In pics: The giants of Africa

Two Tuskers at the Kazinga Channel in Uganda
Image courtesy: ©Nitin Gairola

The African Elephant, one of the most graceful big creatures on Earth, is the largest living land animal. These mammals generally live in families headed by a matriarch (largest female elephant in the herd) and have very strong social structures and bonds. These sentient beings roam the grassland savannahs, deep forests and even the southern deserts of this great continent.

While the iconic elephant can be seen in almost all national parks of Africa, the best among them for viewing the pachyderm are Amboseli National Park in Southern Kenya, which has Mount Kilimanjaro as it’s backdrop, Kidepo Valley & Queen Elizabeth national parks of Uganda, the famous Serengeti in Tanzania, South Luangwa in Zambia, Okavango Delta & Chobe in Botswana, Addo Elephant Park and Kruger in South Africa. There are also elephants which have adapted to the harsh desert conditions found in north-west Namibia, in particular Kaokoland and Damaraland areas.

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A careful river crossing at South Luwanga, Zambia
A careful river crossing at South Luwanga, Zambia
Image courtesy: ©Nitin Gairola

The elephants in Africa belong to 2 species – the bush or savannah elephants and the forest elephants. They both live for about 60 – 70 years in the wild, however the bush elephants can weigh upto 6 tonnes whereas the forest ones only upto 2 tonnes. The 3rd elephant species is, of course, the Asian Elephant. Unlike their Asian cousins, of which only males have tusks, here both male and female African elephants can be tuskers. The Asian elephants weigh about 4 tonnes.

A giant bull at Kidepo Valley National Park, Uganda
A giant bull at Kidepo Valley National Park, Uganda
Image courtesy: ©Nitin Gairola

Elephants, besides being social, are also very intelligent. Among land animals, right after the apes i.e. humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans, the elephant brain is the most developed. They are one of the few animals that recognize themselves basis their reflection in mirror or water, which is a sign of greater self-awareness. Elephant families collaborate in raising and caring for the young, travel long distances together in search of food, assist those who are injured and even mourn the dead at times. They have amazing long term memories and also feel empathy for their companions. They have been known to comfort other elephants in distress often by putting their trunks into the other’s mouth. This gives reassurance to the one who is feeling sad.

An elephant family with all sizes
An elephant family with all sizes
Image courtesy: ©Nitin Gairola

Elephants are by and large peaceful and gentle beings but there are cases of human-wildlife conflict due to encroachment into their living spaces. Also young male bull elephants can be very aggressive during the mating season (called musth) when their testosterone levels increase to more than 50 times normal.

A show of strength at Serengeti, Tanzania
A show of strength at Serengeti, Tanzania
Image courtesy: ©Nitin Gairola

These giant herbivores naturally have a huge diet, and like eating a wide variety of plants including grass, leaves, shrubs, flowers, fruits, and even dig for roots after the rains. They also like to feed on crops such as millet. An adult elephant needs to eat upto 150 kgs of food in a day or 50 tonnes a year.

Peacefully munching at the grass
Peacefully munching at the grass
Image courtesy: ©Nitin Gairola

Recently many wildlife enthusiasts celebrated World Elephant Day on 12th August. This was to bring back focus on the plight of these giants as their populations dwindle in the wild. Merely 100 years ago, there were 3-5 million of them in Africa and are now down to around 5,00,000 (half a million). Their numbers are down by over 80%, due to relentless killing by poachers for their ivory tusks.

Off into the 'Tusker' sundown at Masai Mara, Kenya
Off into the 'Tusker' sundown at Masai Mara, Kenya
Image courtesy: ©Nitin Gairola

Nowadays, due to worldwide awareness and concern, especially among the global youth towards the environment and animals, things are changing for the better. Your tourist money will go a long way in funding for elephant protection. So besides the phenomenal experience of seeing the modern day mastodons and mammoths, you will actually add to the greater good of the planet by contributing to preserve these vulnerable giants.

You know the elephant is iconic when even Kenya’s favourite beer is called ‘Tusker’. So just pick your dusty safari hat, your trusty camera and binoculars and head to Africa to gaze at these beautiful creatures.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Nitin Gairola is a writer, photographer, traveller & an enthusiast of the natural world. He has endless passion for learning about environmental conservation, wildlife biodiversity along with the history & cultures of people around the world and their present socio-economic situations. He has been to many parts of the Earth, covering the continents, polar caps, mountains, forests, grasslands, deserts and nearly a century of countries, in his personal quest to know more about the planet. More on: https://www.facebook.com/NitinGairolaPhotography