Exceptional; this is a word which I often use to describe elephants. And they are just that. They are “unusual, not typical” and “unusually good” members of the mammal class. Their exceptionality has placed them in a position beyond extraordinary as they’ve continued to amaze, astonish and impress human observers throughout history.

These gentle giants were initially perceived as ordinary large mammals with odd noses but eventually began wowing those who stopped and gave them time. Quickly, our human intelligence started noticing small fragments of elephant knowledge and ancient wisdom, and suddenly they were considered “smart”. It was long after we had agreed on high intellectual levels in wild primates and cetaceans (aquatic mammals consisting of whales, dolphins and porpoises) that we reconsidered and agreed on a matched level of intelligence in elephants. Not only did this greater understanding of the species aid in its protection from harm and exploitation, but it reaffirmed for us their purpose in the natural world and their importance to the spiritual one.

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Immovable Wisdom

Understandably, with high levels of intelligence comes a potential for deeper emotions. This is evident across the planet’s primates particularly, and I believe it’s the case too with elephants. As social creatures, their interactions within a herd can be watched and familiarised with those amongst ourselves, as socialites too. While watching elephants move through the wild we can often pick out certain character traits (and even moods) in certain individuals as they progress through specific roles and social positions within the herd. There is arguably a sense of awareness and consciousness present, and it is what I have always enjoyed most about these giants among us.

In 2014 I saw one particular elephant cow for the first time which saddened me deeply for some time. She was an adult with a young calf, and was burdened by what I considered to be a life-threatening injury, which spelt disaster for her dependant calf as well. She was missing the lower third (if not, more) of her trunk, the end of which had evidently healed almost shut. We weren’t sure what had caused this severance of her trunk but it was clearly some time ago as it did not show any open wound or infection. However, she was thin and seemingly producing little milk for her calf who looked even more malnourished than her. This was due to the difficulty of feeding herself without a fully functioning trunk; the never-resting appendage used for nearly all aspects of an elephant’s life!

An elephant gives us a close-up of his trunk, which with its many synapses and helical muscle fibres, is an unbelievably complex appendage.

The necessary “nibs” to the tip of the trunk enabling precise control of vegetation. Photograph by Talley Smith.

Without the two extended “finger-like” ends to the tip of the trunk, she would not be able to intricately grasp smaller parts of plants or trees and manipulate them or bring them to her mouth. Furthermore, it seemed impossible to suck up water and place it into her mouth as the trunk end was almost completely closed (we could hear her breathing and wheezing from a distance) and its short length could not reach her mouth.

She survived, though, by making a plan and resorting to squirting, for lack of a better word. There was amazement across the entire Londolozi family once she was first observed drinking from a watering hole, and we documented her feeding and drinking behaviour as often as we could. It proved to be a very slow method of drinking water and looked beyond frustrating, but without any other option she maintained this method to stay alive. She was seen quite often around Londolozi and the central Sabi Sands for several months and soon moved off into the vast open and unfenced spaces we are so lucky surround us. She was only a memory to me then.

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The best she could do was this very thin jet; a relatively miniscule flow of drinking water for a thirsty adult elephant, and a very lengthly process. Photograph by James Tyrrell.

In early 2016 she was seen again on Londolozi to the joy of everybody, with her calf alive and looking well, growing quickly and healthily. The two were only seen several times and by a few lucky people before disappearing again, despite my best efforts to find them for my own eyes and peace of mind. I knew they were alive and succeeding and so was happy-hearted with a greater appreciation for the resilience and care of elephants in the wild; a warm lesson learnt.

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January 2016 when the two reappeared briefly. This time I never saw them and had doubt I ever would see them again. Photograph by James Tyrrell.

But then, very recently, something happened which I can never forget. Driving alongside the Sand River one morning we spotted a small herd of elephants approaching the water and so stopped to watch them. Rob Hlatshwayo and I simultaneously noticed the shortened trunk, and as our proverbial light bulbs illuminated we turned to each other (Robbie from across the hood of our vehicle) with widened eyes of excitement, “it’s her again! She is back!” exclaimed my friend. And there she was with a her young sub-adult in step beside her; her healthy calf more than two years later. My happiness was indescribable, and I soon realised untranslatable, as I tried to mumble her full life story in one sentence to my guests… Not possible.

In my exuberance I managed to blurt out some poorly constructed sentence describing her noticeably short trunk and the fact that she drinks differently in order to survive, and immediately she was ankle deep in the river and slightly crouched in order to reach the water surface. Just as she did in 2014 she was still doing now, the slow and frustrating process of drinking water, and as we all watched in amazement I could feel a blanket of sadness and pity fall upon the guests.

There were other elephants in this herd too, and casually a younger bull drank near to her. He was about her height and I predict was in his late teens or early twenties. As we watched and spoke about her resilience and persistence, the young bull finished a few sips of water and walked towards her, where she stood squirting a thin but steady stream into her open mouth. We continued talking. Beside her, shoulder to shoulder, the bull reached down in his usual fashion and sucked up a trunk-full of water (easily four or five litres, over a gallon) before curling the tip of his trunk upwards. But instead of raising his trunk to his own mouth as we expected, he raised and twisted it midway and extended it sideways and then around and into the open mouth of the cow. While her thin stream of water continued to squirt from her distant trunk tip, trickles of water fell from either side of her mouth as he fed her more water in a second than she was managing herself in a minute. She clearly swallowed most of it as he soon removed his now empty trunk from her mouth and walked away several steps and began using his trunk to throw water over his back as she continued drinking with her initial trunk-full, still a steady stream into her mouth. It was only then, once he had walked away from her, did we all realise what we had just seen, and an emotional silence weighed upon us all. “Did I just see that?” someone asked. I was speechless and overwhelmed with astonishment as well as a near disbelief. A simple and subtle display of extreme emotional intelligence just played out in front of us.

This empathetic act of awareness and attention completely blew me away and it took some time to dissect its meaning. We could not confirm whether or not this was a common occurrence within the herd, whether the young bull was the only one assisting the cow, or whether it was done before or after this particular occurrence or not. We have no idea how often it has happened before, or whether the bull’s assistance is limited to drinking water. We followed the herd for a short while before losing them into a dense area, and never saw them again. Many of us kept an eye out for those elephants to hopefully witness this kind of behaviour again, and hope to photograph/film it, but neither of them have been seen since.

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Conciousness in a Distracting Reality

I can only hope it is not another whole year before any of the rangers or trackers see her and her calf again, and can only guess as to what they will find. Will they still be within this same herd, and will the young bull still be assisting her around the water holes when they drink? I eagerly await the day someone on Londolozi notices her and we are once again treated to the most beautiful reveal of emotional awareness and custodianship in the wild.

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An Ancient Soul

Throughout writing this story from behind my desk, I have been flooded with sensations only ever felt in that moment when I realised what I had just seen. The privilege to witness benevolence so much larger than ourselves come from a wild animal was a truly humbling and soulful experience. Even after retelling the story numerous times I am still met with a tingling feeling and teary eyes, and a desire to unravel and appreciate more. It has etched the elephant even deeper into my understanding as the greatest creature to walk this planet.

Through respecting these magnificent beasts, maybe we ought to learn a thing or two about initial perception, selflessness and compassion. In my understanding, they truly are exceptional animals.

Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

Sean Cresswell

Safari Guide

Sean is one of the humblest rangers you are likely to meet. Quietly going about his day, enriching the lives of the many guests he takes out into the bush, it is only when he posts a Week in Pictures or writes an ...

More stories by Sean

26 Comments

on Heart of the Elephant
    Krishna Gailey says:

    Sean your story about the elephant with the short trunk is so beautiful, so touching,and makes my heart jump.
    What amazing incredible animals they are. We can all learn so much from them. Please keep us informed if she is sighted again. Thank you for such a touching story. Just love them.

    Laura Eberly says:

    What a wonderful way to start a new week!! Thank you, those of us living in the States need this beautiful story !

    Dave Mills says:

    Och, man, you bring tears to my eyes. Grand story.

    Dawn Phillips says:

    WOW! I have goosebumps.

    Debbie and Frank Kohlenstein says:

    Sean, what a beautifully written piece on this special elephant and her herd. I was teary eyed but smiling while reading about her. You and the other rangers transport us daily back to Londolozi through your soulful words. Thank you.

    Deb Kermisch says:

    What a great and touching story! Very well written. Maybe humans can learn a lesson from elephants!

    barbara jones says:

    Beautiful story!

    Charlie Ricciardelli says:

    Such a wonderful story. I believe she and her herd were the first elephants my wife and I saw during our trip to Londolozi in June 2015 with Don and Lucky. Our group was fortunate enough to enjoy sundowners with the herd as they drank from a watering hole. She was a bit slower to drink than the others and the herd began to move on, but one or two elephants clearly hung back to wait for her as she finished to ensure they all stayed together. Incredible animals.

    Cameron says:

    Wonderfully articulated and thought-provoking, Sean. Thank you for telling this beautiful story.

    Brenda Quatember says:

    What an amazing story, brought tears to my eyes, so privileged to witness
    and meet up again with this elephant, such special animals thank you!.

    Marg Guit says:

    Your eloquent sharing of this story evokes many emotions for the reader, Sean. Powerful and beautiful. Would be wonderful to view again into the future.

    Linda Kramer says:

    Nevertheless, she persisted.

    Laura Brodsky says:

    I read the Londolzi blog every day, and I’m often moved. I’ve been to Africa 3 times, and I’m about to embark on trip #4. I have loved elephants since the 1st minute I saw one in the wild on my 1st trip. This story confirms what I have always known in my heart, that elephants are capable of complex and deep emotions, and have self-awareness and empathy towards other creatures. Just lovely!

    Vicky Sanders says:

    Such a lovely story! Wonder why my eyes are filled with tears? ;)))) Such resilient, inspiring, beautiful creatures. There are a couple of elephant cows that stroll through Djuma with shortened trunks, but nowhere as short as your lovely creature. They have adapted well, although it looks like the stooping to feed is messing with their spine. I want to say ‘poor thing’ about your cow, BUT she’s a survivor, and I want to believe since the young bull was so casual about his aid that it is a steady thing and others are learning from him. Thank you, Sean, and I hope your elephant survivor returns to Londolozi more often for your viewing pleasure.

    Cherrill thickitt says:

    thank you Sean a really beautiful story and heart renchimg. I do hope she survives and returns to visit you often. We can learn a lot from these beautiful sensitive mamals. I look forward to the blog each day as it takes me back to an area I love and hope to visit again. How privileged and lucky you are to be in the bush daily with the animals.

    JudyvGuffey says:

    Mahalo for sharing not only the story but your emotions as you wrote it. I cried. Of thevanimals I’ve been blessed to see in the bush elephants remain my favorites.

    Lea says:

    Sean, thank you so much for this heart melting article. I had tears in my eyes reading it. I have watched the Safari from Djuma and have seen an ellie cow with a short trunk along with her calf. She appears to be a really good mum and both look well nourished. This is likely not the same ellie though. She is a survivor and how special that the young bull ellie helped her to get a drink – maybe he is one of her calves. Elephants are the most amazing, sensitive and intelligent creatures God put breath in. How anybody could harm them is beyond me. Thank you so much for your compassion you have infused into this article. I pray you will have the chance to see her again.

    Jill says:

    Thank you for sharing this amazing story. I read your eloquent and touching narrative to my 87 year old mother while we were in the waiting room at her eye doctor appointment. Her eyes were blurry from the dilating drops but she clung to every word that I read. She will never visit Africa but your words brought it together to her why I love Africa, these wonderful created animals and especially Londolozi. I never miss the blogs since our visit last June but this has so touched my heart as well as those who have not visited. You have a wonderful gift of storytelling! So glad that you were our ranger June30-July 3 at Tree Camp!

    Jill Larone says:

    Sean, beautiful story of an amazing, touching experience. Elephants are such incredible, ancient souls and it is always a privilege to be able to watch them go about their lives. Thank you for sharing this very special moment with us.

    Carol McAllister says:

    An amazing story. Thank you for sharing it.

    Wendy Hawkins says:

    Oh so beautiful of such an amazing Elephant Cow & her determination to survive! Thank you Sean

    Phil Schultz says:

    Visited Southern Africa, including Londolozi, last May (and was so impressed with her wildlife that I’m seriously thinking of making a second visit all the way from the States next year). I like to spend the year before a trip reading as many books as I can about the destination. Before visiting Southern Africa I came across Lawrence Anthony’s books and came to appreciate the elephant as one of the most intelligent animals on this planet. Spend enough time with certain species and you can tell something more, something less stereotypical animal, is going on behind their eyes. Brown bears in Alaska, and Antarctic humpback whales immediately come to mind. Probably not the best example for this forum, but the hunter/writer Peter Hathaway Capstick described one occasion when he shot an elephant in a herd. He describes the herd huddling as if making a plan, before spreading out and advancing in the direction from which the shot came. Caps tick describes the next several hours running from this herd occasionally being surprised by an elephant hiding behind brush in ambush. Truly intelligent animals. Its a crime that they are hunted by man for economic gain

    Mary Beth Wheeler says:

    Kindness? Love? Inspiring on this Valentine’s Day…

    Bruce Robertson says:

    Funny, must have got something in my eye whilst reading your story Sean, as they kept on becoming blurry……. great read, thank you

    Barbara Weyand says:

    Sean, so many have eloquently stated their feelings after reading your very special post on elephants and the joy to know this one and her calf survived. I thank you for writing of your impressions and feelings, and Robbie’s too, as it moved me to tears as well.
    Do you recall the afternoon we watched a small herd come into view of the Hippo carcass and the herds’ reaction and the young male pushed forward who bellowed and stomped his foot several times before backing away?
    I have very fond memories of my trips into the bush with you and Robbie, and truly enjoy reliving them through the Londolozi blog and my photos.
    Thank you again and again.

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