I said last week I would write about the black rhino, but he’s going to have to wait for the elephants. I don’t know which of the animals I saw in South Africa is my favorite. The large are dangerous. The birds are gaudy. The ones that fall between are dazzling (rainbow skink) goofy (warthog) or pests (vervet monkeys).
But the African bush elephant ranks high on my list of the best animals in the world. Large, dangerous and goofy, they don’t seem afraid of anything. On this drive this year, they were everywhere, in large numbers.
L africana is believed to have the same level of intelligence as cetaceans and primates, which gives H sapiens solid competition in the smarts department. Wikipedia tells me—always my go-to place for initial research—that elephants show a range of emotional behaviors, including grief, learning, allo or “group” mothering, mimicry, play, altruism (?!), cooperation and very probably language.
As Dixon drove us through the preserve on our first evening drive, we came upon a large family unit. Female elephants travel in these families, and there is always a matriarch in charge. During our late February visit, the end of the African summer, there were a lot of calves. Stopping the Land Cruiser on the red dust road, we watched in awed silence as the ladies browsed on grass and shrubs, ears flapping lazily—the African elephant’s large ears help her stay cool.
The calves appeared to be of all ages and were curious; some practiced approaching as if to challenge us. Dixon had to rev the truck engine once to fend off a youngster with a tuft of grass still in his mouth who lifted his trunk menacingly.
I wondered why Dixon did this, and now I realize why. The little guy might approach and do us little harm, but his mother and allomothers might have a different reaction all together. Two weeks ago, in my blog about hippos, I mention that the African elephant is the third-ranked killer of human beings in Africa.
But as these ladies strolled through the bush, their kids paddling along, or playing with each other, or even nursing, they didn’t seem menacing at all.
I keep viewing my elephant video, The Ladies Leave, over and over. The herd moves off, members trailing the leading lady. One of the ladies twirls her right front foot, as if to warn the two kids behind her, not this way. Stay in line! And bringing up the rear is Big Mama, the matriarch, the biggest, oldest mama of them all, confident in her ability to protect her family.
Westerners have an extreme fondness for elephants. Growing up on a diet of black-and-white Saturday afternoon movies, Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan films were among my favorites. In one that always brought on tears, a herd of elephants walk over a mountain to a hidden dell full of bones. It’s the elephant’s grave yard. The plot is fuzzy now, but I think the elephants kill an evil white man (who probably killed one of theirs). I found that act very satisfying.
Elephants communicate over long distances using infrasonic sounds, as do whales and of all things giraffes, among others. Humans can’t hear it, but some science indicates that infrasound can produce feelings of fear and awe in us. I like to think that in the presence of elephants, the awe I feel is not only because of their beauty in motion, but because they murmur to each other in secret words.