Friday, October 21, 2011

An Enormity of Elephants

The first elephant I ever saw in person was tethered to a chain at the Barron County Fair in Rice Lake Wisconsin when I was about 10 years old. I have never forgotten that ridiculously huge creature standing there with a forlorn look on its face as it contemplated how many more humans were going to crawl up on its back and make stupid noises.

I was one of those humans and I climbed up on the elephant with much excitement. I swear that from up there I could see all the way to Cumberland but actually I just saw as far as the Frostop root beer stand. True to my fledgling wanderlust I remember thinking about how cool it would be to ride through a "jungle" on the back of an elephant. I'd be a reincarnated Tarzan if I could do that - all I needed to do was learn how to swing from a vine and I would be ripe for the role.

At about the same time I remember looking through my dad's catalog for Weatherby hunting rifles and marveling at the "trophy" African elephants that people had shot with a .458 Weatherby Magnum, marketed at the time as "the" elephant gun. According to Roy Weatherby, owner of Weatherby rifles in Santa Monica California, no person in his right mind would go anywhere near a charging bull elephant with a rifle any smaller or with more killing power than a .458 Weatherby. I remember wishing I could afford to own a .458 Weatherby Magnum on the off chance that an elephant would show up in Barron County and I could shoot it.

Other than other animals tethered at circuses or those in abysmal conditions in a zoo, I never saw another elephant in person until October 2005. While walking through a forest in southern Thailand, searching unsuccessfully for ultra-rare Gurney's Pitta, I heard what sounded like a small tornado rumbling through the forest. Trees snapped off like match sticks and the ground trembled as I stood still. I had no idea what was going on until a pair of Asian elephants (much smaller versions of the African elephant - the elephant in the movie "Water for Elephants" was an Asian elephant) barreled through the forest not 20 meters from me. Despite their being much smaller than their African cousins I remained in awe at the enormity of these beasts. And as they raced by me, no doubt just playing rather than trying to escape anything, I wondered how on earth anyone, Roy Weatherby included, could ever shoot such a noble beast just to festoon a wall with its head.

My first African elephant was a massive male standing in the Luvulu River at the northern edge of Kruger National Park in South Africa. I had parked on a bridge over the river and got out to look at the swarm of swifts flying around in front of me. Almost as an after thought I looked at the river itself and there was this massive beast standing knee deep in the river splashing water all over himself as he gave himself a shower. Although he was too far away to photograph sufficiently the image of my first African elephant was etched in my mind's eye.

A few hours later, closer to the Punda Maria Rest Camp where I spent the night I noticed the elephants shown above standing in a Mopani forest just chilling out and being elephants. I stopped my rental car and watched them. From earlier reading I knew that if an elephant starts swaying after laying its ears back against its body that was a sign that it was getting annoyed and the wisest thing to do was to move on. I moved on.

A few hundred meters further down the road I came on to more elephants just chilling out in the forest.

An African elephant chilling out in the forest in northern Kruger National Park, South Africa
A bit further down the road I encountered more elephants. Seeing them against a backdrop of primordial African savanna and forest they didn't seem real. I remember saying to myself at the time that looking at them was more like watching the movie "Jurassic Park" than actually viewing wildlife. They were just too big and too bizarre to be real.

There is an estimated 16,000 African elephants in Kruger National Park where, according to biologists who do research on them, there is sufficient habitat for about 6,000 elephants. And like any other animal population when there are too many for a certain area the habitat becomes degraded, competition for available resources becomes more acute, disease sets in, and Mom Nature sets back the population in ways that watchers of Animal Planet do not like. However Mother Nature always bats last and always has the final say.

Overgrazed African elephant habitat in northern Kruger National Park, South Africa
The day I saw my first elephants but before actually seeing one, I noticed how so many of the mopani trees had been hacked to bits with limbs laying helter skelter on the ground and huge gashes to the body of the trees where giant limbs were once attached. Having lived in tornado country for a number of years my initial thought was that there had been a bunch of tornadoes there because what else could cause that sort of damage. Then it dawned on me - elephants.

Several years ago the collective world population of environmentally concerned people (they number about 35 now) was exorcised by the fact that elephants (primarily African elephants) were being poached for their ivory. International meetings were held and international treaties were ratified all in the name of protecting elephants and keeping them from going the same route as the passenger pigeon. Once the market for ivory dried up populations of elephants began to rebound. And they keep rebounding to the point of what is occurring in Kruger National Park.

Well meaning but uninformed people will instantly say that rather than shooting the excess they can simply be moved to other places. But what if there are no other places that can handle such gargantuan beasts? The excellent book "The Elephant Whisperer" discusses the pitfalls of moving elephants (even a small number of them) to places where efforts are being made to conserve them.

My second full day in Kruger I saw more and more elephants everywhere I went. The more of them I saw the more each one of them still seemed surreal and again I felt like I was in the movie Jurassic Park again.

One afternoon I was along a river at the Shingwedzi Rest Camp where I saw my first hippopotamuses. They were lolling around in the river farting and belching and coughing and just being hippos. As I watched them I noticed a small family group of elephants at the edge of the river that included a relatively new baby.

A family group of African elephants at Shingwedzi Rest Camp, Kruger National Park
As I watched the elephants clowning around in the water, out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the entire western sky had turned a strange mud-covered gray color. Twisting my head to take in what was happening I saw a massive male elephant not 20 feet from me.

Three pictures of the bull elephant that walked 20 feet from me without me seeing it at first
I remain amazed that a 5 ton animal could move as swiftly and stealthily as this guy did and not be detected. I simply did not hear him until he was that close to me. I guess that is just one more reason why there are restrictions on exiting your vehicle in Kruger.

I spent one night at the Olifants Rest Camp along the Olifants River along the border with Mozambique. The word "Olifant" is Afrikaans (and I guess German) for "elephant." I had hoped that if I had not seen an elephant earlier in the trip I would certainly see one in a river named after them. And I did. Lots of elephants.

The Olifants River Valley on the Mozambique border
One of the many highlights of the trip was the morning I sat where this picture above was taken and watched family groups of elephants milling around in the river below me. With them were hippopotamus and the occasional giraffe. They all made for an unforgettable breakfast.

As my time in Kruger continued I started to realize that not only do elephants tear down tree limbs to get at the succulent leaves and bark they also do it for recreation. I think they just get a rush out of ripping the stuffing out of anything and everything they feel like tearing apart. And who is going to stop them?

An African elephant ripping a tree to shreds I think just because it could
On my last day in Kruger, just a kilometer or so north of Crocodile Bridge Gate, I encountered a traffic jam. This one was caused by a group of nine elephants who just decided that they wanted to block the road. So they did. One of the nine, pictured above, was mutilating a tree just for the hell of it. He would reach up, coil his trunk around a branch, and give his head a small twist. A sound reminiscent of a rifle firing would be heard next as the limb broke off like a twig. This was followed by a tumultuous crashing as the limb tumbled to the ground. The elephant looked at the downed limb for a bit, probably snickered under his breath, then reached up with his trunk and ripped another limb to shreds.

One day near Satara Rest Camp I came onto a watering hole along the side of the road. In it was a group of seven elephants. They were taking their leisurely time soaking up water, splashing it on their back, hosing down others in the family group, and just generally being elephants. The temperature had to be close to 100 degrees F and there was not a cloud in the sky. It was blistering hot for me and I was in the shade of a rental car. For the critters of the savanna it had to be miserable. As the elephants took up space near the water, a circle of plains zebras stood patiently waiting for the elephants to leave. Behind the zebras was a massive flock of impala also waiting for their turn at the water, each with its tongue hanging out as they panted in the searing heat. Behind the impala was a lone spotted hyena who, apparently, was the lowest member in the waiting-for-water pecking order. He stood there covered in mud and dirt panting like crazy and looking miserable. However nobody budged. Not one animal was foolish enough to consider challenging an elephant. The elephants seemed to know this and took their good natured time getting their drink. I passed by this same watering hole at dawn the next morning and all of the mammals from the afternoon before were gone. Eventually, I guess, everyone had their turn at the water and moved on - but not before waiting what must have seemed like an eternity for the elephants to move along.

After leaving Kruger I didn't see another elephant for 9 days until I arrived at Addo Elephant National Park north of Port Elizabeth not far from the Indian Ocean.

Lone elephant foraging on grassland at Addo Elephant National Park
Here the elephants were in a much different habitat type than in Kruger. At least what I saw of Addo was largely grassland reminiscent of those in Kidder County, North Dakota. There were no mopani forests to exploit. Instead the elephants foraged on the abundance of grasses available for them to eat. The elephant in this picture was the last one I saw in the wild in South Africa.

In places like Kruger National Park something has to be done to reduce the numbers of elephants before the habitat is completely trashed. As I watched elephants standing around looking stupid I could not imagine how anyone and especially someone calling themselves a "sportsman" could get off on killing one. There is no sport in shooting something that doesn't want to move. At least with grouse or duck hunting you flush the animal and give it a chance to avoid getting hit. When that animal is as big as a barn the sportsman quotient is reduced substantially. Roy Weatherby can stick his .458 "sporting" rifle directly up his anal pore.

Still something needs to be done in places where there are too many elephants before they eat themselves out of house and home. Wildlife biologists are trained to come up with solutions to issues like this. However after spending as many enjoyable minutes as I did getting to know African elephants I am glad its not me who has to make the final decisions.

Every elephant I saw in Africa made me think back to that day at the Barron County fair when I rode on the back of an elephant. They made me think of old Tarzan movies and they made me glad to be able to see one. I hope some workable solution can be developed so that elephants will forever be inside Kruger National Park and I hope there's just enough of them so there is food enough for all and so my grand children can one day go to Kruger National Park and experience the same bone chilling rush I experienced each time I saw the enormity of elephants.

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