We are surrounded!
This moment is what can only be described as incredible. This is the experience that completes a game drive. We are surrounded by a herd of elephants. Every where we look there’s another elephant ranging in size from tiny to giant. One elephant wonders past the vehicle, so close you could reach out and stroke her.
The only issue is that we are unfortunately trapped once again.
These elephants could do substantial damage to our vehicle and to us if we spook them. African elephants are the largest terrestrial animals weighing up to 6 tonnes and have a shoulder height of 3.6 metres.
Social hierarchy is really important to African elephants as it can affect when a cow can reproduce. Herds are normally comprised of a matriarch (large female), other subordinate females, young males and calves. Adult males (Bulls) are often solitary and will roam the bush by themselves. Elephant societies are considered to be one of the most complex among animals, beside humans, with the family unit the located core of this social network. Families will form bonds with extended clans and ultimately entire populations with individuals recognizing the calls of up to 14 different families (comprising of hundreds of individuals). Elephants will stay in constant contact with group members by admitting low frequency calls (rumbles). This maintains cohesion, defines territory and alerts other groups to their presence, basically functioning as a real time Facebook status.
Bulls are usually exiled from the herd once they enter musth which is basically elephant puberty and occurs around the age of 13. Musth is a state of temporary aggression, which a male African elephant will enter once they are sexually mature. In this state bulls will roam in search of females that are in estrous, fighting other bulls along the way.
The importance of Tusks
Elephant tusks are solid and consist of ivory or dentin covered in a sheath of dental cementum. The tusks of an elephant continue to grow throughout its lifetime and can can weigh up to 35kg. The size of the elephants tusk determine the status of the cow in the matriarchy. A tuskless cow will have the lowest status in the hierarchical order which often means they fail to enter into their reproductive cycle. As a result of the ivory trade and the killing off of elephants with large tusks this is altering the genome of the African elephant creating a genetic drift towards tusklessness. This means that more and more elephants are being born without tusks, ultimately this could lead to changes in social behaviour such as group dynamics or could severely reduce reproductive rates. An elephants gestation period lasts 18 months with a single calve being produced this means that any reduction in reproduction could severally impact elephant populations.
One of the issues that must be taken in consideration when constructing a reserve such as the Pilanesberg is that elephants follow ancient routes that are passed down for generations. As such if the fence of the park crosses these routes it can impact elephant navigation. Experienced Matriarchs will carry generations of knowledge passing it on to her calf which is most likely to be the future matriarch. These knowledge can include 40-50 years of experience, allowing elephants to recall remote locations and then find these locations across considerable distances. In order to store this memory and keep their gigantic body moving elephants have a huge brain (4-5 times larger than humans) and must consume a lot of food to power it.
Elephants produce strong behavioral and vocal reactions to life and death. Elephants will secrete from their temporal glands, urinate, swing their trunk accompanied by rumbles, trumpets and screams. When confronted with death, such as finding a deceased family member, the elephant will emit low moaning sounds (inaudible to humans). Elephant will call loudly after a member of the group has mated, a response called mating-pandemonium. Alarm calls are also used by elephants for different threats which will alter the response of the receiving elephants. Elephants brought into captivity after facing traumatic experiences have been shown to shed tears. However it is unknown whether this is linked to internal distress.The social nature of elephants means that they are highly sensitive to emotive signals from other elephants as well as other species, including humans. So, be nice to elephants, they have feelings too!
These gentle giants are a reminder of the wonderful diversity of mammals there are in African and how important it is that we ensure that future generations can experience their beauty.
The herd passes and we are free to continue our journey, alas the bush is starting to heat up and we must make the trip back to your various resorts. This was only a snapshot of the amazing and interesting species you can find in the african bushveld. I hope you enjoyed your first drive game and thank you for being a part of an amazing journey through the breathtaking South African bush!
Relive the journey: The Journey Begins
- Ivory Harvesting Pressure on the Genome of the African Elephant: A Phenotypic Shift to Tusklessness
- Elephant Sense and Sensibility