Aqua heaven for giants in a thirsty land

This is the fourth post from our recent trip with CNP Safaris to the Chobe river, and focuses on Elephants. The Chobe river is one of the major southern African rivers. It flows along the northern border of Botswana and meets the mighty Zambezi just east of Kasane, continues along Zimbabwe’s northern border with Zambia, through Mozambique and down to the Indian Ocean.

“We admire Elephants in part because they demonstrate what we consider the finest human traits: empathy, self-awareness, and social intelligence. But the way we treat them puts on display the very worst of human behavior.”
Graydon Carter

We would leave the lodge around 6h30 and cruise straight to the little office at the park entrance to sign in and then head up river to just enjoy the big sky, peace and serenity that envelopes you at this time of the morning. We usually have a look in Jacana Alley, which is the inlet close to the three large iconic Jackalberry trees. One of which is home to a Fish Eagle family. October is not Jacana breeding season so it was relatively quiet but we found this lone bull Elephant. He was standing shoulder deep in the river eating the new grasses. It was very quiet and peaceful and somehow everything seemed right with the world while we were watching him feeding.

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After June, the river level drops and the water level can fall one to two metres below the level of the islands. In certain spots, this provides photographers with wonderful perspective when the bulls are grazing close the edge. Those massive ears act as fans and radiators and the dual system is required in the summer months when it can be very hot along the Chobe river.

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We came across a few Elephant bulls who were feeding on the grasses on the island. They kick loose tufts of grass and then pull them out of the ground with their trunks. They wrap their trunk around the tuft and pull. Having removed the tuft, they hit it against the ground to remove the loose soil and delicately placed it in their mouth. It is impressive how dexterous these massive mammals are with their trunks.

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The water levels do not worry the larger Elephant, especially the bulls. They just wade through and if it gets too deep they have a snorkel and crocodiles are not a threat.

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Family herds are a common sight along the Chobe. They vary from in size from small groups of four to as many as fifty. You don’t often see Elephant down at the river in the early mornings as they are usually feeding inland. Unfortunately, the Elephant herds have expanded to such as extend in northern Botswana they have decimated the bush for some distance from the water. The result is that most of the animals now have quite a “trek”  between food and water.

“Elephants have long term supportive bonds between family members, so it’s not just a species facing extinction, its massive individual suffering.”

~Jane Goodall

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October was especially hot, around 40 degrees centrigrade, so by the afternoon the Elephant were hot, well fed and needed to drink. Once they had slated their thirst, it was time for a little beauty treatment – even the boys!! They use their trunks to suck up a dollops of mud and then squirt it over themselves. The mud seems to be soothing and provides some sunscreen and protection from biting insects.

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When big bulls are slowly making their way towards you is always an impressive sight. The older bulls seldom take much notice of the boats. They must have seen it all before – many times! Elephants have a number of ways in which they communicate. Long distance communication is either infra-sonic (low frequency) or seismic (vibrations felt through their feet). To get a sense of the range of frequencies used by Elephants it may be useful to compare them with the range used by people. A typical human male’s voice in speech fluctuates around 110 Hertz (Hz, or cycles per second), a female’s voice around 220 Hz and a child’s around 300 Hz. Among Elephants, a typical male rumble fluctuates around an average minimum of 12 Hz (more than 3 octaves below a man’s voice), a female’s rumble around 13 Hz and a calf’s around 22 Hz (Source http://www.elephantvoices.org/).

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Further up river just next to Puku Flats, we found a small family group of Elephants crossing one of the deeper channels. As you can see from the dry patch on top of the Elephant’s head, in the next image, the river must have been quite deep at one point. The calves have to swim but get helped and pushed along by the adults. They are very protective of their young when crossing a channel because that is the time the calves are vulnerable to a crocodile attack. The females have a lot invested in those calves, they carried them in their wombs for almost two years.

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Bronzed, refreshed and ready to take on the world, these three Elephants have just crossed a deep channel to feed on the grass on the other side. The Elephants could have walked around the inlet but that was probably one to two kilometres so they just crossed the channel instead – quite human like!!

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Up at Elephant Valley we found more of our beloved Elephants but they were not alone. A small group of young Sable Antelope had also come down to drink. The adults were fine with their neighbours but one young bull decided they should not drink near them and began chasing off the Sable. This particular young bull had been eating soil from a steep bank. The white soil is rich in minerals which is why he had white over his legs, trunk and forehead. The calcium-based minerals must be one of the key reasons Elephant Valley is so attractive the antelope and Elephant.

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Elephant Valley is a superb spot to watch game come down to drink. It is incredible to see how ordered and patient the Elephant families are at this spot. One family will wait, even though they must be thirsty, until the family drinking at the water’s edge are finished. We humans could learn a thing or two from our pachyderm friends.

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The Elephant mothers are very protective over their families and the youngsters know to stay close.

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The next image was taken of a lone bull Elephant on an island in the main river about a kilometre downstream from Chobe Game Lodge. This is the island we moored at to take the Skimmer shots which I showed in a post in late October. Something disturbed this lone Elephant feeding on the grass on the island.

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Large game moving onto these islands can be problematic for the Skimmers as they lay their eggs in a scrape in sand on these islands. Lone Elephants are not too much of a problem but if there are many they can stand on the eggs or chicks. Buffalo are usually the main problem as they do not seem to be nearly as careful where they walk. The startled Elephant eventually left the island. It was a short walk through shallow water to the mainland. On the way he passed a watchful Goliath Heron.

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“Of all African animals, the Elephant is the most difficult for man to live with, yet its passing – if this must come – seems the most tragic of all. I can watch Elephants (and Elephants alone) for hours at a time, for sooner or later the Elephant will do something very strange such as mow grass with its toenails or draw the tusks from the rotted carcass of another Elephant and carry them off into the bush. There is mystery behind that masked gray visage, and ancient life force, delicate and mighty, awesome and enchanted, commanding the silence ordinarily reserved for mountain peaks, great fires, and the sea.”
~ Peter Matthiessen, The Tree Where Man Was Born

On another occasion down at Lechwe Plains, we found these two youngsters drinking from the river. Their mother had been drinking with them and once finished walked over to an Elephant around 50 metres away which had died close to the water’s edge. It seemed from her very gentle smelling and touching of the bones that she was paying her respects to her fallen neighbour or perhaps a fallen family member.

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Not only is the river a place to quench their thirst but it is also a playground. This young bull was having an absolute “gas” playing in the water. He was swishing his head back and forth stirring up the water. You can see all the veins in his ear which carry the blood to be cooled on this big surface area.

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He would then lift his head up and smash it down into the water making a huge splash. He did this over and over again was obviously enjoying himself.

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Beauty treatment is an essential part of an Elephant’s life and all the family members participate. This particular family group were revelling in the mud throwing it all over themselves and each other.

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As you can see they thoroughly covered themselves in mud. They also covered whoever was standing next to them too. There is little or no noise other than the sound of sloshing around in the mud and the slapping of  large dollops of mud all over their wet bodies.

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The next image shows one of four bulls in the area which saw what all the fun around the mud bath and came to join in. The females know only too well to take the youngsters away when the big guys arrive. The bulls can often be seen driving their tusks into the mud and digging up the earth to increase the supply of mud.

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This was one of the bulls which heard all the action and was coming over to join in. You can see from the watermark on this bull that he had just crossed a fairly deep part of the river. 

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“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

One evening, at the end of a very hot day, we were slowly making our way back to the lodge as we had to be out of the park by 18h30. On the far side of the river we saw a small herd walking, with purpose, down to the river and it looked like they were going to cross. The fading evening light shining from behind us cast a bluish, mauve hue, which I thought was gorgeous.

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This group stopped at the water’s edge to assess the whole area before the one of the large females led the group into the river to begin their crossing.

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We moved down river to photograph into the setting sun. As you would expect, the colour of the light changes significantly. You can see the youngsters are clustered in the middle of the herd as they cross to protect them from crocodiles and give them assistance. The babies would have to swim as it would be too deep for then to walk across. The adults give them a helping push when they are struggling.

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It was probably a three hundred metre crossing, shallow at first but much deeper in the main channel. There was quite a haze so it the light was lower than normal at that time of the evening. We had to pick our shots as everyone else on the river at that time had the same idea. In the early mornings we have the river almost to ourselves. The afternoons on the river can be like coming into Auckland harbour on a Sunday evening after a beautiful sunny day.

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The perspective from the boat is ideal and we could move around until we were facing the setting sun, which created different, warmer colours and gave a very different feeling to the image.

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The Elephant family passed a pod of Hippos while wading through the shimmering, golden water. The Elephant calf looked to be almost holding onto its mother’s tail, which enabled the mother to constantly feel that her calf was still with her.

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Having successfully crossed the Chobe river in the fading light they walked over a sand ridge and were gone into the fading light for some peace away from all the boats.

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The beauty and splendour of the scene was breathtaking. As raw and harsh as nature can be it, can be equally beautiful and serene.

“If Africa’s poaching crisis were a novel it would read like a chilling thriller filled with penurious poachers and Asian King Pins, determined conservationists and dirty politicians, pimps and prostitutes, war lords and white-collar criminals, and rangers risking their lives against all odds to protect what little wildlife we have left.”

 ~Jamie Joseph, Founder of Savingthewild.com

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

Have fun,

Mike

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