We keep pretty detailed records of the leopards and lions of Londolozi. Those who are regular followers of our social media sites will know of the various territorial individuals whose stories define our day-to-day activities in the bush, and whose lives we can’t help but feel enmeshed in.
Elephants, on the other hand, take on a far more generic quality, in that we love to spend time with them, but for many people, an elephant is an elephant is an elephant… They are viewed more as a species rather than as a distinct set of individuals. Occasionally we will have a mighty tusker wander in who hangs around for a few days, and we recognise the crooked-tusked old cow who is known to be irascible and is avoided by the rangers, but for the most part, elephant herds are part of a greater organic whole, and not singled out.
There is, however, a special female who has become known to us – and probably to many others throughout the Sabi Sands – who will often be heard before she is seen.
I have been confused on a number of occasions by a gurgling sigh close at hand that I just can’t place. A sort of liquid rumble, almost mechanical in its regularity, that has had had entire vehicles of people -ranger, tracker and guests – scratching their heads and not knowing what to make of it. It has turned out to be the same elephant every time, one with rather an unusual trunk, which affects her breathing, resulting in the noises we hear. It is unusual in that a significant portion of it is simply not there!
Exactly what happened to her trunk we are not sure. Possibly she had it caught in some wire when she was young, a crocodile might have grabbed it when she was drinking at a waterhole.. it is hard to say. What we do know is that it takes a remarkably resilient creature to be able to adequately cope with such a handicap.
An elephant’s trunk is an incredibly important part of its anatomy. Imagine having your hands and nose combined into one amazingly versatile organ. Elephant trunks can pick up tiny pebbles or huge logs and most things in between. They use them to snap off branches, pluck leaves delicately, manipulate food in their mouths, throw dust and mud on themselves to keep cool, and all manner of other day-to-day actions that are integral to their normal functioning.
On the elephant cow in question, by far the most useful part of the trunk – the lower third, has effectively been removed. The healing of tissue over the new trunk-end has gone a long way to sealing off the nasal cavities through which to breath or suck up water, yet thankfully enough of an aperture remains for the cow to suck up enough to sustain her.
Whereas elephants with a fully functional trunk fill it with water, place the tip into their mouths and then squirt the water into their throats, the cow in question is forced to squirt water into her mouth from a distance. The healed-over wound only allows for a thin stream of water to be squirted at a time, making drinking a far more laborious affair. She is unable to grab small objects, as other elephants are with the two nubbins at the trunk tip, she cannot grab enough sand or mud for temperature regulation, and is hampered in the great majority of actions she would normally undertake.
Despite the obvious lack of functionality in her trunk, the cow is surviving, and although most likely frustrated with the impediment she is forced to live with, is still healthy.
The last time I saw her she had a calf with her. The calf, although thin, was also seemingly healthy. A slightly thinner-than-normal calf with this female obviously raises the question of whether or not the milk she is producing is as nutritious as a normal cow’s milk. If she is unable to maintain an adequate food intake, she will most likely not have the extra energy required to provide adequate milk for the calf, potentially jeopardising its longevity.
I don’t know the answers to these questions. All I know is that a lot more of them are begged by this situation.
What I do know is I will keep looking – and listening – out for this cow. And I will hope I am wrong about the milk situation, and that when I next see her, she will have a healthy, rotund little calf by her side.