Welgevonden is sponsoring a young man in the EWT’s Rural Eco-warrior Programme to spread environmental education to the disadvantaged areas close to the reserve. Theko Thailana joined me for a day to learn and understand what we are doing so he could answer some of the questions that he often gets asked. Being with me I quickly realised just how much I take a lot of bush experiences and bush knowledge for granted. Theko is a very bright and quick learner, so we had fun discussing all the different natural intricacies.
We headed in the direction of the area where I left the breeding herds the previous day. We found one of the mature elephant bulls feeding and drinking in the river bed some 70 meters from the road. Theko had a good look at the bull, but did not say much. I went on to explain the identifiable areas such as cuts in the ears, unique tufts on the tail, tusk etc. It dawned on me from the expression on his face that he has not seen an elephant before. I asked him and he concurred that this was indeed the first wild elephant he has seen. It was a goose bump feeling to see his face beam while watching the bull. This made me more determined to find a breeding herd and share this with him.
We drove for some time not finding any breeding herds close to the road. We then saw a herd on the side of the mountain quite a distance from the road. The wind was blowing strong from us in their direction which meant I had to drive to a road on the opposite side of the mountain in order to approach the elephants undetected. Although it was a longer walk it was much safer, especially having someone with me. Before we started walking I asked Theko if he was fearful of the elephants. He was very confident and answered that he was not scared of animals but that snakes was a different matter. I explained that snakes hibernate during winter and that there was not much chance of encountering snakes on such a cool day. This made him relax a little.
We cleared the crest and descended into a valley with steep slopes but flat and open valley bottom. It was wonderful to see more and more elephants as we descended further down the mountain. The steep slope created the perfect vantage point from which to observe the elephants. To our right was Group 3 resting some distance away from the other elephants and to our left Herds 2 and 4 feeding down in the valley. In the middle of the herds was the largest bull on the reserve, towering over the females and young calves. From the wet streaks down his cheeks and the strong must smell wafting on the breeze towards us it was clear that he was in musth. Although the females and calves were milling around him I could not see a specific female staying with him when the herds moved off. Although he was in musth and with the herds there was no female in season to attract his attention.
Theko had my binoculars and sat on a rock admiring the spectacle for more that half an hour. Two of the infant male calves from Group 3 started a sparring match while the others were sleeping. It was a playful sparring match that ended quickly, followed by a nap for the smaller of the two calves. There was a loud snap of a tree two terraces down from us on and some 200 meters away. We made our way down the steep and boulder strewn slope in the direction of the so far unseen breeding herd. An earflap was the only warning to the presence of Group 8, the smallest breeding herd on the reserve. We settled on a rock on the edge of a terrace directly above the small breeding herd, camouflaged in a small clump of trees. The wind was not swirling and the herd was oblivious of our presence and Theko was extremely happy at being in the proximity of the largest land mammal on earth. The infant male calf was still only nine months old so he cannot be described in any other word than “cute”. It was nice to compare the smallest elephant to the massive bull standing further down the valley.
Suddenly there was a calf screaming from Group 3. It was strange to see none of the females reacting to this and merely continued feeding or dusting themselves. There was no movement but yet another scream and a trumpet from. An 18 month old male burst through the undergrowth with ears held high and frantically running in small circles. I was trying to find out what the youngster was exited about and thoughts of being stung by a wasp or something similar ran trough my mind. The youngster woke his one year old cousin and the two soon began to spar, only this time it progressed into serious fighting. The older calf would make running charges at the younger calf, connect and then run back to the same spot from where he started his stampede. The younger calf was not impressed with the fact that he was being pummelled by the slightly larger calf. He tried to avoid one of the charges but got bumped over onto his side with the force of the impact, lost his temper and charged back at the larger calf, also screaming and trumpeting. Now there was two very young calves screaming and trumpeting, chasing each other in turn.
Although the screaming reverberated from the hill slopes around us, there was still no reaction from any of the other elephants. The younger calf seemed to have avenged his honour and returned to his mother and she allowed him to suckle. This seemed to infuriate the older calf even more, but his mother had enough and she charged at him and rumbled loudly followed by loud vocalisations. The calf stopped his screaming and settled down for a short while, but his obedience did not last long. The calf approached his mother to suckle but she would not allow him access to her mammary glands. It became clear that she was weaning him and was not enjoying the prospect of being a herbivore for the rest of his life. The calf started another screaming run and this time the mother was quick to silence him with a disciplining charge and more vocalisation which put an end to his temper tantrums. The rest of the herd started moving down the mountain with all the young stragglers following suit.
The small herd directly in front of us started feeding and moving around and I was eager to follow them to their rendezvous with the herds congregating further down the valley. However, we were so enthralled by the two young elephants and their antics that we lost track of time and it was time to take Theko back to the gate. It was a steep walk back to the vehicle but we had lots to talk about. It was a warming feeling to know that Theko had his first contact with wild elephants and that he could experience it on foot and close proximity to the intelligent mammals. Once again the elephants produced interesting behaviour in the most breathtaking backdrop. It was interesting to see the mother of the young calf stepping in and giving the calf a definitive time out after his extended temper tantrum. We reached the top of the valley and could see the herds merging in a greeting frenzy. From the top of the mountain we could not discern individuals, but it is still a sight to behold with the sun casting long shadows over them.
The 19th of March was a chilly and cloudy day with soft intermittent rain. It was lovely to be out clouds hovering low over the wet, aromatic earth. I drove over a mountain crest and immediately saw several breeding herds on the opposite mountain range. The herds looked like a colour mosaic, some were only wet on their backs with a grey underbelly, others were almost were completely black and wet, while another herd was red with mud from an early morning mud bath. The herds and some scattered bulls were heading in the direction of an old farm road and I managed to intercept them.
The first female to approach me was the third ranking female from group three with her siblings and a young bull in close attendance. They were walking peacefully and grabbing a bite to eat as they ambled along. Some distance behind the female and her entourage were the fourth and seventh ranked bulls respectively. They were not in musth, but interacting with the rest of the females from group one, three, and six that had all grouped together. The herds were still in their respective family groupings, but still all huddled together. The rocky hill slope that the herds were moving along opened up onto an open plateau. Once they reached that the herds started separating into their respective kin herds.
The breeding herds were feeding peacefully, but moving further apart as time went on, with the mature bulls feeding in between the herds without any interaction. The fourth ranking bull moved away from the small bachelor herd that formed among the breeding herds and joined group 6, greeting the third raking female. At the bulls approach the female greeted the bull in return but promptly tuned around for the bull to test her scent. Slowly the herd moved away from the road and into a small wooded section strewn with large boulders. Group 3 moved past the vehicle and group 6, crossed and then walked parallel to the road.
Like so many times before, I noticed that the third ranking female from group 3’s infant son was play-sparring with another young infant of the same age. This could only be an infant from another herd had joined herd 3 when all the herds had merged. The infant from herd 3 ended the play session to drink some milk after his exhausting sparring session. The mother obliged by putting her leg forward to allow access to the mammary gland. The other infant wandered around the herd trying to locate his mother. His pace was increasing and his ears held higher and higher. Panic started as the realisation dawned that his mother was nowhere to be seen. He ran around the herd in ever widening circles and I was waiting for the inevitable desperate scream to erupt. He came to a sudden halt with his ears still held high and his little tail twisted high into the air, and then his scream reverberated loudly in between the rocks. The matriarch from group 3 did not lift her head when the infant screamed which was uncharacteristic of her as she is often the guardian angel of any elephant that is stressed, lost or harassed by other elephants or lions. There was no reaction from any of the elephants surrounding the infant. The infant screamed again, this time running frantically. His scream was answered by a rumble from behind a large cluster of boulders. The whole of group 6 came rushing across the road towards the infant. The young mother was leading the herd and was the first to reach the visibly relieved calf. The herd settled down, with the infant being comforted by both mother and grand mother.
The herds moved into a shallow valley. There was a road on the opposite side of this valley, so I drove around to wait for them. It was still relatively cool and the elephants were feeding contently as they walked. The herds crossed the road ahead of me, moving onto an open plateau on the terrace above the road. As the herds disappeared over the rise a tree was broken some distance ahead. I decided to drive closer and not to follow the herds on foot yet. A herd emerged from the valley with the matriarch in the lead. I was parked next to a large-fruited bushwillow tree.
The elephants frequently utilise the leaves as well as the four winged seedpods. The matriarch walked straight towards the tree and me. She flared her ears as she stood next to the vehicle. I spoke her and she immediately retracted her ears and extended her trunk to feed from the tree. As she fed, she moved closer and closer to the vehicle until she stood right next to my window. It was an exhilarating feeling, looking straight down her throat as she reached for the branches above the vehicle with her trunk.
The matriarch had her fill, turned and walked down the road ahead of me followed by the other members of the herd. They milled around for some time then crossed the road heading in the direction of the other herds on the plateau. Another herd moved closer to the road where I was waiting. The matriarch was moving slow and dusting intermittently. This was a good sign that they were settling down for their mid-afternoon siesta. The second ranking female walked past the matriarch for some distance, directly across from my vehicle on the opposite side of the road. She started digging with her foot for a tuber which was soon unearthed and was noisily consumed. The crunching of the tuber was like a magnet for several other members of the herd and soon the whole herd was digging for tubers except for the matriarch to the side of the herd who was content with her nap.
A young male got bored with the digging and came walking towards the vehicle. He was feeding on some sedges and forbs as he walked along. His mother joined him also feeding right on the road verge. The infant seemed to get renewed courage with his mother in close proximity and crossed the road with his trunk extended towards the vehicle. As he walked beside the vehicle he pretended to dig for a tuber, mimicking what his mother was doing on the other side of the road. The young calf still had to master the trunk, foot and eye coordination and the excavation attempt was quite comical and I found myself laughing out loud. He seemed taken aback by my laughing, looking like he was embarrassed and turned away from the vehicle with his back turned towards me. He stood still for several seconds, turned and gave me a quick charge with his ears flared and an attempted trumpeting. I am sure he was telling me off for laughing at him. Once the score was settled he merely continued feeding. His mother joined him for a rest in the shade right next to the vehicle. The infant came to check on me once, peeping around his mother’s hind legs and then collapsed next to mother’s front foot for his afternoon nap.
Sometime later, the matriarch started stirring. The rest of the herd followed and passed behind my vehicle. The mother and calf followed suit. I spent some more time with them but saw another herd following in the direction the other herds disappeared to earlier. The herd was moving at a very fast pace followed by the second ranking bull in full musth. I followed them as I thought there could be female in season and information gathering of potential mating behaviour. It did not take me long to get to where I thought they might cross the road. I had barely cut the engine when the herd emerged from the undergrowth before settling a short distance from the side of the road. All seemed quiet with no excitement evident within the herd. I even began to wonder if my instincts had misguided me. Then from behind the herd, the matriarch’s 17 year old daughter emerged with the large musth bull in tow. She had a full temporal secretion and wet hind legs. These were clear signs that the young female was in the advanced stages of her cycle. There were several high and low ranking bulls in the area, but the musth bull kept them well at bay. The musth bull was in consort with the young cow (the bull follows the female with his trunk on her back). The female was calm and did not avoid the amorous advances of the bull that dwarfed the young female. The fact that the female was not actively avoiding the bull and that the matriarch mother were contently feeding while the bull escorted her daughter made me think the female was in her receptive part of her cycle. The couple crossed the road heading into a valley behind my vehicle with the herd some distance behind and a number of bulls following suit. I grabbed my camera bag and hat and followed the herd flanking the bulls to get to the lead couple. The terrain was ideal, with rocky densely wooded terraces and open plateaus in between.
It was not long before I caught up with the lead couple followed closely by two very low ranking bulls. Timing could not have been more perfect, as the female suddenly stopped and locked her back legs in a slightly spread stance. This was the cue that the bull was waiting for and the already impressively large bull rose up onto his hind legs to mount the young female. I was in awe and almost forgot to take pictures. I snapped a couple of pictures and took the rest of the time to appreciate the event in front of me, which was over quite quickly before the female rushed over to her mother who was not far behind. The young bulls, bursting at the seams with anticipation, were quick to approach the young female and her mother. At the approach of the young bulls the female returned to the relative safety of the musth bull. The bull kept on feeding but made a loud stomach rumble as the young bulls approached and they retreated. The herd and mating couple descended further into the valley far away from any roads.
It took some fancy footwork to avoid all the bulls on the way back to the vehicle. In the process of avoiding two bulls drinking from a rock pool I walked into the seventh ranking bull in the reserve. The wind changed direction and carried my scent to him, he standing with his trunk in the air. As I was relatively close to him there was nothing I could do but to stand tall and talk to him. It is imposing to have a mature elephant bull towering over you with his ears spread out wide to make himself seem larger. I apologised for the interruption and said I would avoid disturbing him in future. It was a stand off at which I could not back down, no matter what. The other bulls moved off and my opponent followed them. He walked off wearily with his tail still raised, but no aggression was directed at me, leaving me thankful that everything turned out the way it did.
What an incredible day. To me it was like a stock broker hitting a jackpot on the stock exchange. The elephant’s interactions around the vehicle and being privileged to get close enough to mating elephants on foot in dense foliage. Although I have seen mating elephants several times before it was from the safety of a vehicle and in open areas. I have also heard elephants mating in the densely wooded mountain slopes of the reserve, but this occasion was much more special because I could be part of the event on foot and close but safe proximity. To finish a perfect day with a face to face with a mature elephant bull was not an average day for a stock broker at the office. What else can I say, priceless!
It was a cloudy and mild day after several weeks of oppressive heat. The game drive guides reported a breeding herd crossing the road from Site 22 to Site 18. Elephants, the same as us homo sapiens, are creatures of habit and like to frequent the same places from time to time. The elephants and rhinos use certain pathways traversing from one valley to the other, creating a well-trodden path for all animals to utilise. Often the elephants take respite from the day’s heat by resting in a densely wooded thicket next to these elephant highways. As I approached the area where the elephants were reported earlier that day I saw a myriad of tracks converging into single file along one of these highways. The pathway leads over the mountain’s edge to a small box valley not visible from any road. Beyond the box valley the gradient drops away steeply to the Taaibos River. I never knew about this sheltered valley until I followed the elephants into the valley several years ago and I remember being pleasantly surprised to stumble upon this secluded wooded valley in an open valley system I was supposed to know quite well.
The tracks headed into the trees, but there were only one or two broken branches on the pathway. There was a strong smell of musth in the air but no elephants in sight. I wanted to follow the tracks down the mountain but the wind direction changed, blowing over my shoulder into the valley. Not wanting to take any chances with a musth bull and a breeding herd that might be somewhat nervy, I decided to drive around to where the valley drains into the river. My caution was rewarded by two elephant bulls crossing the road as I drove to the valley bottom next to the river. It was the bull ranked fourth in the reserve accompanied by a young 20 year old bull. The bulls walked past me heading towards a mud wallow next to the river. The mature bull had a wonderful time in the mud while the younger waited obediently for his turn.
There was a loud crack of a tree breaking some distance up the hill slope and the loud vocalisations of a female being harassed by a male with only one thing on its mind. The air was humid and the intensity of the wind increased indicating an approaching thunderstorm. The wind direction was perfect for me to approach the breeding herds unnoticed. The herds were resting several terraces up from the river. They were quite difficult to pin point in the dense foliage of the terrace which they were resting on. The first glimpse of the herd was when I was only several meters from a sleeping cow who alerted me to her presence by flapping her ears. Once I had an idea of how the herd was spread out, it was easy to get a good vantage point one terrace higher than the breeding herd. The pungent smell omitted by the musth bull was very strong in the area but there was no sign of him.
There was absolute peace and solitude for more than an hour while the females stood resting with the infants and sub adults lying down sleeping. The foliage was so dense that I could only see a flash of a tail or movement of a trunk etc. There was no need to try to get closer as the herd was resting and has very little interaction if any during the rest period. The rumblings of the thunder became more and more audible as time went on. Directly after one of the rolling thunder claps there was a sudden movement to my left. A young bull’s head came crashing through the bush ± 20 meters from me, running along the plateau I was sitting on and heading in my direction. It took some fancy footwork to vacate my lookout where I was sitting and get to the relative safety of the rocky boulders of the next plateau. If I had stayed on my lookout spot the young bull probably would have run under my feet, but that was not my main concern. The reason why the young bull was running is that he was being chased by the musth bull on a serious mission to rid the herd of the young intruder. With bulls that are not in musth, I would just sit in my spot and let them walk past and the large bulls normally ignore me and go on their merry way, but a bull in musth is a different story and persuaded me to leave with an impressive display of persistent intent.
The young bull was banished in no uncertain terms by the musth bull, who is ranked third in the reserve. The mature bull ambled in between the resting females who were not bothered by the eviction of the young bull. The females started to stir with the matriarch dusting herself and her calf begging to drink. She obliged the calf by pushing her front leg forward allowing the calf to suckle (elephant mammary glands are located between the front legs). The calf had his fill of milk, but still needed some sleep and promptly fell sleep again. The musth bull greeted the adult females and tested their receptiveness. The second ranked female stayed and walked with the bull for a while but broke away when he approached the third ranking female. The third ranking female stopped her dusting session and promptly turned around to present her rear to the bull. The bull obliged by testing her pheromones and satisfied that she was not in season, he kept on walking.
The mature females from the herd had temporal secretions, indicative of the interactions with a musth and other bulls around the herd, but none of them showed any sign of being in season. The musth bull disappeared from view when a female vocalised loudly another terrace further away from my position. There was relative peace, with the females dusting themselves. Another lower ranked bull entered the herd and approached the adult females. The matriarch was not perturbed by the bull that also tested her scent, but the younger third ranking female was uneasy with the bull’s presence. She walked away fast from the bull with her calf in tow. The musth bull appeared through the trees with the third ranking female from group 1 in tow. She was the reason for all the excitement as it seemed like she was either starting or at the end of her cycle. The musth bull asserted passive dominance over the younger bull within the herd. The musth bull made a stomach rumble and the younger bull immediately moved away from the herd and the approaching musth bull. The female in season joined the matriarch from group 3 and they all settled in to a steady dusting session with the musth bull in the middle of the herd.
After another hour, the matriarch from herd 3 started moving down the mountain towards a small stream at the base of the hill slope. It looked like a mass evacuation as all the elephants followed the female within seconds of her leaving. I was still making my way down the mountain when I heard the splashing of water and the youngsters having fun in the water after the day’s heat. The elephants were spread out over a wide area along the stream’s edge. The musth bull crossed the stream with the female in season. The rest of the elephants stayed at the streams edge to enjoy the cool clear water. The fourth ranking bull and the other two younger bulls joined group 3, but there was no interaction between any of the individuals. One by one the herd started moving into the flood plains to feed. The group was moving in the direction of my vehicle parked next to the road. I had just made it back to the vehicle when they emerged from the bushes close to the vehicle.
It was a peaceful scene with all the elephants feeding in the late afternoon’s soft light. The herd walked past the vehicle on both sides, very relaxed and totally engrossed in their feeding. The bull in musth followed the herd and was the last to reach the vehicle. True to musth bull behaviour, he lifted his head high and flared his ears to try to and intimidate me with his imposing size. I spoke to him, making him aware of the fact that his ladies were disappearing down the road. He opened his eyes wide but stood still next to the vehicle (always make sure there is space ahead or behind the vehicle to make a fast getaway if the situation arises). He walked several meters ahead of the vehicle and demolished a small tree to impress me once more with his incredible strength. He then followed the herds that were enjoying another mud wallow next to the main river. The mud from this wallow was almost white in colour and it made the elephants look like walking ghosts.
The sunset was drawing near and it was time to go. Although the day was filled with short bursts of activity, broken by long sessions of inactivity, it was still fantastic to spend most of the day with the elephants uninterrupted and uninhibited.