The large herd of elephants stood mere metres from us scattered in every direction while I sat on the tracker seat of our game vehicle – not quite sure if I was the lucky one to be as close as I was or if I was doomed to a nasty encounter for being the unfortunate person to choose the closest most vulnerable position to be in. The guide calmed my fears by telling us that we were not in any danger, the elephant herd was calm and seemed almost unaware of us. I knew that they were very much aware of us, but they did not show any fear or irritation at our presence.
We write about tell tale signs of elephant body language in a recent post. If you know these, you can get a better understanding without the feeling of fear that I describe above. For instance signs like a stiff tail usually indicate that the elephant may be anxious whereas an elephant trumpet can mean that the elephant is in distress. When an elephant flaps it ears this does not mean that they are angry but rather they use their large ears to cool off and lower their body temperature. Knowing the signs, and listening to your ranger will help you understand and appreciate their behaviours, to know that more often than not you can view them without fear.
If I were to pick one of my most memorable encounters with an elephant herd, this one would have to be it. I remember the prickly sensation of elation that filled my body, almost if someone had taken a feather and was tickling me all over. I was giddy from excitement. The mammoth creatures surrounded us on all sides, yet not once did I feel scared. They showed us their gentle nature by continuing to feed and interact. The young and old, the battered and playful.
There is a lot we do not know about elephants. What we do know is that they are incredibly intelligent. They have strong family bonds and this is evident in the way that they stick together, helping one another and showing care for their herd. There are many touching stories about elephant behaviours – how a calf with a severe leg injury is helped up a steep bank by the amazing assistance of its mother… or the story of the elephant caught in a snare. Seeing the herd come together to alleviate the pressure from the snare caught around its leg showed us again just how caring these animals can be.
On a walking safari in Kruger I had yet another opportunity to view elephants up close. This time I was on foot and even more exposed than on the tracker seat. We spotted the elephants on the other side of the riverbank walking toward our position. We crouched low and realised that the elephants had not seen or smelt us due to the wind direction we were in. Quietly we sat as two young bulls playfully prodded each other with their tusks. They were ballerina like in their movements as they shifted from side to side. Again a feeling of elation arose through me. We were peeping through the glass of a window that was dark from the outside and they on the ‘dark side’ blissfully unaware of us.
At Londolozi, I have had many wonderful moments shared in the company of elephants. Each encounter has been special and at each one I have been left in awe. I am still amazed at each story I hear about these animals and how they continue to surprise us through their tender care for members of their family. Like the old adage goes: ‘Blood is thicker than water,’ it seems that elephants know how best to put this into practice making sure that family comes first.
When you’re next out in the field, look at the body language of an elephant and at how they interact with one another. Their care for their family and their playful nature is another reminder of how we can learn from the gentle loving nature of animals.
Written by Kate Collins, Londolozi Blog Editor