His buddies, once they got across, pulled up hunks of the tall grass in the marshy land on the other side and for all the world appeared to spank the ground with it, then eat it. Our captain explained that they were knocking the dirt off of the roots. (They maybe were standing in a little bit of water — hard to tell from a distance when marsh grasses were everywhere.) When an elephant dies of “old age”, it is usually from starvation. Either the teeth wear down to unusable or they fall out, and then the elephant can’t chew its food adequately. If they knock the dirt off, then that saves wear and tear on the teeth.

On the other hand, sometimes elephants would eat dirt. Yes, really. There are some minerals (like salt) that aren’t plentiful enough in their food, so they will dig holes and eat the dirt. (They might not chew the dirt, I suppose, so perhaps that dirt doesn’t wear down their teeth.)

Elephants feeding each other dirt

Elephants feeding each other dirt from a hole they dug

The first pictures, of the elephants at the riverbank, are mostly “breeding herds” — composed of females and juvenile males. As soon as a male starts getting overly friendly with the females in the herd, the mother forces him out! I sure hope that elephants have complex language, as otherwise it seems like it would be a horrible, horrible shock. Imagine being a boy who spends every minute of every day with the same twenty family members, and as soon as your mom sees you checking a girl out, she forcibly runs you out without telling you why! Imagine then having to find a group of other lonely males — with presumably a different social structure — and try to fit in.

The bachelor herds we saw had a range of ages hanging out together. We heard that the younger bulls learned how to do things from the older bulls. (Presumably like how to cross rivers, and also where the good water holes are.)

Bulls do not always hang out together; sometimes they go off on their own. Not being an elephant psychologist, I don’t know if they are socially maladept, bored, tired of being around younger bulls, tired of being around older bulls, or what. Maybe those anthropomorphic emotions don’t even make sense for elephants.

We did observe two elephants being affectionate (or at least intimate) with each other, feeding each other dirt from a hole they had dug — see photo above.

It was not uncommon to see lone bulls — occasionally at very close range!

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Jim responding to cries that there was an elephant in our camp

We were taking a siesta in our tent when we heard people shouting that there was an elephant in our camp. We weren’t sure if we were safer inside the tent our outside, and eventually chose to get out of the tent, only to discover that the elephant was only five meters away!

This bull was after seed pods from the camelthorn acacia tree in our camp. He put his tusks around the tree, carefully laid his trunk up the tree trunk, and shook the tree, making pods rain down. He hoovered the area of pods and then sauntered off, totally nonchalant and disinterested in us.

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Bull elephant harvesting camelthorn acacia seed pods

I was surprised at just how quiet elephants are when they walk. As I mentioned above, the elephant in our camp was 5m away and we never heard him. Not a thing. They are so big that you’d expect the ground to shake as well, sort of like a truck going by, but no, not a thing. When walking, they have three feet on the ground at any one time, and have big poufy feet, so they are incredibly stealthy. Here’s how big their feet are compared to mine:

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Tracks of the elephant that went through our camp

Later on the trip, Jim and I heard a great deal of splashing around while we were visiting the camp latrine, which that night only had distance as its privacy guard. The splashing noise went away before we finished up, and on our way back we encountered a (very uncomfortable/embarrassed) guide who wanted to warn us that an elephant had swum across the river and landed right near us, but didn’t really want to intrude upon us in the latrine! Once the elephant got out of the river, we heard nothing, even though the splashing sounded quite near.

Did that frighten us? No. Maybe it should have, but it didn’t. The elephant that passed the latrine could probably smell us (and the latrine), we were not advancing upon it, it would have to go through some bushes to get to us, and elephants are usually not aggressive unless they are in musth (a condition similar to erustrus in females, characterized by extreme randiness, aggression, and a strong and distinctive odor) and we didn’t smell anything funny. We also only heard one animal splashing, which meant that it was unlikely to think we were threatening its child.

We did see adult females protecting a baby elephant quite fiercely a few days before: note that there are four adult females forming a defensive ring around the baby, barely visible (cyan arrow points to its tail). They were also trumpeting and flapping their ears.

Four female adults protecting one baby elephant

Four female adults protecting one baby elephant

While elephants’ walking is nearly silent, the same cannot be said for their crapping. Their dung comes out in volleyball-sized balls, and like horses but unlike dogs (or lions, as we observed later), elephants don’t stop and squat to defecate, but just lift their tails and keep on walking. That means their dung falls from a great height — two or three meters up. Boom! Boom! Boom!

Elephant dung

Elephant dung

The shape is such that, well, I will never look at Rolo chocolates the same way again.

On our river cruise, we were quite surprised to see baboons apparently eating elephant dung. Our guide explained that elephants have poor digestive systems. (Elephants pass so much fiber in their dung that people make paper out of it!). Their digestive system is so poor that frequently it lets fruit and nuts escape undigested. Baboons would thus root through the elephant dung in order to find those fruits and/or nuts.

Baboon eating elephant dung

Baboon eating elephant dung

As you can see, I was fascinated by the elephants.

2 Comments »

  1. droo said,

    August 8, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    Just four words. Wow!

    Welcome back. (OK, now I’m at twelve words).

  2. Kristi said,

    May 28, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    I just randomly found and read this entry – Ducky your photos are awesome (and so much better than mine). I love elephant snorkling!

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