“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.