If you are a seasoned safari enthusiast, I'm sure you have seen animals showcase some strange behaviour right?
I have been in the guiding industry for many years now and over the years I've seen some pretty incredible, as well as some pretty weird animal behaviour. Thinking back, there are two moments performed by the same species that stand out and this is what I'd like to share with all of you today.
One of these moments was in the earliest of my guiding days, as a rookie guide (in literally the first month) in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve, and the other many years down the line in The Masai Mara after being with Wild Eye for a few years.
Unfortunately I do not have any images from this first sighting in 2013 because at the time I was more focused on the guiding, bettering my bush knowledge and creating the best possible experience for my guests, and not all that into photography, but it wont keep me from telling you the story...
As I mentioned, I was very new to guiding and was employed by Shindzela Tented Safari Camp. One massive highlight of staying in a tented camp is that you get to hear all the nocturnal life happening around you. Take a moment to imagine, you laying in bed, in the middle of Africa hearing the calls of lion, leopard, spotted hyena, jackal, owls, frogs, insects and many other noises - pure bliss!
As a guide, tented accommodation is awesome as the evening's noises can help you plan your morning game drive route. One morning at around 3am I was laying in bed and heard major elephant distress calls which were soon dampened by the excited calls of spotted hyena to the west. The direction of these calls were easy to point out as they echoed up along the dry river bed that runs just in front of the camp.
When my tracker; (a highly skilled man who sits on the front of the safari vehicle and looks for wildlife) and I met that morning, we simultaneously said, the distress calls to the west was the plan. And off we went with our guests and what we found about 20 minutes into the drive was very sad indeed.
We came across a lone female elephant (which is not normal as they are very gregarious herd creatures) standing over her half eaten, I'd "geustimate", six month old calf. How the calf had died we will never know, but the presence of about twenty five hyena led us to us think that they might of killed themselves. Believe it or not, despite their horrid reputation, a study on the hyena in the Timbavati area proved that this particular clans kill about 75% of what they eat themselves. Hyena's are in fact extremely successful hunters, far better than all the other predators apart from the African wild dog, but even then, the likelihood of them killing the elephant calf was highly unlikely as the mother, along with her herd, would never have let them anywhere close to their babies.
This calf was probably very weak and more than likely died due to natural causes and this sad moment must of happened when we heard those distress calls at 3am. Elephant are in many ways similar to us as humans and their empathy for others is one factor that links their ways to ours. The heard would have morned the death of this youngster but would eventually have to move on as they need to keep feeding and making their way to fresh water. As we witnessed, mom obviously stayed behind to try and save her already dead baby from the jaws of the hyena.
She was doing her best to ward off the hyena but with their numbers, she stood little chance. As she charged and chased off the ten to her left, the fifteen on her right came in and ripped a few pieces off. Hyena are extremely intelligent and this was clearly their game plan to score a meal.
I know all the above is very sad but needed to be said because it ties into the behaviour that left me so very confused. I say this because it is something I had never seen before, not out in the field, not in a documentary or in any text book and I had read a LOT during my guide training.
Here is the common elephant body language we always look out for;
Look into their eyes
An elephant’s eyes can tell you an incredible amount. Think of yourself here, just as your eyes begin to droop after a fulfilling Sunday dinner, or snap wide open when you are startled, the elephant’s eye can indicate its state of mind. Soft, almost hooded eyes indicate a relaxed animal, while wide eyes can be a sign of trouble on the horizon. This is because the eyes widen as adrenaline seeps into the bloodstream, all the better to deal with danger quicker.
Watch the tail
If its tail is swishing from side to side swatting away flies, it is happy 'puppy'. Same behavoir as your dog will show off back home but now add an element of tension to the picture, the elephant tail becomes more rigid, either held to the side or lifted away from the body. In most cases an elephant showing anxiety in this way will move off to avoid conflict.
I have often experienced guests begin to stress as an elephant approaches us with its ears flapping. Please don’t stress. The elephant is merely cooling itself down. It has huge, fat veins that run beneath the thin skin of the ear and as they flap their ears against the wind, they cool the blood and therefore their overall body temperature. The time you should start to worry is when an elephant turns towards you with its ears extended to the sides and head and trunk raised. This intimidating display is an attempt to frighten you off. In most cases the animal will continue on its way after giving you a scare, but this behaviour can lead to a charge should you choose to ignore it.
This is when an elephant picks its head up high and throws it back down in an arc, creating a big noise as its ears slap against its body and a billow of dust pours off its head. It is intimidating and that’s exactly why the elephant does it. If the elephants does this and moves off, then you are safe to continue watching the herd, however if it does this in conjunction with wide eyes, stiff tail, turns to approach you with ears extended, back arched and tusks held high then it is in your best interest to heed that elephant’s warning.
The trunk position
An elephant’s trunk has so many uses that it almost never comes to a standstill. For communication purposes, it can be used as part of the domination display described above, or to trumpet a warning.
There are different theories about the way that an elephant holds its trunk during a charge. That’s not the kind of thing you should be worrying about. Mock charge or not, if an elephant gives any sign that it’s about to run towards you, GET OUT OF THERE! Do this long before you have time to check for its trunk position.
Look, listen and learn
The warning signals versus communication given out by elephants are easy to tell apart, once you know what to look for.
Although most of the noises elephants emit are at frequencies we can’t even hear, the comforting, low rumbling sound we are lucky enough to hear is the family members communicating with each other, so sit quietly and enjoy it.
The trumpet is usually a signal of distress or a temper tantrum of a youngster whose mother will look to blame you for the outburst and so this is generally not a good sign.
With that said, dont miss this!
The most important thing to remember while watching elephants on a game drive is to relax and immerse yourself in the experience. Most of the elephants in the respective game reserves are used to people passing by and will simply continue with whatever they are doing. Take this opportunity to lap up the privilege of watching elephant behaviour in the wild and enjoy being in their presence.
Now that you know the most common signs to look for let me tell you about the strange behaviour we witnessed that morning. Each time this girl returned to her dead baby after chasing off the hyena, she would go down on her front knees, dig he tusks into the ground and then rip up the soil and roots within it. She would then tilt her head back looking straight up into the sky with her trunk extended, not making a sound, well until she got up again to scream at and chase off the hyena. This happened every time she had returned to her baby.
My guests had asked me, "Mike, what is that elephant doing?" I had no idea and so I told them, I honestly do not know... At this point my very experienced tracker; of 25 years; John turned to us and said "You will probably not read this anywhere in a book but this is what an elephant does when he or she is at its peak of aggression (makes sense, with a dead baby, she had every reason to be) and its best we make our way before she turns her attention to us. Im still here today and so I obviously took John's advise.
Now lets fast forward five years and travel 3000km north into the Masai Mara where I experienced a similar thing with this lone, young male who at first seemed very happy with life enjoying the fresh grass in the wide open plains of the Mara.
The reason for him being along is because when male elephant become sexually mature at around the age of 14 to 16 years of age, the matriarch will chase them out of the natal herd. This is obviously not a easy thing for a very gregarious animal to accept because now he is forced to live his teenage years alone or at least until he can build a bond with other lone males to form a bachelor herd with.
My guests and I were enjoying the warm African sun on our backs while taking in this tranquil scene when this elephant suddenly realised that there is now something here he can take all my frustrations out on. Yes, our vehicle... He started showing some signs of aggression that you should now recognise;
I always ensure that my guests safety is of utmost importance but we stayed to watch this young male do his thing as it sure is very entertaining when they go off like this. He was also very far off which gave use that gap to race away if need be and the fact that he was such a young male, he was definitely more bark than bite.
He was trumpeting, mock charging, feeding, at time forgetting about us as he moved off. Then at one point, after a mock charge, he went and sat flat on his bum and did exactly what that very grumpy female did in my previous story;
Amongst all the laughter and shutters, the first question again was, "Mike, what is this elephant doing?" And this time I had an answer but what could potentially upset this elephant in such a tranquil environment?
The poor lad was probably very upset and struggling with the fact of being alone and just needed to tell someone.
That is about it for this blog, I do hope that you have learnt a bit more about elephant behaviour today and that it helps you stay safe out on your next safari.
Please feel free to leave some of your strange behaviour moments with me in the comments below.
Until next time;