There are elephants aplenty as we move into mid November!
As you may recall in previous installments, much was said about the movement of elephants in search of water during the dry winter season. And while I would not say we are out of the drought, the rains we’ve had have brought much relief to the thousands of wild creatures that have long awaited a reprieve.
Leaves, flowers, and grass are growing. Migratory birds, water fowl and insects are flying about the reserve. And with them are our majestic, graceful, giants of Mashatu. It is typical to find elephants on the move just before the rain season arrives, and it appears this year is no exception. Last month elephant sightings were clearly on the rise. These seasonal movements are brought about by early response of plants to the extended hours of daylight. Moving beyond the equinox, daylight and heat stimulate some tree species to flush leaves earlier than most. Perceptive elephants take note and begin the move in preparation of greater quantity and quality forage. This month however, all the elephants seem to have started the move up to the central portion of the reserve to enjoy the summer season. Family groups have merged to form larger herds. One of my recent experiences in the bush exemplifies the merger of smaller bond groups into larger herds.
Sitting in the early morning Mopane veld, a cool breeze drifted lightly across the red basalt cobbles of undulating terrain. Here a bond group of more than 40 elephants stood about, foraging in small family groups of two to four. The air smelled of sweetness and the coming heat of the day. At just 7 o’clock several mothers were already selecting their shady areas in which to feed. I observed one mother with her young boy nearing 3 years, but still lacking tusks. They were assembled around a low lying “purple-pod cluster leaf” bush as she demonstrated techniques to remove branches with the leverage between trunk, tusk and foot. The two year-old calf did well to imitate her actions as he attempted bending, stepping, and kicking at branches, but was not nearly as skilled as his mother. The use of tusks and size are both quite an advantage for food collection. She removed large branches close to the ground. She then ate these from the base, and left smaller twig ends for her boy to collect where he stood beneath her head in her shadow of protection. The scene continued with demonstrations and imitation, including several independent successes for the calf.
After several minutes rumbles were heard, suggesting that group movement was imminent. The calf moved to his mother’s side as a very large and more dominant female, without any young at her side, approached their feeding site. The mother and calf moved away and began to walk east, stopping briefly to nurse. They crossed an opening before me, pausing to give my presence some consideration, and then moved on to the shady patch of a tall Mopane tree. The rest of the group soon followed, and after some time all but one small group had passed by me, walking southeast along the dry tributary.
I was wondering how long the last group would stay before joining the rest of the herd, when in the distance came another larger herd. This group numbered close to fifty. The elephants followed the path, some stopping to smell plants where others had just been nibbling. They did not stay as long, but also stopped to forage on the open basalt plane before travelling down the gently sloping dry riverbed. Their progress and proximity along the same path shows an association between the two herds, and as resources become more available, it is likely they will spend time together as one large herd.
It was a lovely morning with roughly 100 elephants all passing before me on their journey toward Mashatu Main Camp, as I sat recording data and enjoying their presence. By ten o’clock several more individual bulls and a few younger bachelor groups had also trailed behind. I had the information recorded on my data sheets and was certain that the entire group had passed. With the real heat of the day just around the corner, I packed up to head back to camp.
Back at Main Camp I found a different group had arrived at the waterhole for a refreshing break from the heat, and to apply a few layers of water and mud to their thick pachyderm skin. Covering their skin not only reduces sun exposure; it also provides an insulating, long-lasting cooling affect as temperatures begin to climb. Elephants lined the waters edge, drinking the freshest water they could source, while across the way juveniles lay submerged in the water with only a trunk and bottom above the surface! Lounging and playing with younger calves, before being scooted over to make more space for others to join. It was just a fantastic sight to see little one-year old calves and their newly weaned siblings enjoying a moment’s play and fun. It was quite a treat to see the herd spend over an hour at the waterhole as three large groups moved through.
I hope you enjoy these photos, and I look forward to next time as we move further into summer. Hopefully the elephant numbers and anticipated rainfall continue to build.
So much to be thankful for, best wishes.
Mashatu Elephant Research Project
*We are pleased to announce the return of our well-received Ivory Drives – game drives with a special focus on elephant conservation research, that provide guests with an opportunity to tour parts of Northern Tuli Game Reserve while spending time in close proximity to wild elephants in their natural habitat. The lead elephant ecology researcher on site guides the tour, offering information on recent elephant activity, sociability, ecology and research techniques; as well as local history in the context of elephant conservation dynamics related to southern Africa and the greater continent.