African Elephant, Elephantidae loxodonta
The African elephant is the largest land mammal existent today. It can reach weights of seven tons and ten feet in height and can live up to seventy years. They are herbivores and eat up to 600 pounds of vegetable matter each day and can drink up to 200 liters of water in a single session. They have a very ineffective digestive system and scientists estimate that they only digest about 40% of what they consume. This makes their excrement of interest to other animals and insects including baboons and dung beetles (both fascinating critters in and of themselves). Elephants have very sensitive skin that is an inch thick with no sweat glands. They fan their huge ears for a number of different reasons including cooling their bodies, intimidation of potential foes, and attracting their mates. Their legs are without knees and what we thought were knees are really wrists. They usually browse through the forest relatively slowly, but can manage a shuffling gate of up to 25 miles an hour for short periods of time. Their feet are enormous and very sensitive. They have huge brains capable of complex thought processes. Recent research indicates that they can distinguish seismic vibrations transmitted over distances of up to six miles through sensors in their feet and trunks. Other research has demonstrated that they can distinguish themselves in a mirror and thus are self-aware to a degree not found in many other animals. They are capable of having complex relationships with relatives and strangers and other mammals including humans.
In ancient times, elephants were used for a variety of purposes including engines of destruction. In the Far East, Asian elephants, Elephantidae elephas, (a cousin of the African elephant) were frequently a symbol of royalty and they played an important role in many ceremonies. Asian rulers commonly used them as executioners and the Khmer pioneered their use in warfare. Hannibal took war elephants with him when he crossed the Alps to lay siege to Rome. (He didn't bring enough so they did him little good.) Ivory elephant tusk has long been a highly prized and valuable resource which led to over-hunting during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, seriously depleting elephant herds throughout the world. During the day when big game trophy hunters prided themselves on hunting on foot, the elephant was included in the "Big Five" - the five most dangerous animals in Africa. Today, elephants are an endangered species, but a few conservation programs have had some success in protecting the remaining animals. South Africa has adopted policies that have led to a significant increase in the number of elephants living in their various national parks. In fact, the elephant herds in Kruger National Park have grown to the point that the authorities are considering culling the herd to minimize the problems of over population.
During our trip, we had numerous sightings of these magnificent animals, sometimes a single bull, sometimes a herd of up to twenty animals. We were particularly delighted to see that there were a number of young calves in the herds. Prior to this trip, we had, of course, read about the many fascinating attributes of these amazing creatures, but these nine days transformed intellectual abstractions into tangible memories.
Note the young animals in this herd.
This youngster is attempting to intimidate our Landrover.
A solitary bull with a broken and worn right tusk.