The African Elephant

The African elephant has certainly been an animal that has captivated the imaginations of so many who have witnessed them over the years. To the day a lot of mystery’s surrounds the elephant as scientists pull for recognition with theory after theory to try to make sense of the final mile when it comes to understanding these complex beings. The truth is that those last questions and areas of uncertainty will forever remain exactly, so no matter how many factual guesses mankind tries to make in the usual attempt to make us feel like we know everything.

 

The intellectual limits of elephants will always be a continuing topic of conversation amongst guides, scientists and natures lovers in general. The truth is that elephants are proven to be amongst the most intelligent animals on earth along with dolphins, chimp and humans. Its 5kg brain makes it proportionally the most sizeable brain on earth which, when looking at the complexities of their behaviors and emotions, makes absolute sense It is said that elephants are capable of a variety of emotions much like the ones we feel. They feel joy, playfulness, grief, mourning and some even say resentment. On top of all this elephant are capable of learning throughout their life’s.

New facts and behaviors as well as mimicking sounds, they may hear to performing artistic activities and the use of tools. A fascination theory is that of elephants being able to self-medicate. Certainly this does not mean an elephant keep some Panadol or Xanol tucked behind his ear for those tough days in the field but for more basic issues such as stomach ailments elephants have been known to ingest slightly toxic plants with no nutritional value for purgative uses to clear what might be upsetting their stomach. Crazy right?

So, where does this intelligence come from, we wonder. Well for a start we need to look at the brain itself. The neocortex of an elephant is highly convoluted like it is in humans, apes and a few dolphin species. Generally, this shape of the neocortex is a direct indicator of complex intelligence.

The elephant, like humans, is not born with much survival instincts. It has to learn to survive and what to eat and what is dangerous and so on. This constant stimulus of the brain has probably been what has evolved passed its adjacent species that share an elephant’s habitat. Needless to say, it is a fact, to an uncertain degree, that an elephant is not just an immense creature but is clearly as wise as it is massive.

 

The size of an elephant is truly something to behold but the tragedy is that elephants are not as big as they used to be. Unnatural selection in the form of poaching and in more recent year’s trophy hunting has singled out larger individuals and especially those with large tusks. Damaging the gene pool slowly but surely over the years. The use and lust for ivory has walked hand in hand with mankind for thousands of years and the trade of ivory from Africa and Asia can be traced back to 14th century.

In those days’ elephants of ten tones and more were not uncommon with tusks reaching well over 100kg’s. sadly the last elephant of this size was shot out of Angola in 1956. It’s not known exactly how large his tusks were, but he weighed elven thousand kilograms and was 3.96 meters high at the shoulder. This is a full meter more than the average elephant today. The heaviest tusk ever recorded was out of Kenya and weighed in at an incredible 120kg’s and was 3.5m long. S

omething hard to imagine these days as elephants with ivory even remotely close to this size number in less than 25 over the entire continent.

This number is still decreasing due to poorly managed parks, corrupt governments, habitat destruction, poaching and irresponsible trophy hunting.

The order in which an elephant belongs to is called Proboscidea and includes a large group of mammals with proboscis like appendages which consisted of a fused upper lip and nose. Inside this order is the family Elephantidae in which the African savannah elephant belongs to.

Prehistorically there were over 300 species in the Elephantidae family including mammoths and Asian elephant but had species that were as small as a pig. Today only three remain. The Asian elephant, the forest elephant and the savannah or bush elephant.

Most of the other species vanished due to changing climates or being out competed by other species. The latter being the most common in our paths as it inhabits 32 different countries in Africa. the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) being a more secretive species inhabiting the forests of west Africa. It's Latin name for the African or savannah elephant is Loxodonta Africana is derived from it dental structure. A conveyer like action pushes six sets of molar-like teeth along its jaw line.

One set replacing the next until the last is worn down and at this stage the elephant is likely to loose condition and starve.

Elephants are unique in so many ways. They live long like us and can reach 60 years old in the wild. Their gestation period is a whopping 22 months. The social structure of an elephant is also fascinating. Herds usually comprise of adult females and adolescents with the occasional adult bull coming and going as he pleases either for company or to mate. The matriarch, however, is the ruler of the roost and even a six-ton bull will tuck tail and speed off if she loses her temper.

These herds nowadays can average about 15 to 20 individuals with the occasional herd reaching the hundred mark. Interestingly herds used to congregate in certain regions and reach thousands. Old photographs from the 1930’s of a herd in Tsavo east counted just over two thousand individuals and records claim that In central Africa around what we know now as Uganda, Central African Republic and the Congo herds used to commonly exceed the two thousand mark. Unfortunately, with the loss of habitat in todays day herds like this are unheard of.

 

Personally, the emotional intelligence of elephants has been an obsession of mine since my own emotional intelligence had developed enough for me to notice the intricacies of their behavior. I started noticing how small movements and sounds meant so much in an elephant world. I watched their complex family structures and how certain individuals had certain roles. How big bulls, not the biggest bulls, would guard a mating bull just bigger and older than him, from uncontrolled and excited teenagers who are yet to know their place.

I have watched elephants, on the move and busy, go silent…uncomfortably silent and still over the bones of a deceased elephant. For hours sometimes. I would wonder about their relationship with that elephant. Was she a member of their herd, a related herd or a completely unknown individual whom they honored with a moment of silence.

My most life-altering moment, however, was as a young safari guide in the early years of my career. I was conducting walking safaris in the northern tip of Kruger national park. With me were for guests. A couple and two sisters. We were caught by surprise by three elephants and had to stay put in order to prevent inducing a charger. I recognized one of these bulls as an individual called “Dave”. Known for being incredibly calm towards people, even on foot. With him were two younger bulls of a notoriously dangerous age and were already showing signs of aggression. At first they had only picked up on our scent and Dave being the curious elephant that he was, decided to head our way to investigate.

I distinctly remember considering leaving the area before he got to us but there was something about being in his company, something surreal and something I was not about to prevent my guests from experiencing. We stood our ground. Dave approached with the usual relaxed gait of an old bull elephant but his to askaris (younger elephants that follow old bulls in order to learn from them) started to show signs of unease. Dave lead the column with the two teenagers (still a big elephant) tailing by about twenty meters. Dave could now see us and was keen on approaching closer. Suddenly the two youngsters, already aggressive due to conflict with people across the Limpopo river in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, noticed us. Being closer to their most feared threat than they would have liked they both decided to charge.

Putting their heads down and aiming to flank Dave on his right side before following through to us. It is likely that even with the charge fully committed to, if you hold your ground and stay calm, one can halt the charge of an elephant as it will never harm something it does not fear. You sometimes have a few seconds to convey this to the elephant in the final yards before it squashes you. Something happened, though, as I was preparing my “please don’t squash us” speech.

Dave’s angle changed slightly and both younger bulls skidded to a standstill just before over taking Dave. The reality of what just happened was still a suspicion though, as I simply wouldn’t believe that an elephant who had definitely witnessed the atrocities of man in its long life on the border of Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa (an area known as “crooks corner” due to the cunning elephant poacher Stephanes Cecil Barnard whom used to hunt the area) would protect the very species that had committed these hennas crimes. Soon this reality became blatantly obvious as the two younger bulls continued to try get around Dave and to us, again and again.

Each time Dave would lean in their direction, only a few inches were enough, but the message to the two younger bulls was clear. “break off”, and each time he was obeyed without question. To this day I still think back to the encounter, the tears shed by my guests. I can still taste the dust on my tongue. Everything burnt so vividly into my mind I get to relive it and rethink it trying to see if I had overlooked something. But there’s was nothing to overlook.

An old bull elephant was protecting a small group of humans from less wise elephants. Teaching a lesson to both species in doing so.

Say what you will, I will never be sure of their thoughts, but I will say there is a lot we don’t know and a lot we underestimate about elephants.

 

Until next time.

Andrew Danckwerts

One thought on “The African Elephant

  1. Vikram Ghanekar

    says:

    Fantastic story about Dave. Obviously I do not have extensive experience with elephants. But one elephant that is equally tolerant of humans is Boswell in Mana Pools. It’s such privilege to stand close to him and follow him as he goes about his business, it’s just incredible.

    Elephants are certainly one of the wisest animals on earth. Really enjoyed reading this.
    Thanks for sharing
    Vikram

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