In my humble opinion, elephants are the coolest animals in Africa, by far! The African elephant is the largest land animal in the world and the real "King of the Beasts" in Africa. Their lifespan and the stages of their life are very similar to humans (males, in particular, go through a rambunctious adolescence during their teen years). Elephants are also highly intelligent, solicitous of their young and they are almost always doing something interesting.
Elephants are extremely social animals. They live in herds dominated by females. There is a prime matriarch that establishes the pace and direction of the herd's movements and feeding. Females and young males (up to about 12 years old) stay with the herds. When males reach adolescence and their behavior becomes less tolerable to the dominant females, they are pushed out of the herd and will typically join a nearby "bachelor herd" of males.
Larger herds (above 10-15 members) will often split into groups that stay within a few miles of each other, communicating through infrasonic rumbles too low for human ears to discern. When the groups come together again, there is often an elaborate greeting ritual. We were lucky enough to witness such a greeting in the Masai Mara in Kenya. These photos are on a separate page.
Aside from the greeting ceremony, what else do elephants do that is so interesting? (1) I saw two elephants crossing the Chobe River, completely submerged with just their trunks sticking out to act as a snorkel. (2) In the manmade waterholes of Savuti, where fresh water comes out of a pipe, the dominant elephant would place its trunk right on this pipe to get the freshest possible water and would refuse to yield until it had consumed its fill (whereupon the second in rank would take up position). (3) I watched a young male having a grand time squirting itself with mud, but when he was ready to clean out his trunk, the older elephants wouldn't let him near the fresh water and he had to lurk around the edges of the group waiting for an opening. (4) Many times I saw an elephant place its head or trunk against a tree and give it a violent shake so out-of-reach fruits would drop to the ground. (5) In Lewa Downs, a female elephant blocked our vehicle and stared us down until younger members of the herd were safely across the road. (6) Many adolescent males engage in "mock charges," trying to scare away vehicles. In each case, however, the elephant waited until we had safely passed (and were unlikely to retaliate) before he charged. (7) A common sight that I always found humorous was an elephant resting his trunk on a tusk). (8) In The Selous, we watched a young male trying to crawl out of the river up a slippery, muddy bank. It was so funny, everyone in the boat couldn't help laughing. The male then ceased his efforts and started to nonchalantly eat a nearby bush as if nothing had happened. After we moved away, he started trying to climb out again.
Elephants, perhaps unique among animals, also seem to have a sense of death. When a member of the herd has fallen, others will make repeated efforts to raise it to its feet again. Even after it is clear that there will be no response, elephants will continue to examine and touch the corpse. They even seem to recognize, and pause to examine, skeletal remains of other elephants. One morning in Chobe National Park we came upon a young elephant that had very recently died, apparently of natural causes. Before the vultures and hyenas moved in, a passing herd of elephants stopped to examine the body. A very young elephant first watched its mother touch the body, then did the same itself. Some photographs from this sad, but intriguing, incident are on a separate page.
Elephants eat a wide range of vegetation, from grass to leaves and fruits twenty feet high in the trees (higher than a giraffe can reach). An adult elephant spends more than sixteen hours a day eating and consumes up to 300 pounds of food. They will often push over a tree or break off large branches, only to eat just a small portion before moving on. While the process seems wasteful, in fact food that otherwise would be out of the reach of other animals is made available to them. Rarely does edible food go to waste in Africa!
Elephants' digestive systems, however, are very inefficient and much of the vegetation passes through seemingly unprocessed. As a result, elephants are crucial in disseminating seeds of all sorts – especially larger seeds such as the ilala palm (one of their favorites). Baboons and birds can often be seen picking through the droppings and coming up with whole seeds and fruits.
In Kenya and Tanzania, elephants suffered mightily from years of poaching for their ivory tusks. Some figures indicate that 80% of the former population was wiped out. Since the international ban on the sale of ivory went into effect, the elephant has made a remarkable comeback in these countries.
The ban, however, has had a perverse effect in Botswana and Zimbabwe, where poaching was never as serious as in the north. In Chobe National Park (Botswana) and Chizarira National Park (Zimbabwe), for example, the elephant populations are out of control. In some areas there are more than twice as many elephants as the land can sustain. Along the Chobe River – and area frequented by herds of elephants – virtually every tree has been broken down. One might think a bomb had gone off. In Chizarira, there are no large canopy trees left. The elephants push over or break down the trees long before they can grow strong enough to withstand the onslaught. Regrettably, the only solution has been to "cull" the herds. Because elephants are such social animals, killing off just a few members of a herd causes great stress to the survivors. As a result, when culling is necessary, the whole herd must be taken at once (with the possible exception of very young elephants that are saved for zoos or moved to other wildlife parks). Recently (February 1999), I read that the ban on ivory sales will be lifted for some countries that demonstrate they have poaching under control. Botswana is expected to qualify and the proceeds of the sales will be used to better manage the herds.
Zimbabwe has also begun to allow limited (and expensively licensed) hunting in an effort to keep the herds down. Again, there have been unintended consequences. Elephants live for a long time and learn proper behavior from their elders. Yet it is the oldest elephants that hunters typically seek out as large and impressive trophies. When these "disciplinarians" in an area are removed, younger bulls often become difficult problems that must be dealt with.