The whole process of wondering what an animal is thinking or why it is doing something is fascinating. The speculation and debate it involves can keep one absorbed for hours.
Yet every now and again one comes across a sighting which is absolutely clear. Well, as clear as it can be.
Elephants, being the intelligent beasts that they are, with a complicated communication system that includes tactile, olfactory and vocal components (among others), are generally the easiest to read. I use the term “easiest” lightly, as it does take some time to really understand their behaviour. In some situations things aren’t quite clear-cut, but in others they are as obvious as ever. If an elephant cow takes exception to you being too close to her calf, believe me you’ll understand her perfectly!
In general, it’s the elephant bulls around Londolozi that represent the more sedate side of elephant life. While the herds may be full of action as squealing calves run back and forth and their mothers try to control them, the solitary or bachelor groups of bulls usually take things more slowly; feeding at their own leisure and occasionally following breeding herds of females if they scent an oestrus cow.
We recently ran into three bulls that showed us a very different side of their behaviour, and it seemed clear to all of us who were there that the elephants were simply having fun.
The trio were of varying sizes; one particularly large one and two considerably smaller. One of the smaller two looked barely old enough to have left his natal herd.
What had caused the start of their interactions we don’t know, but we happened upon these bulls just as they started playing around with each other, much like unruly teenagers.
Pushing and shoving and jostling, they would wrap trunks and knock tusks, two at a time, then all three together, then they would break to feed and then go at it again.
Not once did things get out of hand or did any of the bulls really try to throw his weight around. It seemed to be all in good sport.
What we found interesting was that the bulls seemed to want to keep things fairly even, in that it never seemed to be the really large bull going up against the smallest one, but only little vs middle one or middle-sized vs big. They trio also totally ignored us while we sat quietly in the Land Rover, and just continued with their antics as if we weren’t even there.
To see elephant bulls fight properly can be quite a scary thing. Six tons a side throwing themselves at each other can result in shattered tusks and occasionally death for one of the combatants.
We were lucky enough to see a far gentler side to them. The mismatched weight divisions between the three meant that no serious contest was ever going to take place, at least not for a a few years until the smaller ones caught up size-wise, so we were able to enjoy a beautiful half hour with these magnificent creatures without the anxiety of a proper fight.