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Uniquely fascinating, the wonders of the African Elephant

There’s nothing quite like finding yourself observing a herd of African Elephants in close proximity during your Kruger safari.

More often than not, you’ll be struck by an aura of tranquillity and inner stillness as you watch these giants make their way through the wilds. The largest land mammal on the planet, the African Elephant is an unmistakeable icon of the continent’s megafauna and a particular highlight of a Kruger Big 5 safari.

Africa’s Unstoppable One

In Africa, the elephant, Loxodonta africana, is regarded with deep reverence. There are two subspecies on the continent, the smaller forest African elephant of the central region, and the world-beating goliath, Loxodonta africana africana found in the Kruger and elsewhere, which is also called the African savannah or bush elephant. Elephants are known locally as njovu in IsiTsonga, tlou in IsiTswana and indlovu in IsiZulu – all names meaning ‘the unstoppable one’ or ‘the forceful one’. African elephants are the subjects of enduring indigenous idioms, myths and folklore that celebrate their physical power, rich emotional lives, and wisdom.

Unfortunately, as strong and intelligent as elephants are, they are not unstoppable when it comes to man’s guns, and today the African savannah elephant is listed as endangered on the the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Voracious poaching for ivory and body parts, habitat loss and coming into conflict with humans have greatly reduced the African Elephant’s population, and it is estimated that just over a half a million still survive on the continent today. Wildlife refuges such as the Kruger National Park play a critical role today in providing enough space and the protection of special anti-poaching units to ensure that South Africa’s elephant population is healthy, safe and undisturbed. This is important not only so that future generations live in a world where the magnificent African Elephant still roams but because the species delivers a variety of essential ecosystem services, uniquely shaping landscapes for other animals and plants.

The Intriguing Social Life of Elephants

Visitors to the Kruger Park, especially to the southern regions where Kruger Gate Hotel is located, can expect to enjoy numerous elephant sightings during their safari time. All too often, safari-goers will come across a herd for the first time and assume that the largest one must be a male leader, but this is not the case. Elephant bulls lead lives that are mostly solitary, interacting with herds only in the mating season. Instead, a big, wise matriarch heads up the elephant herd. She will be the one who knows the pathways across their territory best and she patiently passes on her knowledge and experience of where to find food and water as the seasons change. Child-rearing is a big deal in elephant society. They have the longest gestation of any land mammal – 22 months! Elephant cows also give birth to young that, in the animal world, take an extraordinarily long time to grow up as African elephants only reach sexual maturity in their second decade of life. So, typically a herd is made up of adult females who share duties in protecting and raising teens, tweens, and toddlers of both sexes. Young bulls leave the herd once they are mature, while the females stay on to contribute to the next generations.

Not surprisingly, bonds within the elephant herd are deep and strong, so much so that studies and observations have revealed that elephants recognise the bones of their dead relatives along the paths of their home range. When they come across these remains, they touch the bones with undeniable reverence and may even trumpet and rumble in homage to their dead. This makes elephants the only species other than humans that show an abiding interest in their ancestors.

In the Presence of Giants

After a first-time sighting along the Sabie riverbank, one of our guests said: “It was mid-morning and we stopped alongside a herd of elephant in the shady woodland close to the road. The adults were dozing peacefully on their feet, many with their long-lashed eyes closed. Their only movements were the slow fanning of big ears every now and then. There were two really small babies; one was standing fully under the belly of an adult with its head slumped and its gangly trunk draping on the ground. The other was lying on its side with two bigger elephants beside it, as if they were watching over it protectively. I could hear Ella Fitzgerald reassuringly crooning ‘Someone to watch over me’ in my mind. I felt these elephants love for one another. The scene was so peaceful and relaxed. A funny teen was also lying down to nap, trunk, limbs and big feet all akimbo. There was an air of absolute contentment that I breathed in deeply and in the stillness, we heard only the occasional soft inhalation or warm sigh. In the quiet presence of these extraordinary animals, I became quite overwhelmed by a sense of immense privilege to be sharing in this gentle, intimate family moment. They say elephants never forget. Well, I also, will never forget my first ever encounter with Kruger’s elephants. It was beautiful and my heart felt full, as if in this moment, everything was well in the world. It was an impactful perspective I really needed for my own well-being at this time.”