Their majestic presence, sensitive nature and loving family bonds leave an indelible impression on nature lovers. On 12 August we celebrate World Elephant Day to help conserve these wild treasures. By Gaynor Siljeur
What would the world be without the grey giants wandering about the bush? Whether you’re watching the antics of elephants spraying mud or a baby sheltering under its mother’s belly, you’ll always remember an elephant encounter.
To pay tribute to our elephants, here are some stunning photos and interesting facts about these majestic giants.
A BIG appetite
How much do you think an ellie eats? The biggest land animal on Earth can weigh up to 6,000kg (males) and consume as much as a whopping 300kg per day. Ellies do not have a refined palate and will eat any plant material they can find. Some favourites include grass, branches, bark, roots of trees and fruit. This must explain the 100kg of dung they produce per day.
For an elephant it is also crucial to have access to water at all times. These lumbering giants can drink up to 160 litres of water daily.
Mama knows best
Elephants live in small family groups, each of them led by an older cow – the matriarch. These small groups will include the mother, her offspring and perhaps also related cows with their young ones. Various small family groups come together to form a larger herd, frequently gathering at waterholes. Although this big herd can appear to be one collective tribe, the smaller groups within the herd still have their identity and the matriarch will eventually lead her group off on their own.
“Oh, what big ears you have”
Unlike the cartoon character Dumbo, elephants don’t use their big ears to fly, but they are not without purpose. To withstand the African heat, the elephant uses its large, flappy ears to bring cooling relief to its huge body. Ellies’ dark, thick skin has no sweat glands and in addition to standing in the shade and taking mud and dust baths, they rely on their ears to cool down. The thin skin of their large ears is richly supplied with blood vessels that dilate in hot weather. By flapping their ears, cooling air passes over the veins and helps keep their body temperature in check.
The memory of an elephant
It is a common perception that an elephant has an incredible memory. Given its long lifespan, it’s difficult to compare an ellie’s memory with those of other animals. Elephants can live up to 70 years of age, which necessitates a good memory. These animals may have to travel long distances and the African continent’s extreme weather can be unkind if you can’t remember where to find food and water.
Let sleeping ellies lie
You don’t always need to panic when you see an elephant lying down on its side. The animal could just be resting. Elephants lie down to sleep soundly for a couple of hours per night or to take a breather from the hot sun for an hour or two during the day. Some of them will be in such a deep sleep that you can hear them snoring and vocalising while dreaming. For a light snooze, they can be seen dozing lightly while on their feet.
Elephants are often called the gentle giants of the bush – but best stay out of the way when you come across an elephant bull in musth. What is musth? It’s a periodic state of dominance in bull elephants that can lead to unpredictable behaviour and increased aggression. To spot when an elephant is in musth, look out for a swollen temporal gland, a swaggering gait and a profuse streaming of oily fluid down the cheek to the chin.
Where are South Africa’s ellies?
Addo Elephant National Park is the third largest national park in South Africa and is home to about 600 elephants. In some places it has the highest elephant concentrations in Africa. This is a vast transformation from the mere 11 elephants protected by the proclamation of the park in 1931.
With an estimated population of 17,000 elephants, the Kruger National Park is a great place for ellie viewing. KwaZulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is another popular destination, with some 700 elephants calling it home. Other Wild Parks with ellies include Hlane, Ithala, Marakele and Mapungubwe.
Earlier this year sightings of a lone female elephant in the Knysna Forest (once famous for ellies) were confirmed when SANParks captured images of the ellie on a camera trap. There was also an elephant spotted in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in 2015 – the first elephant sighting in 18 years.
Learn about ellies
On your next trip to Kruger, be sure to visit Letaba Elephant Hall. Here you will learn everything about elephants, from behaviour and biology to the research conducted into these gentle giants. Best of all, entrance to the museum is free! You can also visit the Interpretive Centre in Addo Elephant National Park for answers to your ellie questions.
World Elephant Day is celebrated on 12 August and was launched to bring the world’s attention to the declining numbers of African and Asian elephants. You can express your support and speak out on behalf of this majestic creature of the bush.
About the photographer:
Darryl Kukard is a freelance photographer who currently resides in Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape. “It was my first time camping in Addo and it was a great experience. I am looking forward to my next visit,” he says.
Darryl used a Canon 70D for all the pictures