An Elephant in Camp. What Should I Do?
Elephants- One of the most magnificent, loyal and intelligent land mammals.
In this post I talk about my experience of when I spent two months in the African Bush to do a Field Guide Course. What is your opinion about sharing a Camp with Elephants? Find out for yourself.
It is important to have a clear image in mind when it comes to the elephant. Often, we oversee the power of that animal and for some of us it might be more important to get the perfect picture, forgetting what is happening around us. So, let me introduce you to an Elephant.
To fuel its massive body of an average of five tonnes, the elephant needs to feed about 16 hours a day. Thereby it consumes around 150kg of plant material and favours trees such as the Knob thorn, Baobab or the Marula tree. The powerful trunk of an elephant possesses about 40.000 muscles, where we humans have about 600 muscles in our entire body. It uses it for grabbing, sucking up water, greeting each other or to pick up a scent in the air. At the same time the trunk is incredibly precise when picking up objects. While feeding, the elephant’s trunk spirals around the branch and pulls the leaves off, then navigates it back to the mouth. Elephants are picky eaters due to their weight and their inefficient digestive system they can’t waste their time with un-nutrient plants. Occasionally they push over trees. Why do they do this? To get to the roots. The roots of a tree are packed with nutrients and water, which in dry season is an important need. Depending on the elephant’s age, weight and experience, pushing over a tree is more like us picking a flower.
It seems like no effort at all and in the end the elephant enjoys a few roots to then leave the tree dead behind. That can create a great problem to the environment if it happens excessively. Not only do trees provide food or shade, they also hold the soil together with their root system, keep the soil wet through their water supplies in the roots and are homes to many organisms. Once pushed over, the tree still fulfils a purpose such as giving smaller herbivores a chance to feed on and reach the nutritious leaves of the tree. For microorganisms it becomes a new home and food source, for ground nesting birds it is a perfect hiding and nesting spot under the dense canopy. Like always in nature, nothing is wasted. If we humans want to prevent too many trees being pushed over, we need to provide enough space and enough water resources in the area.
Elephants are social animals and live together in big herds, led by the oldest and wisest female, known as the Matriarch. The impact on trees of that many elephants in an area can be enormous. The Camp where we stayed was right next to a water source. That meant we needed to be careful and respectful because animals will come by on a daily basis to drink. Every day many different herds and on average 200 different elephants would come across the dam, led by their Matriarch. It is possible that she leant about that water hole from her mother and is now teaching her offspring how to successfully lead the herd to water. One of the happiest moments in camp is when you hear the excited trumpeting of elephants while they are running towards the dam. Before even drinking or bathing the elephants will spray their bodies with water and mud to cool their sensitive skin down with the benefit that the mud would prevent sunburn. Sometimes you would see that they started drinking right away which meant that the herd didn’t have water for a few days and were dehydrated. When in the water, it looked like they were playing with each other while spraying water, trumpeting and enjoying themselves.
The most extraordinary behaviour I came across was when they used their trunk as a snorkel. The entire elephant would go underwater and just the tip of its trunk sticks out so it can still breathe. The biggest respect goes to elephant mothers, while others can enjoy the cool water, the mothers and their offspring who are still too small will stay on the edge of the dam. All the knowledge is passed on from mothers to calves, including how to interact with humans. We never know what past experiences an elephant has had with a human, we always need to be cautious. Elephants have a good memory and will remember you, whether it was a good or bad experience, it will learn from the encounter.
On every other day the elephants decided that the grass is greener in our camp. Particularly next to our tents. The most interesting part about a big elephant wandering in-between the camp is to see that they stop when there is a thin rope tied to a tree to hold up a tent. Even for us that is difficult to see. So how can an animal of that size navigate through a little space like that. Their eyesight is not particularly great, though their sense of smell, their hearing and especially their ability to sense low frequency sounds through their feet is incredible. That means that the herd can always communicate with each other even within great distance. So why not use these senses to navigate through the camp to find the best food source? Given their intelligence, they knew we wouldn’t hurt them. Even if they get used to us being around, we still needed to keep the appropriate distance.
Every animal has its personal space, just like us. If we enter their personal space, we need to be cautious and read the signs and respect the boundaries. It’s easy to think that if an elephant approaches you, gets close to the camp, it has no trouble with you being there. That is not quite right. At any second the elephant could feel uncomfortable. Signs like shaking its head, having one front leg bent or pretending to feed are the most common and the first warning signs. If the elephant is close, the best option is to keep as quiet as possible, don’t make any sudden movements and keep in mind where the wind is coming from (it carries your smell). A few times students in camp got stuck in their tent, in the lecture room or by the study areas. Sometimes even while having a meal. Then everyone needs to slowly back off and wait until the elephant is finished feeding. If the elephant still comes closer, speaking in a calm voice often helps. An old bull called Esoweeni was a well-known elephant. He was known for having massive tusks almost reaching the ground. Even though he is the most experienced elephant bull, having him in camp meant we needed to be extra careful, his strength is not to be underestimated. Other than the females, elephant bulls stay alone or form bachelor groups.
Esoweeni was a welcomed mentor and protector for young bulls, especially if they just got kicked out by their family. This can be a traumatic experience for young elephants, often resulting in the young bulls being extra aggressive. Some bulls follow their family herd from a distance, and some try to find a new breeding herd. When a breeding herd and a young bachelor group came to the dam simultaneously, they often fought. The matriarch is really protective and only lets the old and experienced bulls mate with her females. You can tell if a bull is ready to mate when he is in “musth”. There are a few obvious signs such as constant urinating or a special gland located close to the eye that is tearing. The smell of a bull in musth is not to miss. Their testosterone levels are sixty times higher than normal and result in aggressive behaviour. Having a dam next to your camp is a whole safari drive on its own.
Not only do elephants come by, also buffalo or giraffes are visiting on a daily basis. A lot of special moments can be observed, but at the same time it can be challenging. Every student needs to respect what is happening around at all times. And even though I was extremely grateful, I sometimes thought it wouldn’t be right to have such an important water source for the animals so close to us humans. We already take too much habitat from the animals, so it is difficult to decide whether they are disturbed by us or are ok with us being there. When it comes to the safety of humans it needs to be clear to everyone how special this situation is. Living amongst Wildlife is an incredible experience and teaches you so much. Learning about their behaviours and exploring it right in front of you is a privilege. For me, there is nothing more precious than nature itself.