On 12 August every year we celebrate World Elephant Day to help conserve and protect these great mammals. Wild chatted to elephant expert Dr Yolanda Pretorius to find out why these animals should be treasured.

Elephants are very close to the heart of Dr Yolanda Pretorius from the Centre for Wildlife Management at the University of Pretoria. She serves on the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group of South Africa and earlier this year was instrumental in the safe return to Botswana of two elephant bulls that had trekked into Limpopo.

In celebration of World Elephant Day, Wild asked Dr Pretorius about these grey giants.

Why are elephants considered a keystone species?

They are drivers of ecological processes. Simply put, this means they can significantly change the structure and composition of vegetation in a landscape – for example, when they browse on trees. This in turn can affect the other species found in the area.

What would you say are the three most astounding facts about the African elephant?

  • They advertise their emotional and reproductive status visibly through temporal gland secretion. Bulls in musth have a telltale secretion running down the side of the head.
  • They have a complex social structure, with the matriarch at the core. This makes it possible for information to be carried across from generation to generation through a long period of learning.
  • They have an extensive communication system, including long distance communication using infrasound and seismic vibrations.

Elephants exhibit human traits such as empathy, self-awareness and social intelligence. What does this mean for the way we treat elephants?

Because we recognise many of our human traits in elephants, we cannot ignore their social and psychological needs. So when we have to manage elephants due to space limitations we cannot simply work with numbers. We also need to look at management techniques that would minimise trauma and cause the least disruption within herds and bull hierarchies.

Worldwide elephant numbers are on the decrease due to poaching, habitat loss and human-elephant conflict. What should be done to counteract these threats?

We need to be pro-active and prepare for the worst case scenario. Elephant poaching has not hit South Africa yet because of our security measures. Although fences can be a curse, it can also be a blessing in disguise because we are able to control human access to our reserves. However, fencing in an animal that evolved to migrate has its own challenges and we need to learn how to simulate natural processes under unnatural conditions in order to meet all the elephant’s requirements.

Your most memorable encounter with an elephant?

I have had many wonderful encounters with elephants, but one that stands out from the rest was an encounter with a herd of elephants in the greater Kruger on a moonlit night. There were no other vehicles and after spotting the elephants in the road 100 metres ahead of me, I switched off the car and just soaked in their presence.

After about five minutes the whole herd moved closer to my vehicle whilst socialising and playing in the road. A huge tusker in full musth appeared out of nowhere, moving straight towards my car. However, one of the females stepped in between and pushed him away from the vehicle. All the cows then started ‘singing’ the oestrous song, after which the bull mounted and mated with a female in the road right in front of me.

For a brief moment it felt like I was part of the herd and that I presented no threat to any of the elephants. This is what I believe all of us should be aiming for when viewing elephants: to have our presence not affect the natural behaviour of these magnificent giants.

About World Elephant Day

August 12 is dedicated to bringing the world together to help elephants. As a nature lover, ensure you experience elephants in non-exploitive and sustainable environments. On World Elephant Day, express your concern, share your knowledge and support solutions for the better care of captive and wild elephants alike.

Wild fan Thomas Stauch from Germany took the featured pictures of elephants taking a bath in the Kruger National Park at the N’watindlopfu water hole close to the H1-2 road.