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The last of the Great Pachyderms

There is so much that one could say about elephants that a few hundred words in an article can hardly do justice to these great animals. People have strong feelings and beliefs about elephants, maybe because they are the last of the great pachyderms and have suffered some of the worst slaughters that a species has ever had to endure on Earth. Vivid memories of pictures of hundreds of tusks being carried by hunting guides in the American gun magazines that I read in my youth, left me with troublesome thoughts. Why did those people hunt hundreds of elephants? Was it because of the sheer numbers that once roamed in central Africa or was it simply that ivory was a valuable commodity on offer to those who cold harvest it by the ton? The result was that the Africa elephant’s numbers plummeted to around 600 000 individuals. It is alarming that poaching is still way out of control in central African countries.

Elephants have been elevated to the level of demi-gods by some individuals, even attributing human characteristics to the savannah giants. It is everyone’s prerogative to decide whether elephants are highly intelligent, but all I can say is that my experience with them has proven to me that they are definitely not stupid! Wonderful experiences in the bush have taught me much about them as a species and also about their individual nature. Two years ago, while hunting impala on a farm on the banks of the Limpopo River, I one day decided to leave the rifle behind and armed with a small camera, I crossed the veterinary fence to wander around the riparian bush. The long, lush grass, remnants of a good late summer, attracted a herd of about 80 elephants to our side of the river. Amongst them were old cows, younger cows with calves and a few young bulls.

I found myself a safe and comfortable perch high above the ground in a dead monkey-thorn tree and patiently awaited the arrival of the herd as it worked its way towards me. When the old cows were within spitting distance I could feel my bravery slightly waning, but I had to sit tight in my tree perch. The animals moved all around me and I was certain that they knew about my presence as some lifted their trunks and tested the air in my direction. There was, however, no reaction. As the herd moved on, I cautiously descended and slowly started walking towards the herd. I reached a point about fifteen meters from a cow with a very young calf and, I must admit, that was when the jelly in my legs became liquid. Yet, despite my close proximity, both mother and calf fed happily. At one stage the cow turned slightly towards me, lifted her trunk and sniffed the air. I started to get bitterly cold from naked fear. The cow dropped her trunk and ushered her calf closer with a deep but soft guttural sound.

That was unbelievable and my legs steadied somewhat. Next was a very slow approach to a young bull. The animal must have noticed me as he often stopped feeding and I could see his eye following me. At about eight meters from the bull, my common sense told me that I could either step closer or enjoy many more hunting seasons in the bush! However, I failed to notice some other elephants approaching and when I decided to bid my young bull farewell, I was basically trapped between three calves and two cows. Oh, what a mess! The fence was 70 meters away and the elephants were between me and the dead tree. Freeze up. That is all I could do. Surprisingly, the elephants did not even bat an eyelid and grazed past me. I was stunned.

Then, just as I was up in my safe perch again, an alarming thing happened. The hunting vehicle with the professional hunter and American client came driving past. It was as if the elephants had all been triggered by some mysterious force. They trumpeted and charged towards the fence. Even calves charged towards the vehicle. All I could think of was that they either associated the vehicle or the smell of gun oil with some past traumatic experience. Once the vehicle had disappeared a relaxed tranquility settled over the herd and they continued feeding. I dropped down from my perch and walked back to the fence. Several elephants were very close to me and like before they basically ignored me.

How does one explain this behaviour? I don’t know. It also happened to me in Angola where I walked into a massive herd of elephants by chance. Their behaviour was the same. One should never anthropomorphise wild animals, but what apart from intelligence of a special kind can explain this extraordinary behaviour? Maybe there is an understanding amongst the wild beasts and mankind that I cannot fathom. Elephants evoke these thoughts in me and hopefully I will never have to kill such a beast.

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