I know that true conservationists avoid personifying wildlife. They cringe at the documentaries that overlay the natural world with scripts and plots and anthropomorphisms that bypass natural science in the pursuit of a story that will sell. I imagine that is why David Attenborough is a “Sir”: he (mostly) gives us the wild, without the hyperbole.
I tend to err on the side of the conservationists, with the exception of elephants. If you have ever had the privilege (and it is a privilege) of watching quietly as a breeding herd of elephants crosses a road, you will know what I mean.
Breeding herds are led by matriarchs, usually the oldest female individual. The herds wellbeing is her responsibility. That includes deciding when the herd will rest, when it will feed, when it will drink and – when and how it will cross a road. The latter is a decision that is all the more urgent when a vehicle is close by.
The matriarch’s low rumble, a beautifully eerie and numinous sound, sometimes audible to the human ear, signals to the herd that they should assume formation. The adults and adolescents immediately gather around the infants. The matriarch turns her full attention to the vehicle, raises her head and trunk and assesses the risk, having to push back against the weight of a circumspect family that has now congregated behind her.
An elephants eyes are small, relative to the size of the body, but as the matriarch sizes us up, you can see her drawing on all of her senses to “taste” the threat. The mouth slightly open, the trunk plucking bits of information from the air, and the tiny intelligent eyes, beautiful, vulnerable, suspicious and furious all at once.
Deeming our Land Rover to be a safe enough distance away, the matriarch moves forward. Her highest-ranking officers move in slightly behind, left and right. And in the middle, barricaded against any threat, the smallest infants scurry along, knowing even at this young age that it is not the time for eating or playing. It is a time to obey what their grandmother is telling them.
In her leadership they will be safe.
In this way, over 40 animals crossed the dirt road in front of us, in less than 30 seconds. It was late on a close summer’s afternoon, and it was not long before the matriarch had led her family down to the pools of Londolozi’s Sand River, which flowed steadily. There the elephants drank and played. Water splashed, trunks trumpeted, young bulls sized each other up, and the infants gamboled in the pleasure of a “playtime” that the bush seldom allows.
The matriarchs of the Sand drank heartily. And so did the families that they lead in such a touching, and human way.
Written and Photographed by Ryan James