Reflections, Thoughts and Opinions From Africa.
|I have to agree with Paul Eulard’s sentiment. I have loved elephants my entire life; for so long that I cannot remember exactly when it started. Perhaps it was Jean de Brunhoff’s “Barbar” books; I am sure Mum read those books to us at bedtime. The young “Me” loved elephants so much my maternal grandmother knitted me a splendid elephant wearing a red shirt with a blue tie and trousers for a birthday present. I called him Henry. He was my favourite childhood toy, and I still have him today, almost fifty years later.
I recently spent three days at Kavinga Safari Lodge in Mana Pools National Park, in the north of Zimbabwe on the Zambezi River. I last went there two years ago, when the five lodges were still being constructed, so a visit was long overdue. I also haven’t seen a wild elephant since November last year… I was experiencing some serious withdrawal symptoms!
Kavinga has an incredible hide built at the foot of the cliffs below the lodges. Once inside the hide, guests can watch animals at the waterhole. For photographers, it’s a wonderful place to capture amazing images of animals being… animals. Shortly after we arrived my sister in law Heather and hurried down into the hide, where we remained for three hours. We were entertained by guinea fowl, impala, warthog, baboons, emerald spotted doves… and elephants.
It is hard to describe how I feel when I see an elephant. There’s the overwhelming sense of awe at seeing the world’s largest land animal – how does an animal weighing six tonnes (13,000 lbs) manage to move so silently? Watching them interact with each other is humbling – they are considerate of and kind to each other. There were several very young babies with the herd drinking at the waterhole, playing between the adults’ legs underneath those massive bodies – the adults never stand on the babies! Listening to them breathing and rumbling… watching them drinking and throwing water over themselves and sometimes at each other… puts life into perspective.
One thing I did realise during this trip is that elephants have a sense of humour. One baby pushed another one over the edge of the waterhole, before climbing on top of the submerged baby! Not that there was any furious retaliation; submerged baby scrambled to its feet in the water and rolled over onto the protagonist! The adults simply continued bathing, watching their babies… being babies.
Our room was overlooking the waterhole, and I woke up at 3 am to considerable splashing and grunting. I hurried onto the balcony – it was a full moon, so I did not need the spotlight. The camp’s resident hippo had moved into the water hole, his dark shape clearly visible in the moonlight. A lone saddlebill stork was fishing close to the hippo. As I watched an adult elephant moved silently into the moonlight – she’d been drinking from the pipe that fills the waterhole. Elephants love clean water; despite the fact that there are still pools of water in the Ruckomechi River close to the lodges, elephants prefer to dig “boreholes” and kneel down to drink the water filtered clean through the sand.
The elephant was tuskless, and she was followed by a tiny baby, hurrying to keep up with Mom. It is unusual to see one adult with her baby; most of the time I’ve seen them they are in family groups with several aunts, cousins and siblings. We’d seen a huge black maned lion strolling across the sand shortly after we arrived, and a hyena taking an evening walk down the road into the camp when we returned from sundowners in the riverbed. A tiny elephant with one adult has little defence against a predator such as a lion, hyena or leopard – there are three leopards at Kavinga.
The mother elephant stopped, and her little one bumped into her back legs, before scrambling around to stand next to her. They paused for a moment, before continuing their walk away from the waterhole and over the sand towards the grassy area next to the riverbed. I’m not ashamed to admit a lump came into my throat as I watched them walking. So many thoughts flooded my mind: the baby elephants ripped away from their mothers at Hwange to be sent to a veritable prison in a Chinese zoo for the rest of their lives… poachers taking advantage of the full moon to slaughter elephants and rhinos… terror that I was going to hear a lion or hyena attack the baby…
I’m not ashamed to admit I sat down on that balcony and cried. As the couple disappeared from view, I prayed they would be safe. I hoped there were a few more family members waiting for them. The bond between a mother and her calf is one that lasts for many years; female elephants stay with their mothers and other relatives for their entire lives. Knowing she is the largest land species on the planet didn’t stop my tears – poachers and trophy hunters have reduced the numbers of African elephants from almost three million in 1930 to just over 500,000 today. She has no defence against a poacher’s snare or bullet.
Thankfully, that was the only sadness I experienced during the trip. I am certain the melancholia was enhanced by the time. Not for nothing is 3 am known as “the Witching Hour”, “midnight of the Soul” and “The Devil’s Hour”… it’s that time of night when our souls are supposedly at their weakest. Anyone who has ever awoken at 3 am probably knows how anything troubling seems overwhelming, not matter how small or trivial.
I didn’t see another lone mother and baby elephant for the rest of our stay at Kavinga. We did see several herds of elephants, with a number of tuskless adults. I hope and pray my 3 am sighting is part of a close-knit and protective family.
Save the elephants, and then you save the forest. And then you save yourself.
Mark Shand, British Writer