Selati’s gentle giants

Sitting in a photographic hide is a magical experience. The wildlife comes closer than you would ever have imagined possible. One minute you can be photographing Red-headed weavers and a few minutes later a massive bull elephant emerges like a phantom from the dusty Mopani surroundings and walks up to the water hole. We watched elephants drinking at the photographic hide at Klipspringer Lodge in Selati Game Reserve.

“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

There are three species of elephant in the world:

African savannah – Loxodonta africana
African forest – Loxodonta cyclotis
Asian – Elephas maximus

I saw the African forest elephant when I was in Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of the Congo. This species is much smaller than its savannah cousin and it has small downward pointing tusks, both adaptations to the dense tropical rainforest environment. In the non-forest areas of sub-Saharan Africa, the African savannah elephant is found.

“Every wild thing is in tune with its surroundings, awake to its fate and in absolute harmony with the planet. Their attention is focused totally outwards. Humans, on the other hand, tend to focus introspectively on their own lives too often, brooding and magnifying problems that the animal kingdom would not waste a millisecond of energy upon. To most people, the magnificent order of the natural world where life and death actually mean something has become unrecognizable.”
~ Lawrence Anthony

As described in a previous post, the the Klipspringer Lodge waterhole is around 20 metres in diameter and about 15 metres from the hide at its closest point. This means there is just enough room for a large bull elephant to walk between the waterhole and the hide. Directly in front of the hide, about two metres away is a small natural trough of water. On two different occasions a bull elephant walked up to this trough to drink. When these behemoths walk to within three metres of you while you are sitting quietly in the hide, it is enough to take your breath away.

A mature bull elephant is massive. He can reach four metres at his shoulder and weight up to seven tonnes.

This huge bull stood at the water’s edge and started to drink while the water was still undisturbed. Successive swirls with his trunk stirred up the mud to a point where he stopped drinking and started to suck up large quantities of muddy water and sprayed it over his body.

It was mid-September so the days were warm around midday and in the early afternoon. He seemed to really enjoy cooling off and getting a mud bath at the same time. You can see the direction of the afternoon sun was directly behind the bull which cast his face in deep shallow.

In most instances, the size of these massive bulls puts off other visitors who want to come and drink at the waterhole. Not so for three intrepid kudu bulls, though they were on the opposite side of the waterhole to the bull elephant. He seemed to be happy to share the waterhole.

“I have no doubt at all that elephants are at least as intelligent as an adolescent human being. They’re incredibly smart. They have knowledge and wisdom about their own culture and societies that are far more advanced than we think.” ~ Dereck Joubert

On a few occasions a group of large elephant bulls arrived at the waterhole. It was thrilling to watch these dark giants emerge from the Mopani’s orange green and yellow backdrop. They walked in without a sound. Usually no other animals or birds dared come to the waterhole as these bulls were approaching.

The water remained somewhat undisturbed while just one bull was drinking. It was a different matter when a small bachelor herd of bulls arrived. Elephants require between 70 and 100 litres of water daily. An adult male elephant can drink up to 210 litres of water in less than five minutes.

An elephant’s trunk can hold between nine and 10 litres of water. Elephants do not drink with their trunks, but use them as “tools” to drink with. They fill their trunks with water then use it as a hose to pour the water into their mouths.

Adult male elephants live a predominantly nomadic and solitary life. When a male elephant reaches puberty, around 12 to 15 years of age, he will progressively become more independent of his family until he breaks away completely. He then either roams alone or joins a loosely-knit group of male elephants, known as a bachelor herd. The bulls in these bachelor herds can be a mix of ages. Amongst bachelor groups, young males keep the peace amongst themselves by ritualised tussling which establishes strength and dominance among themselves without the need to fight and possibly injure each other. There is usually a dominant bull in the group. Elephant bulls tend to follow the breeding herds testing the the females to establish whether they are in estrus. Family life in the elephant world is centred on females and their calves. The large bulls can be cause great disturbance in and unsettle the breeding herd.

On another day, a group of four bulls came to the waterhole to drink. There was a bluish haze to the atmosphere which seemed to darken the bulls with their backs to the sinking sun.

The trunk has more than 40,000 muscles in it which is more than a human has in their whole body. The human body has a total of 639 muscles. An elephant’s trunk is both strong and agile. It has two prehensile fingers at the tip of its trunk which are used to grab hold of objects and smaller items. It can perform multiple tasks from pushing over heavy trees to picking up and throwing objects, to rubbing an itchy eye or ear. The elephant fills its trunk with water and then pours it into its mouth to drink and also as a snorkel when swimming under water. Elephants also use their trunk for feeding and for friendly greetings and even wrestling matches with other elephants.

Due to the massive size of the elephant it has evolved several anatomical characteristics to adapt to this mass. One adaptation is the pneumatisation which is the development of a honeycomb of air cavities inside the skull bones. Pneumatisation makes the skull lighter, while still providing the necessary strength and attachment surface to accommodate the muscles. Another adaptation is that unlike most other mammals, the legs of an elephant are almost vertical under the body. These pillar-like structures have limited flexibility at the joints and are therefore suited to supporting the large mass.

“Giant beasts have ruled Africa from coast to coast for over 50 million years as they migrate to water for their families. They are masters of their universe, architects of their world. Playful young play securely in one of the most caring families in nature. They have haunting rituals and great wisdom, care and compassion. Their story is far more than statistics and ivory.” ~ Dereck Joubert from the Soul of the Elephant

The deeper you look into nature the more complexity, integration and intelligence you will find. This creates wonder, mystery and humility.

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

Have fun, Mike

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