Humans have so much to learn from the Elephants. They are highly intelligent and have excellent memories. They are wise and gentle giants with a very strong matriarchal family structure. They have been observed visiting the remains of their ancestors, processing quietly through the old bones, touching them gently with the tips of their trunks. Desert Elephants, such as those in Etosha, survive by eating moisture-laden vegetation growing in ephemeral riverbeds. They can go several days without water. In all the time we observed them in Etosha, they shared the waterholes with antelopes, giraffes, zebras, jackals, birds. None of the smaller animals or birds seemed afraid of the Elephants despite their massive size. We watched the Elephants vigilantly guard their young who are always surrounded by adult females as you will see in the following photos and movies.
In the earlier years, there was no trace of Elephants in the Etosha area. Between 1850-1880 ivory hunters almost wiped out the whole population of elephants in Namibia. During the 20th century, it was humans who forced Elephants to retreat to Etosha. In 1952 there were 50 to 60 Elephants in the Park. Today there are up to 2500! In the course of their grazing, elephants tear down trees and uproot things. In a setting which is natural for elephants these activities are helpful to the environment, but enclosed in a space which is too small for them, the environment has no opportunity to regenerate itself. If you hear people talking about how “destructive” elephants are, bear in mind that it is humans who have forced them into a place which is too small for them. They cannot migrate out of the Park and have nowhere to turn. So any “elephant caused destruction” of the environment can be attributed to the massive destruction of natural habitat which humans have wrought upon the planet. See R. Friederich’s Etosha: Hai//om Heartland mentioned in the first of my posts about Etosha.
Look at the difference in their faces. They bathe themselves in sand in order to protect themselves from the harsh sun. It is the sand which gives them a silvery appearance. Ask yourself, as we did, why are they so beautiful?
The youngsters learn all they need to know from their family members: mothers, aunts, sisters and brothers. As males reach puberty, however, they soon leave their family herds and join other males to continue learning proper adult behavior from older and more dominant bulls. A younger one sometimes accompanies an older bull and is called an “askari”. Females usually remain in their family herds, which are led by a “matriarch,”Matriarchs are usually the largest and oldest female, the one with the richest store of knowledge about water, food resources, escape routes and hiding places in their range area.
Females usually produce their first offspring around 10-12 years of age, after a 22-month gestation period. Calves depend on their mother’s milk until the age of two, but most will suckle until the birth of the next calf, usually at 3-4 years. In the desert population calves as old as 6 years may still be suckling.
Elephants use infrasound to communicate over long distances. It turns out that sound at the lowest frequencies of elephant rumbles has remarkable properties – it can pass through forests and grasslands. Adult males and females live separately from one another, moving unpredictably over a great territory (although limited in Etosha Park). They have no fixed breeding season and females, given the long gestation period – two years – before birth and years of nursing their young, are only ready to mate only a few days every four or five years. Yet males from all around appear for the occasion. It is thought that”rumbles” of infrasound” must help draw the males. There have been numbers of events documented when elephants seem to communicate across miles to other elephants. Humans cannot hear these sounds; they are below our range of hearing.
This last movie shows what I call a Slow Dance, watch how, as the Silver Giants leave, the giraffes criss-cross gracefully next to the stationery ostrich, the still point, so to speak. And the giraffe looks directly out at us at the conclusion of the “performance.”
In this final photo of my post, the Elephant says goodbye with a dance step of his own.
In my next Etosha post, you will see LIONS! and a few other of the Meat Eaters in the Park. Stay Tuned!