My first elephant sighting was back in primary school on an end of year trip to the coast along the Tsavo ecosystem. It was, you might say, an accidental sighting as a herd of elephants crossed the tarmac forcing our driver to halt the journey temporarily. I still recall how we, tiny 9 year old’s still in our shorts, felt enamored and awed by the elephants whose steps as they crossed to the other side of Tsavo caused a slight tremor within our school bus.
“These are the largest animals on Earth,” announced Teacher Rose, perhaps trying to impress the group of class six pupils. I would later come to learn that elephants can weigh as much as 10 Tonnes, which is more than what our bus weighed at the time (with 30 pupils and four teachers inside it).
I had always admired lions from the countless children stories that depict the felines as Kings of the Jungle. But after the brief sighting of elephants that fateful evening at Mtito Andei, my allegiance shifted and I paid fealty to Elephants as the true Kings of the African jungle. “When I grow up I want to be a game ranger so I can ride on elephants across the wilderness,” I remember saying to my friend Eric. With jumbos, it was love at first sight.
Well, I never ended up being a game ranger, but my love with the beasts never dwindled. Spending time with elephants has since become a craving that I must satisfy every few months. I have devoted a lot of time touring game parks and conservancies across East Africa in a bid to spend as much time with the elephants as I possibly can. In the process of cozying up with these gentle giants, I have gathered a handful of powerful life lessons to live by:
It is rare to find an elephant living alone, they usually gather in clans as family units. At Amboseli National park I have observed that each family unit is made up of around 10 closely related females and their children.
Just like humans, elephants can live to be over 70 years old. A guide told me that elephants have the longest gestation period of all animals – 22 months!
An average elephant will only have 4 calves in its lifetime thus the need to take extra care of each calf until it hits puberty. Just the same way it takes a village to raise a child among humans, it is also the responsibility of all the females in a family unit to bring up a baby elephant.
Friends are important too
Whether humans or fellow jumbos, an elephant never forgets a friend. Upon return of a friend, elephants greet each other joyously by spinning in circles and hugging each other by their trumpets. Wardens at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust narrated to me how two elephants that had not crossed paths for 10 years recognized each other and rejoiced when they were finally reunited.
Brains over brawn
As I came to learn more about elephants, I discovered that their greatness transcends their massive size. With brains weighing 5 kilograms, they are amongst the world’s most intelligent species. How these creatures aren’t more intelligent than human beings is something that still baffles scientists to date. Their brains are similar to that of humans in terms of structure and complexity.
At Tarangire National Park in Tanzania, our guide, a hippie fellow called Mussa explained to us why the park had instituted a no-pointing rule during game drives. Turns out elephants instinctively understand pointing and would move towards the direction a human is pointing at.
In addition to being one of the few species who can recognize themselves in a mirror, elephants can actually count and have an understanding of basic arithmetic
It’s a girl’s world
Unlike our world, which is patriarchal, elephants are intrinsically feminists. The herd is usually led by an older female known as the matriarch. Once a male elephant reaches puberty, it usually leaves the herd to start life as a bachelor while looking for a potential mate whose family he will join.
It’s okay to be sensitive
Despite their muscular bodies, elephants can be pretty sensitive creatures, elephants cry, play, laugh, hold grudges and have incredible memories. If a baby elephant complains, the entire family will try to comfort it by touching and caressing it. In the elephant society, bullying is strictly prohibited; if a calf is caught picking on another, it is reprimanded by the females of the herd and even risks exclusion from the group.
At Amboseli National Park, I came across an elephant graveyard where the animals buried their dead. They are known to grieve and pay last respects to the departed members. They also return to the graveyard several times a year to pay homage to the bones of their dead.
When Lawrence Anthony (author of The Elephant Whisperer who had spent his entire life rescuing elephants in South Africa) died in 2012, it was reported that elephants trooped to his home and camped there for two days mourning him.
Dirt is good
Whenever elephants are at a water point, they often bathe by spraying dirt and mud on their skins. The elephant skin, though an inch thick, is extremely sensitive and thus susceptible to sunburns. In addition to protecting the elephant skin from sunburns, the dirt also gives an elephant its distinctive color. Thus, while the elephants at Tsavo in Kenya might seem red due to the red earth at the game park; their counterparts at Tarangire in Tanzania are black in color.
Could salad be the secret to long life?
By subsisting on twigs, branches and leaves, elephants manage to live to almost 90 years of age. An adult elephant can eat up to 300 kg of food and 160 liters of water in a day. It is amazing how elephants manage to become the largest land animals on the planet on greens and fiber.