I’ve been neglecting to post about charismatic megafauna here in Africa, but don’t worry, zebras, giraffes, antelope and the like will be shared eventually! Here a cute African elephant calf (Loxodonta africana) flails its trunk around playfully as its mother stands guard resiliently. In Swahili, their name is “ndovu.” Elephants are one of the most unusual and impressive of the megafauna in the African savanna. Apart from being the largest terrestrial animal on the planet, they are highly intelligent and very communicative within their herds. The herd is led by the oldest female, called the matriarch, who directs foraging routes, paths to sources of water, and makes crucial decisions in the face of a threat. Males, on the other hand, become independent at sexual maturity and may join other herds or form a groups of bachelor males while scouting for receptive females. Herds will often vary in their spatial associations — in their fission-fusion dynamics. Sometimes herds will merge into groups of hundreds of individuals, while in times of low food availability a herd may split into subgroups consisting of just a few family members.
Elephants are very tactile creatures, using their trunks as prehensile limbs to greet and touch each other, and also use expressive visual and auditory signals (e.g. positioning of their ears and bodies) to convey emotions and language. While on an early morning walk I kept hearing a low, grumbling, almost cat-like sound. After following the murmurs for a bit I eventually spotted a bull elephant munching on acacia while another elephant lay on the ground next to it resting. A little farther up the escarpment I could see dozens of other elephants, well hidden by the dense brown leafless vegetation. It was fascinating to listen to the chorus of deep reverberances, echoing loudly over large distances. We’ve been fortunate to encounter elephants on many occasions during our fieldwork. Sometimes we’ve spotted a herd of elephants (‘Ndovu‘ in Swahili) proceeding slowly towards us, occasionally with head shakes and ear flails of disapproval. Last week we also saw a female chase the car behind us briefly as it drove away.