Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Elephants


Most people seeking some up close and personal wildlife viewing in the area of the world where Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia come together at a single point are there to see African elephants. After all, the area within and around the Chobe National Park in northeast Botswana serves as the habitat for about 25% of the planet's population of these animals. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the global African elephant population is about 470,000. The Botswana Department of Wildlife and Parks claims 120,000 of them live within the vicinity of the Chobe National Park. In late August of this year, I made my own trip to that part of the planet to see what I could find.

Despite the numbers in our favor, which I knew pretty well ahead of setting out for Africa, I was hoping I'd see at least one elephant. Just one. That's all I needed. It was for sure keeping my expectations low so I thought I wouldn't be disappointed, similar to me hoping to see at least one bison in Yellowstone National Park four years ago and at least one alligator when I visited Florida's Everglades National Park last year. In Yellowstone we saw tons and tons of bison, and alligators were all over the place in the Everglades. I really hoped my low expectations bar would be greatly exceeded this time too.

It was. No surprise there. We saw our first elephant crossing the Zambezi on a sunset cruise on our second day on the continent and we couldn't have been more excited. Now, I know these animals are big, bigger in fact than any other land animal today, but it walked through the river as if the current wasn't even there. I wasn't prepared to see that kind of strength in an act so simple as walking. These things are really really powerful.

Our sightings didn't stop there. The next day we were sitting at our lunch table on the houseboat that we called home for the middle two nights of our trip and happened to look towards the bow and saw what to us seemed like an astonishing number of elephants. They stretched as far as our eyes could see. It was like that scene in Jurassic Park when Alan Grant first sees the dinosaurs that have been recreated by the park's scientists. There were herds upon herds of animals. And this was the start of the really good part of our trip.


From our lunchtime look forward to the last morning game drive we took in the Chobe National Park, we saw lots and lots of elephants everywhere. We saw them in the water, in the bush and on the grassy islands that appear in the middle of the Chobe River during the dry months. We saw them from big boats, small boats, trucks, the front porch of our tent at the Elephant Valley Lodge and our dinner table at that same property. We watched them walk, swim, eat, drink, growl at each other, squabble, give themselves dust baths, flap their ears and protect and nurture each other. We learned more about elephants in our six days in Africa just from watching and listening to them that I could have ever imagined.

I like to think that I've seen a lot of elephants in zoos in my life and that I would know a thing or two about them, but there's nothing like sitting on a 15 or so foot boat with the motor killed floating just off shore near a herd of elephants to make you pay attention to detail like you never have before. It's so quiet on the river and these animals are so accepting of our presence (while also being wary of us) so you can get super close and look and listen.

We spent about 20 minutes on our first day on the Chobe River watching a herd eat. They methodically pulled the grass out of the Earth, gently but firmly shook all the soil from the roots and then ate. And repeated. Over and over again. The next day we spent about the same amount of time watching and listening to an enormous group drink from the river just before sunset. All the elephants large and small did the same thing (although the smallest were admittedly learning), slurping water up their trunks and then opening their mouths and squirting the water from their trunks down their throats. It was amazing to hear all that in the calm of the late afternoon.


We got lucky on the timing with our family of drinking elephants. We pulled up just as they made their way to the riverbank and stayed until they retreated into the bush. My use of the word family is not an accident. These elephants arrived and left as a unit following the matriarch as a herd. In fact, every herd of elephants we saw go anywhere traveled as a group. Sometimes there would be a lone male along the riverside seeming to protect the herd's flank (in fact I think that's exactly what it was doing) but for sure all the elephants we saw traveled in families.

And just like families, the dynamic within the herd was fascinating, especially around the watering hole near our last stop in Botswana at dinner under the illumination of a floodlight attached to a tree. We were there two nights and, judging by the distinctive tusks of a couple of the bulls, saw the same animals both nights. They visited our watering hole to drink the fresh water from the underground water line the Lodge had installed and to eat the seed pods of the nearby camel thorn trees which elephants apparently love.

Each night the drama played out the same way. The dominant bull and the babies generally received preferential spots at the water before the male moved on to pinch as many of the seedpods as possible, just picking up one after another and popping them in his mouth. Next up were the female elephants who were allowed to drink under the watchful eye of the bull. Each herd we watched had several younger males and every so often they would receive warning growls from deep in the belly of the bull or if they got really too cheeky they would get a nudge, poke or shove. Some of these seemed like legitimate tests of authority and some challenges were punished. Most of the discipline came not through violence but through what appeared to us to be a self imposed "time out" from the challenger, usually turning his back on the herd and remaining there stationary for a few minutes before turning and re-joining the herd. I could have stayed up all night to watch this sort of show if it weren't for the 5:30 a.m. game drive the next morning.


Finally, since I mentioned zoos earlier in this post, I can't finish my story of Africa without an appeal that surely won't be heeded anytime soon. From the first time we saw a herd of elephants moving deliberately but swiftly over the grassland in Namibia to the moment we watched the final departure of a herd at the watering hole, two things were obvious to me about elephants that will not allow me to ever enjoy seeing these animals in captivity again.

First, it seems to me that it is impossible to capture enough land in a zoo or small park to ever duplicate an elephant's natural environment, let alone a whole herd. Without sitting there and watching, you can't imagine how much territory these animals cover in a short period of time. They need vast tracts of open grassland to move through, not small pens or enclosures of an acre or two or four or slightly more. They need thousands of acres. Like miles and miles and miles of land to walk.

Second, most zoos I have visited have two or maybe three elephants. If you get lucky, perhaps there's a baby. And who doesn't like baby elephants? But a family of elephants this will never be. Elephant herds are complex societies and the individual members each play a role in the herd's dynamic. I can't remember any group of elephants we saw that was smaller than 12 or 15 animals and I can't imagine seeing a couple or three in captivity without feeling sadness for the animals. I wouldn't want to be forcibly removed from my family, why do we continue to do this to these creatures?

I get that zoos have played important roles in allowing people to see different species of animals from all over the world and some have been critically important in protecting species that would otherwise be extinct. But there is absolutely no reason on Earth from what I can see that African elephants need to be confined anywhere in the world. There are thousands of them roaming free in Botswana and that's where they really belong. Only in these open spaces in complex family groups can they really be free. I know it's incredibly selfish for me to write these words since I was lucky enough to travel all the way to Africa to see them in person, but after spending four plus days in and around these creatures I can't imagine them anywhere else. I feel so privileged to have been able to see them and I hope I will again.


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