If you’re like me, you have had a dream about visiting someplace in Africa since you were about 2 years old and your mother showed you picture books with wise elephants and gallant lions and cuddly gorillas. Actually, if you belong to my generation, the books your mom read to you probably included tigers. It was shocking to me to learn that there are no tigers in Africa, and those children’s books of the forties and fifties were lying to us.
Also, if you’re like me and finally get around to buying a ticket to Africa, you find it practically comes with a guarantee that you will see The Big Five. And during the planning stages it is obvious that everybody knows what The Big Five are but you, so you secretly resort to Google. It is easy to learn enough to hold your own, and I found out that after you get to one of those safari lodges, you find yourself almost competing with other guests to see who can spot The Big Five the fastest. Depending on how much money a person spends, I suspect that if some people don’t see The Big Five they either lie that they did or ask for a refund.
So having made the reservations, Charlie and I needed to know exactly who The Big Five were and why they have such an impressive classification. Well, it turned out that this term was coined a long time ago by big-game hunters and actually refers to the five large animals in Africa that are the most difficult and the most dangerous to hunt on foot. There is still a lot of legal hunting going on in most of the African nations, including South Africa, and even more illegal hunting. Legal hunting is usually called trophy hunting, and illegal hunting is called poaching, and done by poachers. There are 4 national parks in South Africa, and we chose a lodge in the southeastern corner of Kruger National Park, adjacent to Mozambique. It was called Singita Lebombo Lodge, and the owners lease 15,000 hectares of land from the park, providing the park with an income. The park itself has almost 2 million hectares. The Big Five are the lion, the leopard, the rhinoceros, the elephant and the Cape buffalo, and nowadays tour operators use the term to sell package tours. We were lucky, we saw The Big Five in our first 24 hours in Kruger Park. As a matter of fact, we saw elephants as well as quite a few giraffes and zebras even before we entered Singita territory.
It was a thrill to see our first animal, an African elephant, and not at all like seeing something on National Geographic or Animal Planet. We were on their territory and it was obvious that they ruled, although they seemed tolerant of our tiny, weak species as we observed them. The African elephants are different from Asian elephants, but it is not always evident for non-elephant people like me to distinguish the differences. The easiest way is their ears; African elephants have very large ears, shaped like the continent of Africa. Their large ears keep them cool in the hot African sun. African elephants are not agreeable to being trained by our species, so they have never been used as working animals or war animals in Africa, or for elephant polo or even to carry tourists around as they have been in Asia. They have the largest brains of all land animals, and that might be why the slightly more aggressive and larger African elephants do not allow us to domesticate them. Our ranger told us that African elephants have two fingerlike appendages on the end of their trunks, which allow them to grab food and other small things, and that could be why they grow larger than Asian elephants, that only have one. They weigh an average of 6,000 kilos but can get as large as 10,000. They eat up to 150 kilos of grass, bark, fruit, roots, and herbs a day, and drink between 30 and 50 gallons of water a day; that takes a lot of work. Parks and reserves do not supplement the diet of any animal.
Each herd has a female leader, a matriarch dominant cow, and she is the absolute boss. Our guide shared a lot of sexual information with us, and we learned that the females only like to mate about every 4 years, and then are only receptive for 3 – 6 days. Males leave the herds when they reach puberty, when they are between 12 – 14 years old. Young males form bachelor herds, and usually don’t become sexually active until they are about 25 years old, remaining so for the next 20 years, if they can beat out the other males. According to our guide, when they turn about 45 years old they begin to lose their teeth as well as their competitive edges to win over a female by being stronger than other males, and from there it’s all downhill. Their teeth begin to deteriorate and they slowly starve to death, dying when they are around 60. The females fare better, and form strong bonds with their mothers, which can last a lifetime. They help each other to care for their calves. Elephants are a lot like gardeners and landscapers. Their large droppings act a fertilizer, and help birds and baboons, who pick through their droppings, to get enough nutrients. And they are the most effective seed dispersers in Africa because of the large distances they cover, always leaving their droppings, which are full of seeds. They dig water holes with their tusks, which help our species as well as other animals, and because they are always pulling down trees, they create the grasslands that the other animals need to graze. The compacting that their heavy bodies do along riverbanks keeps soil erosion in check. Our guide, a very competent ranger named Jean Pierre who went by the nickname J.P., was of the opinion that it’s not much fun to be an elephant because they only really enjoy 1/3 of their lives.
According to J.P., elephants don’t even have much sex. When the male is sexually aroused, he goes into musth, and begins secreting something black from his facial glands, dribbling urine, and walking aggressively. Males become very assertive and their testosterone levels rise to somewhere between 4 to 10 times their normal levels. The males fan their ears to attract attention and to expand their smell. When a female elephant is in the mood for sex, she gets kind of sassy. Sometimes females perform an “estrus walk” when they strut away from the male while holding their heads in a coquettish way, as if they weren’t interested. The male then chases and stops the female before they get it on. The penis of an African elephant can weigh as much as 30 kilos and is usually way over a meter long. It is also curved and can move independently from the rest of his body. Elephants sometimes use it briefly as a fifth leg. The reproductive canal of a female is almost 2.5 meters long, and their pregnancies are also long; almost 2 years (22 months)! But elephants can’t have much variety in sexual positions. The female reproductive canal is directly below her back legs, so the male needs to stand completely upright in order to mate. The sexual act lasts less than a minute. The male sticks around for a good time after intercourse, and continues to mate with the female every few hours until her estrus ends. After sex, the female makes deep rumbling noises that can be heard from many kilometers away. Females have lots of choices for their partners, but only dominant males get to have sex. For that reason, male elephants sometimes perform sexual activities on each other, and that’s why you almost never see two male elephants together in zoos.