African Bush Elephants on the move in Kruger National Park
It was one day as Bob and I sat in the car alongside a gravel road in Kruger National Park that we saw this prime example of an African Bush Elephant. We had pulled to the side of the road to sit for a spell and eat our lunch when this behemoth stepped from the cover of thick vegetation onto the road right in front of us. Talk about lunchtime entertainment!
We were munching our sandwiches with the windows open to take advantage of a light breeze when we became aware of the crunching and snapping of brush and twigs nearby. Next thing we knew, a large dark form could be distinguished on the far side of a thicket of bushes.
As is the case in Kruger National Park, people staying at any of the rest camps head out during the day on self-guided safaris to see what animals they can discover. As Bob and I observed the indecisive African Bush Elephant, another vehicle full of people happened along the road from the opposite direction.
That is when this lone African Bush Elephant finally decided to make its way to the other side of the road. We had remained parked and almost holding our breath, and the other driver chose wisely to stay put and give a wide berth to this, one of the largest and heaviest land animals on Earth.
Most mornings when Bob and I dwelled at Szukuza Rest Camp, we opted to head out on our own to scout for animals. It was a bit daunting in view of the fact that the rest camps are hours apart, given that we had limited cellphone reception to contact the authorities if we had a problem, considering that no one would know where to find us, bearing in mind that the relentless sun would heat the car to an insufferable temperature if for any reason the engine gave us problems, and allowing for the fact that few if any cars crossed paths on any given day. We basically were on our own, responsible for carrying sufficient water and forbidden to exit the car for any reason.
But the anticipation of setting off into the unknown, for there was always another dirt road to explore and multiple more branching off from that one, and the thrill of actually espying any wild animals had us doing just that for several days in a row. We had to have our animal eyes on, trained to pick out any irregularity in the landscape, and that is how we managed to locate this female African Bush Elephant and her young offspring.
The reason a self-guided safari requires hours is because, once an animal is sighted, a great deal of patience has to be exercised in order to see if something will develop. As it turned out, the side road onto which we had ventured took us close to a river, and here we had a mother African Bush Elephant leading her baby to its banks.
It was relatively easy from our slightly elevated location to keep track of the cow Elephant since she stood well above the long grasses on the riverbank. At between 8-9 feet tall (2.5-3 m), her head seemed to float above the sea of green as she moved deftly in line with the shore. She was in no hurry but still could cover 5-8 kilometres per hour (3-5 mph) even at a slow walk.
Sensing distress from her calf, the female African Bush Elephant curbed her intense desire for a drink and a dip in the refreshing water and turned towards her baby. This perspective gave us a great view of the cow’s large ears that, upon until then, were keeping her sufficiently cool because blood flowing through the ears close to the skin’s surface allows the heat to dissipate.
With the calf now honed in on its mother’s position, it hastened to wade through a small stream or inlet in order to catch up. Although an adult African Bush Elephant has no predators other than humans, a young calf is vulnerable to predation by lions, hyenas and crocodiles. Being this close to a river could offer up a substantial risk to wayward offspring.
African Bush Elephants, also known as Savanna Elephants, are known for wandering their home range during the day in search of both food and water. An adult African Bush Elephant requires vast quantities of water and will drink up to 190 liters (50 gal) every day. With her baby again in tow, this cow once again made for the river in earnest.
It was along about this time that Bob and I became aware of a few more elephants taking refuge along the flowing river. All of a sudden we could see others emerging from the tall swamp grass and relishing some fresh greens while they were at it. It is common practice for African Bush Elephants to live together in small family units composed of related females and their offspring.
A family unit is composed of between 6-12 individuals that are governed by the oldest female in the group. She is called the matriarch, and it is her years of wisdom that are put to use to guide the family in every aspect of its existence. The matriarch decides when the family members will eat, drink, bathe and rest.
In some cases, a number of family units will join together to form a clan of up to 70 elephants, and these associations are called kinship groups or bond groups. As Bob and I looked on, all we could distinguish was maybe half a dozen African Bush Elephants, but we knew for certain that the adults were all female because males leave a family group when adolescent and live a life alone for the most part.
When the elephants disappeared down the embankment into the river, they were essentially hidden from our view so we took our leave of this location.
Every day, for hours on end, we toured the many back roads of Kruger National Park in the vicinity of Skukuza, Lower Sabie, Tshokwane and Gayisenga. The speed limit was restricted because of the potential for wild animals on the roadways, so progress was slow at the best of times, and we were fortunate to come upon animals very frequently which delayed us even further.
Over the course of our daily excursions, Bob and I observed a good number of African Bush Elephants in different situations. This humongous specimen that really impressed us was probably a male when you consider its size and the fact that it was accompanied by just one other elephant. Both male and female elephants have tusks so this is not a defining characteristic.
Mature males tend to live a solitary life until it is time to breed, at which time they will approach a herd of females and tag along for a few weeks.
Adolescent males will, for a time, join together into a loose alliance until they reach maturity, and then they go their separate ways.
A mature male or bull African Bush Elephant can be as much as 4 metres (13 ft) tall at the shoulder but tend to average a height of 3.75 metres (12 ft). Their body can be an astonishing 6-7 metres (19.6-23 ft) long contributing to an overall weight of between 5.5-7 tons, and their enormous ears each measure about 1.2 metres (4 ft) across. Note how the shape of an ear resembles the rough outline of Africa.
For a change of pace one day, Bob and I booked ourselves onto an evening safari with parks’ staff, so we set off in a 4×4 jeep at dusk. Before darkness enveloped the land, we came across another African Bush Elephant…
that was more interested in filling its hungry stomach than in the rhythmic vibration of our vehicle’s engine or the ooh’s and aah’s of its passengers. African Bush Elephants feed on a variety of vegetable matter with grasses and leaves from trees and shrubs making up the bulk of their diet during the rainy season. This elephant was using its long, boneless trunk to reach the tender foliage hanging from the tree’s branches.
A mature African Bush Elephant requires a lot of vegetable matter to sustain its massive body, so it eats between 100-300 kilograms (220-660 lbs) of food every day. This requires an elephant to roam over vast distances both during the day and at night to find necessary sources of food, and its flexible trunk enables it to nimbly grasp blades of grass or leafy twigs.
That was not the only time we saw an African Bush Elephant employing its unique nose to secure a mouthful of food. On another day, as we were moseying along a stretch of savanna, we saw this elephant stretch its five-foot long (150 cm) trunk into the depths of a leafy tree and proceed to pull off a mouthful of leaves and twigs. Considering that an elephant’s trunk weighs a hefty 135 kilograms (300 lbs), it is a good thing that the long nose is made up of a network of 100,000 muscles to assist in that effort.
The most profound experience that Bob and I had with regards to seeing African Bush Elephants was the day we drove directly south of Skukuza on S114 to Mitomeni and onward to Gayisenga on S26.
I was deeply touched to see the older and more mature elephants carefully shepherding their babies and their daughters’ calves to safety. Never expecting to see such a large herd traveling in single file much less using a tail to trunk chain, the sight literally brought me to tears.
It is normal for a herd of African Bush Elephants to travel in single file when on the move in search of food and water, and it would have been the matriarch leading them forward.
As we soaked up the atmosphere of the moment, one astute cow showed her concern for the calves and her defiance in the face of the automobiles that threatened to encroach on her space when she turned to face the growing collection of vehicles behind our own. I have to admit that we were a little nervous when she assumed this stance because we didn’t want to have a close encounter that might involve the elephant’s powerful trunk or dangerous tusks. She stared us down for a good 30 seconds before turning her attentions elsewhere.
By the time the last of the herd crossed the road, a matter of several minutes had passed but I felt like time was standing still. In that short space of time, these African Bush Elephants had created an indelible image in my mind that will stay with me forever.
With calm and grace, the family unit walked deliberately out across the savanna, and that is when it became more obvious as to the differing sizes and range of ages of the African Bush Elephants in our midst. While other drivers began to edge their automobiles forward, we remained parked to savour the moment. No other sighting of African Bush Elephants came close to this one. It made a huge impression on us.