If you have ever had the privilege of watching elephants in the wild, you would undoubtedly agree that it is a rewarding experience. Their lives revolve around family.
Watch a herd of elephants for any period of time and the social bonds between these animals will shed some light on why people are captivated by them. The strongest bond exists between a mother and her youngest calf, however elephants will maintain an intimate relationship between their immediate family, and females will usually stay with their own mothers for most of their lives. In fact, occasionally family groups will join up with others, with herds coming together and splitting up again in a so called fission-fusion society. Most of the fusion (joining up) part of this equation happens when there is ample food for elephants and enough water so there is not too much competition, and with the recent rainfall at Londolozi, this is what we have been seeing.
Large herds of elephants have been seen over the last few weeks and several herds have been seen aggregating at the river and several waterholes. Whilst out on drive a few days ago, I watched a few elephants that had gathered down at the river, spraying themselves with water and relieving their skin from the afternoon heat. It became apparent to me that watching these elephants at the water – playing, drinking, bathing – had to have been one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth.
The herd had been led down to the water by the matriarch (usually the oldest female in the herd) who had most likely over time led them to several other water sources etched in her memory. For a herd of elephants, the matriarch’s knowledge is encyclopaedic. She knows what to do and where to go to find food, water, good shade and safety. She also knows who is who and is able to recognize calls of up to around a hundred other individual elephants, enhancing the social awareness of the entire herd. The rest of the herd was comprised of several other females; a close mix of sisters, aunts, nieces, grandmothers and even great grandmothers. Their role is to bring up their young, protect them and play with them. In fact, if a mother elephant dies, there is a good chance that her calf may be raised by other females. Playing boisterously along the waters edge were the young males. Life would be different for these males once they got older. Young bull elephants usually leave their natal herds between 14 and 18 years, forming small herds with other young males. However, as these bulls become older they tend to lead more solitary lives, only to join up with other family groups to mate.
Also amongst the herd were the calves, ranging from a year old to a few years old. Everything revolves around these small calves, and the protective nature of mothers and aunts towards them is legendary. Keeping young elephant calves out of trouble is part of motherhood, but if a calf is at risk most of the other females will assist and come to their rescue.
In fact, I have witnessed this once before.
A young calf had fallen into a water hole, bumped in accidentaly by another elephant while the herd was drinking. Suddenly there was chaos as the young calf began to frantically attempt to climb the slippery slope out, to no avail. The calf’s mother, along with several other females, all tried to pull the calf out using their trunks. When this too, failed, the matriarch of the herd did one of the most incredible things I have witnessed. She dropped down to her knees and shunted the young calf step by step along the bank of the water hole until the gradient became significantly less and the calf was able to climb up a much shallower incline. The herd was ecstatic at the rescue, and all members of the family placed their trunks on the traumatized calf, providing comfort and reassurance.
These sightings highlight the effect that elephants can have on some people. Many people associate them with the one thing that means the most to humans – family. Elephants spend their whole lives together, feeding, resting, drinking, swimming and wandering with their kin alongside them and the empathy shown toward one another is tangible, which in my opinion, makes elephants stand out from most other animals.