Mashatu’s playful giants

This is the first post from my recent trip to Mashatu in February 2015.

“There is nothing more energising than inhaling the tang of wilderness, loamy after rain, pungent with the richness of earth shuddering with life, or taking in the brisk dry cleanness of winter.”
Lawrence Anthony

As were travelling north towards the Majale river we came across this huge bull Elephant. He was on his own, as bulls usually are, and he was in musth. You can tell this from the wetness on his rear legs. There are clear signs when an Elephant bull is in musth. His temporal gland swells up and secretes a sticky fluid that stains the sides of his face. It is thought that he flaps his ears to direct the smell of his temporal gland secretion towards other Elephants. He also continually dribbles urine with his penis sheathed. The urine stains his penis green and splashes onto his hind legs, and it has a powerful odour. An Elephant bull in musth is also known to hold its heads high, chin pulled in, ears spread and it often walks with a distinct swagger. This is a time when the bull’s testosterone level sky rockets which can make him very aggressive so rangers are very careful not to interfere with these big boys at this time.

Mashatu,Botswana

Interestingly, this bull acknowledged us and showed us that he was bigger than us but there was no aggression. This was one of the most athletic looking bull Elephants I have ever seen.

Mashatu,Botswana

As it turned out this large bull Elephant was slowly making his way down to the waterhole in front of Rock Camp. The breeding herd arrived before the bull.

Mashatu,Botswana

There was plenty of water around so it was surprising that this breeding herd came to this waterhole to drink. It soon became apparent drinking was not on their minds but they were looking for fun in the mud.

Mashatu,Botswana

The older more sedate females just sprayed beautiful mud all over themselves. The young ones took full advantage of the mud.

Mashatu,Botswana

This youngster struggled to get out of the slippery mud bath. As you can see this calf fully immersed itself in the mud.

Mashatu,Botswana

“Poaching is reducing continent-wide elephant populations by more than 8% annually, although some countries are being hit much harder than others. This level of off-take is unsustainable and will have serious ecological consequences given the keystone role elephants serve in African ecosystems.”

 – Samuel K. Wasser Ph.D Director, Center for Conservation Biology, University of Washington

Some of the larger Elephants took advantage of the mud bath once the main herd had finished with it. There were lots of Cattle Egrets around catching insects which were stirred up with all the activity.

Mashatu,Botswana

Once the bull arrived, the females took the youngsters out of harms way. This bull began to really stir things up.

Mashatu,Botswana

His immense power became apparent. He used his front legs to spray mud on his belly and dirt on his back.

Mashatu,Botswana

“Elephants are living treasures. Nature’s gardeners. Nature’s great teachers. Tragically some people don’t give a damn. They prefer the dead treasure to the living one. The ivory. We must challenge this so-called ‘trade’ with all our might and shame on those who would condone it.”

 – Virginia McKenna OBE Founder & Trustee Born Free Foundation

Even the big guys are allowed to have fun. This large bull got down and really took his mud bath seriously. He used his tusks to dig up the bank of the waterhole to create more mud.

Mashatu,Botswana

Once he had created enough new mud he lay down in it rolling from side to side to coat himself as fully as possible with it.

Mashatu,Botswana

Interestingly, the Elephants came down to have a mud bath on two consecutive days around mid-afternoon when it was hottest. Then there was a two-day gap and they returned on the last afternoon of our trip. Perhaps they spent the other two afternoons at Pete’s Pond.

Early in the morning as we were driving towards the “vlei” area we often saw breeding herds quietly feeding on the plentiful grass north of the airstrip. Mashatu can be very dry in the winter months, so the Elephants take full advantage of the abundant food while it is available. This calf was bullying cattle Egrets, charging them for all he was worth  with big ears, little legs and a wobbly trunk.

Mashatu,Botswana

What is an Elephant to do if it needs to rub its eye. Simple, rub it with their trunk. They can be remarkably gentle and dexterous with their trunks. Asian Elephants have one finger-like projection at the tip of the trunk and African Elephants have two. These finger-like projections have many sensitive nerve endings and are capable of fine motor skills, such as grasping small and delicate objects and rubbing eyes. The trunk does not have any bones but consists of an estimated 100,000 muscles, which are grouped around the nose tubes.

Mashatu,Botswana

This was a typical early morning scene where a breeding herd was quietly feeding. The scene was serene and the herd moved continuously. The small calves try to feed using their trucks but with little success so the spent their time chasing imaginary foes.

Mashatu,Botswana

Mashatu provides a wonderful variety of scenery.  We stopped one morning to have coffee and rusks and watch these Elephants enjoy the water in the Majale river below us . The river was not flowing but the outside edge of the bends are usually deep leaving residual water pools.

Mashatu,Botswana

 One Elephant could not resist joining its  herd member which was enjoying a swim.

Mashatu,Botswana

They two Elephants were play fighting in the water and obviously thoroughly enjoying it.

Mashatu,Botswana

“Elephants have long term supportive bond between family members,

so it’s not just a species facing extinction, it is a massive individual suffering. “

 – Jane Goodall

When you see how dry Mashatu can be in winter this scene is luxurious.

Mashatu,Botswana

There were many young Elephants in Mashatu, a sign of thriving herds. The herds move freely into Mashatu from Tuli and Zimbabwe. There is an iconic image of a herd of Elephants crossing the vast Shashe river of sand from Zimbabwe into Botswana.Mashatu,Botswana

On our last afternoon we got news that the seven young lions which has been evicted by two new male Lions had moved deeper into Mashatu and had been seen at the junction where you turn to Soloman’s wall off the main dirt road to Selebe Pikwe. It was late and the light was fading when we came across three Elephants drinking at a natural spring. Suitably refreshed two Elephants decided to push each around in a playful way.

Mashatu,Botswana

Summertime in the African bush is a time of bounty and youth. It is a real privilege to bear witness to this abundance. It restores your faith that all is innately right with the world.

“Our inability to think beyond our own species, or to be able to co-habit with other life forms in what is patently a massive collaborative quest for survival, is surely a malady that pervades the human soul.”
― Lawrence Anthony

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness, and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

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