October 8, 2014

Let sleeping elephants lie

Camp visitors from animals are not uncommon put perhaps none bring more joy and wonderment than visit from the local elephant herd.  During last week’s EcoQuest course, our impressive pachyderms returned.  As we sat by the fireplace in the early afternoon, digesting another hearty lunch prepared by our chef Loraine, the reeds in front of us started to rustle.  Emerging from tangles came 1, then 2 and ultimately 20 something elephants.  This time they chose to avoid the camp itself and instead busied themselves with some bush clearing on the banks of the Karongwe River.  Their departure was as silent as their arrival as the soft sand absorbed their massive footsteps as they drifted past like a mirage in the desert. 

We managed to find them a little later that afternoon, still feeding on the reeds and plethora of arboreal delights found in the river bed.  As we returned to camp 3 hours later however, we were met by a panicked Loraine telling us to be careful as the 2 bulls that had caused so much chaos a month ago had returned to the scene of their carnage.  1 bull stood meters from the viewing deck, systematically dismantling a large sandpaper raison, and the other found something of interest behind the kitchen.  The students watched in delight as they relaxed nature allowed us to view them by lantern-light a mere 10 meters away as we scuttled around camp preparing the evening’s feast.  At no point did they show any aggression towards us and their massive shadows melted in and out of view for the next hour or so. 

 Thankfully they did not cause much damage this time round and the only evidence of their visit were a scattering of broken branches, tell-tale giant impressions in the sand and their characteristic bowling ball sized calling cards!  Why these 2 individuals make a point of swinging past us each time they are in the area remains a mystery but their passive nature makes me think that they genuinely enjoy passing through.  Almost like catching up with old friends.  They obviously feel comfortable here and perhaps they recognise kindred spirits in the staff and students alike?!  Whatever the reason for their visits, I hope they know that they are always welcome and we look forward to their return.

The next morning we bumped in to them again, this time in a most unusual way.  The participants of the current EcoQuest course are seasoned travellers, having been born and raised in Zimbabwe, and with a wealth of bush experience in multiple African countries.  What greeted us when we rounded the corner was something that they had not seen before. In a clearing under a large tree, a few of the older animals stood close by swaying gently, as a tree limb would in a light breeze, as they dozed in an upright position.  Beneath their feet the rest of the herd lay prostrate on the ground.  It was a comical scene as the air was filed with the sound of gentle snores and the occasional ripple of escaping gas as they succumbed to their relaxation!  They had found the perfect way to spend the late morning as the Sun increased it intensity and the whole scene had a very calming and relaxing effect, almost like the hypnotic appeal of a lava lamp!

After a few minutes, one of the older females began to systematically nudge the youngsters with her trunk and emitted a low rumble.  Nap-time, it seemed, was over.  The teenagers grumbled and groaned as their slumber was disturbed but dutifully struggled to their feet as the matriarch slowly led her family onward to fuel their never-ending search for food.  They marched up the road for a few hundred meters, before disappearing from view by the shroud of the dense riverine vegetation. 

It was a wonderful sighting that showed the gentle side of these impressive beasts.  So often they are portrayed in a destructive manner but they are some of the most emotive and tender of the species that inhabit the continent of Africa.  To see them strewn across the ground was rare, but the way in which the adults raised the youngsters will stay with me and the students forever.   To see an animal with such destructive capabilities being so tender was an eye-opener. We as humans have a tendency to judge a book by its cover but we must learn to look deeper.  In that one moment, I almost felt embarrassed that we pigeon-hole these great architects of the land as lumbering giants when actually, if one stares into the depths of those dark, honey-coloured eyes, there is so much that we do not understand or appreciate.  Nature’s diversity in colour, form, sound and behaviour goes beyond the understanding of even the greatest minds of our species, and it is only by submerging ourselves in their lives that we can gain an inkling of understanding about their complexities.  No textbook truly knows the answer and it is up to us, as individuals, to formulate our own opinions of this magnificent gentle giant of the African savanna. 
Photos and blog by Ben Coley

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