Coming across Elephants in Kasanka is always a treat. Although our population is healthy and growing, it is still small, and sightings are by no means daily. We’re not ‘spoiled’ you see! Estimates of population size vary from 30-35 to 40-45 to as many as a hundred. The latter is most certainly incorrect but it demonstrates that nobody is exactly sure. Personally, I have reviewed my initial estimate of about 42 from a year ago and now agree that the number should be between 30 and 35. You will excuse me for adopting a more scientific approach to enumerating wildlife and largely ignoring many of the estimates of our local staff for anything other than establishing trends. When the first of the Straw-coloured Fruitbats arrived last year (about 2000) the consensus of one group of casual workers as to their numbers was, and I quote: “Almost exactly 100 billion”. A bit much…
Returning from Lake Kapabi two days ago, an area of open water amidst a vast reed and Papyrus swamp, volunteer James and I were fortunate to come across Kasanka’s largest herd of Elephants, numbering fourteen in total. I have had a number of great Elephant sightings in the Park over the years, including one where the same herd encircled my colleague Liz and I as we sat atop the little viewing platform on the edge of the Bat Forest. However, this encounter has been the best so far. The reason? The Elephants seemed entirely at ease in our company and approached to within 15 metres or so without displaying the slightest sign of aggression or discomfort. We must have watched them at close range for over an hour before my sense of duty got the better of me and we proceeded to Pontoon Campsite to fetch some backpackers that had waited in the heat of the day for us, blissfully unaware but very accepting of our reasons for being late.
It may well have had to do something with us encountering the Elephants at noon, when the sun’s scorching rays make it so that nothing enjoys moving more than absolutely necessary. The herd stood still in a patch of open woodlands consisting of Terminalia, Combretum and Acacia (I REFUSE to use the new genus name!) trying to find whatever shade they could. I decided that this marked a perfect opportunity to start collecting identifying photographs of our Elephants so that we may build an identikit and finally work towards enumerating them by something other than educated guesswork. Although my instructions of “That one, right-flank. The large bull, left tusk. The matriarch, get the notches on the ear” would have annoyed the more seasoned safari-goer, being a first-timer to Africa, James seemed to enjoy every moment of it, the continuous clicking of his shutter providing testament.
What strikes me about this particular herd is that it has been in the permanent company of our largest resident bull for the past two years at least, which is quite unusual for a matriarchal society. All that have seen him testify to his magnificence, and although I have seen bigger and more impressive tuskers elsewhere, I think it is his sheer bulk and pleasant demeanour that continues to charm our guests. He truly is a gentle giant and I would be willing to bet money (something I do not have much of) that his quiet confidence is what turns the other members of the herd into placid pachyderms. One of his favourite things to do, seemingly, is rest his forehead up against a large tree and balance his trunk over his right tusk, which is considerably larger and straighter than the left one. Why? Because he can, I think!
As mentioned, observing the Ellies at such close range gives us a unique opportunity to document any identifying features the individual Elephants might possess, as James so obligingly did (I just sat and basked in their glory, keeping an eye on an adult female that had strayed to our left to feed). Quite a few are tuskless whereas others may have cuts or holes in their ears, or other identifying scars. All this information is noted and photographed and collected in a dossier for future identification. I have recently submitted a proposal for an ongoing Elephant Monitoring Project for volunteers to participate in, which aims at better understanding the movements and ecology of our small but growing population of pachyderms and act more efficiently to prevent conflict with farmers in the local community.
Interestingly, getting a better idea of the ratio of tusked to tuskless Elephants in the area should also allow us to give an estimate of if and when a genetic bottleneck may have occurred as a lack of tusks is the product of a recessive gene. During years of rampant ivory-poaching in the past, tuskless Ellies would naturally have been of no real interest to the hunters and so their genes became more prevalent in populations under high poaching pressure. Although ivory-poaching is not thought to be an issue in Kasanka and the Kafinda Game Management Area at the moment, signs of poaching activity is still evident in our Elephant population. The youngest member of the herd, about one and a half years old, carries a nasty scar around her trunk which seems to be the product of a wire-snare, one of the most popular means of bushmeat poaching in the National Park. A non-affiliated bull which follows this herd around waiting for the cows to come into oestrus also misses a good twenty centimetres off the tip of his trunk, presumably from a snare. Fortunately, neither animal seems to have been significantly impaired by their brush with this, the nastiest and most indiscriminate of all hunting instruments.
Well, I hope you have enjoyed reading about our encounter as much as I enjoyed living it! I am keeping my fingers crossed for approval of my proposed project and look forward to spending much more time in the company of these glorious animals, getting to know them each individually and learning more about their behaviour and ecology. What I am sure of is that this will by no means be my last post on Kasanka’s largest residents! Until next time!