Chobe’s pachyderm playground

The Chobe National Park supports one of the largest concentrations of elephants in the world, estimated at around 120,000. The elephant population is dispersed throughout northern Botswana.

“Go out, I beg of you

And taste the beauty of the world.

Behold the miracle of the earth

With all the wonder of a child.”

~ Edna Jacques

The Chobe National Park can be divided into four eco systems, the Chobe river front in the north-east, Savute in the west,  Linyanti swamps (similar to the Okavango) in the north-east, and the hot dry area inbetween. We were based on the Chobe river front, photographing in the section of river between Kasane and Serondela. The Chobe river front area receives an estimated 35,000 to 55,000 elephants depending on the season.

Females stay together in family groups while males either form small bachelor groups or wander off on their own. The next image is of a lone bull browsing on the lush vegetation  just down river from Elephant Valley. The river bank is steep along this section of the river. We don’t often see much game along this part, as there is no escape route and it is dangerous to drink along this river bank because the water is deep and a thirsty animal would never see a crocodile coming.

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An elephant’s trunk is a remarkable piece of its anatomy. An elephant uses its trunk much like an arm. The tip of the trunk effectively works like a hand and is capable of great nimbleness and dexterity. The African Elephant has two prehensile fingers at the tip of its trunk whereas the Asian Elephant has just one.

“Nature is man’s teacher. She unfolds her treasure to his search, unseals his eye, illumes his mind, and purifies his heart; and influence breathes from all the sights and sounds of her existence.”

~Alfred Billings Street

An elephant’s trunk has over 40,000 muscles and can hold up to eight litres of water in one draw. It is immensely strong and is capable of pushing down trees and picking up the smallest twig. Its trunk is one of the elephant’s primary sensory organs. When an elephant senses danger is usually lifts its trunk up in the air to get a better idea of the nature of the threat from its smell and its direction on the wind.

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These are emotionally sensitive animals with strong family ties and long memories.

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Adult elephants weigh between 2.5 tonnes, for a young female, and 7.0 tonnes, for a large bull. An elephant calf usually weighs around 90 kilograms at birth. Once in the water these large mammals seem to enjoy not only the coolness of the water but also its buoyancy and so become more playful in the water.

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This is also a great time for young bulls to spar with each other.

“The story of elephant is also the story of water. They are at home in the water as on land. These water dances are playful games but with an undercurrent of testing wits and strengths”

~ Dereck and Beverly Joubert from the Soul of the Elephant

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The young bulls mount each other is what looks to be play. Although they look to be trying to mate, it seems to be more about play and dominance.

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This type of behaviour is not seen on land probably because they are just too big and heavy.

“Wisdom begins in wonder”

~ Socrates

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Ivory – an elephant’s “achilles heel”. Both male and females have tusks. They are used for digging, carrying and fighting. Tusks continue to grow for all of an elephant’s life and as such are an indicator of age. The visible part of the tusk is usually about only two thirds of its length. A tusk is effectively an elongated incisor and comprises dentine similar to ordinary teeth. An elephants tusk grows up to 18 centimetres per year. It seems that the incidence of elephants with no tusks are increasing in some areas such as Gorongosa in Mozambique. Perhaps this adaptation which might be their saving grace. 

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It is hard to believe that someone would want to kill these two tussling young bulls just for their ivory tusks. These elephants can grow to over seventy years of age without human interference.

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“Ironically every dead elephant found with its ivory intact is a reason to celebrate. It means an elephant died of natural causes, not bullets, snares or poison, and a soul was allowed to be celebrated and mourned by its herd.”

~Dereck and Beverly Joubert

The young bulls seem to love playing in the water. They chase phantom rivals and enjoy making an almighty splash.

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In the deeper water they seem to get a kick out of swishing their head and trunk back and forth in water creating large waves and sprays.

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An elephant’s ears are big enough so that when they flap them, they can reduce the temperature of the affected area of the body by up to ten degrees Fahrenheit. Each elephant’s ear is different and like a fingerprint can be used as a form of  identification. An elephant also uses its ears as part of its body language. It has very sensitive hearing capable of picking up a range of sound frequencies, many of which humans cannot hear.

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Elephants are highly vocal creatures. Their high frequency sounds such as trumpeting and snorting are used for short distance communication whereas elephants use infra-sound to send low frequency sound waves great distances. Humans normally cannot hear these low frequency sounds.

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The young elephants have to be careful in the shallows of the Chobe river as there are some large crocodiles which will easily take a baby elephant. Needless to say this youngster’s mother was close by.

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Small, hairy with uncontrollable trunks and perfect ears.

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This young elephant was putting on a show for us and watching to see that we were looking at it all the time.

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Nothing like a good powdering after a refreshing bath. Most animals use their nose for breathing but an elephant also uses its trunk for drawing water and drawing in dust and mud to spray over itself to protect or cool down its hide.

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What light is to the eyes – what air is to the lungs – what love is to the heart, liberty is to the soul.”

~Robert Green Ingersoll

Elephants are among the world’s most intelligent animals. They are capable of expressing a wide range of behaviours which we as humans associate as grief, learning, play, compassion and co-operation, to name a few.

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This young bull was chasing the elephant in the front, all around the open area in front of us. This could possibly be young bull rivalry or it might have been a female, I could not tell.

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If you were being chased by something that big you would run too!!

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This was one of three large bulls strutting in amongst the herd, unsettling the females.

“There is something hypnotic about being in the path of a charging elephant, something dangerous but peaceful, beautiful. Time warps, we focus on the dance of the ears and sound dulls because we believe he will stop but we don’t know. It is strange that you feel most alive when you face death. When it is over ,I find myself strangely relaxed, privileged with having been face to face with a elephant.”

~ Dereck and Beverly Joubert from ‘The Soul of an Elephant.’

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An imposing bull elephant with the gathering thunderclouds behind him.

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Elephants have one of the most closely knit societies of any living species which are usually only split by death or capture.

“The  story of elephants is a timeless story of ghosts. They leave us messages, ancient footprints in the sands of time. In some places, it is the message of extinction as 35,000 elephants are poached each year, purely for their ivory. In other places there are messages of hope where there are still giants, seven tonne giants in full sail. Their movements are mediation, their eyes shine with a deep intelligence…….”

~ Dereck and Beverly Joubert from the ‘Soul of an Elephant.’

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This image was taken on the Botswana side of the river  just down river from the Chobe Game lodge.

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Elephants are the only other known species of animal, other than man, to have any recognisable ritual around death. I was privileged to experience this first hand early one Sunday morning in Mashatu in south-eastern Botswana. The matriarch had died about ten months earlier. There was nothing left but her skull and a number of her bones. Two herds separately  approached the site where the matriarch’s bones were scattered with what seemed to be great reverence. It was very quiet and individual elephants walked up to the bones and gently touched and caressed them with their trunks and the young ones also rolled the bones over with their feet. A group of us sat watching this ritual in absolute silence as the sun was rising . It was like being in cathedral without a word being spoken enveloped with an overwhelming sense of reverence.

“They approach with a side on strut, then dip their heads for the charge. When flapping ears and trumpeting, we are Ok. It is when they go quiet and drop their heads that it could go either way. There is a subtle language to all of this…..”

~Dereck  and Beverly Joubert from the ‘Soul of an Elephant’.

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I wonder how much longer we will be able to marvel at these incredible sighting of elephants and more importantly whether our children and their children will have the privilege of watching these highly intelligent social beings in their natural environment.

Human beings are waging a war against elephants, obviously not all human beings but enough of them to cause their rapid population decline. We are losing elephant populations so fast that it is a race against time. Asia’s hunger for ivory is insatiable. Most of the ivory trade is illegal run by underground cartels. What will the poachers do when they run out of elephants  – will human parts be the next source of commercialisation???!!!!!!!!

“Go into the government’s ivory stockpile in Nairobi. It is like being in a genocide museum. “

‘Central Africa has lost 64% of its elephants in a decade’ – National Geographic.

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Tanzania has emerged as the epicentre of of Africa’s elephant poaching risk after a government census revealed it had lost a “catastrophic” 60% of its  elephants in five years. Tanzania’s elephant population had been one of the largest but data revealed by the Tanzanian government showed that between 2009 and 2014, the number of elephants has fallen from 109,051 to 43,330.

“Our prime purpose in life is to help others. And if you can’t help them at least don’t hurt them.”

~Dali Lama

In early 2014, Botswana became one of the few African countries with abundant wildlife to put an end to trophy hunting.  President Kama stated that hunting was no longer compatible with wildlife conservation and urged communities to switch to photographic tourism. There is now the cry that the ban on hunting has worsened the human-wildlife conflict in many parts. Perhaps all the leftover meat discarded by hunters attracted the predators in the first place and perhaps the elephants normal habitat has been lost by human predation. 

Once humans have commercialised wildlife to the point of extinction  – then what? Perhaps in our quest for personal gain and we should remember that we are integral custodians of this natural system of immense wisdom. We are not the most important creatures on this planet, we are only as important. Because of our overwhelming growth we are crowding out all other creatures on this planet. We have a pressing responsibility to pass on this world to our children in at least the state we found it or preferably with less human interference. So far this generation has shown materialism and greed and a desperate lack of responsibility and intergenerational fairness! Where did we get the idea that everything in the natural world must fit in with us and that we have a right to commercialise everything we come across ?

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

One thought on “Chobe’s pachyderm playground

  1. A beautiful story with some stunning photo’s, Mike – I love the frog’s eye view. I remember the big herds in Hwange NP in the late ’80s and early ’90s and was told recently they’re decimated?

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