A particular elephant

This particular elephant was one of the nicest elephants I've ever met.
click for a larger picture

I was leading a tour group in the vicinity of the Kruger National Park in South Africa. The local guide suggested that we could take a walk along a particular trail, as long as vehicles stayed near by in case of trouble. This is a pretty standard thing to do with tourists in Africa. They get tired of being in vehicles all the time. If you know an area well enough, and have the vehicles near by, you can walk around a while. This gives us a chance to show people things like plants and insects up close (instead of just running them over) and you get to hear the sounds of nature, rather than the sound of your Land Cruiser.

So we did this, and at one point the sounds of nature started to include the crunching vegetable matter by a large herbivore. It was, of course, this elephant. When an elephant slowly, gently, and with utmost power, wraps it's trunk around a tree, a branch, a vine, or a bunch of grass, and moves it from it's original planty mooring, you cannot tell that the elephant is using more or less energy. A medium size tree and a 'fist' full of grass are all handled with about the same attention, effort, grace, and apparent strength, even though these tasks are obviously quite different.

So we were hearing the sound of an elephant munching on grass and the occasional vine. After testing the wind (yes, we were down wind from the sound) we ventured a little closer, and could see that it was this particular elephant, whom the guards knew well (because he was older than all of them). This elephant, one of the largest males in this area had never shown aggression and was not spooked by people on foot. So we probably could have walked right up to him and he would not care. In face, if we were up wind, he would not know, because at this age, he was probably pretty close to blind.

But, this elephant is part of a loosely knit herd, and he was not alone. Off in the bush, out of sight, we could hear other elephants also munching down. So we signaled for the truck, in order to not have the tourists all trampled by some elephant we accidentally startled.

Then, in the Land Cruisers, we did drive over to this particular elephant, as he utterly ignored us. This photo was taken with a fifty millimeter lens. He was big, I was close. And we were both pretty happy about it.

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I would advise anyone looking for a guide around elephants to avoid Greg or anyone else from his Harvard cohort. I was traveling once with one of them, it was getting dark, and we stopped at a village with a King Kong fence around it to make our manner prior to camping a few hundred meters away. The local headman advised us strongly to stay in the village instead because of the elephants in the area. We were tired and did not want to stay up half the night singing, so we went to scout the ridge we had seen with the beautiful trees.

It was littered with fresh elephant dung. My Harvard educated animal behavior expert friend explained that "elephants have home ranges but they aren't territorial: since they were here last night they won't be here again tonight."

We ended up spending much of the night underneath our truck as about 50 elephants pulled trees down around us. Worse, hyenas hang around elephant herds, and they were laughing and yelping all night long. One of the worst nights of my life.


By henry harpending (not verified) on 30 Nov 2008 #permalink

Ah, Henry. These things happen in the wild. ;-)

Elephants seem to get very used to people. In Etosha Park (Namibia) the campsites have a low stone wall and a single electrified wire to keep tourists and animals apart. Several times I've seen an elephant feeding right by the fence, ignoring the people.

Once, a group came to drink. One was a teenager who obviously wanted to play as he kept banging into the others. None wanted to join in and they all left without him. He then went into the middle of the pool, looked around at the crowd of people in a semicircle around the waterhole and did a headstand, waving his back legs in the air. For the next ten minutes he fooled around, slapping the water with his trunk, doing headstands and splashing, with frequent looks around, apparently to make sure we were all watching. That is when I decided that the 'Quiet. Do not disturb the animals' signs were probably superfluous.

Another time in Botswana from our tent we could see an elephant contentedly feeding while silhouetted against the sky. My wife was awake half the night because she was worried it might accidentally step on the tent.

By Richard Simons (not verified) on 30 Nov 2008 #permalink

Henry: I'm guessing I know who your guide was. He may have also been involved in another story that involved a cape buffalo, a tree, a shotgun, and John Yellen.


And even better from my comfy seat in the USA. This way I know he isn't bothered and neither am I!

Thanks GL.