“It is not possible for a free man to catch a glimpse of the great elephant herds roaming the vast spaces of Africa, without taking an oath to do whatever is necessary to preserve forever this living splendour.” Romain Gary, Roots of Heaven, 1958
Etosha's Extraordinary Elephants
Photography & article by
Nadya of OcelotEyes
- PART TWO -
If you have not read part one- click HERE
We treasured all the sightings of wildlife that we got to see, but our favourites were, of course, the elephants!
We got pretty good at tracking and timing them – that is, driving along until we spot fresh elephant dung (it's hard to miss!) or trees that had fresh branches torn off – these signs meant that elephants were here recently and might still be nearby. People say the mopane trees are an elephant's favourite food – but we actually saw them eating these scraggly, thorny bushes! I can't imagine how many branches of these are needed to feed even one elephant, but we saw them breaking and happily munching away on these...
Once we spotted the elephants in the distance, we tried to estimate which direction they might be going in – from a waterhole, or toward one? Depending on the time of day (elephants seem to like to drink around lunch-time), we planned our elephant sightings. For example, the 5 bull elephants that we saw at 9am heading in the direction of a waterhole, meant that at the average elephant speed, allowing for stops for browsing on thorny bushes and standing around as they tend to do, they'd make it to the waterhole right on around 12 noon. That would give us 3 hours to drive around, then come back to the waterhole – and sure enough, there were our 5 elephants, right on schedule, drinking, mud-bathing, play-fighting, and having a good time!
There are waterholes in the park that are “famous” for being favoured by certain types of wildlife, and soon we found our favourite waterhole – between thorny bushland on one side and grassland on the other. 12 enormous bull elephants seemed to enjoy this spot, as did a pride of lions that lived very close by. So while we were watching the elephants, we kept glancing back to see what the lions were up to! This way we got some fantastic elephant photographs, and were in the right place to witness a lion hunt in the afternoon.
Elephants are social animals, and in this video taken by my father, you can see how the male elephants that were already at the waterhole, the “silver elephants”, greeted two other elephants that came from another area of the park with different-coloured mud. Observing the elephant interactions was amazing!
(Also note the ele-sensor attached to a collar on the first silver elephant's head – could this be a tracking device, or a sensor to study their communication? We saw another one of these devices on a herd matriarch.)
While at this same waterhole on a different day, we were incredibly lucky to see an entire herd of elephants suddenly appear from the bushes – about 40 or 50 at once, all mothers and babies! The 12 bulls were already there, and it was absolutely fascinating to watch them all interact. Unlike the two solitary males in the above video, the herd of females joined the males without any particular greeting ceremony, and it seemed to me like they all knew each other.
In elephant society, mothers and other females raise the babies together, until any males become teenagers and are “kicked out” of the female herd at around 16 years of age to go on their own or join loosely organised herds of bull elephants. The 12 bulls seemed to be such a herd, and it could be possible that if the female herd normally stays nearby, some of them could either be the grown sons of the female herd, or the fathers of many of the babies.
Either way, we sat there for hours just watching these elephants. I wish I could speak “elephant language” to understand them - but they are such intelligent animals, so close to us, I could just imagine the younger females giggling amongst themselves as they saw the big bulls play-fighting and showing off, the mothers watching over their babies as they played in the mud and chased each other, the old elephants smiling to see the antics of the little ones.
I think that part of the human fascination with elephants, is because we see so many qualities in them that we can admire and aspire to. They are extraordinary animals – they are kind, compassionate, loving creatures, gentle unless provoked. They are intelligent, long-lived and complex. They are wise and beautiful.
Want to learn more about elephants ?
Some Elephant facts:
A hilarious and true look at Namibia in general:
Elephant communication studies and more: