I have been thinking about elephants after last week’s post that mentioned the two pairs of elephant tusks framing the South African national Coat of Arms. In this national emblem elephants are seen to symbolise “wisdom, strength, moderation and eternity”, and by coincidence today is World Elephant Day.

So this post serves to pay tribute to elephants and to our African elephants (Loxodonta africana) in particular. It is salutary to remember that by the end of the 19th century, elephants had been exterminated from most of their former ranges across South Africa, due to the insatiable demands of the international ivory trade as well as the conversion of their ranges to agricultural lands and other developments. However, the establishment of conservation areas in several regions enabled elephants not only to survive but for populations in these parks to increase over time.

Sadly, in current times threats to the survival of both African and Asian elephants not only remain but in many respects are intensifying.

An elephant photographed in 2006 at Tembe Elephant Park, which is on the border between KwaZulu-Natal and Mozambique. While driving slowly we rounded a sharp bend in the road and stopped when we unexpectedly came alongside this elephant who calmly continued munching on grasses despite our proximity

When I was growing up in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1960s and 1970s conservation areas in the province were still devoid of elephants, with the exception perhaps of a small region on the border with Mozambique. However, since then elephants have been reintroduced into some of the more major conservation areas such as the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park where they were reintroduced in 1981. (For an interesting summary see https://www.iccs.org.uk/blog/hluhluwe-imfolozi-park-elephants-wild-story-their-introduction-4-year-olds-35-years-family.)

This young elephant was part of a small herd that we saw walking through a grove of tamboti trees in the Imfolozi section of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in 2019

Being watched by an elephant with a very gentle demeanour in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park

It was only in my twenties on trips to conservation areas in the Savuti and Chobe areas of Botswana that I first started learning about elephants and observing their behaviour and body language, albeit within the limited framework of camping trips of only a few weeks’ duration.

Two elephants drinking in the late afternoon at a small pan on the edge of the Savuti plain in the Chobe National Park in Botswana in 2005

Over the years, we have learnt a lot and our respect and affection for elephants continues to grow. To learn more, I can highly recommend a wonderful resource, which was launched earlier this year under the auspices of Elephant Voices, a research, conservation and advocacy initiative based on the sharing of knowledge that was co-founded by renowned elephant scientist Joyce Poole.

The resource, the Elephant Ethogram, enables anyone to search through a rich database of photographs, acoustic collections and video footage that document elephant behaviour and communication in remarkable detail. Not only is it a unique resource for scientists but it is a user-friendly and informative source for anyone interested in learning more about elephants and their social behaviour.

Who could fail to be enchanted by the sight of a baby elephant and the protective care it enjoys from the older elephants in its family group? This photo was taken at Spekboom water hole in the Addo Elephant National Park in 2016

Another baby elephant sheltering in the protective forest of legs and trunks that surround it

Young elephants enjoying uninhibited play in the indulgent company of other elephants near a water hole also at the Addo Elephant National Park

In contrast to the playfulness of the youngsters is the quiet intensity of these adult elephants gathered together while drinking at a small waterhole at Addo

The World Elephant Day website provides information about events scheduled around this day and includes also a comprehensive and useful list of associated elephant conservation and welfare organisations (https://worldelephantday.org/friends-of-world-elephant-day), suggestions on how to help elephants  and a variety of news items.

The sense of connection and friendship between these elephants is palpable

Following this tribute to elephants, the focus of next week’s post will be elephant communication, highlighting some of what is known about elephant vocalisations and seismic vibrations, which are all extremely fascinating.

This young elephant at Addo was playing on his own while his mother and other adult elephants were browsing nearby. There is something so touchingly vulnerable about him as is true for all babies – animal and human

Related sources and websites:

Elephant Voices. https://elephantvoices.org/studies-a-projects/the-elephant-ethogram.html

Kuiper, Timothy R., Druce, Dave J, & Druce, Hellen C. 2018. Demography and social dynamics of an African elephant population 35 years after reintroduction as juveniles. Journal of Applied Ecology, 55 (6), 2898-2907. https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2664.13199

Sanbi: Animal of the Week, African Elephants. https://www.sanbi.org/animal-of-the-week/african-elephant/

World Elephant Day. https://worldelephantday.org/how-to-help-elephants

Posted by Carol