The idea of elephants standing on their back legs, at first, comes across as some sort of circus act. Images of a cape wearing and stick wielding “animal trainer” whom actually has not the faintest clue about animal behavior, waves his wand and yells his commands as if he has deciphered the dialect of these stolen animals who’s natural instincts and confidence to act as its species should have been beaten out of it. However, before we get pulled down an unrelated tributary let’s get back to what we came here to talk about.
Believe it or not elephants do stand on their back legs in the wild, although this is not entertaining a rabid crowd but instead is a natural behavioral trait learnt by a few elephants in a few places around Africa. A skill watched and learnt by younger elephants, passed down from old bulls whom have perfected the move in order to reach high up branches and the nutritious pods, leaves and bark that have not already been eaten in the dry season of Africa.
It is something that has been witnessed in several parts of Africa including Kruger National Park in South Africa, the South Luangwa and Kafue National Park in Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. To this day I haven’t heard of it being seen in east Africa although I am positive it happens in drier regions such as Tsavo National Park. After all, elephants don’t do this for fun nor for the sake of stretching out their backs. It is driven entirely by the lack of food on the floor or on lowing lying branches which means places like the Serengeti or Masai Mara where the natural migration of animals still occurs which results in year-round and prolific food sources, this behavior is not necessary.
Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe, however, this is not the case and in most years little more than a parched earth grips the land from August through to November. Grass cover on most years, in this period, is almost nonexistent and low-lying branches are diminished by every browser that migrates to the flood plain of the Zambezi river in search of water and food. There is still a large amount of greenery and nutritious food in the area, but it is limited to taller trees who’s roots run deep enough to reach the water table.
Ana trees (Fhaiderbia albidia) are the most prolific along the flood plain and where most animals scrounge the scraps below these magnificent trees, there are a handful of elephants that over an unknown amount of time have learnt to stand on their back legs, giving them those precious extra feet in order to reach the higher branches of these trees.
One can predict this behaviour quite easily when strolling the blue forest (Ana tree groves of Mana Pool NP). Elephants being incredibly intelligent animals know that a varied diet is necessary in order to survive or function normally so even the elephants that can, don’t always eat the branches of Ana trees or sausage trees. They too must scrounge for flood plain grass at times in order to ingest nutrients that may be lacking in the trees.However, it is quite easy to notice when they do decide that it is time to search the forest for those branches they can just reach if they judge their position to stand right. Something determined entirely by scent as an elephants ability to smell is paralleled by few in the animal kingdom and can judge by the smell of a branch, how far it is from the tip of its trunk and therefor if it is worth “standing” for.
They walk with a different gait now. at first their head is held high. It drifts side to side as it walks. An elephant’s eyesight is not its superior sense like us, so its trunk follows suite soon after. Pinned straight up in the air combing beneath the canopy for a stronger scent that will indicate a potential target. Once it locates a branch that could be within reach it steps around the spot doing some final adjustments to its positioning before it bends it back legs into a pose that resembles that similar to a weightlifter getting ready to dead lift. A short pause before the elephant preloads it front legs and pushes off the ground.
At this point a first-time viewer usually has to brush the dust off their bottom jaw as they retrieve it off the ground, mesmerized by this immense animal stretching upwards so elegantly. Balancing on its two back legs for sometimes more than ten seconds, the tip of its trunk fondling the branchlets looking for a suitable grip before gently lowering itself towards the floor and hopefully snapping off a sizable branch in the process. If successful, he will then role then branchlets between his molars, removing and ingesting the edible bark and leaf before discarding the thicker stem back to the floor.
This for almost all the bulls who stand in Mana Pools is the standard procedure…almost.
There is an elephant here that has captivated visitors to Mana Pools for many years now. The name “Boswell” is as synonymous with Mana Pools as the Zambezi river itself. An old bull with large tusks and an extraordinarily calm demeaner when it comes to humans, one can view him safely on foot sometimes from only a few meters away. Boswell, too, can stand on his back legs to reach high up branches. So effectively and for so long now that other elephants have learnt to follow him in the hopes of sharing in his bounty. This is where things get very interesting. Unlike other elephant who chase off any others that may come near their downed branch. Boswell is known to give way to other elephants to feed but his mood changes day by day. Most of the time he prevents older elephants, especially bulls from getting anywhere near him while he feeds and will chase off those who get too close. Some days, however, he simply walks away from branches that are far from finished. Letting other elephants feast on his gift while he escapes the crowd in order to find another branch to pull down or simply to enjoy some peace before the entourage catches up with him.
What’s fascinating is that although he has a rigid relationship with older elephants, young elephants whom are at the greatest risk of starvation in the dry season can literally walk right up to him and pull branches out of his mouth as he is chewing on them. Boswells gentle eyes and sleepy pose doesn’t flinch as these young elephant’s rummage around his feet trying to get a snack. It easy to get dramatic or fictional in situations like this as its easier to tell a good story this way, as guides we adhere to the facts or at least we should try to. Yet everyone who visits Mana Pools and who is lucky enough to see Boswell sees the same thing. He is aiding fellow elephants to get through the dry season.
The above three images are indeed of Boswelll himself. standing for high to reach branches, some of his hungry followers and him clearly allowing young elephants under his giant tusk in order to grab a bite from what he is already chewing on. This will make this phenomenon a little easier to believe, the almost "Hollywood worthy" story of Boswell a little more plausible, but I urge you to join us on one of our annual safaris to Mana Pools so that you can witness this all for yourself, to see it and to believe it.
All the best and please do contact us if you any questions on standing elephants, Mana Pools or safaris in general.