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When it comes to Africa’s wildlife “star attractions” it’s hard to beat the iconic African elephant in terms of size, intelligence and personality. Indeed, the thrill of seeing these legendary animals in their natural habitat is one of the highlights of a Big Five safari…

With so many amazing species in the African wilderness it’s always hard to choose a single favourite and much easier to compile a list of animals you love. Chances are that the African elephant, Loxodonta Africana, is somewhere close to the top of that list, thanks to its ranking as one of the world’s most recognised and admired creatures.

The world’s largest living land animal, the African elephant is perhaps the most enigmatic member of the Big Five – a grouping of the most dangerous animals to approach on foot that’s a legacy of the early, colonial days of safari. Along with the leopard, lion, buffalo and rhino, in modern safari terms the Big Five are now the most exciting animals to approach in an open safari vehicle and possibly encounter on a walking safari.

The big show…

So what makes the elephant so special? Let’s start with the elephant in the room (pardon the pun) – its size! At a whopping 9m from trunk to tail, weighing in at more than six tons and standing as high as 4m tall at the shoulders, an adult bull elephant is about as impressive as it gets in the African bush. In fact, “ellies” are record breakers of note – they have the longest gestation period of any mammal at 22 months, have the biggest ears of any living animal with accute hearing and the ability to cool the elephant’s entire body down, thanks to the network of veins and blood vessels in them, and have the biggest brains of all terrestrial land mammals, including the greatest volume of cerebral cortex!

As you’d imagine in a head that can weigh a massive 400kgs, the elephant’s brain power matches its mass of around 6kg (four times larger than a human brain). With three times the neurons of the human brain at a staggering 250-billion (compared to our 70-billion) this is a sophisticated thinking machine and it’s widely accepted that elephants are among the most clever, emotionally complex, social and empathetic animals on the planet, including humans!

Family life…

This intelligence gives rise to an equally advanced societal structure that’s centred around family. Elephants live in large, multi-generational herds of related individuals presided over by a dominant female known as a matriarch. Bull elephants leave the family unit when they reach sexual maturity at between 10 and 12 years old, teaming up with older bulls who literally teach them what it means to be an adult bull elephant in something akin to a boot camp for teenaged elephant boys!

When they have acquired the skills and understanding they need to survive as adult bulls, they venture off on a life that’s spent mostly alone or in small, loose-knit groups of other bulls, wandering often over thousands of kilometres in huge, circuitous routes across their home ranges. They shadow breeding herds, especially when there is a cow in season, and periodically go through a surge in testosterone called musth which triggers a need to mate.

Female elephants, or cows, stay in the family herd for their entire lives, living with their relatives and offspring. They reach sexual maturity a little later than bulls at around 13 and can continue breeding for the duration of their 70-year life span. The family herd is a co-operative of closely-knit members who help to care for one another and their young. The matriarch makes the major decisions about where to feed, where to drink and co-ordinating the group movements as well as responding to possible threats.

Man – the biggest threat

Unfortunately for elephants, a lot of those threats rest at the feet of humans who have hunted elephants for their ivory for millennia. The modern age has seen the scourge of ivory hunting and poaching take on horrific proportions, wiping out a healthy population of some 2-million elephants across sub-Saharan Africa and reducing it to somewhere in the region of 300,000 in just 50 years. This has placed the African elephant on the endangered list and its cousin, the African forest elephant, on the critically endangered list. It’s estimated that 100 elephants a day are lost to poaching.

Human population expansion across its range has also resulted in a dramatic loss of habitat for the African elephant, bringing it into conflict with mankind over shared resources like food and water.

What is ivory?

Ivory is a hard, white material, mostly consisting of dentine, that makes up an elephant’s tusks. In African elephants, both bulls and cows have tusks which are actually modified teeth that keep growing throughout the elephant’s life. The tusks are used for a variety of purposes, from digging for roots and tubers to stripping bark from trees to expose the protein-rich cambium layer. They help to shield the trunk and are also used in defence to help protect the elephant and inflict harm on attackers. Bulls joust with their tusks.

It’s curious to learn that elephants are either right or left-tusked, favouring one side over the other just the same as humans do with their hands. The dominant, or “slave” tusk is the most worn down and you’ll often see it’s significantly shorter than the less-used “master” tusk.

Treading softly…

Like its teeth, an elephant’s feet are fascinating and multi-purposed. They are quite literally pneumatic, being filled with a soft, cartilaginous fat pad that cushions them, allowing them to walk virtually silently, moulding the pads of their feet around the ground underneath them. Elephants literally walk on the tips of their toes and have hard toenails that are not attached to any bone structure (rather like ours).

The construction of their feet has another purpose and that’s to “hear”, picking up the low frequency rumbles of other elephants transmitted through the ground from as much as 50km away!

Picture perfect

You’ll have wonderful opportunities to observe elephants in the wild when you stay with us at Bundox Explorer Camp or go on a game drive in a local private game reserve or a full-day guided Kruger National Park safari while staying at Bundox Safari Lodge. So watch out for these magnificent creatures and don’t forget your camera to capture elephant moments forever.