Of all African wildlife, elephants have the most complex of social structures. Some of their actions have been compared to humans, especially when other members of their herd have been affected by disease or injury.
Often referred to as the animal ‘that never forgets’, the elephant has shown a remarkable tendency to recall places and people, many years after having encountered them for the first time. Recent research indicates that the elephant’s memory, is actually activated by its smell and scent organs. Having relatively poor eyesight, the elephant relies on its sense of smell to locate, communicate and even determine members of its own family.
A tactile animal, elephants often gather in close packed groups and communicate among themselves using their trunk as a means of touch and to indicate affection. A trunk may often be seen resting on a family member or colleague.
When in danger, the senior bull or female will take up a position of defense on the edge of the herd and echo a warning through its well known trumpeting. The large ears may flap in angry defiance and, if the danger persists will, in the first instance activate a mock charge. The first charge of an elephant is very rarely dangerous, as the elephant is attempting to warn off the intruder that it is not happy with its presence.
If the mock charge doesn’t work then beware; the second charge is real and extremely dangerous. On capturing the intruder, the elephant will use its trunk to toss the hapless individual into the air, and then use its 3 to 5 ton weight in trampling him/her to death. Elephants are not aggressive creatures, and will avoid violence unless feeling threatened. They are family animals, and will protect their young at all costs.
It is Important to ensure that we do not get between the mother and her young, especially when game watching.
Small herds of elephants are often controlled by the female, or matriarch. It is often this female that determines the direction in which the herd will travel, and she also becomes the first line of defense in times of danger.
Elephants have no natural enemies, other than man, their sheer size a deterrent to any would be predator. Elephants do however live peacefully among other game, and while taking over a water hole when evening drinks and bathing are on order, will share with other animals as long there is a comfortable space between them.
In play young elephants display much of what they will become in later years. A young bull will charge animals and humans and, will also take up positions which may restrict the path of the oncoming animal. Ears will flap, trumpets will sound and a charge might ensue, but it’s all part of the game in the process of growing up. The charge is a game, and has no dangerous intent.
Of all the African wild life, elephant are the one animal which has an emotional makeup close to that of humanity. They seeing, feeling emotional pain, and empathizing with other members of their herd is well documented and recorded. There are cases on record where animals have stood by a dying family member and tried to lift them from the ground and carry them off; why and to where unknown. They have however shown signs of understanding the plight of the animal are trying to help.
For the student of elephants, a book by T.V. Bulpin is worth reading.
‘The Elephant Graveyard’ while fiction is a fascinating legendary story of a place where elephants go to die. Many people have wondered why very few elephant skeletons litter the African landscape.
This question is not for this essay however, and remains a story for another time.