Elephants are by far my favourite animal. They are the reason I left England and my family behind and moved to the African bush to work as a ranger. These magnificent creatures are highly intelligent and emotional. The bonds between herd members are very strong and I have yet to meet a person that didn’t coo over an elephant calf.
Yesterday morning I was driving in a very thick area close to the mountains in the Marataba section of the Marakele National Park. Several trees had been pushed down over the road by elephants. The leaves were still green and the dung around was still shiny and wet. The elephants were not far away. As though in answer to our thoughts, an elephant trumpeted in the distance. We continued driving slowly along the road, moving more fallen trees as we went. 10 minutes later we could see elephants in the bush ahead. We approached the scene slowly. There was a breeding herd of about 20 elephants in the thicker bush with six large males mixed within the herd. It is unusual to see so many males tolerated by a herd, and at first we assumed there was most likely an elephant cow in oestrus.
There was quite a commotion in the thicket to our right and several of the large males were chasing each other around to get close to an elephant cow. After several unsuccessful attempts one of the large males mated with the female. What a special sighting! Nearly five years in the bush and I had never seen elephants mating.
We watched with interest as the elephant drama continued. The female shrieked and ran around in the thicket and the males pushed each other around. Most of the females moved away from this disturbance caused by the males, and the elephant cow was left with just her close family. They picked up dust and sand with their trunks and covered themselves with it, while the cow in oestrus was furiously digging a hole with her foot to get more loose sand. Slowly she moved through the long grass towards the road and we spotted the tiny back of an elephant calf following her.
The elephant bulls continued to pester the female and another male mated with her. She still had remnants of the afterbirth hanging from her backside and I think the smell of the blood and hormones was mistaken by the males for oestrus. Several times when the males were pushing the female around, the elephant calf fell to the ground. When this happened the mother screamed and everything was still for a moment as the elephant calf feebly got back on its feet. I held my breath, concerned that the males might accidentally stand on the calf in the chaos but this never happened. Every now and then the matriarch of the herd returned with younger elephants in tow and attempted to keep the males at bay.
The mother was not at all perturbed by our presence. We sat silently with broad smiles and hearts racing. After a while she brought her baby onto the open road where we could get a clear view of it. Its umbilical cord was still dripping and its back was still a little wet. Its tiny ears were still pinned to the back of it’s head and its tail was scrunched up. I can only imagine that this was because it had been folded in the womb.
The mother came closer and it was although she was using our vehicle to shield her from the unwanted advances of her male companions. When she stood still the calf frantically attempted to suckle but each time was interrupted by males either smelling him with their trunks or pushing his mother.
The mother continued to throw sand on herself covering her baby and filling the air with dust. I assume this was to mask her scent in the hope of ridding herself of the pesky males.
The elephant cow began to follow her herd into the thicker bush and out of sight. As I started the engine to drive away, I felt incredibly privileged but at the same time completely exhausted by the drama I had been immersed in for the past hour. I hope the elephant cow found some peace and that her youngster was able to successfully drink.