Coming back from 3 weeks leave it hit me like a brick wall how I became accustomed to the peace and harmony following large mammals observing their daily activities. After being separated from the elephants for a short while one becomes critically aware of the intimacy they cultivate in your heart and the yearning to learn more about elephants in general.
I was driving down the Sterkstroom valley and was greeted by one of the dominant bulls walking down the road towards me. He was just strolling down the road with a tuft of grass hanging from his mouth. I pulled off to the side of the road to make space for him and he just strolled past me. Once he passed me he just kept on walking, then veered off the road and disappeared into the lush undergrowth.
I decided to drive further down the road, heading east. About two hundred meters further I found another of the higher ranking bulls. Slowly moving towards the bull while feeding in the tree line was one of the subordinate females of Group 4 accompanied by some young calves from the herd. During the heat of the middle day they were starting to nod off, but a 10 year old male that was following the small group decided that there will be no sleeping while he was still awake. However, the cow did not take any nonsense from the youngster and chased him off. But by now all prospects of sleep was lost. The youngsters started feeding in the small clearing again with the adult cow reluctantly following them. They crossed the road in front of me and headed towards the river, with both the large bull and the 10 year old in tow some distance behind.
After following them for a short while I heard some splashing in the river ahead. I initially thought it was the remainder of the cow’s herd, but was pleasantly surprised to find group 3, all glistening with wet mud on their flanks. The youngsters from both groups quickly formed a play group and were having fun in the mud together. The cow I was following did not take long to cool down in the mud either. Once finished, she joined the adult cows from the other herd leisurely feeding in the shade of the trees. It seemed that the playgroup was never going to stop playing in the mud, all climbing over each other playing king of the castle.
Meanwhile the large bull joined the cows standing in the shade and greeted each cow individually. After the formal greeting session the bull tested scent on each female in turn. As he approached each female she would turn with her back towards him. With their backs towards him he had easy access to test their scent. But as soon as he finished his analysis, they would turn and face him again.
The adults then stood together feeding for some time before the subordinate female of group 3 moved away. The bull followed her and the two of them moved about 50 meters away from the rest of the party. As he followed her he put his trunk onto her back, walking by her side. This is known as consort behavior, a male will subtly make his attentions known to the female (in human terms, holding hands, a bunch of roses, moonlight walk on the beach). The female stopped by the road to feed, and the bull gave up his wooing and fed off a tree next to her. The rest of the adults followed the moonstruck couple and the young play group cleared the mud hole very reluctantly.
Lush, succulent grass shoots are growing along the river banks after the welcome rains we have had so far. These grass shoots became the goal of all the elephants, young and old. The mix-match group moved at a slow pace while they were feasting on succulent greenery that they have been deprived of the preceding winter months. Over the period of some hours, the group was back at the river edge, without much interaction taking place.
All of a sudden the lone cow turned to face the direction they had just come from. She flared her ears, lifted her head and rumbled loudly for some time. All the other elephants stood still listening, and she took off running in the direction she was looking in. The young calves with her were battling to keep up with her fast pace. This was very peculiar, my first thought was that there were lions behind the bushes and she was chasing them away. Then the reason appeared, it was the matriarch of her herd with some younger members in-tow. It appeared almost if they had been separated for a while because they ran towards each other, trumpeting and loud stomach rumblings. When they reached each other there was some frantic greeting and great excitement, especially between the younger siblings.
They all moved together back towards where group 3 was still standing. It seemed like they were listening into the conversations of the newly united herd. The matriarch of group 3 walked over to meet and greet the matriarch of group 4. They greeted by putting their trunks into the mouth of the other. The large bull was not waiting for the greeting ritual to finish and wedged himself in between the two females. The matriarch of group 3 moved back towards her herd, while matriarch group 4 turned her back towards the male. The male did not bother with greeting the female, he just went straight ahead testing her scent. Satisfied that the male was finished, she and the rest of her heard mingled with group 3. The adult females and the bull stood feeding in the reeds. Now with more play mates the young bunch went running through the reeds and it was impossible to tell which calf belonged to which group.
The new group also had a young male of about ten years old with them, and when the two young bulls saw each other they immediately entered into a playful sparring match. Sparring from this young age is important to sort out hierarchy and learn vital skills for their future as high ranking bulls. It is not always the largest bull that is more dominant in a sparring match, sometimes it could be the most ferocious or skilled fighter. The two young bulls had a tug of war match, giving and taking an inch at a time, until one lost interest and found a mud hole much more exciting. The other male almost seemed annoyed at his rival for abandoning their tussle and vent his frustration on a 8year old female from his own herd. He ran after the female and mounted her. She got a fright, screamed loudly and ran out from under the young male. A 14 year old female 4 ran to aid the screaming young cow. With the new female close to him the young male left his pursuit of the 8 year old, and tried to mount the older female. The female did not get flustered by the young male’s advances and merely stepped forward when he tried to mount her. Clearly frustrated with the older female, the young male turned his attention towards a group of younger calves playing in a mud hole.
When the initial sparring match between the two males started, the adults and bull moved out of the river’s flood plain, onto the banks where I was sitting in the car. The bull walked right past me, and disappeared around the bend in the road. The cows came to rest in the shade very close to the car and a 1 year old calf came to investigate my presence, or the smell of my lunch which I was having at the time.
My attention was quickly shifted from the 1 year old calf to the river bed ahead of me, where the highly excited young bull was trying to mount a 5 year old cow from group 4. This young cow also let out a loud scream and tried to get away from him. The 14 year old female came to the rescue again, this time with four other young females as support. The clearly stressed young cow screamed again, with the young bull in pursuit. Both the matriarchs, who had been very relaxed until then, turned, stomach rumbled and started moving in the direction of the frenzied young male and the young female. Then both of them suddenly stopped in their tracks. I had my attention on the cows and the frenzy in front of me when I suddenly heard steps behind me on the road. The large bull appeared out of nowhere and with stealth that I still marvel at. He walked right past me and the two matriarchs directly towards the young bull causing all the commotion. When he got closer he made a stomach rumble and kept on walking towards the group of young elephants. The young bull turned and walked in the opposite direction with a fast walk.
The large bull greeted kept on following the young bull. The young bull stopped about 30 meters away from the young group on the opposite side of the river. The large bull joined him and he immediately turned his back to dominant bull. The large bull then walked past him and had a drink of water, while the youngster stood motionless. The large bull started feeding on the opposite bank with the young bull following him.
The young group that was so distressed earlier moved out of the river to their respective mothers and herds. The groups settled down fast, and they all started feeding in the late afternoon. Both herds moved onto the road next to me and had a dust bath, and as usual it became a game for the young calves. It was late afternoon by now. When the herds moved off into the distance, I started my vehicle and headed home, where I had time to reflect upon the events of the afternoon.
Lots of questions came to mind. Why did the matriarchs leave the young bull to his mischief for so long? Could it be that the matriarch wanted the young 14 year old cow to learn how to handle the situation? Why did the matriarchs stand back and let the dominant bull assert discipline on the young bull? Could it be that the young bull would be kicked out of the herd soon and the mature bulls would assert discipline and leadership in the near future? Why did the dominant bull return to discipline such a young bull if the matriarch could discipline her own son? Was there communication from the bull to the cows to stand back and let him sort out the trouble maker? There are many questions and many probable answers, but I do not want to speculate. However, one thing is clear, and that is that there is strong hierarchy and strict discipline codes for elephants. This is only one of the success strategies that elephants endorse every day. We as humans can learn a lot from our fellow social herd animals.
On a previous occasion I mentioned how the same or different elephants sometimes visit areas they have visited before, but end up doing something completely different. For once the elephants seem to agree with me, and this month’s scene took place in exactly the same place as last months story of the bulls at the mud hole, only this time a breeding herd took the spotlight.
It was the 21st of November, and as usual I was doing my early morning rounds trying to locate the elephants. There was a strong signal for three of the breeding herds north of the Sekgwa open areas, close to the Lion Boma. On stopping the vehicle I saw a breeding herd meandering down the hill slope, heading in my direction where I was parked on the main road. The herd was accompanied by a young bull which I estimated to be just under 20 years old. I got fleeting glimpses of the other two herds up on the hill side as they were feeding between the trees. As a result of some good rains recently and the subsequent green flush of leaves, the elephants easily disappear in the thick bush.
The mentioned herd moved past my vehicle, heading straight to the dam in the middle of the clearing. I moved to the far side of the dam, where the reserve’s second ranked bull in musth and another mature bull were feeding some distance into the clearing. The bull in musth approached my vehicle in a typical musth gait. He was walking with a distinct swagger, wrapping his trunk around his tusk, while chewing on a branch that he had broken off. When the bull was several meters away from the car I spoke to him calmly, but loud enough for him to hear me clearly. He stopped in his tracks and pushed his trunk out towards the car, smelling for a short while. He then walked around the car, lost interest in me and proceeded feeding.
By this time the small breeding herd and the accompanying young bull were close the dam. It was a beautiful and peaceful scene, with a cormorant swimming across the dam as the elephants approached. The herd did not drink from the dam on the side they were approaching from, but crossed the dam wall, walked past me and headed for the mud wallow at the inlet of the dam. The young bull could not be bothered to walk around the dam and dived headlong into the dam from the dam wall. He was totally submerged with only his tail and lower back protruding from the water surface. After he re-appearing he walked straight thought the middle of the dam to join the herd at the mud wallow. The two adult cows stood by the side of the wallow spraying soft mud on themselves, while the younger members piled into the wallow where mud wrestling frenzy soon started.
The young bull was wallowing close to the youngsters and it seemed like he wanted to join in the fun. However, as soon as he stood up next to the youngsters, the matriarch made an exaggerated headshake with ears flapping loudly against her neck and shoulders. The bull immediately stepped back from the frolicking youngsters and flopped down in his initial mud pool. Although he was obedient to the matriarch’s warning, he just could not resist the urge to join the fun. He started to leopard crawl on his stomach through the mud towards the youngsters. Exactly as a naughty child would do, he would stop crawling whenever the matriarch looked in his direction, and as soon as she looked away, he would continue his crawling.
However, the second ranked female put an end to his plans when she moved closer and started to wallow in a different section of the wallow. To the youngsters, this was an open invitation to harass mom/aunt and spend more time in the nice cool mud. By now the whole herd was in the mud, except for the matriarch, who stood on the sideline keeping an eye on the proceedings. After her mud bath, the second ranked female got up from the mud and walked straight into the dam. The young members were not going to miss out on any chance of more fun and promptly followed. The cow walked halfway into the dam, lied down on her side, completely disappearing under the water. The water was way too deep for her 1 year old calf, but he was intend on following her, no matter what. The only way I could follow his movements was to look for the little trunk protruding from the surface like a periscope. It seemed like the calf kicked himself off the bottom and his head broke the surface in a sudden eruption, and he let out a gargled scream. Immediately the mother got up and moved to a shallower part of the dam. With the calf being able to stand in the shallows, the playing commenced in all earnest. The female left the water after some time and the herd regrouped on the dam wall.
The herd moved into a stand of trees close to the dam, feeding on the green grass growing on the side of a termite mound and standing in the shade in the heat of the day. The second ranked female then walked away from the trees and stopped on the road right next to me. Her calf made a soft moaning sound and she moved her leg forward allowing the calf to suckle. The calf suckled for a long time, and when he was finished he stood behind his mother’s leg peering around her leg at me. The group seemed to settle down for the day in the shade of the trees.
Suddenly the herd grouped together in a tight huddle without making any sound or noise and looked very nervous. This appeared strange as the herd was very relaxed all morning. They then started running into the clearing as fast as they could with ears flapping and tails pointing in the air, still in their tight huddle. They stopped about a hundred meters into the clearing, stood dead still and listening. Seconds later the third ranked female and her one month old calf came running into the clearing with a young adolescent bull in tow. Somehow they got left behind. The young calf was screaming loudly while he was running. The herd immediately turned and ran towards the young mother and her calf. When the calf reached the herd, the young mother suddenly turned on the young bull running after her. For a second the confident bull looked as if he was treading on eggs, not expecting the sudden retaliation, and then veered off further into the clearing. The much smaller, but now very determined cow ran after him, trumpeting and screaming intermittently. She chased the bull for at least two hundred meters further into the clearing. Only then did she brake off her charge and ran back to the herd where her calf was safely tucked behind his grandmother’s legs. The herd immediately settled down as soon as the young cow returned to the safety of the herd. All seemed to have been forgotten as soon as she joined the herd, the defensive huddle dispersed and the herd started feeding again. They spent some time in the clearing, but as the heat and humidity increased they moved towards the tree line again. I do not know what the young bull did to get the calf and mother so upset, and often speculation only push you further from the truth.
By now the other two herds had moved down the hill and the three herds merged. They stood in the shade of the trees, the adults standing and the younger members lying down flat, tired after the day’s ordeal. There was very little interaction between the three herds and it seemed like rest was at the order of the day. An hour later they moved back onto the clearing towards the drainage line in the middle of the clearing, drank water and fed on the green grass. Not long after two more breeding herds joined from the opposite mountain. The bull in musth also appeared into the clearing, greeting some females and testing the scent of several others. The whole group started moving west into the clearing, some drinking water from the dam and others feeding as they walked along. It started to rain in the background and this created the perfect backdrop to a perfect scene, ending off another day in the office.
The elephant monitoring project has been running for 10 months now. This period of time, short as it is, has been a total eye opener for me. Before the study I thought I knew a fair amount about elephants, but as the study went along I realized how little I actually knew. Only when spending extended time with them and observing them do you realize the complexity of elephants. While traveling on the reserve you might see the same elephants in the same places, but rest assured, it will be a new experience every time!
However, the dominant bull or the bull in musth will keep the other suitors away from the female in order to let strongest genes prevail. The female in oestrus will also actively seek out the most dominant bull present and avoid the advances of the younger or less dominant males.
Some weeks ago three of the breeding herds were moving around in central parts of the reserve. One of the females was in oestrus and the dominant male on the reserve was in close attendance. The pheromones in the air attracted 11 bulls, all in hope of becoming the lucky bachelor. It was 9:45 in the morning, and the day’s heat was starting to increase steadily. I was parked on the lion boma dam wall on Sekgwa plains. At first there were three bulls feeding in the tree line close to the dam, but they left the shade of the trees and walked towards the dam, feeding on grass as they walked. Reaching the dam, they stood there for some time, until another young bull came into view from nowhere and greeted each of the bulls in turn. The foursome then moved up unto the dam wall and across to the cool, inviting water on the other side of the dam wall. The two oldest bulls drank some water, stretching their trunks as far as they can reach across the water to get the cleanest water.
However, one younger bull was not waiting for the others and went running for the mud wallow at the far end of the dam right next to the inlet. The mud did not seem to be to his liking, so he proceeded to kick and thrash the mud with his feet. It looked like he was testing the mud with his trunk several times. When he was satisfied with it, he literally collapsed into the middle of the pool. Suddenly more bulls started to emerge from the surrounding woodland. Some went to drink water but most went straight to the mud wallow, either to greet the other bulls or just to get a good spot in the mud. The fourth ranking male in the reserve moved forward to the where the young male was playing, and promptly chased him out of the centre of the wallow. The young male seemed to feel very sorry for himself, and moved to another wallow closer to the edge. The fourth ranking male did the same as the young male but did not bother with stirring up the mud, he just sat down and started rolling in the mud almost submerging himself.
By now there were 10 bulls in total, most of them playing and throwing mud everywhere. Then the dominant bull arrived from the tree line. He walked straight to the dam where a young bull was still drinking water. The young bull showed the necessary respect and moved away from the water when the much larger bull approached. The dominant bull drank water with the young bull joining him again. After quenching his thirst, the dominant bull made a loud stomach rumble and as he approached the wallow the prime spot was vacated and most of the younger bulls left the wallow. The dominant bull made good use of the soft mud, covering most areas of his body using his trunk. Then, as if the mud spray was not enough, he went down on his knees, tusked the mud some more and then proceeded to roll in the mud.
The lower ranked male approached the dominant male very slowly, greeted him but did not enter the mud. After paying his respect to the larger male he chased one of the younger males, which seemed to make him feel better for having to be humble in front of the dominant male. By now only a few bulls were still bathing, while the rest of the bulls fed in the river line. With the testosterone running wild in the area, most of the lower ranking bulls were entering into sparring matches. Every now and then a much higher ranking bull would interfere in a sparring match when it became too serious or boisterous. This is done to remind the young contenders to not forget their place in the pecking order.
The dominant bull vacated the mud and some of the younger members came to greet and show respect to him. He then strolled back into the tree line to where one of the lower ranking bulls was showing interest in the female that caused all the excitement. The lower ranking bull quickly left the female when the dominant bull came back into the herd. The breeding herd only went down to the water much later the afternoon.
All of the bulls disappeared into the trees were they stood in the shade resting or dusting themselves. This was a special day as it was the first time I have seen so many bulls together on the reserve. What made this sighting even more special was the fact that all took place in the open, which gave me a good opportunity to see the hierarchical interaction of the bulls.
The 11th of September was a hot day with the temperatures rising soon after the short chill of the early morning. It took me a while to get to the breeding herds in the morning, as I spent some time with a vasectomy bull that morning. It was a little after 11:00 when I was driving along the Sterkstroom River. As I drove through the river crossing, I saw Group 3 feeding next to the road. Soon after I arrived, they crossed the road heading towards the river. As the section of river they were moving towards is hidden from the road, I followed them on foot.
The scene that greeted me was one you only find in this unique landscape of the Waterberg Mountains. On my side of the river was a cliff straight down to the water, while the elephants were approaching along the opposite side of the river. The water lily’s and the mountain backdrop rounded the scene off perfectly. The herd was walking along the river dusting themselves after their water bath. The whole group settled for a quick feeding session directly across from me.
I thought that it would be their last movement for the afternoon, but four boisterous young bulls joined them from the river and that was the end of their resting session. The younger members of the group started playing together, which prompted the three adult females to start feeding again. The whole group moved along the river feeding at a very slow pace. After some time the herd crossed the river heading back towards the road, heading along a small valley.
It still amazes me every time I see the elephants move along boulder strewn mountain slopes with the greatest of ease and agility. The herd finally settled down shortly after 13:00 for their midday rest. The four young bulls went to rest separately from the group. By this time I had time to walk back to my vehicle and drive up to them, next to the road.
A midday siesta normally consists of the adult females resting standing up, or leaning against a large tree or termite mound, and the younger members lying down flat having a good rest. The adult elephants find it difficult to lie down on their side because of the large body weight exerted on their involuntary muscles it is difficult for the heart and lung muscles to work at a normal rate. The adult cows just stood there with their backs to the wind with their ears spread wide, this cools the blood in their ears without them having to burn unnecessary energy by flapping their ears. The elephants that were not sleeping were dusting themselves every couple of minutes, otherwise there were not much happening until 15:17 that afternoon.
The youngest members of the herd were the first to stir, and soon all the members were standing together having a proper dust bath. Two of the young juveniles came walking towards me and fed on round-leafed teak (Pterocarpus rotundilfolius). The rest of the herd followed suit. After some time the herd began to split up into their respective sibling groups whilst they were feeding. The herd moved past my vehicle on either side very relaxed, much more interested in their late lunch than my presence.
The second ranking female in the herd and her 11 month old calf were standing on the road behind my vehicle. The female defecated on the road, and moved to the side of the road to feed. The calf then proceeded to play soccer with one of the dung balls, this lasted all of twenty seconds until he stood on the ball and flattened it. The calf was clearly dismayed at the flat ball with an earflap and a kick of dust at the ball.
The calf then turned around and walked to another of his mothers dung balls and proceeded to eat a small piece of the dung. This might seem disgusting to some readers, but it is vital for the calf to ingest some of an adult’s dung. The dung contains some bacteria or stomach flora from the adult’s stomach. The bacteria have to propagate in the infant’s stomach in order for the infant to digest the plant material, as part of the transition from milk to solids.
Some time later the herd, together with the young bulls, merged. A juvenile female walked a bit ahead of the herd, then stood still for a while and began to dust herself with a dark deep red dust. All the younger members of the herd ran towards her and joined in the newly found treasure. The adults and young bulls all made a circle around the red sand. All of a sudden the juvenile female that found the red dirt let out a loud scream. In a fraction of a second the adult females were facing the dirt with the calves tucked in safely behind them. The matriarch made several charges toward the dirt with the other females following suit. Initially I thought that the elephants had unearthed a snake or something they disliked. But several seconds later three young warthogs came haring out of their burrow with wide open eyes. I don’t know who got the bigger fright, the warthogs or the elephants, with either the warthogs thinking a snake (trunk) had entered their burrow, or the elephant getting a warthog tusk in the trunk. The elephants then relaxed and started feeding, as if nothing had happened.
As the sun was starting to hide behind the mountains I thought it was time to call it a day, and to let the elephants settle down for the night. Reflecting back on the day it makes you think where we as humans are heading with the rat race and what it is doing to us mentally and physically?
The 8th of August was another beautiful day. I was driving towards the Sterkstroom valley down Bee-eater Pass. My mind was drifting towards where the elephants might have moved to during the night. As I rounded the next corner I was greeted by three grey bums walking down the road. What a nice surprise! It was elephants on their way for their beauty treatment at the local mud wallow. I followed them down the road to the mud wallow, which is slightly lower than the road, and had a grandstand view of this muddy affair.
The matriarch was the first one there and tried to drink some water, reaching as far as possible across the stream with her trunk to get to the clear water. However, the clear water was only available for a few seconds as a young 3 year old calf came charging into the mud wallow with a belly flop. This prompted the other two to follow suit, thrashing the mud with their front feet and spraying this watery mud over their bodies. Elephants spray mud on themselves for two reasons, to cool off and to get rid of parasites, which get trapped in the drying mud which are later rubbed off onto scratching posts or trees. Suddenly, without a sound, the rest of the herd appeared from nowhere. It still amazes me how a 3 ton elephant can walk without as much as a twig cracking under that huge cartilage padded foot. The group came together and there was a buzz of activity. While the two older cows greeted each other, the rest of the young crowd was not going to stand back, they couldn’t wait to get covered in the lovely and cool mud on a hot day.
Not long after that a 25 year old bull came running towards the herd from the tree line. He ran straight into the mud hole, displacing the young crowd from the mud. This created quite a commotion as the youngest member of the herd could not get out of the mud quick enough and with the bull thrashing around in the mud, the youngster felt threatened and let out a loud scream. The mother and aunt were there in a split second.
The aunt, which is also the matriarch of the herd, challenged the young bull and the mother stood next to her calf for reassurance. The bull moved out of the wallow and the calf was then able to right himself and get to firm ground. After the excitement the group and the bull got back in the hole and there was mud flying everywhere.
The largest bull in the reserve came to join the herd, however, not with any of the youthful exuberance the young bull displayed. He just walked slowly up the pathway with a swaggering gait. The matriarch broke away from the herd and went towards the large bull, shaking her head making her ears flap. The bull did not seem bothered by her cold reception and walked straight up to her. When the bull was right next to her she made a 180 ْ turn with her bum towards the bull. The bull, towering head and shoulders above the matriarch, put his trunk on her back and followed her for several steps as they walked down the pathway towards the wallow. Suddenly there was a lot of vocalization and a big fuss was made over the bull, with the second ranking female leaving her mud bath to welcome him. The young bull that had been throwing his weight around earlier quickly got out of the wallow and moved in behind the rest of the herd.
The large bull greeted all of the older members of the herd and then walked towards me to drink some water. He totally ignored me and proceeded to drink water right next to the vehicle. After having a drink he moved towards the wallow where the youngsters were still having great fun. He stood there for half a minute and then made a deep stomach rumble. The youngsters cleared the wallow in double time. With the wallow to himself he kneeled and proceeded to tusk the mud on the edge of the pond and used these harder pieces to cover himself. All as if to say “it is not proper for a bull of my status to use the soft pre-used mud”.
With the main mud pool now occupied the youngest member of the group went to investigate the as yet unused, but deeper mud hole. In his attempt to reach the mud he managed to topple in. Although the mud was not that deep, he got a huge fright and let out a loud scream. His older sister and cousin were next to him in seconds, kneeling next to the mud hole to provide moral support. He managed to clamber out of the hole unaided. What struck me was that the mother and aunt made no attempt to go to his aid this time. It was as if they wanted him to free himself as part of some life lesson.
All the youngsters became very playful, they ran and pushed each other around. A young female tried to drink some water from the deep pool, but was promptly clambered upon by her younger cousin. This brought all the youngsters together for a game of “King of the castle” and they all clambered on the young female who tried to drink some water.
After a while the matriarch moved away about 50 metres from the wallow, and the group followed at a slow pace. They all started kicking the dirt and then had a dust bath.
The large bull joined the herd after his mud bath, and both the adult females joined him to the side of the herd. The second ranking female went so far as to rub the back of her ear on his rump, which he seemed to love. After their bonding session the cows went back to the herd. The herd stood together for some time, and then one by one disappeared into the mountain for their day’s rest. The 25 year old bull was the last one to depart. He was following well behind the group now that the large male was with them, clearly feeling sorry for himself.
It is exactly this sort of fascinating interaction between the breeding herds and the bulls that we want to discover with the monitoring project that is taking place here on Welgevonden.
The first time I came to Welgevonden I was struck by the beauty and the serenity that the reserve had to offer. Welgevonden offers amazing landscapes, fauna, flora, and so many other features that affect you, whether it happens consciously or not. I have been here for more than seven years and thought I knew the reserve well, but I can tell you the elephants know the reserve much better. Following the elephants on foot has opened a whole new world for me, into areas that I never knew existed.
There are vast areas between the roads that we drive either on game drives or daily activities. There is only one way to get to these “remote” areas and that is on foot. Walking into these valleys and hill slopes you soon find densely wooded areas and small crystal clear streams tumbling over boulders and terraces. The elephants move in and out of these valleys both as shortcuts to the next plateau or mountain, or just going about their daily activities.
On the 27th of June there was a report of a breeding herd of elephant on Kolobe road heading towards #16. It was just after 13:00 when I got fresh tracks for elephant close to # 12 crossing the road into the valley. I followed the tracks into the valley, and soon found a young bull feeding lazily on the edge of the gorge. After spending about a half an hour with him I heard a slight rustle behind him further down in the valley. I waited for the bull to move away and proceeded to move into the valley in the direction of the rustle. As I got to edge of the next sandstone terrace, I was greeted by the most picture perfect scene you can imagine.
There, 50 meters below me, was a herd resting in the cool afternoon sun. The 3 adult cows were resting on their feet, and the rest of the group was lying down sleeping in a circle around the adult females. They were positioned right in front of a small bubbling stream of water, and just beyond the stream was a bare red sand stone cliff face, and a Candelabra tree (Euphorbia ingens ) just on the edge of the cliff above the females heads. This was a scene that no amount of words can explain.
After about an hour one of the adult females began to dust bathe herself, and the young calves began to wake at their own pace. The first two young ones to awake were the youngest members of the herd. After a suckling session they promptly began to chase each other, to the dismay of their older siblings that were trying to sleep a little longer. With the playing youngsters the rest of the herd had no choice but to wake up and start their grooming activities by dust bathing and scratching those itchy parasites against the trees. One of the sub adult females was awake, but kept lying down. This was a mistake as the other young calves pounced on her and soon it was a wrestling match between all of the younger members. The young bull I saw earlier joined the herd, but kept his distance to one side. A young cow moved towards the bull and they greeted each other by placing their trunks by the others’ mouth and then blowing air into the mouth of the other elephant. Animals have a receptor gland called the Jacob’s organ in their palate, from where they can identify other individuals from their smell (pheromones).
The wind began to swirl and soon my scent was carried to the ever watchful adult females and they made some stomach rumbles. The group smelled the air for a short while, grouped together and proceeded to move further down the valley. As usual I did not want to intrude any further and moved back up the mountain.
There are many things that happen every day in natures daily routine, most of these situations go by unrevealed to us as humans, one has to be at the right place at the right time to have a glimpse into Mother Nature’s treasure chest. The elephants, without knowing it, gave me a glimpse into their daily life and gave me a better understanding of what they perceive as just an ordinary day.
July 7-11 2006
This past week Welgevonden was part of a world first operation. On Saturday the 8th of July the first ever successful vasectomy on an elephant bull was done right here on Welgevonden. It was an amazing experience to see and to be part of. One of the vital aspects was the combination of the Welgevonden team, the surgical team and the facilitator’s team. It is good to see that there are people in this world that cares about conservation and the preservation of the worlds Fauna and Flora, be it the prevention of overpopulation to preserve a species, or the breeding of endangered species to increase critically low numbers. The successes of the surgical team and their improvements of surgical techniques made the procedure of vasectomies on elephant bulls a reality. This opens up another door where elephant population growth is a deterrent for small reserves to open their gates for the translocation of elephants from reserves that are potentially overpopulated.
I was extremely privileged to assist one of the veterinarians on two of the operations. It was amazing to see at what lengths the team went to maintain sterility in the open bush, and their professionalism that they displayed at all times. The operations had to proceed as fast as possible, and all aspects where constantly checked ie: breathing rate, temperature, pulse rate, oxygen levels in the blood and many other aspects that that is vital to any surgical operation. With elephants most the instruments are oversized, for instance the laparoscope is more than a meter long, the tracheal tube (the tube that is placed in the wind pipe so that oxygen can be pumped into lungs) had to be specially made for these operations, as well as many other examples. The bottom line is that this group of veterinarians achieved the operation that was deemed imposable in minimum time, minimum inconvenience to the elephant and maximum efficiency. The team was very happy with their results, and is already talking about new ideas to help in feature operations. Congratulations to all the parties involved that made the whole operation a reality. To me it was the experience of a lifetime.
Nature often has a subtle, or sometimes not so subtle, way of making a proud man humble. We think of those people that suffer from arachnophobia, where a small daddy-long-legs has sent many a person running. There are countless such examples, not even to mention a large animal like an elephant bull in musth that can make you feel insignificant in a few seconds, regardless of age or social standing.
I am a very fortunate individual who follows elephants in their natural environment almost everyday. It is amazing how a large elephant bull in close proximity, when you are on foot, can make you feel small due to their physical size and presence. I would like to share an experience where a young boy of six years old, and standing 2.5 feet tall, humbled me with his mental strength and positive outlook in life. Drian Scheepers was send to Welgevonden as a part of the Reach-for-a Dream outreach programme. Drian’s dream was to be out in the bush and close to elephants.
I was asked if I would take Drian and his family on a walk with me. After learning more about cystic fibrosis on the Internet I was under the impression that I was to meet a very sick and dejected young boy. To my great surprise Drian was, although a small boy, bouncing with enthusiasm and most willing to learn more about nature. He is determined not to let life’s curve balls get him down, always smiling and happy. Not what one would expect from someone who has spent most his life in a hospital bed.
We all left Paperbark lodge at about two in the afternoon. We headed to an area where I had seen three breeding herds of elephant and some bulls earlier that morning. On our way there we saw lovely general game. Every time we stopped at an animal Drian asked his mom to take numerous pictures of them, even if they had taken good pictures of that species before. We were talking non-stop on the vehicle. What struck me was Drian’s intense love of nature, especially when he rebuked his brother Brian when he asked me if a bazooka could kill an elephant (Brian has a fascination with bazookas). Drian told him that we should love animals and not shoot them.
From the top of the ridge one could see into the opposite valley, and although we could see some elephants feeding in the valley, they were far away. We drove in the general direction of where the elephants were feeding. One could sense the excitement of the group as we got closer to the area where we would walk to the elephants. We tried to drive as close as possible to the elephants, as Drian tires easily due to his condition.
We all disembarked from the vehicle with mom Judy looking a bit apprehensive, but the younger generation as exited as can be. Mac, the lodge’s guide, and I both got our rifles out and ready for the walk, causing quite a stir with the younger generation. Whilst doing the pre-walk talk, I noticed Drian could not wait to go and see the elephants. As we walked they, especially Drian and his brother Brian, asked a lot of questions. I stopped for a while to show them some tracks, trees and interesting plants. We only walked for another hundred meters or so when we heard the crack of a branch breaking about two hundred meters ahead of us. They looked with big eyes at the fresh dung and huge tracks the elephants had left in the mud next to the small stream that drains the valley. Drian said that he could not smell the dung as he always has a blocked nose. From where we were we could see a breeding herd and large bull on the side of the mountain. Drian struggled to see them initially, until they were pointed out to him.
We could hear a breeding herd in front of us on the next small plateau, playing in the water. We all climbed the couple of boulders to get to the plateau when we saw a young bull between us and the herd. The bull was about 30 meters away from us and the breeding herd just out of sight beyond him, but still playing in the water. The wind changed slightly from our direction towards the bull, and as much as I would have liked to show them the breeding herd from closer up, the wind and the proximity of the young bull would have jeopardized our safety. The Scheepers family agreed with me and was happy to see only the young bull close up. Although Drian was happy to see the elephant, he was suddenly visibly tired and wanted to head back to the vehicle. Judy wanted to carry him back, but I asked Drian if he would like to ride on my shoulders and he was quite excited at the prospect. I asked Mac to take the lead back to the car with myself and Drian in the rear. As we headed back a floodgate of questions started from Drian. It seems he took the keeping quiet on the walk to heart, but could not contain himself any longer. I was amazed at the maturity of his questions, far beyond the questions that kids of his age would normally ask.
Once back at the vehicle Drian asked if he could eat something. Apparently people with cystic fibrosis cannot digest their food properly and are therefore constantly hungry, especially after a tiring walk. We stopped for sundowners next to an open plain, with lovely snacks provided by the lodge. Later, on our way back to the lodge, the air was chilly and Judy wrapped Drian in a blanket. A minute later he was fast asleep. Totally exhausted, but totally happy. Judy said she knew he would tell his teacher at school all about his experiences. Back at the lodge we were greeted with hot chocolate and sandwiches for the family.
It was a privilege to meet such a sincere, down to earth family. My heart goes out to Hannes and Judy, that despite their hardship they have stayed a happy and caring family. To Drian, may you stay a happy boy. With your love for nature and positive attitude, you are a true ambassador for all people and conservation.
Autumn has finally sneaked in through the back door, the subtle changes are all around with the Live-long tree (Lannea discolor) creating a tapestry background on the hill slopes with their bright red and yellow leaves. The lush green fields are slowly turning brown, and the European bee-eaters have headed off to warmer climates.
It was the 11 th May at 13h15 and there was a slight chill in the air. I was tracking a small breeding herd that was sighted south of Camel drive on the morning game drive. The tracks were descending into a valley that runs from east west from the base of Camel drive towards #19 and Luiperdskloof. When following tracks I would normally walk about a hundred meters at a time, stop, look and listen for any telltale sounds or movements that can alert me of their presence. But that day there was no sight or sound. After walking for about 20 minutes, I began to think that the herd had already crossed over the next rise. I went around a rocky outcrop and walked straight into an adult bull sunning himself in the shelter of a large boulder. Thank goodness he was fast asleep on his feet and the wind was in my favour.
I slowly retreated to a safe distance and decided to stay with the bull as the breeding herd had eluded me, and one doesn’t see elephants sleeping so deeply that often. About 20 minutes had passed when I heard the rumble of an aeroplane in the distance. The small plane passed right overhead and relatively low over the mountains. Our sleeping elephant woke with a startle as the plane passed overhead, and made a big fuss by kicking up dust and doing several headshakes in the direction of the plane. The plane was soon gone and the bull settled down again. He started moving around with slow movements, and proceeded to feed as he moved along.
The bull was very relaxed, feeding and now fully awake. The breeze began to pick up a bit and started to swirl around as it always does in this mountainous terrain. Twice the wind changed and blew my scent straight towards him. When this happened I got my things ready to leave the area, as I did not want to get this large bull upset by my presence. To my surprise there was no reaction from him, no sniffing of the air, head shaking or any other body language that would indicate that I was not welcome there. Although he knew that I was there, he just kept on feeding.
I followed him and felt extremely privileged by him allowing me to get some insight into his daily life in spite of him being aware of my presence. An hour passed and the wind steadied in a constant direction, from him towards me. He turned towards me and stood dead still for several seconds, just looking at me. I held my breath waiting for any signs of agitation or any signs that could mean danger, but he just stood still, not moving for some time, only twisting his head from side to side (not a head shake but just merely a tilt), turned around and went on feeding. This was a sign of him letting me know without any aggression or agitation that he needed some time alone.
I immediately turned around and moved away from him to give him his space. I realised that although we like to think we as humans are in charge and that animals are inferior to us, when it comes down to nature and man, we are the inferior species and are reliant on their moods and behavior. We as humans need to be more attuned to the signals and signs that animals project towards us. That bull gave me a subtle sign that he had had enough, it did not need to come down to mock charges or for him to let me know what his intentions were.
Animals will let you know if they are unhappy in a situation. This may be a lion whipping its tail, or even an impala stopping to feed and stamping its hoof. If we start to read these signs or slight change in behavior we can avoid many dangerous situations and enjoy more of the animals and their daily activities without interfering with their lives or having them attack us to get us away from them and those that are under their protection. We are mere spectators in an incredible natural world around us, and there is still so much to learn every day.
It was the 10th of April, and the initial chill of winter was reminding us that it is not too long before hot chocolate and beanies will be replacing ponchos and cocktails as standard game drive necessities. The bush is still lush and beautiful after the good rains and finding the elephants in these conditions is by no means an easy task.
It was 14:15 and at last there were some fresh tracks of a breeding herd crossing Old Fence Road from west to east, not far from Johan’s Bogg pass. I followed the tracks for 10 minutes on foot before hearing a branch break on the side of the hill. I was pleasantly surprised to find herd No 6 resting in a small open clearing. Some of the younger members of the herd were sleeping flat on their sides, while the three adult females were standing with their backs to the chilly breeze, ears open wide for the wind to cool them down without having to flap their ears to regulate their body temperature. It was strange to find the group in full sun at that time of the day, even with the slight chill in the wind.
Then the reason for the sunning session appeared from a clump of grass. It was the 5 week old infant, a little bundle of wrinkles, looking cold after his power nap. He walked around for a short while with very stiff legs. It seemed as if the adults were willing to risk a bit of sunburn in order for the young ones to keep warm in the midday sun. The youngsters awoke slowly, or were harassed awake by a now energetic 5 week old. All had a dust bath before grandmother took the lead and moved back up the mountain in a westerly direction towards Old Fence Road. I decided not follow them in the dense undergrowth, especially not with such a young calf in the group and grandmother always on the guard.
As I got back to my vehicle, I heard branches breaking in a northerly direction. Driving closer I was met by an adult bull, one of the five biggest bulls on the reserve, feeding calmly next to the road. Not far behind him was herd No.3, also feeding peacefully but slowly heading towards the road. They crossed the road in front of me, totally ignoring my presence. An adult female came to feed on a stand of round leaf teak (Pterocarpus rotundifolius) right next to the vehicle with her 9 month old infant in tow. The infant walked around his mother twice and stood still next to her, facing me. Mother moved her left front leg forward and the calf proceeded to suckle. I felt extremely privileged to be so close to them and to have her allowing the infant to suckle with me close by. After suckling it took it only took 15 seconds to lie down and promptly fall asleep under its mother’s feet.
It was amazing to see how the mother stepped over it whilst feeding. She stepped in between its legs and trunk with the greatest of ease with no space to spare on either side. The mother moved about 5 meters away with the infant still fast asleep. Then, as if in a slow motion action feature, the mother reversed her previous steps, and came to a halt next to her calf. She just stood there for several seconds, then rumbled her stomach, waited a bit longer, and when her calf did not move, she gave it a stiff side kick with her left hind leg. She connected the calf with a thud on its bum before casually walking away. The calf slowly got up with the look on its face of a kid on a Monday morning before school and followed his mother. When the sleep deprived infant saw his older sister he charged her as if it was she that dared to wake him!
Both groups then moved westwards away from the road, followed by a 35 year old bull from the Southern Plains, coming up north for the first time since the start of the project. Seems like humans are not the only ones that are having problems getting the children out of bed.
It was yet another beautiful hot and sunny summer’s day. The day was warming up fast, and usually the breeding herds find a big shady tree and take a serious elephant nap in the heat of the day. Early that morning I was following up on the tracks of a breeding herd moving south-east along the fence from West Gate. Rounding the first bend east of #54 on West Gate road my eyes were drawn to a movement in the trees south of the road. A fifteen year old bull was standing close to the road feeding on a Hornpod tree. After switching off the vehicle, I noticed the sounds of more elephants feeding in the area. In the space of an hour, three breeding herds (herds no 1, 4 and 5) were feeding in close proximity to my vehicle. That in itself was a wonderful sight, bright sunshine, about 40 elephants around and the backdrop of the Marakele mountains to complete the picture.
The ambiance was broken by the loud scream of an elephant calf far back in the tree line, and seconds later an adult cow and her calf (age 3) came running out of the trees with a young bull (age 25) in tow. Close on their heels was one of the top 5 ranking bulls on the reserve in full musth. It seemed as if the younger bull was getting too close to the cow for the older bull’s liking, and he was not in the mood for sharing his lady with an young upstart. The atmosphere calmed down when the younger bull was chased off. The rest of herd then slowly appeared out of the tree line, still feeding.
The big bull engaged into consort behavior, walking with the female with his trunk on her back. By now it was quite clear that she was in season, and her calf was unsure of what was happening. It is known that young calves become stressed and unsure when the mother is in season, due to the fact that the mother is not giving 100% attention to the calf, and the large amorous males sometimes injure the calves in their attempts to mate with the female and keep other suitors away. The bull tried to mount the female, but she avoided his advances and kept on feeding. It might have been too early in her cycle to copulate, and the male did not try his luck again. All this was happening merely 5 meters away from my vehicle, an incredible sighting.
Another young male came towards to the female, tested her scent (flehmen), and proceeded to follow her where ever she went. The old bull did not seem to mind this young male’s approaches, possibly he was still too young to be a threat. After a while the female became frustrated with the young male’s advances, and moved closer towards the big bull. He immediately began to clear the area of all the other suitors. Another adult bull, almost as big but not in musth, was chased away together with 3 younger bulls. However, he still ignored the very young bull. Only then did he turn his attention towards me for the first time. He gave me a number of mock charges, but starting the engine kept him at bay.
The female tried to shake off the young male by moving around the vehicle several times, but when this did not work, she moved towards the old bull for safety. The young bull got so exited with the pheromones of the female in oestrus in the air that he bumped into her calf, who let out a scream. The matriarch of the herd appeared from nowhere and chased the young bull away. Some time later the big bull moved into the bush with the cow in tow.
For the next two hours the breeding herds kept on feeding around the vehicle peacefully. Game drive time arrived and Paul from Shibula Lodge and Phil from Nungubane Lodge responded to the sighting. They arrived to the tranquil scene of the breeding herds feeding. However, the honeymoon couple reappeared from the bush close to the game drive vehicles. The bull started to display typical musth behavior, and mock charged Paul and Phil. They both started their engines and he backed off, turning his attention towards me. When I started my engine, he backed off a little, but proceeded to tusk the ground before moving away. At that time the game drive vehicles pulled out of the sighting, but I stayed a bit longer. However, when he started displaying again I decided to leave the area as not to draw his attention away from the female. What an incredible day at the office!