Gentle Giants

Dana getting a really, really close look

(Dana) Admittedly, we all have a natural fascination with spotting predators – lions, leopards, wild dogs.  But elephants are the animals the 6 of us have grown to love during our time in Africa. We relish the times when they have come near to observe them up-close.

Most Americans have seen an elephant in a zoo or circus; some things that we didn’t know before meeting them in the wild:

– Elephants will walk kilometers each day, finding food to eat and water to drink.  As they walk, the back foot lands in the exact spot that the front foot has just left.  Their footprints look like a large circular indent patterned like worn, cracked leather.  Each pattern is unique, just like a human fingerprint.

–  A group of elephants in the wild is most likely to be a group of females with babies, led by the matriarch.  Once a male elephant reaches puberty (age 12-13), he is kicked out of the group and must fend for himself.  Occasionally, we found a small group of guys, just hanging out, eating in parallel.

Taking care of little guys

– The gestation period is 22 months, and babies are born weighing 120 kilograms (~250 pounds). Mothers breastfeed babies for about two years, about the time that the baby’s tusks start to show.  Both male and female African elephants have tusks; tusks are actually teeth – an elongated incisor.  Only 2/3 of a tusk’s full length is showing; the remainder is in their heads.

– Elephants are one of the only mammals with a male hormonal cycle.  Male elephants come into “musth” which means that they are ready for mating.  Although only the dominant male gets to mate. The genital system of the mature male weighs 52 kg!

– Branches of Y-thorn Torchwood and Mopane trees hold leaves and twigs favored by grazing elephants.  It’s incredible to see them walking right through the thorny branches, even though the 3-4 inch thorns often leave small holes in their ears. Chewing all of this fiber wears down their teeth but elephants have 6 sets of molars – coming in at ages 1, 2, 7, 17, 27, 47 – which slide into their jaw like a conveyor belt.  Naturalists believe that when the final set of molars wear out; the elephant reaches the end of its life, around 55-65 years.  They digest only 40% of what they eat, dropping up to 100kg of dung per day!

Squirting mud and water

– Elephants do not drink through their trunks.  Made of thousands of muscles, their trunks are actually their nose and hands in one.  Two fingers on the end of the trunk allow them to delicately pick-up an individual nut.  Water is sucked into the trunk and expelled into the mouth to drink.  And the entire trunk is used to grab handfuls of dust to throw it onto their backs.

A relaxing mud bath

– Staying cool is hard when you weigh several tons.  Once they find water, the process is always the same – drink, swim, mud, dust, and scratch.  Elephants love to roll around in mud, creating a natural sunscreen.  Tossing dirt on top of the mud is like a dusting of talcum powder and bug repellant all in one.  We actually watched a few of the males walk over a Y-thorn torchwood so that its long, sharp thorns gave them the desired scratch of their privates; ouch!

A teenage elepahnt mock charges buffalo

– Despite how kind and gentle they appear, it is dangerous to startle a wild elephant.  Elephants who feel threatened will usually execute a mock charge – ears out, trunk flapping, trunk trumpeting – actions intended to intimidate the interloper.  Although if the trunk is tucked away safely and the ears are pinned back, the charge is for real!  Meanwhile, the little ones are likely running in the opposite direction, with their tails straight out.  Stressed out elephants will actually ooze from a gland on their forehead; another clue to the severity of the charge.  At least twice, more curious males would approach our stopped car, standing 6 feet away.  Looking in their soulful eyes, we could sense their intelligence.

For two nights we camped on the banks of the almost dried Chitake River.  During the day, elephants would meander down the riverbed, stopping to dig for some water right below the surface, then slopping in the mud bath right next to our outside shower.  At night, they continued to pass, calling to each other with a pre-historic sound right out of Jurassic Park.  We sat in our chairs 10 meters away, marveling at how these incredible animals tolerated our presence.  It was one of my most memorable evenings.


The tail made of very course hairs









Using his trunk to rub his eye









The most loving of animals

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