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Trip Reports

Zimbabwe Trip: Part 2

written by Monique Fallows

Elephants in Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

Posted on Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Mana Pools Elephants

If a magnificently beautiful area and wild dogs are not enough of an attraction to Mana Pools, the possibility of walking and spending time with fairly habituated wild elephants must surely make you want to visit this special area one day.

From our previous visits we have gotten to know and spend time with a number of individual elephants. Mrs Stumpy Tail and her small family gave us many special encounters as they walked through our camp (An Elephant Love Story), but unfortunately we did not find her this year. I don’t think anything happened to them and I am rather hoping that this time round they were just making use of another area.

Another elephant we know well is Boswell, the very calm bull that is not only famous for his demeanour but also his large size and ability to stand on his two back legs in order to browse higher into the trees than any other elephant. Due to his size he is one of the dominant bulls in Mana Pools, but this is also a curse and worryingly makes him vulnerable not only to poachers but hunters too. Shortly before we arrived in Mana Pools, Boswell had spent some time in the hunting area of the Zambezi Valley but thankfully had made his way safely back across to the National Park area.

Elephants are highly intelligent sentient and social beings and a chance to spend time with them on foot in close but safe proximity is truly special.

Much respect must always be afforded to elephants but particularly to female elephants that have young or even teenage calves. For this reason we choose to spend more time with Boswell and his askaris (other bull elephants that accompany him) rather than tempting fate with the females!

Boswell also pulls off an amazing feeding trick and the resultant social behaviour around him is fascinating and hard to pass up experiencing.

 

The Boswell Circus

If you have read my previous blogs on our Mana Pools visit you will have heard me describe the most interesting way in which Boswell stands on his back legs.

As the dry season reaches its peak in Mana Pools tree foliage is browsed higher and higher making competition for food steep. Boswell has learnt to obtain maximum height by standing on his back legs and reaching high up with his trunk. There is also a bull elephant named “The Hyrax” who climbs the front of a tree trunk in order to gain the added height advantage. We’ve never been able to see him do this but we have seen him climbing an anthill which was equally bizarre!

Although we spent more time with Boswell on this trip than previously, we didn’t see him do his “trick” quite as much. But the time spent with him allowed us to observe very interesting social behaviour. It was also extremely peaceful and tranquil just sitting watching him under the beautiful canopy of trees or down on the floodplain.

 

 

Because Boswell is able to reach leaves and branches that other elephants are not able to he has an entourage that follows him around. These hangers-on are hoping to prosper from his hauls and as we found out, some are welcome and others not.  When Boswell brings down a particularly big branch, a loud crack echoing through the bush will be the calling card for other elephants to come, and sometimes they come running!

Very subtle body language takes place on a constant basis. Sometimes you have to really be looking for it to be aware that it’s even happening. This can vary from a slight body posture to the left or right; a tiny flick of a trunk or a low grumble. Other times it’s not as subtle and can be as obvious as Boswell pushing an unwanted guest with his back leg. The groupies are very patient and try very hard to steal the spoils. This often leads to comical scenes of a large elephant standing stock still with just the tiniest part of its trunk inching towards a reachable branch on the ground. If it’s successful it will normally grab the branch and run off from the others so that it can eat in peace and without politics.

Another interesting observation is that Boswell certainly seemed to favour some elephants over others. We would often see him with a much smaller bull with short tusks that could come in and take any branch it wanted at will. Boswell was also often accompanied by a beautiful bull with curved tusks and the two would browse peacefully together. The Hyrax on the other hand always seemed to be an outcast and would have to stand on its own, almost as if he was placed in the corner for bad behaviour.

On another occasion Boswell had brought down a large fig tree trunk and the resultant noise had bull elephants coming in from everywhere. This time no one was allowed to share until a mother and calf came storming in. Boswell must have been an admirer as she and her calf were allowed to pick off leaves at will. Some very interesting social interactions indeed!

 

 

Elephants are highly intelligent sentient and social beings and a chance to spend time with them on foot in close but safe proximity is truly special.

Affection vs Dominance

We also witnessed other interesting behaviour that did not revolve around feeding and were purely one on one socialisation.

One morning we were watching Boswell with 5 other bulls. I became very interested in 2 big bulls that were standing a little away from the herd. These 2 had pressed their foreheads together and had each wrapped their trunks around the other elephant’s ear. (Quite difficult to explain, I hope you can get a visual picture). They stood like this for quite a few minutes as they smelt and gently touched each other. There was no doubt in my mind that they were showing pure affection for one another.

In a completely different situation we found Boswell out on the floodplain with the small bull and the peaceful friend. The 3 of them were drinking calming as The Hyrax approached Boswell. The two of them immediately squared up, foreheads touching. This time round they had their tusks pushing just below each of their “cheeks” and trunks were up against each other. Once they got into position they both began to push, trunks always trying to extend higher.

Boswell seemed to gain the advantage and moved The Hyrax just a tiny bit backwards, and this saw the end of the encounter with Boswell victorious.

 

 

I wouldn’t say from my visual point of view that the two elephants were overly aggressive to each other but there definitely existed that same kind of subtle undercurrent of “stuff” going on as when other elephants are trying to steal Boswell’s cache of leaves and branches.

 

Poaching in the Zambezi Valley

I know I am preaching to the choir by letting you all know how severe the elephant poaching problem in Africa is. Huge losses are taking place in Tanzania and Kenya and unfortunately the trouble is now moving into Southern Africa.

In the Zambezi Valley alone 3 elephants per day are being lost to poachers. I mention this because if you are interested in helping, there are some very passionate people from Mana Pools that have set up an initiative and are in need of aid.

Members of Zimbabwe National Parks have good intentions but do not have government support to fight the increasing problem. The Zambezi Elephant Fund has been set up to fight poaching on a private basis and with very little resource, they are making a difference.

It is very rare for me to advocate any direct funding to any conservation organisation but in this case I really urge to you to please read about the Fund. https://www.zambezielephantfund.org/

It would be one of the saddest days of my life if an elephant like Boswell was to be tragically lost. Boswell happens to be an elephant we know, but all other elephants are individuals and have something special. They all have an important place on our planet.

 

 

The People of Zimbabwe

There are so many other wildlife events I could write about that I could only hand pick a few extra special ones. However, I can’t sign off before making mention of the Zimbabwean people who were equally a highlight of our trip.

Zimbabwe is in a very difficult place in terms of politics and as such many of the places we visited have not been maintained or upgraded. This however, has not stopped the pride and warmth we saw in people from all walks of life.

 

Tags:

Elephants, Mana Pools National Park - Zimbabwe, Wildlife

Comments

Cherry Clark

Thank you for your wonderful account of your time in Zimbabwe, Monique! You make it all so immediate and vivid, and your lucky readers can almost see and hear what you describe. Always a thrill to read about your adventures. Thanks for the info and links about wild dogs. I must admit that they did not interest me particularly before reading your blog, but what amazing, lovely creatures they are. Impossible not to love them once you know about their social and emotional lives. So interesting to find out about the baboons' total lack of defensive skills when under attack. I can't imagine how horrible it would have been to witness -- horrible enough just to read about it, and even so will have a hard time clearing images from my head. A real puzzle this bit of nature, the apparently heartless killing of other beings by predators who are also capable of great caring for each other. Too bad we humans haven't figured that out about ourselves, this need to kill, especially when it is not about our survival. Love the elephant stories, as well, especially about one standing stock still except for the tiniest bit of trunk creeping towards a tasty snack!! It would be the thrill of a lifetime to spend time so close to the elephants at Mana Pools. The limited exposure we had at Amkhala in the Cape was still special, and I was so surprised by how softly elephants are able to tread on their big spongy feet. One fellow (my special friend Norman) even seemed to be dancing towards on us with a smile on his face on our closest encounter. Looking forward to hearing about your trip to Antarctica, and I know your parents can't wait to hear about your adventures. Hope you have a wonderful Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

Posted on: 16 December 2015

Monique Fallows

Hi Cherry Thanks for letting us know how much you enjoyed hearing about our Zim adventures. It is certainly rare witness predators being so successful (as in the wild dog/baboon interaction) but there is no doubt that after a few days the baboons would have wizened up and become more prepared. For this reason wild dogs tend to hunt an area only for a few days at a time, and then move into a different area of their territory (where they haven’t been for a while) in order to predate on other unsuspecting prey. Monique

Posted on: 29 December 2015

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