In the Company of Giants at Motswari
There is nothing more special and memorable than being in the midst of an elephant herd. I will even go so far as saying that it is food for the soul, especially when you have never had the pleasure of witnessing these giants up close.
Elephants needs to be respected and understood. They have emotions similar to humans in that they experience loss, they have strong family bonds and they can be very grumpy. Early signs are given if they don’t want you in their space, woe betide if you ignore their warning. When a herd accepts your presence and goes about their daily task, which involves eating and drinking mainly, the experience is truly magical, you will never forget it.
With a group of four Canadians on drive out of Geiger’s Camp, our mission one afternoon was to find a breeding herd of elephants. We don’t always find what we’re looking for but on this occasion we did. Approaching a riverbed, driving through thick mopane trees we started spotting big grey bottoms moving through the bush, they seemed to be everywhere but visibility wasn’t ideal. With a call on the radio saying there were more crossing the riverbed a little further on we continued and found exactly what we wanted, a breeding herd on the move. There were even a couple of big bulls around, seemingly dwarfing all the other animals. One of the bulls was deep in the reeds, enjoying the lush green grass, he looked to be in his element.
He was huge with massively impressive tusks. There were deep intakes of breath as we approached this mammoth animal, with cameras at the ready in a bid to capture this moment for the memory banks. Observing elephants, really watching how they eat and move around, invokes many a question. Their trunks, a concertina of thousands of muscles with prehensile fingers on the end, will befuddle most people. The use of their feet and trunks together as tools to extract the juicy roots they seek from the underground makes you realise that they are incredibly intelligent foragers and if they want something enough, they will get it!
We were able to sit with the herd for quite some time, soaking it all up, the sights and sounds around us. As a massive bull, the same size as the one we had been watching earlier, walked towards us with serious intention the whole atmosphere changed. If he was a human, I’d say he was walking as if to enter a boxing ring; that swagger, bounce and attitude that would make your opponent quiver. He even looked as if he had adorned war paint as his lower half was so much darker than his back and head, all due to having been in water. The other bull was to our right, now coming out of the reeds onto the sand bank, making himself look as big as possible to the approaching bull, a classic indication that a clash was inevitable. It was a short-lived tussle but the sound and sheer ferocity of the meeting of their enormous bodies was incredible. One of the bulls beat a swift retreat, running off through the reeds at pace with the other hotfooting behind him – it was quite a sight to behold. The heated exchange over, a sense of quiet and calm came over us all along with the realization of what we had actually witnessed – what a privilege to have ringside seats to such a natural display.
As if we hadn’t experienced enough, as the bulls exited stage right, from the opposite side of the river appears the tiniest, pinkish, wrinkly and wobbly elephant with its mother and older sibling. Being shielded between the two larger animals, the trio slowly made their way in the same direction as the rest of the herd. As they were walking it became very clear that this little one was very new. It was slow progress through the water and the long reeds, such care and tenderness from the mother and the sibling, chaperoning and cajoling this new addition through tricky terrain. Taking a rest, the sibling was offering comfort and security whilst the mother appeared to find something in the riverbed. Nobody could work out what it was until she started thrashing it around with her trunk. Unbelievably it became apparent that she was playing with her own amniotic sac. This tiny baby was not a few days old at all, only hours at best, it dawned on us that we had literally just missed the birth. No wonder it was so wobbly! It’s been suggested that the mother is trying to get rid of the scent of the afterbirth, reducing the risk of the newborn being found by predators and scavengers. The event of an elephant birth is a massively emotional occasion for anyone lucky enough to witness it. The entire herd will encircle the cow in labour, as protection and support. Once the newborn arrives there are welcome trumpets and congratulations abound, whilst the youngster tries to find its feet and work out what just happened! The mother will use her trunk to help the little one to find its feet and lead it to her breasts to get the essential colostrum that she’s produced in the last stages of pregnancy. This colostrum supplies passive immunity to the offspring, vital for the youngster’s survival. The family group will stay in the same area for a good few days before they move any great distance from where the birth took place.
Although we missed the birth, the emotion experienced as a result of what we all witnessed was immense. A truly extraordinary moment and probably one we’ll never see again.
A true spectacle on two counts, what more can you ask for when in the company of giants.