Giants wandering the Mara

Masai Mara Ecosystem has been classified among the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ due to the spectacular great migration when over 1 million wildebeest and more than hundred thousand zebra cross the Mara River coming from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara in search of water and greener pastures.

The Mara is known for its wildebeest migration and predators. It is less known for its pachyderms, unlike Amboseli. In 2015, the Tanzanian government reported that the country’s elephant population had collapsed from 110,000 in 2009 to 43,330 by mid-2015, due to extensive poaching. The good news is that while elephants are being decimated in Tanzania, elephant numbers are recovering in Kenya. 

Elephants are seen all around the Masai Mara and Mara North reserves. This was a scene near the Serengeti border with the Masai Mara, looking west across vast grass plains towards the Oloololo Escarpment. A small group of bull elephants were slowly making their way down the hill and feeding on their way.

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While travelling around the Mara North we came across many breeding herds with a number of youngsters in the herds. In the mornings, when it was cooler the elephant calves were much more playful and mischievous. The little bulls were very bold until they realised that had run some distance away from their mothers. The youngsters often chased birds or anything they found in the grass.

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This particular breeding herd had three calves which were all slightly different in age but had a great time playing among themselves.

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The calves seemed to be quite affectionate toward each other. This still meant they pushed each other around but at other times they appeared, what I would interpret, to be affectionate.

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In this group, two of the three calves had part of their tails missing. We could only presume that hyaenas had attacked them at some stage, but that they survived the ordeal without a “tail to tell”.

Two the calves with part of their tails missing making a trunk call. It is interesting to see that even at this early stage of development their trunks are quite prehensile. It will take a young elephant a few years to master its trunk with dexterity.

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As the calf grows and gains experience, it progressively learns what it can do with its trunk (similar to the way a human baby learns how to walk). The young calf will, in time, comprehend that its trunk can be used as an extra hand.

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A little old man getting up after falling and he had no “tail to tell”!!

This small breeding herd of elephant was moving away from the “greenheart ” forest down to the Mara river around midday to feed in the marsh close by.

Many elephant seem to enjoy the “greenheart” forest in the early and mid-mornings but by midday  wandered into the grasslands or swamp area, perhaps for a change of diet.

An elephant cow normally gives birth to only one calf at a time. New-borns may consume just over 11 litres of milk a day, which is taken in with their mouth as they have little control of their trunks.  The new-born calf usually has to stretch to reach it mother’s nipple. Within the first three months of birth, a young calf’s food intake is typically provided solely by the mother. Up to two years, the calf is nutritionally dependent on the mother. After two years of age, the mother shifts the emphasis toward independent feeding, though mother’s milk remains an important part of a calf’s diet. Young calves commence weaning from the first year of life until the tenth year of life.

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As the calf grows it can easily reach its mother’s breast and continues to suckle with its mouth lifting the trunk out-of-the-way. The mothers are very patient but when they feel their calf has had enough or there is a threat, then she will just walk away and the youngster will have to wait until she stops to feed again.

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The next image shows a small section of the marsh where many elephants from the “greenheart” forest walked to feed on the succulent grasses. This was also the heart of the lion “marsh” pride’s territory where the pride females usually retreated to give birth to their cubs.

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The more you take note of elephant behaviour the more fascinating they become and the more sentient and intelligent you realise they are. Elephants feel emotions as joy, anger, grief and compassion. According to an article in Elephants Forever on elephant intelligence, the insight and intelligence of the elephant is evident in their ability to mourn their dead. This behaviour has only previously been noted in humans. In fact, recently deceased elephants receive a burial ceremony, while those who are already reduced to a skeleton are still paid respect by passing herds. The burial ceremony is marked by deep rumblings while the dead body is touched and caressed by the herd members’ trunks.

Elephants have the ability to play and display a sense of humour, they can mimic sounds and are able to use tools or implements to achieve a task and have problem solving abilities. Their intelligence is also manifested in the elephant’s ability to self-medicate.

“We also have to understand that there are things we cannot understand. Elephants possess qualities and abilities well beyond the means of science to decipher. Elephants cannot repair a computer, but they do have communications, physical and metaphysical abilities that would make Bill Gates’ mouth drop open. In some very important ways they are ahead of us.” ~ Lawrence Anthony

An elephant’s memory is known to be exceptional. One remarkable, but sad, story really emphasised this point. The “Elephant Whisperer”, Lawrence Anthony died on 2nd of  March 2012. Two days after his passing, wild elephants showed up at his home led by two large matriarchs. Separate wild herds arrived to pay their respects. A total of 31 elephants walked an estimated more than 110 miles to get to his South African house. A year later on the 4th of March 2013, the elephants returned to pay their respects and the following year on the 4th of March 2014, the elephants returned again to pay their respects.

Those witnessing the elephant’s arrival were in awe of this spectacle not only because of the supreme intelligence and precise timing that these elephants sensed about Lawrence’s passing, but also because of the profound memory and emotion the beloved animals evoked in such an organised way. Lawrence’s wife, Francoise, was especially touched, knowing that the elephants had not been to their house prior to that day for over six months! Many believed that the elephants wanted to pay their deepest respects and appreciation for having saved their lives. They stayed for two days and two nights,  and on the third morning they left and went back into the bush.

In 1969, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a veteran conservationist and founder of Save the Elephants, undertook the earliest attempt at a continent-wide census using aerial counts and questionnaires. That survey estimated 1.3 million elephants, a disputed figure in conservation circles. A decade later experts suggested that the figure was down to about 600,000, highlighting a poaching crisis.

National Geographic reported in 2016 that the findings of the Great Elephant Census showed 352,271 remained in Africa. At that point, yearly loss—overwhelmingly from poaching—was estimated at 8 percent equivalent to about 27,000 elephants slaughtered a year. The forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) being more threatened than the savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana).  A ratio above 8 percent generally means a population is declining, and continent-wide the carcass ratio turned out to be nearly 12 percent. The killing continues and the countries with the greatest declines were Tanzania and Mozambique, with a combined loss of 73,000 elephants to poaching in just five years with Angola showing a similar trend. 

The news is not all bad, the latest wildlife census of five ecosystems with the elephant population in Kenya is estimated at 15,316 in 2018 compared to 14,411 in 2012, according to the Kenyan Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

“Education is essential for a better understanding of man’s relationship with nature and the animal kingdom, and a greater respect and appreciation for conservation efforts.” ~ Lawrence Anthony

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

Have fun,

Mike

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