HI, and welcome to my blog! I am a field guide in a private game reserve in South Africa and below you will find stories and pictures of my amazing job!

May 4, 2012

Size Does Matter

          Anyone who has spent any significant time with me the bush over the years should know that although I love the intricacies of the natural world, one animal stands out from that plethora of diversity.  If I had my way, I could happily conduct a three hour game drive with only the company of the elephant.  No other animal that graces this planet carries with it such a presence and such a range of emotions.  It is a humbling experience to be a silent observer as these huge animals glide softly though the bush carrying out their daily activities.  The cats of course carry with them a huge appeal.  We are all drawn to the their predatory nature and thrill of seeing nature’s most basic needs being fulfilled but their habitual narcolepsy often disappoints.  Elephants however never fail to entertain.  Their huge diversity of behaviour and interaction among their groups is always engrossing.

This bull simply refuses to move as we round the corner and find him blocking our path

          A few days ago I was privy to watching once such drama unfold which, from an ethological point of view, was a goldmine for monitoring the behavior of these gentle giants.  The saga unfolded as we approached a dry riverbed that snakes its way through Sabi Sabi’s reserve.  Dust bathing in the sand, against a backdrop of a magnificent granite boulder and its sycamore fig companion, was a small group of elephants, but more were emerging from around the bend in the road.  Standing a good metre above the largest female however, was a huge bull.  His sunken temple and impressive size suggested he was well over 30 and in his prime.  Although not in musth (his reproductive state) yet, his involvement suggested the presence of a cow in estrus; and soon enough, we watched him investigate a substantial pool of urine.  He pressed the tip of his trunk to the urine and proceeded to blow the scent particles into his mouth, or more, specifically on to his vomeronasal organ located in his palate.  This organ allows him to analyze the scent and evaluate the reproductive status of the provider.

The herd continues to emerge from the bush before descending into the river bed

          During his investigations the herd passed him by and melted into the bush with the minimum of fuss expected from these surprisingly soft footed giants.  However, as is usual in the social structure of elephants, soon the younger males appeared on the scene.  These teenagers are beginning to spend more and more time away form the core of the herd as they slowly develop their more solitary tendencies.  This slow process usually involves them travelling behind the rest of the herd, spending larger periods of time away from the group until gaining independence between 16-18 years of age. 

          However, they did not expect to find a 6 ton roadblock in their path.  One by one they came around the corner and found their way blocked by the superior specimen.  Rather like a motorway pile up they almost bumped into each other as the tailback increased, with no one bold enough to ask the obstruction to move.  In a passive display of dominance, the larger bull simply stood his ground as if inviting anyone brave enough to push past him.  He made no aggressive actions towards the uncertain teenagers but his presence was enough to deter them.  Having no other way around him due to a sand bank, an alternative was needed.  The younger males evaluated their surroundings for a time, milling around awkwardly, until one young male had a brainwave.

Ungainly but ingenuitive...

A successful dismount
           Elephants are not designed to tackle steep slopes but with no other options, the most resourceful individual opted for a more adrenalin fueled approach. Cautiously he approached the sand bank and maneuvered himself into position so that he could slide down it in the prone position.  We watched with amazement as the highly entertaining spectacle unfolded and soon, one by one, the younger bulls cascaded after the first.  It was reminiscent of a group of children faced with the perils of a slide for the first time and we could almost see their self satisfaction with having come through their ordeal unscathed.  We could not help but smile with delight at the comedy and I even felt a strange sense of pride at their ingenuity.

This young bull decides to up the ante and try a longer slide

A caravan of elephants slide down the bank into the riverbed

          One young male however was unwilling to attempt the intimidating looking sand slide and chose to try and slip past the road block.  In a wonderful exchange, the larger male seemingly challenged him to a test of strength to earn his passage.  Again, with no visible aggression, the mismatched pair locked tusks as the underdog tried in vain to remove his nemesis.  We could almost hear the bull chuckling to himself at the plucky challenger.  After a few minutes of this unmatched scrummaging, the clear winner merely stepped aside and allowed the youngster right of passage.  Fueled but he surely felt was a victory, he then approached us and gave us a show of bravado, just in case we didn’t see his mighty scalp, before trotting off in search of his friends to no doubt boast of his success!

The larger bull humours the youngster in a game of push and shove 

After proving his point, the dominant bull allows the tenager to pass

          The whole episode lasted for about half and hour and what made it even more special was the fact that it was a private performance for just us.  It was a truly intimate experience to witness such a range of behavior at such close range.  I felt like I had gone through the whole experience with the animals.  They are such emotive creatures, often chastised for their destructive abilities, but the complexities and intricacies of their social interactions can offer us great parallels into to our own dynamics.  My job as a guide is to interpret behavior to guests but in this instance, I think we all left the sighting with our own stories and memories of an enthralling encounter; and who am I to influence or corrupt a person’s most precious gift: their imagination.