I’m a strong believer in providing the mind enough solace in order for it to operate at its most efficient and effective. Luckily for us here at Londolozi, there are ample places to do just this. Recently my guests and I decided to wake up a little earlier than normal and hike up one of the beautiful koppies (the colloquial name for a rocky outcrop) in the northern stretches of our reserve so we could watch the sunrise.
It was a particularly cold and misty morning but this added to the allure as we all sat atop the koppie waiting patiently, coffee in hand, for the day to start. Just as the sun peeked its head over the horizon, I looked around at the group and could see how everyone was totally engulfed by the experience.
A beautiful vista lay before us where, for as far as we could see, is an area totally devoted to wildlife. We sat thinking of all the leopards that had possibly made a kill that evening and hoisted their prize up a tree, or the hippos making their way back to the refuge of their waterhole, or the dominant male lions roaring to advertise their territory. What is it about watching other animal species go about their daily activities that we find so enthralling to witness?
An evolutionary biologist named Edward O. Wilson hypothesised that,
“Humans have an urge to affiliate with other forms of life.”
The fundamentals of this hypothesis are that humans are genetically predisposed to be attracted to nature and that through this connection with nature we are actually healthier and happier. The hypothesis was coined as the Biophilia Hypothesis where biophilia is the human bond with other species. This got me thinking about all the different moments I’ve had while viewing animals and the ability they have given me to reconnect not only with nature but with myself. It’s that feeling of coming back from a game drive and not being able to wipe the smile off of your face because you’ve just witnessed something so natural, wild, and free. Of all the animals the species I can affiliate with more than any other is elephants.
Elephants, in my opinion, are the most sentient of the animals we see in the bush. They are the only animals apart from apes and dolphins that have passed the mirror self-recognition test which proves a certain level of intelligence. Elephant brains have a relatively large hippocampus compared to primates. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that plays a major role in learning and memory. If you look at the life of an elephant, they go through their first few years as a calf following their mothers very closely and almost adopting a strategy of imitation to learn from their mothers. It takes them some time to master the use of their trunks and even longer to learn and remember where all the best places are for food and water at different times of the year.
A sentient being is one with the faculty of sensation and the power to perceive, reason and think.
Further to this, there are well-documented cases of elephants helping other members of their herd that have disabilities. There is a story of an elephant cow that lost her sight well into her thirties and this led to her mostly bringing up the rear of the herd. On wind-still days she would be found ears out and giving out a rumble while waiting for the rest of the herd to answer back so she knew which way to go. On more challenging days her daughter would be found hanging back with her to make sure that she didn’t lose her way from the herd.
Another example of this is of an elephant with a birth defect on her trunk, which essentially prevents her from being able to suck up water into her trunk. She is a fully grown adult cow and manages to drink with the help of the other elephants in her herd who actually pull up water and pour it into her mouth. These are learned skills for exceptional cases that only go to show that elephants have enhanced intelligence and capabilities of learning skills that require some level of problem-solving.
Elephants are known to exhibit concern for deceased individuals and this was one of the most unique sightings that I have witnessed while out in the bush. Recently a group of guests and I came across an old elephant bull that was smelling, picking up, and moving an old elephant cow’s skull. It was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever experienced. Often as a ranger in moments like this, we will suggest to our guests to keep quiet, watch and experience what is in front of them. On this occasion, I needn’t have even asked for silence. It was as if we could feel the emotion of the elephant as he continued for half an hour to smell all sides of the skull before slowly shifting the skull to smell a different side of it. The bonds between different individuals of a herd that have taken years to form are based on the foundation that each elephant is valued, and is valuable, and the recognition of the deceased is in essence paying respect to these bonds.
It’s moments like these with elephants that leave me humbled and in awe of the magnitude of the experiences that nature is able to provide. The deep connection we are able to feel with such a sentient being allows me to understand why the Biophilia Hypothesis was proposed and why there are so many of us that keep returning to wild places to look for moments of reconnection to nature. I would be intrigued to know…what are your favourite places of solace in the wilderness?