The Elegant African Elephant, Up Close and Personal
By Andrea Kaucká and René Bauer
The sun slowly sets, dipping the surrounding landscape into a golden light. Slowly, Africa bids farewell to another hot day, and its grey giants trod across a dry plain. So quiet that we can´t even hear cracking branches or rustling grass.
Where does it come from, “to behave like an elephant in a porcelain shop”? From deep within their bellies we hear a low, rumbling noise — they are at peace and don´t need to rush anywhere.
There is a saying: “Once Africa, always Africa!” and in my case, this is very true. This continent got deeply under my skin and into my bones, I couldn´t imagine one single year without dust, a burning sun, dazzling aromas of the bush, and those magnificent sunsets and sunrises.
I love its every corner, culture, people, rattling bush tracks, and of course its wildlife…in national parks, I could sit at waterholes for hours, either with a cold beer or a thermos full of coffee and just watch my surroundings attentively.
Animals Roaming Freely
A long time ago, huge zebra herds, antelopes, elephant, prides of lions, hyenas, jackals, and other animals could roam freely, without borders or fences. Now there is a huge increase in population, lots of villages everywhere.
People need more space and most of all – more food. And more food means bigger and more fields. And it is logical, that when something gets bigger, something else decreases. Wildlife is pushed back into limited areas and often into an unnatural habitat.
So on one side we have a population with more demands, on the other side threatened and stressed wildlife. There is an ongoing fight between villagers and the “uninvited guest”. And of course, on top of it, there is an increase in poaching, which often leaves young animals to fend for themselves – and finally, perish.
It was a hot Zimbabwean late afternoon, we jumped onto a pickup and left for the reserve. I have always dreamed about Africa and having close encounters with not only its wild tribes but also with wildlife.
We had adrenaline-filled situations where a jackal wanted to steal our pot or where we had to drive the hyenas away from our camp, but once one stands face to face with one of the biggest mammals on land it’s a very strong experience.
On our first trip across Africa, we were ecstatic about seeing a furry ear of a lion sleeping somewhere behind the bushes, but nowadays we are used to them. If you don´t see hunting lions or a pride with cubs, they are quite boring to watch during the daytime. We found another favorite. The African elephant – Loxodonta Africana.
Its sheer size and strength awaken a feeling of respect, even when sitting in a car, and its intelligence and abilities are surprising. My deepest wish is to encounter them close in the wild, and I know I will be lucky one day, for now, I had to make do with the following.
Elephant Trunk in hand
We were waiting. And already from far away, I could see four raised trunks approaching. They greeted us, as they normally do among themselves. And now they were here, we stood only a few meters away and there was no window between us and them.
It was an intimate meeting. My heart beat fast but I was not afraid. I stretched my arm out, palm pointing upwards.
One of them extended its trunk and put the point of it into my hand.
Shedding a Tear
The feeling was indescribable, a little tear rolled from my eye. It tickled. Then the point, formed like two fingers, took my hand. I was lucky this elephant didn’t put its trunk into my mouth, as it´s a custom for them as a greeting.
An elephant´s trunk is the most important thing they have – a tool, their “cutlery” and like a device to build up social connections.
This very sensitive “pipe” is composed of more than 40,000 muscles with a total of around 100,000 muscle fibers. In comparison with us humans, this is a feat of evolution, as we have only 639 of them. A trunk is very flexible and strong, it can lift objects up to 300 kg.
The Leader Approaches
Together we strolled along the plain and I just couldn’t get enough of these four magnificent creatures.
The leader of them approached and eyed me intently. Here, it pulled out a few bundles of grass, shook the soil and sand off against its leg, and stuffed it in its mouth, there, it used its tusks to scrape off bark off a tree.
Eating 16 Hours a Day
An elephant eats for about 16 hours daily, to satisfy their needs they have to eat between 150 – 220kg of food, behind them, they leave as much as 150kg of dung.
Their digestive system is not perfect, elephants use only 30-40%. In their dung one can see branches, unprocessed grass, and whole palm nuts.
While walking beside them I just have to touch their skin — it feels rough and very dry. It is perfectly adapted to their environment, an elephant´s skin can be as thick as 3 cm and is very wrinkly. The only soft skin is behind their ears.
Speaking of which…have you ever taken a closer look at an elephant’s ear and found it to look familiar? Yes, they are bigger than the Indian elephant´s ears, but they also look like the African continent.
When “women” lead
We walked through the grass with four huge companions, three cows, and one bull. These elephants are saved orphans from Gonarezhou and Mukuvusi. Their age is between 29-32 years. For elephants, this is nearly like in
human terms as they can reach 70 years old. Amai is the oldest, at 32 she is the “matriarch” of this mini-herd, then there is irritable Ntombi, friendly Chibi, and the very friendly bull Jecha, who is the youngest.
Elephant Herds Usually Bigger
An African elephant normally lives in bigger herds of about 26 members, led by the most experienced, strongest and oldest elephant cow. The herd consists of her daughters and granddaughters in a very strict hierarchy. When male members become sexually active, which is at the age of 8-13 years, they have to leave the herd and only come back for mating.
And for this, they only have four days during which the female is prepared. An elephant´s “pregnancy” is a long one – it takes 22 months to carry the little elephant baby. When they are born, young ones can weigh anything between 70-160 kg. Those cute little babies are hairier and have only a very short trunk.
This one grows quite quickly within the following days. But even then, a very young elephant doesn´t know yet what to do with this “long thing” in its face. Elephant cows breast-feed their young for 2-3 years, and only their own. If another young from another mother wants to try and suckle, it is pushed away with the trunk and sent to its mother.
Elephant Babies Love to Play
Elephant babies grow quite quickly, about 1kg per day and they love playing. They explore what to do with their trunk, fight playfully with other young ones, play in the water and love mock-charging other animals around the waterhole. And finally, from our own experience we know they don´t only charge other animals, but people in cars alike. But only with its mother´s protection.
The whole herd is responsible for educating and protecting the young ones. In such a big family there is a mutual agreement. Even death doesn´t change an elephant´s ability for deep emotions. When an elephant dies, the whole herd mourns and stays with the deceased for many hours or days, trying to “resuscitate” it or even put it on its feet. Some may even bring food. Often, a herd will come back to the place of death, even after years.
An Elephant Memory
I admire everything, their abilities, their behavior, and their social emotions. Elephants have a great memory, they remember good and bad things, it may happen that you do something bad to a teenager and meet the same elephant 10 years later — and that he remembers well.
And it´s this good memory that the matriarch uses in her search for water, to remember certain routes leading to waterholes. Even in times of drought, she will walk these routes to find water or food far away. For drinking, they use their trunks which can act like a human tongue and hold water inside.
Normally, an elephant drinks around 70-90 liters of water, in some cases they can do up to 150. In the dry season, when water is scarce, elephants can survive a few days without water. This is possible by having a little pocket inside their throats where they can actually store water.
They love bathing and a proper “shower,” mostly we saw them drinking calmly at waterholes, but for example, elephants living in the Chobe National Park in Botswana love bathing in the river. And believe me, it is quite a sight to see 5-6 tons rolling around in the river before they disappear and only the tip of the trunk looks out – serving as a snorkel.
And mostly, after bathing comes the mud bath. Elephants can easily burn in the hot African sun and to get rid of parasites, they cover themselves in mud or dust.
“I´m not in the mood! Move off!”
Elephants need respect and one shouldn´t play with them. An elephant never attacks without warning, it will make clear what mood they are in, and if they want your company or not. They express anger, fear, joy, sympathy, empathy, pain, and sadness.
Most of the time, they are not aggressive, an exception is “musth” (the time for mating), sickness, or fear, the last one mainly with cow and a calf. Aggression or unease is easily recognized, for one elephant will have wet glands on the sides of their heads and body language tells you the rest.
An elephant tells you what it thinks of your presence if you are too close or not. A good sign to back off is a mock charge, that is when the elephant starts making a few quick steps towards you with a lifted trunk and wide-open ears. Believe me, six tons of running flesh scares even the hardest warrior. Mostly, after this mock charge, the elephant turns around and strolls off into the bush. Mostly, lonely bulls are not the friendliest to hang out with.
An elephant does not really have natural enemies, it can easily deal with predators. Those will mostly try to attack young calves. The evilest predator though is man, if an elephant has had bad experiences with a human it can get very skittish or attack without warning.
But even an elephant feels fear and that can be from the smallest of animals, like bees or wasps for example. A bee can´t pierce an elephant´s thick skin, but a whole swarm of bees can attack very sensitive parts of an elephant´s body. For young calves, this can mean death.
Big ears don´t mean good hearing
What interests me, while we are walking side by side as if they are talking to each other. It is known that they can communicate with each other for more than 2 km, on a frequency that we humans can´t hear. And even if their ears are huge, they are more of a cooling fan than a sound sensor.
An elephant listens with his feet; those are catching vibrations with their soft pads. And when it comes to trumpeting – I hope that my grey friend doesn´t have the idea of calling out to his friends because then I would probably lose my hearing.
Unfortunately, our time together was up. We had to say goodbye. I felt so happy inside and would have loved to stay with them longer.
I didn’t really want to leave them, but there was no choice. For their farewells, even Ntombi wagged his ears and they followed their leader Amai.
I only hoped that this will not be my last close encounter with these gentle, grey giants.