Chobe’s elephants

The Chobe river is a wildlife haven because it provides permanent water in the dry northern part of Botswana. It is a place to quench a deep thirst, a playground and a salad bowl for the massive population of elephants in the Chobe National Park. This is the third largest conservation area in Botswana. Estimates of the size of the dynamic elephant population vary around 120 000.

“See life as if it is perfectly framed. Look for the good light, best composition, framing, because it will make you view life in a different, more perfect way. It makes life better if you can see perfection in an image you make, even if the image is of a slaughtered elephant, or people caught in rubble after an earthquake. If you don’t (as a filmmaker) live to make the moment inside the frame perfect, the content will get to you and mess you up.” ~ Dereck Joubert

The 2018 Northern Botswana survey jointly undertaken by the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks together with Elephants Without Borders was the largest aerial survey undertaken since 2014. The survey revealed important changes in the wildlife populations and an increase in poaching. The survey showed an elephant population of 126 100 which was essentially unchanged from the 2014 survey, but the Chobe National Park elephant population had decreased 12.6% to 15 400 elephants over the four years (Source: Elephants without Borders)

What happens when a bull elephant meets a hippo bull on dry land. They face off for a minute or so then the elephant challenges and the hippo being outsized, backs away. Despite the massive size difference the hippo was reluctant to give in and did not back away more than a few metres. There was just posturing with no physical confrontation. No one was hurt and pride remained intact. This minor challenge took place on the banks of the Sedudu island along the northern channel of the Chobe river.

The elephant herds wander down to the river’s edge in the afternoons. By mid-afternoon and we found several elephant breeding herds drinking, each in a reasonably tight group. The larger females were very protective of the youngsters. I suspect they drink in a tight group to prevent crocodiles from trying to attack the smaller calves.

“Without nature, our souls wither, ecosystems fail, culture disappears, and it takes with it our integrity, our self worth, our common drive to strive for better. The eternal battle within each of us is mirrored in the way we interact with nature. If we lose this battle we don’t just lose animals, or litter a few highways. We lose our souls.” ~ Dereck Joubert

Generally, the time of drinking is quiet and passive. That is unless there are one to two young bulls, around 10 years old, who disturb the peace with their strength testing tactics.

From the perspective of the boat we are able to get below eye level with many of the elephants foraging or walking on the river bank. We can also get close without upsetting the animals and can be dead quiet as we drift past.

An adult female elephant quietly foraging on tuffs of grass close to the edge of the Chobe river.

“There is a serene and settled majesty to woodland scenery that enters into the soul and delights and elevates it, and fills it with noble inclinations.” ~ Washington Irving

Elephant valley is well known along the Chobe river. It is around a kilometre upstream from Chobe Game Lodge. The elephants congregate down in this small shallow valley to drink and to eat the chalk and minerals provided by the white soils along the left hand side of the valley’s river bank. This long legged teenager was clearly thirsty and finding the river bank clear rushed down to the water for a drink.

Breeding herds come down to drink and this involves the whole family regardless of size. The very young calves have not yet managed to gain control of their flimsy trunks and drink by putting their face in the water and drinking with their mouths. The slightly older calves try to drink the water using their trunks but with plenty of spillage.

A breeding herd coming down to drink at the Chobe river. They probably had to walk 10 to 20 kilometres from their feeding grounds to the river. Over the last few decades the large elephant population frequenting the Chobe river has reduced the vegetation along the river forcing the elephants to travel longer distances between their feeding areas and the river.

“They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with us in this net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travails of this earth.” ~ Henry Beston

Elephants need between 70 and 100 litres of water a day but can drink up to 150 litres per day. A large bull can consume over 200 litres in less than five minutes. An adult elephant can hold around 11 litres of water in its trunk.

The relatively steep white bank behind the elephants appears to be a form of chalk which the elephants and many other mammals seek to complement their vegetarian diet.

The elephants moving and drinking at the water’s edge disturb insects, a dynamic which is noticed by the this White Crowned lapwing.

It is fascinating to watch the orderly way in which the breeding herds come down to the river’s edge to drink. One herd will wait patiently in the background until the herd drinking, has had its fill. Once sated the herd will move away to make room for the next herd to drink. Humans could learn a thing or two from these gentle giants about patience and consideration.

As soon as the adults give the rest of the herd the go ahead to move down to the water’s edge the calves barrel down the hill with typical youthful enthusiasm.

At times the excitement is too much for some youngsters and the odd calf will lie down to rest and sleep while the rest of the herd drinks.

Judging from the colour and wetness of this elephant calf it managed to get itself fully submerged. The adults are always close at hand as there are many crocodiles in the Chobe river which are quite capable to attacking a small calf.

The older elephants wade deep into the river to get to some of the grasses and reeds growing in the water. The elephants use their trunks to pull out the grasses and then swing the swathe of grass back and forth to remove the mud and soil from the root system. The elephants can spend hours feeding in the river, even in mid-winter.

The Chobe is a wonderful place to see large herds of elephants. When the water level is high the adult elephants, especially the bulls, cross the channels to get either to the Namibian side of the river or to one of the islands which are relatively under grazed.

Elephants are particularly intriguing. We are progressively learning about the depth of their sentience. It is clear they show emotions, get stressed and have remarkable memories, all attributes highly valued by humans. This means that there are endless opportunities to photograph elephant dynamics and behaviours and glean a deeper insight into their lives. As we learn more our empathy and respect for them grows. Poaching of elephants for their ivory remains a cancer of the human condition. Thankfully there are many dedicated organisations researching and working tirelessly against the scourge of poaching.

“There cannot be enduring peace, prosperity, equality and brotherhood in this world if our aims are so separate and divergent, if we do not accept that in the end we are people, all alike, sharing the Earth among ourselves and also with other sentient beings, all of whom have an equal role and stake in the state of this planet and its players.” ~ Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck

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

Have fun, Mike

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