One of my favourite books is called Elephantoms, written by Lyall Watson. It explores the soul of these great pachyderms, more from an anecdotal than scientific viewpoint, nevertheless sharing some startling insights into their behaviour and evolution. More than in any other book I’ve read about them, apart from maybe the wonderful and well known The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony, Elephantoms lets one enter intimately into the highly emotional world of the elephant, without ever having to see one in the wild.
Elephants are probably my favourite creatures here at Londolozi. Not as beautiful as leopards, not as awe-inspiring as a pride of lions bringing down a buffalo, elephants still manage to trounce both these big cats in the compeition for ‘most desirable to spend time with’, even if it’s only for their consistency. They are always doing something. Whether feeding, drinking, dust bathing or simply meandering slowly through the bush, spending time with them is always special, and the odds of finding an elephant not engaged in some kind of interesting activity are slim. The social interactions are fascinating, and to watch the sheer unbridled joy of elephants around water is a real privilege.
Winter time sees the area around the Londolozi camps inundated with breeding herds and bachelor bulls, who come flocking down to the perennial Sand River to slake their thirsts. The difficulty for many rangers and trackers during the dry season is that there are almost too many elephants. Not in the sense that they are dangerous or a nuisance, because they aren’t either, but with so many encounters taking place, particularly along the river, it can make it very difficult to track down other desirable creatures to see, simply because your game drive is filled with spending time with animals of the large grey variety. I feel very guilty if I have to drive past a herd of elephants without spending at least a few minutes with them.
While the lions sleep and the leopards skulk through the thickets, the elephants are bound to be doing something entertaining, although I hesitate to use that word. The herds are regular passers-by in front of the Londolozi camps, and it has been on many occasions in the past few weeks that I have wandered down to the deck to be greeted by a throng of people along the railing, all looking down onto a peaceful scene of elephants feeding below them.
Wait, watch, listen. Spend time with them and don’t just look, actually see. What are the elephants doing? How are they doing it? Why are they doing it? The subtle nuances in the behaviour of individuals in a herd can reveal a lot about the dynamics and relationships between them. The more I spend time with them the more I find myself comparing their behaviour to ours.
At Londolozi we are very fortunate in that we regularly have close encounters with the wildlife, but no encounter is more meaningful than a close one with an elephant. Lions will walk past the vehicle and stare up at you as they go. A giraffe might gaze blankly in your direction. But only with elephants, when you look them in the eye, do you know – not suspect – know, that something is going on behind there. While you are working them out, they are doing the same. Do they have souls? The eye is meant to be the window to it, after all…
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell, Londolozi Photographer