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Mashatu is home to no less than seven of Africa’s “giants” – the African elephant, the lion, giraffe, the baobab tree, the eland, ostrich and the kori bustard. It is therefore fitting that these giants have a massive habitat, and some 29 000 hectares (72 000 acres) of pristine game land have been set aside as a refuge for these creatures.
Africa’s largest mammals are by nature family orientated animals and may be found in herds of between 10 and 50, or more. The bulls usually have larger tusks than their female counterparts and a more rounded forehead to the cow’s angular one. The elephant’s tusks are in fact modified incisor teeth that are used as ‘weapons’ as well as an aid to procuring certain foodstuffs, like tree bark and roots for example. Another distinguishing characteristic of the elephant is its large ears which serve as a display function as well as to help to cool the animal down. The large number of blood capillaries in the ears cool down the blood as the ears are flapped. The elephant also has a long trunk which it uses to drink and to feed. There are over 55 000 muscles in an elephant’s trunk, making it an extremely sensitive, prehensile and dexterous aid to the elephants’ survival. An elephant’s trunk can hold up to 15 liters of water. It uses its trunk to locate food by touch and smell, as an elephant cannot see down its trunk. If an elephant loses the use of its trunk, in most instances it will die. At Mashatu there have been instances where elephants have survived with ‘stump trunks’ because these highly intelligent creatures will assist feed those in the herd with such disabilities.
The lion is Africa’s largest cat. Lions are nocturnal and therefore most active at night, when it is cooler. They are highly social animals and are found in small prides of up to twenty individuals. A pride consists of related females and their cubs and they reside in a home range or territory. The males are nomads and gain custody of a pride through competition with other males. The mane of the lion is used as protection and to give an impression of increased proportions. Sometimes male lions will form a coalition; two or more males will group together to defend a pride. Hunting is done communally, often using driving and ambushing techniques.
Africa’s tallest mammals are gregarious animals with a keen sense of smell, hearing and sight. They move at speeds of up to 50 km/h. Both the male and female of the species have horns and their tongues can reach up to 45 cm in length. Giraffes have blotchy yellow and black or brown coats and each has a pattern unique to the individual.
Females and their young live in maternal herds, while males separate from their mothers in about their third year, initially joining a bachelor herd, before gradually becoming solitary as they mature.
Like the elephant in the animal kingdom, the massive baobab tree easily eclipses its fellow species in age and longevity. It can grow up to 25 meters tall, and is known to live for several thousand years. The baobab is leafless for up to nine months of the year; the leaves are about 12 cm long and have three to seven glossy leaflets. It produces 12 – 18 cm flowers with five white petals and numerous purplish stamens. There is a delightful Bushmen legend concerning the origin of the baobab – in the beginning seeds and plants were distributed by the gods to the animals of the world to cultivate. The baobab was issued to the hyena, which was the very last in the queue, and he was so upset that he planted the tree upside down!
Africa’s largest antelope is a largely shy and peaceable animal although at Mashatu they are docile and very often viewed at close range. This excellent jumper stands almost 1.8 m tall and may weigh up to 910 kg. Its ox-like body is light brown with a few narrow white stripes running across the back and down the sides. It has a hump between the shoulders, a short, erect black mane and a long tail with a short, black tuft on the end.
Eland bulls have a strict hierarchy that determines their access to females in the herd. On the few occasions when they fight, they hardly every use their dangerous horns and hooves, preferring instead to prove their strength through neck-wrestling. Even these wrestles are a rarity; most eland conflicts are settled without violence through a series of ritual signals.
These signals include the knee-clicks which the bulls make with their front legs while walking. They sounds like castanets and can be heard hundreds of meters away. The clicks are a message to other males and their frequencies provide an honest and accurate measure of the individual’s size and fighting ability. The frequency of an eland’s knee-clicks reflects its size. The bigger the animal, the lower the frequency of its clicks and the deeper the resulting sound.
Africa’s largest bird has superb plumes and a vicious kick and is found throughout Southern Africa – from the bushveld in the east, to the dunes on the Atlantic coast in the west. The ostrich runs with its wings outstretched and at great speed. The inner of the two toes on each foot is much larger and bears most of the bird’s weight. Both the male and female birds have scantily feathered heads, necks and thighs. The male is glossy black with beautiful long white plumes on the wings and tail, while the female is a dull grayish brown colour. Males are polygamous and usually have from two to six females in their flock.
The kori bustard is Africa’s heaviest bird capable of flight and an adult male can weigh in the vicinity of 20 kg. Due to illegal hunting, the bird is a protected species and is seen either on its own or in pairs or groups in woodland, grassy plains and Kalahari scrub. The kori bustard walks slowly with measured strides and flies reluctantly although it is a remarkably strong flier. These birds take off with heavy wing beats, but once air-bourne, they fly fast and strongly. When in a group, the birds walk in a loose line across the veld searching for food. This bird is culturally very significant in Botswana and it is said that only the chiefs may eat them.