Thursday, July 17, 2014


ele•phan•tine adjective.  huge, ponderous, or clumsy: elephantine movements; elephantine humor.

"Huge, ponderous, clumsy," prehistoric-looking animals don't always come across as the most intelligent or sagacious creatures. Think of the phrase "as dumb as an ox," for example. However, elephants, the largest mammals on earth, are the exception. Ranked with chimpanzees and dolphins in intelligence, elephants exhibit very complex behaviors, and it was one of the biggest thrills of our trip to see them in the wild.

Although we didn't visit either of what are considered the best game reserves in Kenya to see elephants (Tsavo or Amboseli), we saw plenty in Buffalo Springs--at least 70 elephants. It was such a fantastic experience that we hope to one day return to Kenya to visit elephants in other reserves.

We saw them alone, coming and going:
They flap their enormous battle-scarred ears like fans to cool themselves off (I do love the heart-shaped frame an African elephant's ears make around its face), and they roll like happy children in the rich African soil to thoroughly apply Mother Nature's sunscreen, tossing more dirt over their backs with their trunks when needed.

The "loner elephants" we saw were probably mostly males, as adult male elephants, called bulls, tend to be solitary.
Male African elephants can eat over 900 pounds of food in a single day and weigh as much as 15,000 pounds. (Don't ever let one take you dancing. If he steps on your toe, you will be in serious trouble.)
This one was wearing some kind of collar, probably a GPS tracking device.
Elephants have to be tranquilized before these can be put on.
This massive bundle of fat and muscle is surprisingly agile, bouncing along at a pretty good clip when it's in a hurry and yet moving relatively quietly on its heavy, padded feet:

We also saw elephants in pairs, usually a female (cow) and a baby (calf):
Gotta love a mom who likes the dirt as much as her kid does!

Unlike Asian elephants, African cow elephants have full-sized tusks. A baby elephant can start getting tusks at about six to twelve months of age, and the tusks can grow as much as seven inches a year. An elephant can live 60 to 70 years, so obviously not all years produce the same amount of growth. (I'd love to see 35-foot-long tusks!)
Elephant cows can give birth for the first time at about age twelve, although they are the
most fertile between ages 25 and 45. Their calves often suckle until they are three years
old or more. A cow who lives to age 50 might produce as many as seven babies.
This "tiny" baby elephant (size is relevant) already looks like a wrinkled old man, but notice the smooth
edges of his ears compared to an adult's ears. A baby elephant can survive only a few days without its
mother, and so if a poacher kills a cow, he may also be killing its calf.
We saw elephants in trios:
Like lionesses in a pride, cows help each other tend the children.
When a baby elephant is born, the females of the herd "circle the wagons" with the mother inside, protecting her and the baby until the birth is over.

 In the picture below, can you see the baby in the middle being protected by the females?

And we saw elephants in herds:
Females usually live in family groups of up to ten cows with their young, and everyone helps care for the babies:
There are at least fifteen elephants in this photo.
Fourteen elephants in another location.
Ten or more elephants at another site.
This is a lot of elephant pictures, I know, but it was such a rush to see these massive animals lumbering along so close to our vehicles, their heavy trunks swaying and snatching at prime bits of brush as they walked.

WARNING: The next few pictures are for mature audiences only.

Elephant mating. The two words conjure up an impossible visual. Having now witnessed the act in the wild, I think I've been scarred for life.

It began with a male chasing a female. They were moving fast. I had no idea elephants could sprint. (They can actually run up to 25 mph for short periods of time.) The female was smart to run because the elephant has the longest pregnancy on earth--almost 22 months--and babies can weigh up to 200 pounds. Not exactly a desirable condition, is it?
 He eventually caught up with her:
 . . . and she put up with him for a minute or two:
  But as soon as it was over, she took off. Run, girl, run!

I recently ran across a review of Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story by Dame Daphne Sheldrick on the website, ordered a copy, and am just starting to read it. I'll revise this post when I'm done with the book, but so far I think Sheldrick is to elephants what Joy Adamson of Born Free is to lions. Sheldrick tells the story of raising an orphaned elephant in Tsavo National Park in Kenya in the 1960s. Since then, she and her associates have raised more than 200 orphaned elephants and have returned many of them to the wild, a substantial contribution to the elephant preservation program of Eastern Africa.

She interweaves tales of her work with elephants with stories about raising her own family and helping her husband, a warden of the Tsavo National Park, during a politically unstable period when poaching in Kenya was running rampant. A passionate environmentalist and preservationist, Dame Sheldrick was named by Smithsonian magazine in 2005 as one of the thirty-five people worldwide who have made the greatest difference in animal husbandry and wildlife conservation.

If you are interested in more information, there is a wonderful segment on 60 Minutes about the Elephant Orphanage and the work of the Sheldricks that you can view here.

Echo, the most studied elephant in the world, was the matriarch of a large herd of elephants in Kenya's Amboseli National Park. When she died of natural causes at age 65 in 2009, the region where she and her family lived was facing the worst recorded drought of all time. The filmmakers show how what the herd learned from Echo helped them to survive.

We watched this DVD with our two granddaughters, ages 5 and 7, who loved it as much as we did. We especially loved the footage of Echo's son Ely, who was born unable to stand on his crippled legs. Because of Echo's patience and the help of Ely's older sister, he eventually gained strength in his legs and began to thrive. Footage of him returning for a visit to the herd many years later is included.


  1. After that segment on mating, I'm shocked that the female a) doesn't learn to run faster and, b) allows herself to be impregnated at all, considering the ridiculous incubation period and hefty baby. That being said, I think elephants are fascinating and look forward to following up with your suggested reading/viewing.

  2. Watching mating elephants is like watching a house climb up on a house. Watching the female run from the male reminded me of the Runaway Bride. Watching males of all species fight for the opportunity to be dominant (and thus mate all the females) reminds me of the song in The Lion King, "Just Can't Wait to Be King."

  3. Complex creatures - really interesting, 900 pounds of food???? WHOAA!

  4. I had the same reaction when I first saw horses mate--only I exclaimed it out loud and on a school bus when I was a teenager (bad time, wrong place). I've only seen elephants run on film, as in the zoos there isn't enough room for them to really get up a head of steam. It must have been a fascinating day!