“We are the keepers of the ancient secrets; for we walked the world when it was new.”  – Eileen Lynch

A herd of elephants cross over the Sand River and heave their bulk up the bank on the other side. 17, 18, 19 sets of wrinkled legs trample the already hardened ground as each elephant walks the exact same route as the one going before it, further eroding the weathered track we call Old Elephant Crossing. Many of us come and go from Londolozi, visiting it for a short moment in time, whilst others stay for a few years. These herds though have been walking routes like this throughout Africa for centuries. It made me wonder how many elephants have walked this particular path and what tales it has seen, what ancient wisdom had been handed down from matriarch to matriarch along it and where were they all coming from and going to? There is a beauty to be found in everything out here; even an eroded game path can begin to show you the inherent wisdom and timelessness of a species.

Elephants have remarkable recall power and despite this being something that makes them feel very similar to us in terms of consciousness, it is also something pretty core to their survival. Matriarch elephants, in particular, hold a store of social knowledge that their families can scarcely do without.

elephant, old elephant crossing, Sand River, Londolozi, AA

An elephant cow and calf stop to feed on some vegetation growing in the Sand River at Old Elephant Crossing. Since this route has been widened by countless elephant’s feet, other animals now use it as a crossing point too. Photograph by Amy Attenborough

When I was visiting Tanzania a few years ago, I came across a new study that suggests that experienced elephant matriarchs seem to give their family groups an advantage during times of famine. The research was based on observations of calf deaths during a particularly severe drought in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park. Groups that had greater success in protecting their young were the ones that had the oldest females. These were also the groups brave (or wise enough) to leave a protected area in search of food and water, perhaps because their matriarchs remembered doing that during an equally severe drought forty years earlier.

We are also seeing that elephants are rediscovering ancient pathways and historical corridors to Angola. According to Africa Geographic,

“the cessation of the civil war, a mere ten years ago, has provided the requisite safety for these ambling giants to reclaim their original ranges. Due to the five-country-wide establishment of the Kaza Transfrontier Conservation Area, the elephants of Chobe National Park can resume their ancestral routes that were once mapped out from eastern Angola to western Zimbabwe, spilling into Zambia’s illustrious Kafue National Park. Since Kaza’s establishment and the relinquishing of borders took place, a great number of elephants have followed their magnetic compass into the lost land of Angola, giving the weighted wetlands of the Okavango a lighter pachyderm footprint.”

elephant cal, Londolozi, RL

A young elephant calf follows behind its mother, who will be following the lead of the matriarch. Elephants live for about 60 years and will accumulate knowledge during that time due to their powerful memories. This youngster may well grow up to lead a herd of its own, using information passed down to it by generations of predecessors. Photograph by Rich Laburn

In Mapungubwe National Park in the north-west of South Africa, elephants have walked routes there on so many occasions they have worn pathways into rock.

One of my most interesting encounters with elephants though has been in the very dense coastal forests in Gabon. There the only way to navigate the impenetrable undergrowth is on game paths that elephants have opened up. As you hack through the dense brush with machetes, you can’t help but appreciate what these “mega-gardeners” do for all the species living in that forest, who would find it impossible to navigate their environment without these routes. Matriarchs also show an uncanny ability to find their way to bai’s or clearings in the forests where elephants congregate to feed and socialise, using only their memories and not the modern-day GPS equipment we’re so reliant on.

gabon, forest

Three of us move through the dense forests of Moukalaba Dou Dou, one of the eleven national parks in Gabon. The forest was so thick in places, it was easier to walk in the Moukalaba River for hours at a time. Inside these forests rises the Dou Dou mountains and it was amazing to see what precarious places elephants have managed to navigate even on the mountains. Photograph by Craig Hayman

forest elephant, Gabon, AA

One of the forest elephants we saw crossing a river in Loango National Park in Gabon. These elephants are typically more shy and aggressive than the savannah subspecies that we see here at Londolozi. The forest elephants also have much longer, straighter tusks which make them more able to navigate the dense vegetation they move through daily. Photograph by Amy Attenborough

I’ve yet to visit Mali but National Geographic reported that researchers there have used satellite tracking to plot an ancient elephant highway at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert—a highly unusual route that has enabled the elephants to survive on barely habitable land.

“The elephants live in Mali, in the Gourma region of the Sahel, an ever-narrowing strip of land that lies between the desert in the north and the savanna in the south. The Sahel in West Africa is a near-desert wasteland of sparsely vegetated plains and endless miles of sand dunes. To survive in this extremely harsh landscape, each year the Gourma elephants follow a circular migration path that covers 450 kilometers (280 miles), moving from one water hole to the next. No other group of elephants is known to follow such a pattern.”

Gourma, Mali, desert elephants

The Gourma region of the Sahel in Mali, an ever-narrowing strip of land that lies between the desert in the north and the savanna in the south. Information handed down from matriarchs means these animals have developed techniques that help them to survive in this incredibly unhospitable land.

When you read stories like this you begin to realise the levels of responsibility these old matriarchs carry. By holding onto information passed down to them from generation to generation, they exist in communion with the land rather than at the mercy of it, moving according to its abundance or lack.

As humans, we think of ourselves as extraordinary harbourers of knowledge and wisdom, using technology to store endless data. It seems these animals are capable of doing that for themselves, using lessons and life experience as they mature in community. As that nineteenth elephant passed up and out of the Sand River on that ancient footpath, I was reminded of how important these tracts of wilderness are. If we make the effort to open up migratory routes and keep these wildlife areas safe, elephants will be able to return to their ancient ways, continuing to pass precious information down for many generations to come. And in turn, we may continue to learn this ancient wisdom for our own species too.

Filed under Wildlife

About the Author

Amy Attenborough

Media Team

Amy has a rich field-guiding history, having spent time at both Phinda and Ngala Game Reserves. This diversity of past guiding locations brought her an intimate understanding of different biomes across South Africa, and she immediately began making a name for herself as ...

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on Do Elephants Migrate?

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Marinda Drake

Such a lovely blog Amy. Elephants are so special and intellegent. Wonderful that ancient migratory routes are opened again for them.

Amy Attenborough

Thank you Marinda. Hopefully one day we’ll see them moving undisturbed all the way from the beautiful Greater Kruger that we love so much, all the way to the northern parts of Africa.

Ian Hall

Super blog, you do begin to understand that these animals need huge areas and wonder about the impact of smaller reserves and national parks.

Amy Attenborough

So true Ian! I think the key is that everyone continues to do their bit to provide safe havens for these animals and hopefully we can continue to collaborate and open up conservation areas to re-establish these ancient migratory routes. Many thanks, Amy

Ian Hall

Yes, and I think the Kruger has got it right. The lodges like Londolozi in Sabi Sands allow the migration whereas I can think of fenced lodges (of similar size) that don’t offer migratory routes, and at the same time having created artificial reserves don’t go the extra mile by providing the extra water that can be found using migratory patterns of behaviour.

Darlene Knott

An enchanting species for sure! Thanks for sharing, Amy!

Amy Attenborough

Thank you, Darlene! What do you find most enchanting about them?? For me, I think it has to be their incredible social structure and the way that they care for one another.

Christa Blessing

Just wonderful how you have described the elephants.
They are such absolutely fantastic creatures.

Amy Attenborough

Thank you Christa. They really are fantastic. And the more we learn about them, the more fascinating they become!!

Denise Vouri

Really interesting article Amy. The adage, ” if only animals could talk” seems to hold weight when talking about elephants. They are so smart and really take care of one another. I hope that their futures will not be limited by man’s lust for land.

Amy Attenborough

Thank you, Denise and I totally agree. I even feel the “if only animals could talk” thing when I look at trees and even the game path I mentioned in the post. Imagine the stories we’d hear if these long-standing features of the landscape could talk?!

Jeff Rodgers

All of the Londolozi blogs are interesting, but I LOVE when you & your colleagues write stories like this. Keep ’em coming.

Amy Attenborough

Thank you Jeff! Are there any topics, in particular, you’d like to hear more about? Many thanks, Amy

Jeff Rodgers

I abhor the term ‘big 5’ – both for what it stood for once upon a time (hunting) & the obsession so many guests have that a game drive is just about seeing lions, leopards, elephants, rhino & buffalo. I’d love to see more blogs like this one as well as about the smaller, often overlooked creatures like dung beetles, lion ants and so many more. Also, I would like to communicate with you about your time in Gabon and will send you an email about that.

Amy Attenborough

Fabulous Jeff! We couldn’t agree more and I’m sure that as summer approaches and more of the smaller creepy crawlies come out, we’ll have lots of smaller creature focused blogs coming your way. I’d also keep an eye out for Rob Crankshaw’s macro photography. He shares this passion with you. Please do send a mail regarding Gabon. It was the wildest trip of my life and something I’d be happy to share more info with you on. Thanks, Amy

Gawie Jordaan

Enjoyed your blog Amy! Their ways seem to be much more guided than us humans..

Amy Attenborough

Thank you Gawie. Their innate abilities do astound me! Have you had a look at this video we recently made on Living Guided? http://blog.londolozi.com/2017/08/31/live-guided-answering-a-calling/. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Many thanks, Amy

Gawie Jordaan

Thank you Amy.I have watched it & there is so much one can associate the journey with. Perhaps people, like myself, should “migrate”, go beyond, take that risk & live guided! I made think a bit deeper..

Amy Attenborough

Oooh I love that Gawie! That’s so great to hear. We’d love it if you make a visit to Londolozi part of your migration at some point 🙂

Leonie De Young

Beautiful blog Amy. An excellent read on the intelligence of these beautiful and social animals. May their migrations go on for generations to come. Thank you so much for sharing.

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