The African Elephant
As you learned in the last article, African big game hunters called the lion, elephant, leopard, cape buffalo and black rhino “the Big Five.” Why, because when cornered or shot at, they pose the most danger to hunters.
On a recent trip to South Africa, our cruise ship docked at Port Elizabeth, home of one of the largest private game reserves, Kariega. At 22,239 acres, it almost equals the size of two Manhattan Islands.
The fenced area includes the Big Five as well as hippo, giraffe, zebra, eland, wildebeest, warthog, hyena, waterbuck, a variety of antelope and numerous bird species. The game reserve provides natural habitats for these animals including everything necessary for the natural food chain.
Several lodges and visitor accommodation huts are spread throughout the reserve. Warnings for night walking include watching for snakes but animals seldom pose a threat.
We had two excursion choices for the day - either Kariega Reserve or the Elephant Park. We chose the first.
We climbed aboard a ten passenger open vehicle while a passenger in another vehicle took our picture. The ranger explained procedures – most important, never stand up or reach outside of the vehicle. He constantly communicated with other rangers to keep abreast of animal sightings. Prolific numbers of antelope greeted us as we drove through the double gate into the interior of the reserve. The ranger explained how antelope numbers change constantly since they serve as food for many of the larger animals like lions and leopards. However, the elephant is a vegetarian.
You know an African elephant is big, but did you know he is the largest living land mammal? Stuff the smallest full-grown male elephant in your bedroom and his shoulders would touch the ceiling. Some grow up to thirteen feet and can weigh about the same as two to five medium sized cars (5,000 to 14,000 pounds).
When threatened, the elephant scares his foe by pulling his huge ears forward. Beware if he pulls them back. He may be big and slow compared to other animals, but he charges at 15 miles per hour, faster than most humans can run.
Males tend to travel in bachelor herds or alone. Females, called cows, stick together in family groups and follow the matriarch. A cow carries her unborn baby for twenty-two months. At birth, the baby weighs 200 pounds and stands about three feet tall. The cow nurses the cub four or five years until its tusks grow 5 or 6 inches long and stab her. If danger approaches, the elephants sound their earsplitting trumpet and form a protective circle around the younger family members.
One can hear an elephant’s trumpet for several miles. However, each elephant makes a distinctive low growl to communicate with others. That sound, unheard by humans, travels up to six miles.
African elephant’s ears are shaped somewhat like a map of Africa and act as air conditioning. Small blood vessels, close to the skin surface, snake through the ears and catch the wind. The cooler blood circulates through the elephant’s body and reduces his temperature. He also fans with his ears.
An elephant uses his trunk like a nose to breathe, smell and trumpet. He sucks water into his trunk then sprays it in his mouth or over his back. Boneless, his trunk wraps around heavy objects, food or friends. Two protrusions at the trunk’s end, act like fingers.
Two teeth or tusks grow long and sweep upward. Study the tusks and you will find one worn down more than the other. As you are right or left-handed, an elephant is right or left-tusked. Like fingerprints, tusks and ears tell elephants apart.
At one time, hunters killed elephants for their valuable ivory tusks. Today laws prevent such poaching.
Elephants need lots of grass and trees to eat. With the right environment, they can live up to 70 years. The legend that an elephant never forgets isn’t proven; however, elephants are known to be very intelligent.
“Today, we can hear them,” said the ranger, “but we can’t find them.” On this hot day, the elephants probably hid at one of the many watering holes. They need 30 to 50 gallons of water each day. Since we saw no elephants, I borrowed these elephant pictures from a friend who took the other excursion choice.