Monday, October 11

Elephants of the Kruger

With the elephant population inside Kruger being as large as it is, it is inevitable that we have many spectacular and thought provoking encounters with these magnificent giants of Africa. Despite this I find on looking through my photo archives that I have relatively few photographs recording these experiences. Of course, in many instances I am behind the wheel and cannot afford to divert my attention from the animals we are interacting with in case I miss any subtle signs of a change in mood or fail to respond quickly enough to a not so subtle response! Elephants are just too large to treat with any lack of concentration! 

But this lack of a full photographic record does not diminish the amazing memories that I, with my guests, have collected over the last few years. 

Who could possibly forget:-

those gutsy juveniles who squeal and trumpet, with ears open wide, head held high, dust flying up beneath their feet, as they protest our presence close to their family herd;

the large bull pulling himself up to his full height, seeming to almost double in size as he crosses the road in front of us;


the curious and unafraid youngster giving us a detailed sniffing inspection through his upraised trunk;

another very large bull pausing ever so briefly, but for a seeming eternity, to eye us as he pads past only 2 metres away;

the gentle but firm trunk of the mother supporting her new born on it’s unsteady legs; 

another baby delighting in the muddy waterhole slapping the water with his trunk, and rolling over and over in the soft, squelchy mud;

a group of younger bull elephants revelling in the buoyancy a deep water hole provides to have vigorous “tusk measuring” duels;

 the “wall” of large female elephants standing facing us, metres away, as the younger elephants pass behind them...........

As ever in the bush predictability or routine do not exist. I can go for weeks without a close elephant encounter, sightings limited to enjoying distant views of elephant looking so totally at home in this most beautiful of African landscapes, and then for a couple of weeks, every elephant we find gives us an up close adrenalin rush. 

All it takes is a few of these to get my intuition on hyper alert and I start feeling the need to become ultra cautious. Not that I have had any dangerous or unsafe or aggressive meetings with elephants, not yet, and I don’t plan to – I get my kicks in other ways – so I always listen to my intuition!

One particular elephant experience we had last July was really notable, in many ways. Travelling in from the Phabeni Gate in our minibus, we spotted on our left, an elephant breeding herd scattered through the bushes some distance from the road. An older juvenile (early teens) was the closest to us, browsing on a bush about 30 metres away, so we stopped, switched off and prepared to enjoy watching him have his lunch.
His steady browsing gradually brought him to some bushes only 10 metres away at which point he took an interest in us and promptly ambled over. He was exercising some caution because when he got to the slight roadside bank he turned and slithered down it sideways so that he wouldn’t end up “running into” us.
In my experience, elephants generally give one a fairly wide berth when walking into one’s space (in a car obviously), but not this youngster! He appeared to be interested but relaxed and displayed no aggression whatsoever as he sidled up to within inches of us in the front of the van. He walked around to the front bumper and after a few seconds of gazing at us through the windscreen (see attached photo!!) he then turned and presented his tail. I seriously thought that he was going to pass wind at us, or if we had had a car bonnet he may have sat down on it! No, he then carried on walking around us, inches away – I know I could have touched him by just reaching out of the window – and then he moved off a fraction into the middle of the road.

This was when I decided it could be safe enough to start the engine and pull off slowly down the road – but once again – NO - he then started to follow us, having no intention of letting us go that easily!! Rather than encourage him to chase cars I stopped and switched off the engine again, and he carried on with his inspection but at the back of the car now. As he passed our back left corner he lightly clipped the side of the bus with his tusk, accidentally I am sure, but whether it was this or because he had completed his inspection of us, I could sense in him an uncertainty as to what to do next. He gave a very small toss of the head and I thought that this was the time to end the encounter so in a loud, firm voice, I said “NO boy, that’s enough now, GO AWAY”. And guess what? He promptly turned, walked back up the bank and disappeared into the bushes!

To Anna, whom I wish could have had a slightly less scary introduction to elephants in the wild!

As a final thought, for now, on the incredible African elephant, I would like to recommend two books that I have really enjoyed and learnt a lot from in recent months:

1)      The Elephant Whisperer: “Learning about life, loyalty and freedom from a remarkable herd of elephants”; Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence; published by Sidgwick & Jackson 2009

2)      Elephant Management: A Scientific Assessment for South Africa; edited by RJ Scholes and KG Mennell; published by Wits University Press 2008

Nhlanganini - one of Kruger's Big Tuskers (passed away 2009)