Elephants in Africa
And, a, Hup-2-3-4
You’re heading off on a game drive and have drawn up a checklist of the wildlife you would most like to view – but right on top is the world’s largest mammal*, the African Elephant. Read on to get clued up on facts and figures related to this characterful favourite from the Jungle Bush, as well as how not to miss seeing it on your exciting safari trip.
Chobe National Park, Botswana; Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa; Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe; Etosha National Park, Namibia; and the Kruger National Park, South Africa. These are the top five parks in which elephants are prolific. In fact, did you know that in combination these countries – Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia – house two-thirds of Africa’s elephants?
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), as many as 10 million wild elephants roamed the African continent in the 1930s. However, decades of poaching and conflict with rural farmers have seen populations drop to the just 415 000 herd members that are known to roam across Africa today.
Habitat and behaviour
The African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta Africana) is found in dense forest, on open and closed savanna grassland, and in arid desert regions. The smaller African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta Cyclotis) is mainly found in the rainforests of Central Africa. Contrary to popular belief, elephants mainly flap their ears to cool themselves and chase off insects; not when they feel under threat. When this is the case, mock charging includes bush-bashing, dust-throwing, trumpeting and other vocalisations, where the ears will be spread. In the case of a serious charge, which usually only happens after all attempts to intimidate a potential threat have failed, the elephant will pin back its ears and lower its trunk. Beware!
Feeding and memory
It’s heavy work on the consumption front for an elephant – they consume up to 280kg of grass, shoots and bark per day and drink up to 200l of water. In fact, drinking all that water plus wading in it and going for mud baths are favourite pastimes of the elephant. Its sensitive trunk, with those finger-like appendages at the tip, is of great value to the elephant as it can pick the smallest twig or shoot; even remove a thorn from its foot. The tusks, which help them to obtain food, are also used for fighting – mainly among males.
The extreme intelligence of these creatures, each with their own unique characters, has brought about the saying “an elephant never forgets”. In fact, their incredible memories serve as a critical survival mechanism, according to a recent GPS tracking study undertaken in Etosha National Park. The study reveals that in this challenging environment, elephants are consistently able to pinpoint the closest waterhole and begin moving purposely towards it – over distances as vast as 50km – when the urge to drink sets in.
Female family groups are often visited by mature males, from a bachelor herd, seeking females in oestrus. Cows are attentive parents who produce one offspring every three to four years, following a 22-month gestation period. Calves are born weighing a hefty 100kg and remain in the maternal herd for mainy years after suckling for up to 24 months; these herds are normally lead by an old female and include cows, calves and young offspring.
Threats and conservation
Key threats to elephant numbers, identified by the WWF, include being poached for ivory; habitat loss and fragmentation due to human population expansion and land conversion; and human-elephant conflict.
A recent article in Science Mag reports that elephant poaching has fortunately declined in great measure from the peak it reached in 2011. While we are not out of the risk zone yet, the percentage of elephants falling victim to poaching has declined over the past eight years from 10% to 4% – in large part due to declining demand for ivory in China and active conservation measures by African governments aiming to protect the species.
Interestingly, the best way in which to ensure the long-term sustainability of conservation initiatives has been to ensure that the communities living in close proximity to the elephant herds derive a benefit from their presence – such as employment within tourism or game ranging, where the animals are both highly valued and serve to boost the rural economy.
What To Expect
Game viewing in the Kruger National Park is best during the dry winter months but, if you find yourself in the vicinity during the wet summer season, you’re sure to experience brimming waterholes, lush bushveld, newborn calves and migrant birds. When it comes to Namibia’s Etosha National Park, the dry winter months of May to October are also best for game sightings; but in the rainy season from November to April, the Park is transformed from a terrain that’s dry and dusty-white into a verdant paradise where wetland birds and flamingos are rife.
Of course, there’s more to your game-viewing experience than simply the season in which you happen to visit. When it comes to safety, only closed vehicles are permitted in most areas of the Kruger National Park – you’ll have to be staying within a high-end Private Game reserve to be able to travel in an open vehicle, to track game on foot or view game from horse-back. The difference is that in the private reserves, expert drivers and trackers will accompany you on each and every excursion – meaning you are both more likely to see the game that appeals to you and that your safety will be assured in this more open setting.
Your accommodation options range, of course, from high-end luxury in a fully-catered five-star private lodge to self-catering for the budget conscious. Be sure to make any queries re diet and children before you book! And do your research about the park in which you’re going to be based, because each has its own unique perks and special features.
We wish you a fabulous game-viewing experience.
*Fast fact about Elephants in Africa:
Elephants can weigh as much as seven tonnes and reach heights at the shoulder of up to 3.3m.