Every so often in the bush one is blessed with the most astonishing situations that make you want to pinch yourself to make sure that you are not dreaming. The 22nd of November was just one of these incredible days.
It was a hot day and I was driving along the Sterkstroom River in the direction of where I had left the elephants the day before. Just as I was about to check for a telemetry signal I saw a young bull feeding next to the river some distance ahead of me. As I drove closer I saw the bull was concentrating on digging for a tuber with his front foot. All was quiet except for the loud munching sounds of the young bull biting off chunks while keeping the rest of the tuber in the arc of his trunk. All of a sudden the bull stood still with his mouth half-open, listening. The bull turned his head, stared in my direction at something behind my vehicle, closed his mouth and continued chewing again. I used my binoculars to scan the hill slopes to see if I could see what I presumed to be other elephants that the young bull was listening for.
The bush was lush after the rains we had and there was no obvious movement from where I was sitting. Several minutes passed before I heard the tell tale sound of a branch snapping not far from where I was sitting with the young bull. One by one the individuals from group 4 and 5 came weaving through the undergrowth. Most of the females were flapping their ears excessively to try and cool down in the heat of day. The matriarch from group 4 seemed to be in urgent need of a reprieve from the oppressive heat. She started walking at a fast pace towards the river and this initiative seemed to snowball through the two herds. The ambling walk changed into a mini stampede with all the females running towards the river, right past me and the young bull. The youngest calf of the matriarch from group 4 was running towards the young bull that stood with his trunk extended in an attempt to greet the approaching breeding herds. The calf’s older sister ushered him back to the moving mass with her trunk on his back.
The young bull tried to greet some of the passing females but he was ignored. The females did not stop at the waters edge for a drink but ran straight in to the river. There was a lot of splashing and water flying everywhere. Some of the older cows waded through the river and went to the mud to wallow on the opposite side of the river. Usually the older cows will tusk the mud then churn the mud with their feet, but for some reason the females lay down flat in the mud with their feet wriggling on the side of their submerged bodies. The action in the mud wallow seemed to be like a magnet for all the youngsters that came piling into the mud from all directions. It still amazes me that the adults don’t squash or drown infants in the mud with all the frolicking that takes place in a confined mud hole.
The matriarch from group 5 had a slight temporal secretion when she came past the vehicle, but not enough for me to suspect that she was coming into season. Another young bull was moving with the herd, following the matriarch from group 5. The cow kept on walking ahead of him, while he was trying to enter into consort behaviour with her. Although she kept ahead of him, she was getting annoyed and let out a short scream while moving. The second ranking female from group 4 immediately left the mud hole and charged the young bull from the side. The young bull veered away from the matriarch and ran onto a boulder strewn hill slope. This was the first time I had seen a female from a different herd coming to the aid of another herd’s matriarch and that the second ranking female took charge of the situation instead of the matriarch from group 4. The matriarch of group 5 settled down to a dusting session with the second ranking female returning to the mud hole.
The novelty of the mud rolling wore off and the cows and calves moved back to the river for a drinking session. The young bull that had caused all the commotion earlier on was feeding alone to one side of the herd. The matriarch from group 4 stopped drinking water and for no apparent reason charged the young bull that was feeding +- 40 meters away from her. The young bull ran further onto the hill slope avoiding the irate matriarch. The matriarch seemed to be satisfied with the impression she had made on the young male and returned to her herd that was by then crossing the river back in the direction of the young bull and I, parked just beyond him. The herd moved into a stand of long grass and formed a tight huddle. The reason soon became apparent, as bright red dust started flying in all directions. The elephants found a newly excavated burrow of some kind and were making the most of the abundant loose red sand.
All of a sudden there was pandemonium, with the breeding herd trumpeting frantically and running in all directions. There was a high-pitched scream, but not from an elephant. Trumpeting followed by a loud elephant scream, and a cow running and screaming directly in the direction of the young bull and I. Everything was happening so fast that it was almost a blur. Out of nowhere, a brown hyena came running through the long grass with an infuriated cow close on his tail. The cow let up her chase when she came close to the road and merely turned around to join the rest of the herd that had settled down. When the cow joined the herd, they all started dusting them selves again. The young brown hyena stood on the road with all his hair bristled to make itself look larger, or it was freaked out by the elephants. The hyena could probably only bear so many probing trunks down its burrow before the flight reflex took over and it ran past a forest of grey pillar like legs next to its burrow. The young hyena stood on the road bewildered for a while and then it walked into the opposite valley with the hair on its back still bristled.
The two herds merged in the river again, with the calves from both herds making the most of the situation playing in the cool water. Group 4 started to move into the hill slope, leaving group 5 behind. The third ranking female from group 4 was leading the procession. The herds were about 100meters apart when there was a calf that was screaming at the top of its lungs again. I could not see all the way into the river where the screaming was emanating from, but my curiosity was soon rewarded with a two-year old calf running onto the opposite bank. Both herds were very alert when the calf started screaming, but the third ranking female from group 4 came running as fast as she could weaving between the boulders and running straight over small trees towards the calf. When the calf spotted her mom, she stopped screaming and ran so fast that her ears were flapping on her back. The cow reached her calf and was very affectionate, keeping the calf next to her body with her trunk, as they walked to join their herd. It seems the calf became so absorbed playing with the other herd’s juveniles that she did not realise that her mom had left without her.
Both herds started to disappear onto the hill slope, feeding as they walked along. I soon lost visual of them and the young bull that had kept me company during all the excitement joined the herds. I followed the herds on foot, as there was a strong wind blowing from them towards me, just the way I like it, so as to be able to move undetected by the elephants. Two hours must have passed while I was walking with both herds. The vegetation was very dense and the terrain difficult to traverse, with huge boulders slowing progress. By now the herds were spread out over a large area. I had fleeting glimpses of a tail then a trunk and so on, as we moved high up onto the mountain. A short time later, a loud clap of thunder rumbled over the valley and the first puffy cumulus clouds cast a shadow over us. This was a wonderful relief from the intense heat we had experienced up until then. The vegetation started to open up as we got further away from the river.
It became easier to see small family groups feeding together. The wind changed slightly and I had to almost walk ahead of the elephants in order to avoid detection. The terrain changed to an open terrace with scattered trees and open grass plains. Both herds emerged onto the plain. Two young juvenile males entered into a playful sparring match and the rest of the herds seemed to take a break from their marathon ascent and feeding. The herds were to my right and I was standing on the verge of a cliff to my left with the two young bulls feeding close behind me. The wind was perfect, blowing my scent over the cliff edge and away from the herds and approaching young bulls. I was still scribbling observations in my file when a movement caught my attention.
To my absolute astonishment a young male leopard was walking in front of the two young elephant bulls, but also keeping down wind of the slow moving breeding herds. This meant the leopard was walking in the same direction, but slightly closer to the breeding herds. The leopard walked past the elephants as if they did not exist, once as close as 2 meters from an adult female. It was clear that the leopard was conscious of the wind direction, but not too worried by the rest. The leopard must have known I was there, as I probably would have had to walk past him to get were I was situated. The elephant cow that was close to him moved towards him and me to feed from a different tree. The leopard disappeared into the grass ahead of me. I had to move forward as the two young bulls were almost right behind me. I was wary to move forward so as not to disturb the leopard, but the two young bulls were getting too close for comfort. All the time while walking forward I was looking for those incredible camouflage rosettes, but there was nothing. A minute or two later some vervet monkeys started alarm calling some distance below me on the cliff edge. That meant the leopard had moved right past me without me detecting him.
There was no time to reminisce about what I had just seen or the day’s happenings, as a lightning bolt struck the earth on the next mountain rise. It is not a good place to be on top of a mountain and more than 30 elephants likely to scatter into any direction when a lighting bolt strikes. It was a long walk back to the vehicle but I had all the days’ events flashing through my mind. Every day is an adventure in the bush, but that specific day was one that will be burned in the back of my mind for a very long time.
Life giving rain has fallen at last. It has been a very long and intense dry season. The elephants have been walking long distances every day in search of nutrients. I have even seen the elephants digging for Bracken fern roots. Livestock like horses, have been known to die after eating the new leaf growth from these bracken ferns. The elephants have been spending most of their time high up on the hill slopes and plateaus. This means that the game drive vehicles have not been seeing much of the elephants. It has also meant that I had to walk much further to follow them up into these high lying areas.
It has been extremely hot and windy in the days preceding the welcomed rain. It was on one of these days that I found two breeding herds and a number of bulls walking down the mountain in the heat of the day. The matriarch from group 6 was in season and she had the full attention of the largest, most dominant bull in the reserve. A number of younger bulls were in the area but the dominant bull did not tolerate any of the young, hopeful suitors coming close to the female. The two herds merged and left the courting couple behind, resting in the sparse shade of a tree.
The herds were feeding on a very rocky and steep hill slope, most likely feeding on trees they would not reach during their normal feeding movements in more favourable conditions. While some of the herd members were feeding in between the rocks, the matriarch of group 3 avoided the boulder strewn hill slope and walked straight down to the river’s edge. She was accompanied by her six week old infant and the infant’s three and half year old sister. They looked like organ pipes in perfect symmetry. The herd came to a small clearing with one tree offering a slight reprieve from the intense heat. Both herds tried to squeeze into a tight huddle. The young calves started to lie down for their midday nap, but this did not last long as a young bull wanted to join in and share the totally overcrowded available shade space. The bull made his way into the herd. As the bull walked in between the females others were ejected from the tight circle with dismay. Some of the youngsters woke up with a start and that was the end of the well anticipated nap.
All the elephants promptly started feeding and the young bull was left by himself. The herds started moving up stream, heading towards a dam that was rapidly drying up. The younger members of the herds approached the water first and as is the custom, they stretched their trunks out over the water and had their fill of water. It was strange too see the elephants only drinking water and not spraying any of the water over themselves or even swimming during the hot part of day. Gradually they started to spray a bit of water over themselves. As usual, it only takes one individual to take the lead and break the ice. A ten year old bull charged headlong into the water, running past the others who were drinking slowly along the water’s edge. That got the ball rolling and the entire group of youngsters joined in the fun, frolicking in the water. The adults walked down a small valley to get to the dam, for their drinking session.
I was sitting next to where the waters edge used to in the wet season, close to the dam inlet. The only available shade was a large tuft of grass. I wriggled myself into the long stringy dry leaves. I turned out to be a very comfortable and cool seat. It was a wonderful feeling to sit eye level with the approaching elephants and to look up at the majestic gentle giants. The walking elephants stirred up insects from the grass. The White fronted bee eater birds that had recently returned from their winter migration came swooping low over my head and over the water to catch the free gifts that the elephants were inadvertently supplying to them. Most of these bee eaters came to perch in the dry tree just above my head. It was a blissful scene with brightly coloured birds above me, elephants right across a small stretch of water from me and beyond the dam wall was the wide open valley stretching as far as the eye could see.
A young bull joined the herd for a drink of water. The herd moved along the water’s edge drinking water as they walked along. The young bull did not waste any time, and walked into the water and drank at the same time. He promptly joined the play group in the one corner of the dam. The six week old infant was very excited by all the activity happening around him, but was not too adventurous when it came to the swimming idea. He ventured with his front legs into the water and had a splash with his trunk, but he was quick to run back to mom who was keeping a watchful eye. One by one, the females entered the water for a cool reprieve. The matriarch stood at the water’s edge and sprayed water over herself to get some relief from the heat. Some of the water fell on the infant making him scamper away from his mother. The matriarch and her second-in-charge were the only elephants not to venture into the water. In all the time of this study I have never seen the matriarch from group 3 enter the water, she seems to be content with just a splash or two.
The matriarch and her infant moved onto the dam wall for a dusting session, leaving the rest of the elephants who were now all playing in the dam. It was wonderful to see adult females playing with infants and all ages. It became such a mix of elephants that it was difficult to identify individuals within the mêlée of swimming and playing bodies. The young bull that was left all alone under the tree earlier appeared in the small valley next to the dam. The young bull that was playing in the dam with the young herd bulls, immediately left the water and started a sparring match with the approaching bull. The two young bulls were approximately the same age. The tussle quickly changed from a light sparring match into a serious fight for dominance. It was easy to follow the progress, as the one looked almost black from the water and the other the normal dusty grey colour.
As the intensity of the two sparring bulls increased, the intensity of the playing youngsters and females diminished. One by one, they started leaving the water and tried their best to avoid the two brawling bulls. The third ranking female and oldest daughter of the matriarch from group 3 left the water with her one year old calf in tow. The two bulls, totally oblivious of anything around them, came very close to the one year old calf whilst fighting. The young mother immediately ran in between the calf and the stampeding bulls. She was smaller than the two bulls, but stood her ground with her ears out, screaming loudly at the approaching bulls. The bulls ignored her and kept on fighting. The female screamed again, this time the rest of the herd and even the adult females from the other herd, rushed to the aid of the screaming female. The rush of females made the bulls stop for a brief moment, but as soon as the young cow settled down they were at it again. The rush of adults out of the dam put a damper on the playfulness of the younger members. The dam emptied fast and all the elephants began to move up the small valley.
The two young bulls suddenly broke off their fight and joined the other elephants. It was strange to see all the dark coloured and wet elephants and the one dry elephant sticking out like a sore thumb, walking into the trees. It was still very hot and the dark colours of the elephants quickly faded to their normal grey as they walked along. The two herds separated, with the rest of group 3 heading towards the matriarch who was still standing on the dam wall. The air turned red as the whole herd started an intense dusting session to round off their swim.
The herd walked into the ravine below the dam wall, with some of the members moving onto the hill slope to feed and the rest wondering into the tree line for a post-swim nap. Five minutes later there was no sign of the excitement that had preceded the nap and rest. The only movement noticeable was a young female feeding between the rocks while the others were fast asleep or resting.
What struck me during the day’s activities was the interaction between all the age classes. While the elephants were all playing, there were no boundaries and young played with old and visa versa. Elephants socialise with abundant care and intimacy, and when young are in danger the females will put their life on the line no matter what. It is the same for humans that caring parents will do anything to protect their children. But when the chips are down and there is danger to our loved ones we act the same as the females from group 6 and go to their aid. We can, once again, learn from the elephants by taking special care of our children and others around us.
The annual sporadic gusts of strong swirling winds during August have swept through the reserve with timely reoccurrence. The bush is extremely dry and dusty after the low rainfall of the last rainy season. The swirling winds and abundant dust leads to the most spectacular dust devils or whirlwinds, visible from a long distance. Sometimes the elephants find themselves caught up in these whirlwinds, and it is amusing to see the elephants’ ears pulled into the air by the updraft. I guess it works both ways.
After seeing me laughing at them, they must be amused to see me trying to remove dust and sand from very uncomfortable places after being caught up in the same dust devil.
Something that I have mentioned in previous diaries is the reaction of the elephants to humans when the wind is blowing erratically. They become very nervous and wary. This has meant that in recent weeks I have trouble to follow the breeding herds closely on foot. As soon as I get close enough to get visual of the elephants, I find them awaiting my arrival with trunks in the air and their natural behavior patterns already disrupted. This resulted in me spending more time in the vehicle, looking for breeding herds that are close enough to the road to be able to observe their behavior and interactions without disturbing them.
It was during one of these driving trips that I saw one of the dominant bulls on his own, feeding next to a large open clearing. Normally the large bulls are unperturbed by humans or cars provided they are given a respectful amount of space. He started walking towards a watering pan situated in the middle of the open clearing, and I moved around to the other side of the watering hole and waited for him to approach at his leisure. It was a lovely scene, with the large lonely figure walking into the open plains. It was in some ways a moving sight to see such a social mammal all by himself in the vast open space, but this was the human in me thinking with human judgment. The mature bulls spend most of their time by themselves when they are not in musth, and when in musth they follow the cows that may or may not be in season.
As the bull got closer it became clear that he had recently broken off most of his left tusk, just short of the upper lip. This is a common occurrence here in the rocky and mountainous terrain. Usually the tusks only chip off in short splinters or sections and it was unusual to see the whole tusk missing. The elephants use their tusks to dig for tubers or roots that are embedded under boulders or rock shelves, especially at the end of winter when nutrient levels are low. As I mentioned in a previous month, elephants are similar to humans in being either left or right tusk-dominant. It was evident that this bull is left handed (tusked).
The bull walked to the watering hole at a slow and swaggering pace, not with any of the exuberance and gusto the younger bulls display when they approach the watering holes. It was though almost as if the bull was not going to waste an ounce of energy by making any unnecessary movements. Once at the waters edge, the bull stretched his trunk as far as he could reach across the water and sucked his trunk full of water with an occasional sucking sound as air was sucked with the water into the trunk. He promptly emptied the contents of his trunk onto the ground next to him, as if there was some residual dust left in his trunk that would interfere with the natural taste of the water. It was fascinating to see the peristaltic movements of the trunk, how the muscles expand and contract and work in unison, helped by the massive sucking capacity of the elephants large lungs. Although I have seen elephant’s drinking water countless times, this was the first time in a while that there were no other distractions diverting my focus from the muscle actions in the trunk.
It seemed like an eternity before the bull emptied the first trunk full of cooling water into his mouth. A small amount of the water was dribbling out of his mouth, dripping noisily back into the watering hole. Even after he emptied his trunk he stood there motionless, as if savouring the taste of the water. The bull filled his trunk several times with the same slow motion movements.
After quite some time he turned and approached a block of rock salt that was not far from the watering hole. The bull started picking at the salt block with the same deliberate, slow actions used when drinking water. He used the tip of his trunk to search every crevice on the block for a loose piece of salt. He located one or two small morsels, but it seemed that the small pieces were not enough and he enlisted the help of his front foot to break off larger pieces of the salt. He seemed to be content with the one large piece of salt that broke off. Even from the distance that I was sitting away from him, I could hear the salt being crunched between his enormous molars. While he was chewing on the piece that he had broken off, his trunk was already looking for the next piece to be broken off the block. Once again his heavy foot was employed to do the breaking of the block. This time only a small piece broke off, but he seemed content with it and walked back towards the watering hole.
The bull had a bit more haste in his movements after eating the salt. I think half a kilogram of salt is enough to make any mammal thirsty. The bull only took two mouthfuls of water after his salt snack. He stood still by the waters edge biting his trunk tip and standing motionless for a few seconds. He dropped his trunk to the ground and let out a deep breath, with a small cloud of dust erupting next to the tip of his trunk as the air rushed past. The bull stood with his eyes closing for longer and longer periods in between blinking. It seemed like a power nap was needed, after the exertion of drinking and eating salty snacks. A short while later a dust devil, with a mixture of grass and dust, disturbed his nap. The disturbance triggered some motion in his legs. He wandered across the clearing and into the tree line where he promptly continued with his nap.
One and a half hours had elapsed from finding the languid bull to the time he entered the tree line for his midday nap. I was thinking about the deliberate slowness of the movements and actions of the bull. The answer that came to mind was why should he move faster and waste unnecessary energy.
Our modern world is so energy dependant and rushed in every sense of the word. We can take a leaf out of the elephant’s tree by being calculated and deliberate in our actions, but with the minimum energy expenditure both mentally and physically. Who knows what our world would be like if we took the time to have a one and a half hour tea break?
There is something extraordinary when you find yourself in the presence of a breeding herd of elephants. Following elephants on foot in an isolated valley where there is neither sight nor sound of anything human can only be described as soul food. When driving a vehicle we as humans fail to notice so much that Mother Nature has to offer us and we tend to focus on everything on a macro scale as we speed by. Experiencing nature on foot in the cold winter months changes your sensitivity drastically. Due to the cold weather, sounds drift much further and any noise are amplified. Even crushing a dry leaf under one’s foot sounds like a siren going off. Due to the lack of bird calls or insect activity all is quiet, the term “the silence is deafening” has never rung more true.
It was late morning when I got telemetry signal for one of the breeding herds in an isolated part of the reserve. There was a stiff breeze blowing from me straight into the valley, this meant the elephants would have detected my presence long before I could even try to pinpoint their exact location. I drove to the next mountain top on the opposite side of the valley system, which meant I would have to walk quite a bit further, but once the elephants were located I could observe their natural interactions without me negating their behavior. It took me a while to reach the area where the telemetry signal was the strongest. The area in front of me was almost a shear drop off to the valley bottom and a level sandstone terrace on either side of me. There was a rustle in the grass and dry leaves a short distance away, it sounded like an antelope feeding in a small thicket. To my great surprise it was two francolins foraging noisily for insects and seeds in a heap of dry leaves. The thought dawned on me that if I could hear the francolins at that distance, I would have to be extra careful and cautious to walk quietly when approaching the elephants.
While I was standing with the francolins, I heard the telltale sound of a branch breaking ±200 meters ahead of me down in the valley. The wind direction was still in my favour. When I reached the area where I heard the branch breaking earlier I stood still trying to see the breeding herd. All was quiet, with no sign of the elephants. Suddenly there was a cloud of dust and a loud blowing sound from the terrace below me, only meters away from my feet. It was the matriarch dusting herself next to the boulders on which I was standing. If I had walk two meters further initially, the female would have been in full view, three meters below the terrace I was standing on. Although my position was great for the view of the female dusting herself, it was not ideal for safety or undisturbed observations of the elephant interactions.
I backtracked a bit and climbed down to the terrace where the matriarch was dusting herself. It seemed like she was alone, but soon her three year old calf came out of hiding behind her legs. The matriarch made her way onto a wide open terrace further up onto the mountain, with me following her and her calf. The matriarch’s oldest daughter and infant son were the next to come out of the steep valley to join her. She stood in an open area kicking the sand to get some prime dusting material. It seemed that the climb up the valley was exhausting for the infant and he promptly collapsed in a sunny patch for a well earned morning nap. One by one, the rest of the heard appeared out of the valley. Every elephant that walked up to the open terrace would first join the young female and sleeping infant for a dusting session. The infant did not seem to mind being covered by dust and sand as the rest of the herd were throwing dust everywhere.
She left her son sleeping with her two younger sisters and was feeding in my direction. Although the wind direction was still in my favor, she was getting a little too close to the rock on which I was perched on. I moved further and further away from the herd, keeping ahead of the feeding female. By now I had lost sight of the herd with only the female in front of me. However, after some time she retuned to her herd, and as normal with me following. The female and her infant son were reunited at the dust bowl again.
The matriarch was resting with most of the herd in close proximity to her. She would dust herself occasionally or else she would close her eyes and take a power nap standing on her feet. The matriarch opened her eyes, cocked her head far back and had a huge yawn, even stretching her back legs as she yawned. I have seen elephants yawn before, but not with such animation and enjoyment. To my surprise I found myself yawning, just looking at her infectious yawn. After her stretch, the female started dusting herself again. While she was dusting, she made several loud stomach rumbles, communicating with other elephants. Her conversation was answered by the second ranked female that was heading towards the herd, still several terraces down into the valley. The second ranked female stopped at the dusting spot to dust herself. The two young females that were resting in the dust bowl woke up as the mature female approached, and started dusting themselves all over again.
The second ranked female then walked towards the matriarch and the rest of the herd. She walked right up to the matriarch and stomach rumbled when she got close to her. She showed the necessary respect by greeting the matriarch as they got together. The matriarch did not greet her back and stood resting with her trunk on her tusks. The whole herd gathered together in a small group and settled down for a two hour rest. The only movement was an occasional dust bath or earflap.
After two hours the herd started stirring. To my great dismay the wind turned in the afternoon, draining into the valley from the surrounding higher lying areas. I have got accustomed to the wind usually swirling in the valleys, but that day the wind was behaving and blowing in a constant direction. This meant I could stay closer to the elephants without being worried that the wind would betray my presence. It did not take long for the first female to put her trunk in the air to test my scent. The herd woke up and started to move up the mountain feeding as they were walking. I moved to a new position to be down wind from the elephants. The wind swirled again and the one female seemed weary. I thought this was my queue to leave the area and leave them to feed in the late afternoon sun. It was courteous of them not to get upset with my presence the first time, but it would have been greedy of me to overstay my welcome.
There is only one disadvantage following elephants on foot, and that is you can not get as close to the elephants as you do with a vehicle without compromising personal safety or respect of the elephant’s comfort zone. This means you keep a respectful distance from the elephants and depending on the vegetation, you may only get to see glimpses of the elephants. These glimpses are more than enough to get the data for the monitoring project but not for photographers. It is at times like these you appreciate the times you get to spend with the elephants in very close proximity whilst driving in a vehicle or seeing the elephants in an open clearing. All said and done, there are still not many experiences in life that beat being close to intelligent and very large mammals on foot in their natural environment.
The year is flying past, the mid year solstice has already come and gone. Winter arrived with a vengeance with cold winds and frost greeting us in the mornings. Yet, the elephants carry on with life, taking the early morning chill in their stride. That is meant literally as the elephants tend to be mobile, feeding while walking to heat the body from the inside, the muscle action releasing heat energy as it contracts and expands.
It was shortly after midday when I was driving along the Platbos River looking for a breeding herd that has been elusive for several days. That day I didn’t have to look too hard as the herd was feeding on the verge of the road . This was very courteous of them as it meant I could sit and observe the elephant from within the warm confines of the vehicle, there was an ice cold wind blowing along the valley. The matriarch was walking along the road accompanied by her youngest sibling. The second ranking female had the rest of the herd gathered around her, feeding on a stand of Pterocarpus rotundifolia (round leaved teak). There was very little interaction between the individuals as they were hard at work searching for some of the last green foliage available to them in the middle of winter.
The youngest member of the herd took little power naps, lying in the sunny patches. Every time the infant’s mother moved to the next stand of trees he would jump up and run to his mother’s side, only to collapse and nap again until it was time to move on. The moving and napping only lasted a short while before it was play time. The infant walked around looking for any family members to interact with. His mother’s younger sister was his target. He walked up to the young female and promptly began to scratch the back of his ears against her front leg. The young female ignored him as she was busy feeding on a root she had unearthed shortly before the infant joined her.
By now the herd moved towards the matriarch standing on the road in front of me. One by one the herd crossed the road either in front or behind the vehicle. Each of the members would stop on the road to take advantage of the newly graded road surface as ideal substance for a first-class dust bath. Thank goodness the wind was blowing across the road and not towards me as I would have been covered in red dust. A one and a half year old male calf stopped on the road full of bravado. He flared his ears and kicked up dust just like an up-and-coming young male should. He even took a couple of steps closer to the car, but then realized his mother had walked on past him some distance away. He looked in the direction of his mother then back at me. All of a sudden his ears dropped, he spun around on the spot and ran towards his mother as fast as his legs could carry him. As soon as he reached his mother and was reassured by her presence, he turned around, flared his ears again and ran two or three steps in my direction. The mother was totally oblivious of her son’s show of manhood and strength and kept on feeding while walking along the road. The calf stood there staring at me for a short while but then realized mom was away from him again. This was too much for the calf and he turned and ran to be by mom’s side. His older sister then had to carry the brunt of his frustration at his mother not backing him up while he showed the world how brave he was. She ignored him as she was digging for a root and could not be bothered by the animated youngster. The young female got hold of a small piece of the root and was determined to get the rest of the root system that was growing beneath a boulder. She first tried to move the boulder but when it did not budge, she knelt down with one leg resting on the boulder and used her tusks to dig for the root. A number of elephants have recently chipped or broken their tusks digging for tubers or roots in the rocky terrain. It was fascinating to see her determination at getting the tasty morsel. It made me wonder if the excessive energy expenditure was merited by the small amount of root she was able to unearth from beneath the rocks. But I am sure a section of root that has all the stored nutrients of the plant for the winter has a much higher nutritional vale than the dry winter grass on offer.
Last year the elephants spent most of their time in the main river valley system on the reserve namely the Sterkstroom valley. These past months few of the breeding herds ventured out of a ± 8000ha area that burnt down during late summer. There are still some green grass sprouts on offer to the elephants, but their main focus is on the tree coppice that has occurred after the fire. Most large trees species on the reserve have resilience to fire and do not get adversely affected by moderate fires. Trees have auxiliary growth points situated on the stem just below the soil surface. These growth points stay dormant and are protected from fires by the surface layer of soil. When a tree has been burnt or over stimulated by excessive browsing these growth points are stimulated to create new shoots otherwise known as coppice. It is these shoots that are sought after by the elephants. The shoots are soft and palatable and easy for the elephants to reach, even for very young calves. The matriarchs know either instinctively or by knowledge carried over from mother to calf where the areas are that would yield the maximum nutrients especially now in the dry winter months.
Elephant calves learn from their mothers and nurse mothers (older siblings) what to eat. The second ranking female of the herd has a male calf of one and half years old as I have previously mentioned. It has been noticeable over the last number of weeks how this calf is moving from one of his family members to the other as they are feeding from different plants. Each time a larger elephant would break a branch or pick some grass, the calf would either break a branch from the same tree or take some of the foliage from the trunk or mouth of the older elephant. The calf has reached weaning age and now he has to rely on himself, with the guidance of his mother and herd, to forage for food instead on relying on his mother to supply him with nourishing milk. It has also become clear that instead of sleeping or causing havoc with the rest of the herd members the calf has become more focused on feeding.
Two other breeding herds were feeding further up the hill slope. I could not see them from were I was positioned, but heard the occasional branch breaking in the distance. The matriarch was still feeding and standing on the road in front of my vehicle. She stood still, lifted her head and then the whole herd froze and listened. I have mentioned it in previous diaries about how it seems like someone has pushed the pause button on a remote when a herd freezes to listen to the vocalizations from other herds or individuals. They stood with open months full of food not even stirring to close their mouths between chewing. The herd listened for a short while when suddenly it seemed like someone pushed the play button again, and the whole herd went on with their chewing, walking etc. Several seconds later the second ranking female communicated with some very loud stomach rumbles. While she was vocalizing the herd went on with their activities, then seconds later the pause button was pushed again. They all listened intently and once again the same female answered. This went on for several times. Then it seemed like the very open ended conversation was over and the herd went on feeding.
The second ranking female broke a large branch from a tree and her calf was on the spot to pick up the fallen leaves. The female’s second oldest daughter also joined her to share in the feast. After some time, the mother moved on and the young calf and older sister stayed behind to finish what was left. The calf positioned himself on a rock resting on the rock with his back leg. It seemed like the Roman days of the lazy lounging while eating came back. The calf did not move from the spot but reached further and further with his trunk to pick up the last remaining leaves. Even with his trunk at full extension did he not move from his lounging rock. The older sister moved after a while to follow the rest of the herd with the young calf following suit. He was however not walking without taking take a ways for the road and walked with a branch in his mouth. The herd moved into some dense vegetation and it was getting late and I thought it was a good time for me to leave.
In my office there is no traffic to distract my mind from drifting when I am driving home. I was thinking about the “conversation” the second ranking female had and thought it would be wonderful if we could unravel elephant communication. There is extensive research being done in central and east Africa on elephant communication, and from what I read the researchers have isolated 75 “words” by now. Would it not be great to understand these long distance conversations? It could give researchers far more insight into the elephant psyche and the real reason for certain actions and behaviour. Currently we are comparing elephant body language and mannerisms to human traits. Imagine if we could understand elephant behaviour set by elephant norms and standards. My last thought was if the elephants also discuss the weather as polite conversation?
“How cute!” That is the first words most people utter when they see a newborn baby of any animal. Although I might be biased I would definitely rate elephant in the Top 3 “How Cute” category. A number of days ago I was fortunate to be allowed close to a breeding herd with an infant that was less than 48 hours old.
This infant should be one of the last infants born on the reserve for the time being. From now onwards the pZp-contraception should prevent any new calves from being conceived. It is important to remember that the contraceptive does not cause females to abort if they were pregnant at the time they were treated. That, and together with the fact that elephants are pregnant for 22 months, implies that this calf was conceived just before contraception started. However, this does not imply that no new calves will be born on Welgevonden in the future.
The pzp-contraceptive is totally reversible thus, when you stop administrating the contraceptive, the cows will fall pregnant again. The objective of the contraception programme is not to have a zero growth rate, but to reduce the growth rate of the elephant population. Once the birth rates have reduced sufficiently, selected females can be earmarked not to receive the yearly contraception, after which they should fall pregnant during their first or second season.
The proud mother of the new baby is the matriarch from group 4 and she must have conceived shortly before the onset of the contraception project. It was past mid-day when I located her herd resting close to the road. The second ranked female stood in the road facing the vehicle while the majority of the herd crossed behind her. This is normal defensive behaviour for a higher ranking female to stand between the herd and anything that could be a threat to the herd. I immediately noticed that all the females that crossed the road had strong temporal secretions, a clear sign that the herd was stressed. This can normally be ascribed to a number of factors, such as lions in close proximity, a female in season or any other factor that may negatively impact on the herd. The herd crossed the road nervously but settled down as soon as they entered the tree line.
I scanned the area with my binoculars to see if there were any lions in the area. My attention was drawn back to road where the matriarch was about to cross the road. Her teenage daughter crossed the road apprehensively and I started to think that it was my presence that had startled the herd. However, I was parked far away from the herd and the wind was in my direction. Another vehicle joined some distance behind me, but he switched off his vehicle and waited patiently. The matriarch approached the road in exactly the same manner as the other older females. Then the reason for all the hype and animosity appeared.
Following the matriarch was an infant not older than two days. I could hardly se him in the grass. The infant was trying its best to keep up with mom but the legs were not co-operating and the little trunk was flopping around uncontrollably. The infant built up momentum and caught up with mum just as she was about to enter the tree line, but either the momentum was too much, or the synchronization of the legs became confused. The infant’s back legs gave way and he ended flat his bum, while still sliding forward. The infant straightened its back legs in an attempt to stand up but over-compensated, the front legs gave way resulting in something I can only describe as a summersault with an inverted twist. All I could see was the tail in the air as it was trying to soften the fall, but all in vain. However, nothing was going to deter the infant from following its mom, and he got back up on his feet, a bit more coordinated this time.
The matriarch joined the herd which made a lot of fuss over the new member with of touching of trunks and vocalization. The herd moved into the tree line in the direction of the dam that was located +- 400 meters away. As the herd was clearly protective of their new sibling, I kept a respective distance in the vehicle, not even considering venturing out on foot. The herd moved slowly through the trees, even slower than normal to let the infant keep up, the mother and older sister in close attendance. It was astonishing to see how the herd would all come together, huddling around the calf every time they came close to a road or an open space between some trees. They approached an open clearing with no tree cover and short grass, the second ranked female taking the lead with a long line following her, one after the other across the clearing. The matriarch took up the rear with her infant walking in front of her, giving a helping trunk when it seemed like the infant would steer off course. They walked past some warthogs which were feeding on the clearing. For a moment it almost seemed as if the matriarch had twins, the little elephant barely larger than the male warthog. The infant wanted to stop to observe the strange looking neighbours, but mother had other ideas and the youngster was ushered along by a persuasive trunk.
The herd moved into the dense tree line flanking the inlet of the dam. Although I wanted to follow them on foot, I resisted the temptation. I have a healthy respect for all elephants, a bit more for bulls in musth and a whole busload full for a mother and infant. I decided it would be wiser to drive to the dam and wait there until they appear again. It did not take long for them to reach the dam. As always, they stretched their trunks as far as they could across the water to get to the clear waters that had not been stirred with mud from their feet at the waters edge. The herd drinking from the waters edge is in stark contrast to several months ago when the elephants would dive headlong into the water on the extremely hot summer days. It was a cold day and the herd merely stopped at the waters edge to drink. I was curious to see what the infant’s reactions to water would be, but it never ventured close to the waters edge. All the elephants had their fill of water and one by one they disappeared back into the dense foliage.
I drove around for a while longer to try and get another glimpse of the mother and calf, but to no avail. I waited some time next to the animal path they were heading on, but all I could hear was an occasional branch snapping in the middle of the small woodland. It seemed that the herd had settled down for their late afternoon feeding session and probably a well earned rest for the infant after its long walk across the clearing towards the dam. It was clear to me that they tolerated my proximity long enough to present and introduce their newborn member to me, but then it was back to private family business. I felt very privileged to be allowed in to the inner sanctum of this herd at a very vulnerable and apprehensive time in this infant’s life. The word spread fast through the reserve about the newborn infant but the matriarch kept her treasure and her herd far away from any infrastructure for several days after that special day.
This past month has been a busy month with 3 females coming into season within days of each other, which meant the usual attention from the bulls. The young, sub-ordinate bulls can smell the pheromones that alert the bulls to the female’s reproductive readiness, but have to keep their distance or suffer the wrath of the mature musth bulls. This does not always stop the subordinate bulls from trying their luck with the female in season when the musth bulls have their backs turned.
The first female to come into season was the matriarch from Group 5. It was difficult to stay with her group for long periods of time as they spent most of their time in a deep valley with no road access. Normally this is not a problem as I would walk into the valley and stay with the elephants for the duration of the day. However, when elephants are mating it is a different scenario. When the bull is ready to copulate he chases the cow until she submits and stands still to be mounted, or if she is not ready to mate she will keep on evading the bull’s persistent objective. When the cow runs it is normally accompanied by loud screaming. When the screaming starts, all the females in the area get very tense and even run after the couple to support the female in distress. This is a hazardous time to be in close proximity to the elephants on foot. The cow that is being chased will run in any direction and keep running in random circles to return to her support base, namely her herd. While she is being chased she will try to evade the bull by running between trees and around boulders, followed by other females. This means there is little hiding place for a human on foot. Needless to say, as soon as the first pursuit started I left the scene as fast as I could.
With the second female in season the landscape was more open with a road running along the valley. This meant I could park close to the herds and observe the interactions from the safety of the vehicle. While I was with the herd, I heard a young elephant screaming in the mountains. I made a note of this but kept my attention on the female in season and her interactions with the dominant musth bull. During the early afternoon there was not much interaction as most of the elephants were resting in the shade of the trees next to a small stream. Late in the afternoon Group 3 and 6 came to join Group 4, who was still close to me feeding and playing in the mud of the stream. I noticed there were several young bulls following Group 3 but there was no interaction between the bulls and the herd. None of the adult females from Group 3 had wet temples which would indicate stress or signs of being in season, so I made a note of the bulls which were with the herd. From the interactions between the dominant bull and the female in season from Group 4, it was clear that the female was still early in her cycle. The female is only ready for conception for a very short time in her cycle and the bull’s interest in the female increases markedly when it nears the exact moment. The bulls know when she is ready by the increase of estrogen that the bull can detect by smelling the female’s genital opening and blowing the air onto the Jacob’s organ on his palate.
The following day I found her with the musth bull, her calf and a young bull in tow. There were no other elephants in the area. The bull was very attentive of the female for a while, but his priorities shifted when he found a piece of rock salt. He carried the piece of salt on his trunk for a while and then proceeded to stand on the salt to break it in to smaller pieces. The female would wander off to feed, but would run back to seek refuge with the musth bull as soon as the young bull got overexcited at the prospect of having the female to himself. The musth bull did not take any notice of the young bull or the female except to shield the salt with his trunk from the approaching elephants. The female rested next to the musth bull in the shade of a tree, with the young bull standing with his back towards the female. The calf was wedged in between the female and musth bull, where it seemed she felt very happy and safe.
The female tried to reach for the salt with her trunk, but the bull was not going to part with his salt. He quickly picked up the salt and threw it into his mouth. The piece was almost too big for his mouth and he tried to bite it several times but soon gave up and spat it out, still guarding it with his trunk. The female wandered off some distance with the mature bull in tow, carrying the salt as a take-away. The musth bull became fixated on his salt again and the young bull took his chance and tried to mount the cow. The cow avoided the young bull’s advances by stepping forward when the young bull’s front legs were in the air, and again ran back to the musth bull for safety. The calf stood bewildered next to the young bull. The young bull was so frustrated that he turned his attentions on the 16 month old calf. The calf got a fright, screamed and ran after her mother who was by now next to the mature bull.
When the calf screamed the musth bull turned and chased the young bull for some distance, with the mother running to meet her bewildered calf. The mature bull and cow met up and started feeding together from the same tree. There was peace for 15 minutes until the young bull joined them again. The mature bull paid no notice of the young bull edging closer and closer to the female. The female lost her temper with a headshake towards the young bull. This seemed to have deterred the young bull, who backed off a couple of meters. The cow seemed to have had enough of the young bull’s advances and started walking over the crest of the mountain. The mature bull followed with the young bull some distance behind.
The next day I saw the musth bull still with the female but it seemed as if he lost interest in her. She was back with her herd and there was normal interaction in the breeding herd. Groups 3 and 6 were feeding and playing in the river. There were three of the top six ranked bulls feeding with group 3. This seemed strange as the top ranked bulls would normally greet the females and then go their separate ways. Once again I looked at all the large females for any sign of temporal secretion which would indicate if any of the females were in season. One of the young bulls joined the group of bulls and females. The young bull greeted the mature bulls in turn, and then greeted a young female who was barely protruding from the river grass. The young female returned the young bulls greeting formalities. The young bull tested the scent of the female and proceeded to rest his trunk on her back. The young female was uneasy with the young bull’s advances and she moved closer to her mother, who was feeding nearby. The young bull followed her to the opposite side of the river. The young female let out a loud scream which neither the mother nor the matriarch did anything about. This was very peculiar, but then I had to move very fast from my lookout point as the musth bull was right behind me heading towards the young bull and cow. The bull saw me as I stood up but gave me little attention, he merely looked at me for several seconds and then kept on walking into the river. At the approach of the musth bull the larger bulls moved away to stay clear of him. The musth bull emitted a loud stomach rumble at which the young bull moved away from the young cow. The musth bull greeted the young cow and tested her scent. Together the two of them walked onto the river bank.
To my amazement I saw that the legs of the young eight year old female were wet and she had a temporal secretion, sure signs that this very young female was in her first season. The literature says that an elephant cow’s first reproductive cycle occurs between 8 and 9 years. The young cow was completely dwarfed by the mature bull standing next to her. All mammals enter puberty at some stage but this cow appeared so small that my typical human reaction was to want her safe from life’s realities. With the dominant bull by her side the young cow soon settled down and started feeding. Both breeding herds and bulls soon disappeared into the mountain on the opposite side of the river.
I walked back to my car and drove around the river in the direction they are heading. I found them again just before they crossed the road heading into the mountain for the night. First to reach me was the young cow in season followed closely by the persistent young bull in hot pursuit. The young cow used my vehicle as a buffer between her and the young bull. This worked well as the young bull stayed about 5 meters away from her and the vehicle for about 5 minutes. The herd moved into the mountain and the young female followed them. This was the last I saw of them that afternoon.
That next morning I was back with the same herd. They were just appearing out of the mountain as I arrived. Their first stop was the river for a quick watering session. Soon they were feeding on the lush vegetation on the river bank. The young cow was relaxed, feeding close to the bull ranked number 9 on the reserve. The herd and bull walked out onto the road next to me. Once again it was strange to see the small size of the young cow in relation to the matriarch and the bull. A younger bull joined them and started moving closer to the young cow. The higher ranking bull chased him away but he soon returned to follow the young female. All of a sudden both the higher ranking bull and the young bull turned at the same time and moved about ten meters away from the young female. The reason for the sudden movement soon became apparent. Out of nowhere the musth bull appeared from the tree line and greeted the adult females and the young female. The young bulls then kept their distance.
They elephants feeding in the shade of the trees next to the river, and at one time the musth bull where trailing the herd and was resting in the shade of the trees. The young bull took his chance again and started interacting with the young female. This made her very nervous, and the mother joined the young cow for a bit of reassurance. The young bull was very persistent in his approaches, making even the mother nervous. Both calf and mother ran for safety to the musth bull. Once with the mature bull the young female and her mother settled down for their afternoon rest.
Once more the young bull joined the two females, but this time he merely rested next to the young female and her mother. After a while the young bull’s hormones got the best of him. He started testing the young female’s scent which made her nervous again, and once again they moved closer to the mature bull. He then chased the young bull away. For the rest of the day both mother and daughter stayed close to the musth bull, with the young bulls staying on the sideline. This was the last I saw of the young female and her suitors that afternoon. The following day the young female’s legs were dry and she was feeding peacefully with her herd. Her first major trial in life was over and she was feeding as if nothing had happened.
Elephants and their social interactions still astonish me. It was great to see how a young female was left to her own in the initial part of her cycle to seemingly learn a life lesson. But later on the mother was by her side to help her through the traumatic moments. During this time the matriarch was looking after the mother’s youngest calf and keeping the rest of the young members of the herd away from the much larger bulls’ single minded focus.
We as humans are thought to be more evolved, but so many times I can’t help to think that we as humans need to get back to roots. The elephants rely very strongly on their family for support and wellbeing. We as humans try and do everything ourselves. Maybe we should look and learn.
Sensation sells! Just open a newspaper and have a look at news headlines. Luckily today’s sensation is forgotten by tomorrow. While we run ourselves crazy in ever constricting circles, nature goes on, one step at a time with two prime objectives, to survive and to reproduce. In my “outdoor” office I record all the individual interactions, behavior and personality traits of the elephants. Unfortunately human nature let us notice sensation and exciting things, and the normal day to day activities go by un-noticed. Recently my eyes were opened to the fact that close peaceful proximity to these gentle giants can be far more rewarding than sensational behavior.
On the 15 th March I was driving along the Sterkstroom valley close to the Marakele National Park boundary. I could see three breeding herds heading towards the river out of the mountains, and two other herds heading towards me from the river. The two herds walking towards me were wet and dripping with mud after their mud bath. Some distance ahead of the two herds was one of the dominant bulls in musth. He had a temporal secretion and heavy pungent smell, advertising his reproductive status.
It was a hot summer’s day and I was parked under the only shady tree available about 100m from the bull and the first breeding herds. My attention was focused on the herds in the mountain as there was a young bull in the herd tying to interact with a young female. She was not interested in his social greeting and gave him the cold shoulder. This only seemed to spur him on. The young female looked for support from her mother, who appeared annoyed with the young male and just walked down the mountain, away from him. The boulders on the hill slope created a bottle neck and she, her infant in front of her and daughter following close behind, was heading for this at pace. However, the matriarch was already entering the gap in the rocks. The infant squeezed past the legs of the matriarch, but the mother not fit through the same small gap next to the matriarch. The slightly larger matriarch’s bulk pushed the smaller cow off balance. She tried to correct her balance with a side-step, but stood on a loose rock and toppled head first into the dirt. Her momentum made her bump into her infant in front of her. The infant rolled once and bounced onto its feet, letting out a loud scream. There were no obvious injuries, so presumably the scream was more a case of surprise and shock. The matriarch was quick to comfort the calf, and the mother, who was back on her feet by now, also close by to console her calf. Meanwhile, the young bull that had started the whole commotion was feeding from a tree close to the gap in the rocks, seemingly oblivious of the commotion he had caused. The matriarch’s infant and the infant that was bulldozed started to play and all the tears seemed to have been forgotten. The herd regrouped and walked into the long grass at the base of the rocky hill slope.
By this time the musth bull covered a lot of ground and was just entering the shade some 15m from me. He paid no attention to me and started feeding on some grass and fanning his ears in the midday heat. The fluid emanating from his penis was heavy in odor and was almost overwhelming when he passed the vehicle. He seemed to focus on the breeding herds heading in our direction. As they got close, he went over to the matriarch which greeted him as they met up. The cow that had stumbled earlier immediately turned her backside towards the bull and presented herself to him to test her scent. However, he did his rounds and greeted all the cows of status in both herds.
It seemed that all the herds converging for the shady trees under which I was parked. As they got closer to each other, the youngsters sped up to greet and interact with the other herds that they had not seen for some time. In no time there were five herds in close proximity of me, and although knowing I was there, showed no interest in me at all. To my amazement the herd closest to me was a herd that would seldom venture close to any vehicle. The extended meet and greet session was cut short by the heat and all the herds and young bulls piled into the shade on both sides of my vehicle. I normally won’t allow the elephants to come too close to my vehicle by tapping lightly on the door to deter them from coming too close. However, today was different. They showed no interest in my vehicle at all, and was purely after the shade in which I was parked. Even though I got to know the individuals and their personality traits well, it is always good to be safety conscious and I made sure there was an escape route ahead of me if a situation arrives where I had to leave.
Ten minutes later all the herds were resting in the shade, towering over the roof of my vehicle. The youngsters were lying down sleeping and the adults were standing on their feet closing their eyes for little power naps. It was the most incredible feeling to almost being part of the mid day rest of ± 75 elephants. There were herds on both sides of my vehicle, all fast asleep with absolutely no indication that they were bothered by my presence. A young bull came to sleep in a shady patch next to my passenger door. There was only one problem, I needed to answer nature’s call and it was clear that the elephants were going nowhere soon. Two hours later the elephants were still in the same spot, and needless to say, I lost feeling in the area of my kidneys. However, I thought it a small price to pay for the privilege of being there.
Apart from the occasional stomach rumble or ear flap, all was quiet and extremely peaceful. In the late afternoon the infants started stirring, and in a very short time the remaining elephants were feeding and dusting themselves. With so many elephants together it becomes very difficult to distinguish the individual infants and sub-adults from their different groups. The musth bull was still doing his rounds with all ladies, and had a busy time keeping the other bulls that were in the vicinity at bay. At one stage he came right next to the vehicle, feeding from a clump of grass next to my wheel. I spoke to him, but did not want to raise my voice too much and possibly unnerve the breeding herds. As I spoke to him, he lowered his head to have a look at me through the window and merely walked off to chase a young bull that ventured too close to one of the herds.
Even though the adult cows started feeding and dispersing into their respective herds, most of the younger members were still in a huddle, interacting and playing. The playful crèche was slowly moving away from the breeding herds towards the young bachelor bulls that were feeding to one side, away from the musth bull’s watchful eyes. The play group got smaller and smaller as individuals started splitting off and headed back to their respective natal herds. An infant from group 7 was one of the last calves to stay in the crèche and was by far the youngest. He looked around and walked straight towards the young bulls. As he approached the closest of the young bulls he realized that it was not his herd and all of a sudden started to panic. Although he let out a soft scream, none of the young bulls took notice of him. Bewildered, the infant ran out of the small clearing and into some longer grass where he disappeared for several seconds. Out of the grass came a loud scream, the now frantic calf was trying to see above the grass to try and locate its herd. The calf reappeared close to my vehicle, still running around in circles. All of a sudden the calf disappeared again, but this time he fell into a warthog burrow with both front feet and his bum was sticking up in the air. As he got back up on his feet, he stood there blinking his eyes several times, looking almost comical with the brown sandy patch on the top of his trunk where his face took the brunt of the impact. He looked at me for at least 15 seconds, then smelled the air with a trunk that did not want to co-operate. He seemed to get the general direction of his mother, who was feeding next to the road some 50 meters ahead of me. He started running, although in a slightly different direction than where his mother was, and screaming extremely loud and persistently. The screaming calf got the attention of the matriarch and a fellow cow from group 3. They ran towards the calf to comfort it, and as she reached the youngster, it settled down immediately. Meanwhile, the mother of the calf and the rest of her herd came running along. The cow and her calf were reunited and the rest of the herd made a big fuss of the calf by greeting and interacting with him. The matriarch from group 3 and her subordinate cow returned to their herd and all was peaceful again. It was incredible to see how the matriarch from another herd came to the rescue of the calf and comforted it until the mother arrived.
All the elephants moved into the river for a late afternoon drink and to frolic in the cool water. At last I got my break to answer nature’s call. Although the bachelor bulls were not far from me, there was no time to be bashful anymore. Getting my teeth back in place from where they were floating, I made my final notes and scribbled down some of the last interactions. It was time to head home and I had time to reflect on the day that, almost pinching myself to test whether or not it was real that I spent more than 2 hours with elephants sleeping on my “office doorstep”.
It seems Mother Nature has had enough of all our human pollutants. Listening to the news there are reports of droughts at one place, and floods and cyclones in another. The whole weather pattern seems to be turned on its head. As most of the northern regions, the Waterberg region has endured a heat wave for the past two weeks with temperatures of up to 40° C, and no rain in sight. Needless to say, the bush is extremely dry and the rivers are drying up.
The elephants are incredible in the way they adapt to the circumstances around them. They have changed their feeding patterns to accommodate the intense heat. Their normal pattern in summer is to rest during the heat of the day when it is hot, and to feed during the cooler hours of the day and night. Normally they would feed intensively during the early morning until 10 am, before moving up into the hills where they would rest until about 3 pm. From 3 pm onwards they will move back down the hill slopes to drink water in the valley and feed or rest in the valley for the rest of the night.
For the past two weeks the daily routine has changed completely. The elephants now seem to feed exclusively at night and very early mornings on the hill slopes. From about 8 am in the morning they start settling for their rest after feeding all night. They would rest in the shade of trees with the occasional morsel being eaten in-between. During this time of rest they dust themselves regularly, much more than the usual. Then sometime between 12 am and 2 pm a movement towards a large body of water would take place. Once they have reached the water they would stay in and around the water until at least 5 pm, with short feeding sessions in-between bathing, watering and more dusting. Only once the worst heat of the day has broken would they start feeding intensively again.
This also took place on the 21 st of February. The temperature was 35° at 10 am. All eight breeding herds on the reserve were located in the north-western corner of the reserve. Five of the herds were all clustered in a small ravine close. It was a peaceful scene, with the adults scattered under shady trees and the young ones lying down sleeping. The silence was broken intermittently with a cow spraying dust onto herself or ears flapping rhythmically. The temperature rose steadily as the day progressed. It was close to noon when the matriarch from group 6 started to move down the ravine. Seconds later, all 5 breeding herds and some of the bachelor bulls were mobilized and moving. The herds were moving too fast for me to keep up with them on foot, and as I had a good idea of their destination I decided to head back to my vehicle and catch up with them further down the valley.
I relocated them where they were all stationary at the tree line on the edge of Nyala Plains. Some were feeding and others just flapping their ears trying to keep cool. The herds stood together for close on fifteen minutes. A young 12 year old bull that was not with his maternal herd ambled over to group 6 and harassed the infant calf of the second ranking cow. The infant was bewildered by the rough treatment and let out a loud scream. The mother, who was feeding about five meters away, turned and charged the young bull. The young bull side-stepped the fast approaching mother and ran in the opposite direction. The mother was not letting the young delinquent off the hook that easily and ran after him for nearly fifty meters, trumpeting as she ran. The matriarch of group 6 followed with the rest of the herd into the clearing after the cow. The cow stopped her charge and joined her herd in the middle of the clearing, her infant pleading for some affection from her mother.
By now the rest of the herds were all meandering into the clearing, picking up speed as they went along. By the time the herds met up with group 6 they were already at a fast pace running across the clearing in the direction of the dam. This was strange behaviour, wasting so much energy in the heat of the day for no apparent reason. When the herds approached the opposite tree line close from the dam they slowed their pace and walked in amongst the trees at the end of the clearing. It seemed as if they were scared of being caught in the open with the sun beating down on them. The bulls moved ahead of the herds now, not stopping to feed but heading straight for the water. The cows and calves were ambling along, pacing themselves and feeding.
I went out ahead to the dam to await the bulls’ arrival. Five of the six young bulls dove straight into the dam, drinking water whilst submerging themselves. The last bull drank a couple of mouthfuls of water then felt left out and joined the others. The young bulls seemed as if they could not get enough of the cooling water. For almost ten minutes the young bulls stayed under water with only their trunks sticking out above the water. Then the fun started with a lot of sparring and boisterous games being played. Although it seemed like innocent games, the more dominant of the young bulls would mount the subordinate bulls in the water as a sign of dominance.
The loud crack of a tree breaking close to the rear of the dam announced the approach of the breeding herds. Group 5 was the first to arrive at the water’s edge and unlike the bulls, the cows and calves all stood by the water’s edge drinking water with great vigor. Group 6 was just behind them, but stood back as if they were awaiting their turn. While group 6 was waiting the cows first tusked the edge of a mud wallow, and then kicked up sludge mixing the newly exposed soil with the water seeping through the ground. The calves could not wait any longer and all piled into the mud leaving no space for the adults. The adults patiently waited on the side throwing mud over themselves with their trunks. After a short while the second ranking cow in the herd went down on her knees and then rolled over into the mud, displacing some youngsters to their great dismay.
Group 5’s matriarch entered the dam followed by the whole herd, including the three infants. I could see the larger individuals swimming across the inlet with their heads above the water, but the youngest members were totally submerged with only an occasional trunk breaking the waters surface. The herd arrived at the opposite bank emerging one by one out of the water. It is amazing how comfortable elephants are in the water, with the infants appearing out of the water’s depths and casually walking from the water onto the dam’s edge. The whole herd seemed so much more at ease and cool after their water crossing. They started feeding on the water’s edge and slowly disappeared behind the dam wall feeding from shady spot to the next.
The coast was now clear for Group 6 to approach the dam’s edge and have their fill of water. Some of the herd members stretched their trunks as far as they could to get some clean water to drink, but that idea went out the window as once again the younger members piled into the dam for a swim, churning up the mud in the water. The 14 year old cow from group 4 did not stick to protocol to wait for the next group to drink. So while her herd was in the mud wallow next in line to drink, she decided to go straight for the dam and skip the mud session. A 9 year old calf from group 6 charged at the approach of the female from group 4, but this did not deter the young female from getting to the water. She ran straight into the water, drinking whilst submerged halfway. She then proceeded to join the playing youngsters from group 6 in the shallows. The three adult cows gave up trying to drink and also went into the water, not crossing the dam as the others did but just frolicking in the water. Like a true lady the matriarch only went half way into the water and did not submerge herself.
By now the rest of the herds joined in the fun, all mixing together, some drinking, others mud bathing or just feeding on the waters edge. The initial young bulls were joined by more mature bulls, even one of the most dominant bulls joined me on the dam wall for a drink of water. He did not go for a swim, instead he just had a drink of water and proceeded to join the breeding herds, casually greeting and interacting with the senior ladies. The young bulls were still swimming and playing in the middle of the dam, occasionally joined by some other young bulls. By this time they have been in the water for more than one and a half hours. Not once did the bachelor bulls mix with any of the breeding herds while they were playing in the dam. The young bulls played in die middle of the dam, while the breeding herds only entered to the rear of the dam.
Two of the other herds approached on both sides of the dam. I retreated back off the dam wall to allow the breeding herds to cross the wall if they wanted to. They only drank water and splashed themselves with water from their trunks. The matriarch from group 4 suddenly lifted her head and stood still with her head high and ears out. She turned and ran towards the mud wallow. A stifled scream from a young calf could be heard above all the other noises around the dam. Then I saw a bewildered three year old calf appearing at the wallow’s edge. It ran to the fast approaching matriarch who was stomach-rumbling loudly. I could not see if the calf got stuck in the mud, or felt threatened by the other larger cows wallowing in the mud, or were just separated from the herd in all the confusion. The matriarch returned the calf to her frantic mother and all was restored to normal. It was amazing to see the matriarch taking the safety of her herd into her own hands instead of the calf’s mother.
Soon they too disappeared behind the dam wall to feed. The young bulls followed the breeding herds, and all was peaceful at the dam again. An hour later all the herds and young bulls returned to the dam to continue where they left off. Some were once again bathing in the dam, others making use of the mud bath, or just drinking and interacting with the other elephants.
This seemed to be the routine for the following couple of days. The herds seemed to return every hour, following a figure of 8, to cool down or just to drink some water. It seems that the worst of the afternoon heat was broken with intermittent visits to dams or the small river close by. Sometimes I wished I could join them by swimming with them in the dam when the heat of the day was at its most intense, but I am not sure what my pecking order would be in the waiting list.
Early in January I was following fresh tracks of a breeding herd of elephant’s in the west of the reserve. The tracks entered the bottom of the valley, and were winding up the valley. Suddenly I heard a tree snap. Sometimes it can be so loud that it almost sounds like a rifle shot in the distance. The sound was emanating from the crest of the mountain, some 2 kilometers ahead of me. This meant the herd covered a substantial distance in the early morning after crossing the road.
The terrain leading up to the crest was strewn with boulders, with a steep gradient. These elephants have adapted extremely well to the Waterberg’s mountainous terrain since their relocation 13 years ago. They have no problem negotiating steep slopes and loose rocks. They will test their footing on loose rocks by putting a foot on the rock and then slowly applying pressure until they are happy that the rock will carry their weight. I have also seen them using their trunks to test rocks when they are in precarious positions.
At the top of the valley the terrain flattens out, with flat terraces almost like giant steps up to the crest. As I cleared the ridge, I found the herd feeding on the first terrace. The wind changed direction slightly and I had to walk around them to the next terrace as not to interfere with their feeding and resting. I managed to spend an hour with them without the wind betraying my proximity to them. It was a very hot day and the adults were resting with the younger members milling around. The matriarch stood relaxing in the shade of a tree, allowing her calf to suckle. Suddenly she made a loud stomach rumble, whereupon the whole herd stood still in their tacks to listen. They all stood dead still for about 20 seconds before returning to their ways in unison.
During this brief silence I heard a soft rumbling reply to the matriarch’s communication some distance to the east. This could only mean that there were more elephants in the area that I had not yet seen. The herd settled down for their afternoon nap, but the afternoon breeze started blowing in the opposite direction from the morning breeze. Although it was a welcome relief to the intense heat, I had to move away as the elephants stood with their trunks in the air, smelling my presence. I decided to move towards the other herd in the vicinity as the wind would be in my favour.
Searching for them where I heard them the first time, I found the grass flattened under the trees and some fresh dung, but there was no sign of them. There were clear tracks heading south towards the crest of the mountain. It did not take me long to locate them several terraces on. It was in fact two herds’s together. They were feeding very close the trigonometry beacon on top of the mountain. I noted the usual details of the GPS position, weather conditions and which individuals were present. I stopped for a few seconds to wonder and take in the surroundings.
The trig beacon is approximately 1800 meters above sea level, and one of the higher mountain crests in the reserve. I had a full 360 degree view of the valleys and mountains in the distance. The elephants were just below me and a herd of zebra were feeding just beyond them, a truly wonderful view. Although I tried to take some pictures to capture the setting, pictures can never capture the sentiment that I experienced at that moment.
A young female from one herd was playing with the calves from the other, and wanted to play with the young 17 year old mother. She walked up to the cow with a swagger in her gait, bumping into her. It seemed that the young mother had no sense of humor on that day and did not return the playful behaviour, instead she chased the other young cow away. Her three month old calf was bewildered by the sudden upheaval and ran for cover under his mother’s stomach. The playful young cow did not seem to be overly concerned with the treatment she received and went back to play with the much younger and more accommodating calves. The grumpy young mother settled down and put a leg forward so that the pleading calf could have his fill after his ordeal.
As usual when two herds get together, the young members engage in play or some kind of social interaction. An infant male from one heard engaged in a sparring match with a year old male from the other herd. This sparring match was a case of trying to stay on their feet more than anything else, and the smaller infant had very little chance of staying upright against his six month older opponent. He did not have the fighting skills or coordination for the sparring match, but certainly had the heart to jump up and carry on every time he got pushed over.
A young 20 year old bull joined the herds and the newcomer meant an end to the sparring match. The closest member to the bull was the grumpy young mother. The young bull reached his trunk out towards her to greet her, but she did return the greeting, instead she entered a sparring match with him. The tussle ended as soon as it started. The bull went to the other adult members of the herds and greeted them in turn. The group settled in the shade of a tree, as it was still quite hot. Some were dusting themselves, others were lying down or just flapping their ears to cool down.
Suddenly the whole group went quiet and stood listening for a short while, then started moving as before all exactly at the same time. A minute later the second ranked female from another herd appeared with her three youngest generations in tow, and was walking towards the resting group. The herds stayed in place but the young bull went out to greet her. While they greeted the younger ones ran past them to meet up with the young bunch that was now running towards them. All the young calves formed a play group. The one infant had an obsession with his older sister’s eyelashes and kept on trying to grab the lashes with his trunk. The older sister was obliging at first, but lost her temper after a while and trunk-wrestled the younger sibling. By this time it was a bit cooler and the group left their shady hideout and started feeding. When the elephants go into feeding mode there is normally very little social interaction and a whole lot of eating.
The sun was getting low and the elephants were spread out over the area. Although they were feeding all around me at this stage and knew that I was there, they did not seem to be bothered by me. Every now and then one would twist a trunk to have a smell in my direction, but kept on eating without stopping their rhythmic chewing. I sat quietly as not to draw to much attention to myself. Like all animals, elephants don’t want to be approached to within their comfort zone, but they often feel comfortable to approach you.
The sun was low on the horizon, the car was still all the way down the valley and I was not keen to be walking down the mountain after dark. When opening appeared I took my chance to move away without disturbing the elephants. I took a moment to have one last look at the splendor around me and with as little noise as possible made my way down the mountain. Elephants and a view - now that is what I call a good day at the office!