Posted on Monday, 8 December 2014
This may sound like an odd title to a blog, but it’s true, this is something of a love story and about how we have reached a deeper understanding and appreciation for elephants over the last two years. I have been spending at least two months every year in the bush since I first met Chris in 2000. Being in the bush is now what I call my “soul time” and has become a huge part of my life. I always feel like I have arrived home no matter where in the bush I am.
One of the best parts about going on a bush trip is to hand over my phone and laptop to our office to take care of and head into the “real world” of no phone, internet, tv or shopping malls… Give me dust, heat, a tiny tent and a complete immersion into wildlife and I am at my happiest.
I have to admit that I do have my favourite animals, as everyone does, with wild dogs, a beautiful lioness and the full of character honey badger topping my list. Elephants were never really of a great interest and I must confess that we never really spent that much time watching them, thinking them to just lazily stand around eating and drinking all day.
However, two years ago whilst on a two week stay in Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe I came to know a very small adult female elephant who we have now named “Mrs Stumpy Tail”. This little elephant is part of a herd of four. The matriarch seems to be old with a very sunken head making her easy to identify. There are also two juveniles which we presume to be each adult’s calf. Mrs Stumpy Tail as her name suggests, is missing about two thirds of her tail, most likely due to a lion when she was still a calf.
And so begins the love story…
We began to notice every day between 11am and 1pm the little herd would pass through our camp on the Zambezi and stop to feast on the Apple-ring Acacia seed pods that littered the ground.
There are no fences in Mana Pools and you can walk on foot in the bush with the wildlife here. As such we found ourselves becoming bolder and bolder with their daily visits. It got to the point where we had to be home by 11am every day in case we miss Mrs Stumpy Tail coming through camp. By the end of our stay we were standing within 5 meters of her. At all times they were completely relaxed and comfortable in our presence, and each time we would be left in total awe of being so close to these amazingly gentle animals.
The interactions with Mrs Stumpy Tail inspired Chris and I to spend time in Kaokaland, Namibia in October last year to search for the rare and illusive desert elephants.
A tiny population of between 120 and 150 localised desert elephants exist in this harsh desert habitat with limited water sources. We were lucky enough to find them and had an unforgettable afternoon with a family of four. We climbed up one of the koppies looking over a desert plain and sat and watched them for a couple of hours as they fed below us, completely unaware of our presence. We eventually watched them walk across a magnificent desert valley and in the fading evening light we watched transfixed as an adult bull was illuminated as he headed into the desolate mountainous terrain behind the valley.
Spending long hours with the elephants was giving us a completely new appreciation as we watched their interactions and listened to the different communicative sounds between them, my favourite being a very deep and low rumble.
Elephants also communicate via infra-sound. This is a low frequency sound inaudible to humans. There is also recently discovered evidence that they can pick up the vibrations in the ground caused by approaching elephants who are miles away, and are even able to detect whether they know that elephant or not.
Chris said to me, “This must be where the culled elephants in the ‘80’s were processed”.
I now love spending time at a waterhole watching elephants quench their thirst. My favourite place is Halali waterhole at night in Etosha National Park, Namibia. We have had up to 150 elephant coming down to drink between 9pm and midnight. Young teenage elephants can be seen having plain old good fun as they mock charge each other and annoy the adults. At other times adults will angrily trumpet at younger elephants who out of turn try to sneak a quick sly drink from the incoming water flow pipe. We have even seen a baby elephant so small and young it didn’t know how to use its trunk yet as it uncertainly tried to take mouthfuls of water while lying in the water. But my ultimate highlight is to watch the “unheard” command from the matriarch that drinking time is over and that its time to move on. There is no protest from the herd and just as silently and in line as they arrived, they likewise depart as obedient to their wise matriarch as ever.
This October, two years on from our last Mana Pools visit, we were returning and both Chris and I had perhaps an unrealistic hope that we would see Mrs Stumpy Tail and her herd again. For this reason we booked the same camp hoping that she would still be passing through.
We arrived at our camp at about 10.30am and on our approach our mouths dropped and our hearts soared when we spotted the tell-tale short, stump tail of a very small adult elephant walking in front of us with her three other herd members. Unbelievable! Two years later and our favourite elephant was one of the first elephant we came across in Mana Pools. It was truly a happy and emotional moment for Chris and I.
Over the next twelve days she came through our camp on ten days, always between 11am and 1pm, eating the apple-ring acacia seed pods before crossing the river to Zambia, exactly the same routine as before! We also had her come through at about midnight one night. We were awoken by silently soft footfalls and quiet munching of the leaves in the tree under which we were camping. As we lay listening to the elephants a dark shape moved across the opening of our tent, the stumpy tail silhouetted across the muggy night sky in the Zambezi Valley. In our groggy, sleepy state Chris and I turned to each other and quietly mumbled, “Mrs Stumpy Tail…” before happily falling back asleep.
As I sit writing this blog we are at a brand new camp in Etosha National Park called “Olifantsrus”, meaning “Elephant’s Rest”. It has only been open for three weeks and we just found out about it a few days ago. It is located in the west of the Park which has recently become open to tourists. We thus jumped at the chance to camp here and see a new side of the Park. On our arrival we found the beautiful camp to be built around a large, ugly concrete block with a huge tall gantry in the middle. Chris said to me, “This must be where the culled elephants in the ‘80’s were processed”. Both our hearts sank, why on earth would we want to spend time at a place like this? It felt completely wrong.
Our fears were confirmed when the extremely friendly manager greeted us and told us the history of the site.
A friend of ours, Mark Paxton, was a game ranger and head warden at Halali camp in the 1980’s. Whilst spending time with him at his own camp, Shamvura, in the Caprivi Strip some years ago he not only regaled us with stories of his hand reared white-backed vulture but he also alluded to the grisly job of the Etosha elephant cull in 1983 and 1985. Etosha was hit by a severe drought in the early 1980’s and at the same time there was an influx of “elephant immigration” into Etosha due to populations from further north in Damaraland and Kaokaland seeking refuge from severe poaching in these areas. With the vegetation loss due to the drought and the increased population of elephant, wildlife management became incredibly worried about the threat to the biodiversity of the Park. The elephants were destroying too much vegetation and the other browsing and grazing herbivore populations were thought to be in trouble. The difficult decision was taken to cull a certain percentage of the elephant population. Mark said little about the traumatic job that had to be done and stopped the story short after mentioning how he still wakes up in a cold sweat recalling in a nightmare that truly awful time in his life.
This all came home to us as we set up camp and wandered over to the new information centre. The camp doesn’t hide from its dark past and the very informative centre explains why the cull was undertaken; the very specific way in which the herds were selected and deposed of to cause the least amount of trauma to the herd possible, and also how every part of every elephant was used for one purpose or another, nothing went to waste. Information centres are normally pretty straight forward and factual but whoever put this together has written the info in a heartfelt and emotional manner. It explains how management at the time felt this was their only option for the wellbeing of the Park, but that now day’s wildlife management has grown forward so much that the cull of elephants will never again take place in Etosha.
The camp that has now been built around the elephant abattoir is beautiful and a tribute to these magnificently special animals. It is now a little refuge for people to come here to admire and appreciate the elephants and the other wildlife they co-exist with. A very impressive and tastefully designed hide at the camp waterhole has been built and I for one cannot wait to spend a few hours there tonight sitting in wait for these gentle giants.
I guess at the heart of this story is how by just spending time with any animal, bird, shark or even fish you can only but learn to appreciate how special and important any animal is. The more time you spend out there the more opportunity you give yourself to see interesting behaviour and even in just a few days you can start to learn the individual characters of animals, and this can only install understanding and passion.
As for me, I feel sure this will be a love story that will keep writing itself for the rest of my life!