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African Elephant 

Elephant have disappeared from much of Africa today and their numbers are dwindling fast with the rising demands coming out of China for their ivory. Less than a 10th of their population remains today. Fortunately there are still a few areas wild enough and massive enough in Africa to support large and healthy elephant herds and all they need is to be left alone and given the space so their numbers can rebound. 

On Safari elephant are without question one of the most charismatic and endearing animals that we spend time with. What is it about this giant creatures that fascinates us humans? The great reserves of the Serengeti and Kalahari are filled with many incredible sights and experiences. These massive and remote tracks of land are a window into a past world filled with many different types of animals, massive herds of animals but few animals hold people’s attention and fascination like elephants. Is it just their shear size or immense strength - or is it something more? 


Elephant are large animals - weighing 200 pounds at birth, a males can grow to 15,000 pounds and can be 12 feet tall. I remember standing on the drivers seat of my land rover and putting my arm in the air and still not being able to reach higher than a large elephant bull. 


One of the challenges of being so large in a hot and dry environment is keeping cool. Their wrinkled appearance actually helps to increase the surface area of skin allowing them to radiate more heat from their bodies. Their flapping ears are radiators cooling down their blood by as much as 10°F. Even the most serious elephant drops her guard to swim and cool down in a waterhole followed by a mud bath. Their stomachs only digest about 40% of the the food that they eat, this makes them an essential link in the germination of many plants. Their trunks are unique. A combination of their top lip and nose the trunk in made up of over a 100,000 muscle units. They can use it to itch their eye or break a massive tree. We often see elephant putting their trunk into another’s mouth in an apparent greeting or gesture of comfort, kind of like putting your arm around a friend’s shoulder. 


An elephant is born after a 22 month gestation into a family of about 10 to 15 animals made up of siblings, first cousins, aunts, a grandmother and of course mom. Puberty only comes at about 12 years of age and calves are born about every 4 years so a mother might have 3 or 4 calves of different ages in attendance. Older sisters play an important role as baby sitters, not only does this allow mothers time to feed but it teaches the baby sitter valuable skills required for motherhood. 


This family unit will be members of a greater “bond group” made up of other extended family members of second cousins and grad aunts totaling over a hundred animals at times. It is not unusual to see these animals all come together at the end of the day. Elephants can talk to each other over great distances using low frequency sounds.


A male elephant’s life is quite different. They spend more and more time away from the family unit as they mature joining bull herds and living a seeming clear free live of no responsibility. Each year a mature bull comes into “musth” a periodic period that lengthens with age that is characterized by a rise in reproductive hormones with testosterone levels spiking to 60 times higher than normal levels. During this period they level their traditional home ranges traveling huge distance in pursuit of ovulating females. 


If you spend enough time with elephants one thing that stands out is their massive intellect! The old adage the elephants never forget is so true. I once worked on a private reserve that had been transformed from cattle ranch to wildlife property in the 60s. In the early days the rancher had adopted a group of orphan elephant. The elephant had free range of the range and as the ranch made the progression to a wildlife area the elephant population grew and they eventually formed the nucleus of a herd of about 300 wild elephant. I went out with the old rancher about 30 years later and he would make the same whistle that he use to make all those years ago and sure enough the remaining females (grandmother elephants by now) would walk right up to the car raising their trunks as if to try and smell him. 


A few months ago I was guiding a group of guess from New York city. We were driving along the Grumeti River. We found a herd of about 30 elephant just before they crossed the river that was in full flood at the time. They was a clear exit point on the opposite side of the river directly across from us. The matriarch took her herd about a hundred feet upstream from us before they started to cross. The strong current pushed them down stream perfectly timing their exit from the river on the other side where there was  gentle slope in the river bank. A group of stragglers followed behind (which is often the case when elephants are feeding). Seeing their family already across the river, these young animals attempted to cross the river directly, failing to go upstream first. The current pushed them about 100 feet downstream to a point where the bank was very steep and impossible for the now tired animals to climb up. The matriarch witnessed what was happening and very quickly ran over to above were they where on top of the river bank. She started to break down the river bank by collapsing it with her front legs. Slowly the steep incline started to lessen and she was able to pull the young animals up. Once the family was reunited they moved off quietly in to feed on the other side. 


A researcher in Kenya has studied a herd of elephant for about 50 years allowing her to know the population intimately. She knows how ever animal is related to the other. One day an old female died of old age close to her tent. The carcass was quickly cleaned to the bone by hyena, jackal and vultures as is the case with these things.  Over the period of about a year the bones lay whitening in the sun and she was able to record passing elephant’s reactions to them. Elephant that were not closely related to her would stop for a few minutes before moving on. When her own family came by the would spend as much as an hour there. Her son would come by an spend all day ad night picking up the bones and putting them in this mouth as if trying to recall her. 


So I often wonder what it is about elephants that makes them so uniquely special to us as humans. For me it is without question a sense of great emotional wisdom and a family bond that at times appears to equal or even surpasses that of our own.

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