Letter 11: The Large and the Small


Let's talk a bit more about elephants. First of all, I'll bet you didn't know that elephants are found in mountains as well as out on the savannah. Here's a tree beside a mountain trail that has been rubbed smooth by elephants using it to scratch their backs.

Tree rubbed smooth by elephants
Tree rubbed smooth by elephants
Gibbs Farm, Kenya
(Click on any of the photos to enlarge them)

It's easy to forget how truly enormous elephants are, especially the males. You can compare this male elephant with the zebras he was threatening (he seemed to be in a bad mood).

Zebras are about the size of horses, and you can see he's much bigger than they are.

Elephant threatening Zebras
Elephant threatening Zebras
Ngorongoro Crater

While adult male elephants live alone or in small groups with other adult males, most elephants (all the females and young) live in groups headed by an older female, the "matriarch", such as this one.

The matriarch is the sister or mother or grandmother or aunt or great-aunt of the other elephants in her group. She has decades of wisdom and experience and is responsible for the safety of all the members of her group. She knows where to lead them to find food and water, she helps at the birth of young, she knows where dangers are, and she knows to set a pace that all the members of the group can follow, even the very young.

(Notice the huge Baobab tree behind her.)

Elephant matriarch
Elephant martriarch
Tarangire

One morning, we watched this matriarch lead her family to water.

The river was almost completely dry, but she knew where the deep pools were and led them directly to water.

Arriving at the river
Arriving at the river
Tarangire

Then when they'd all bathed and drunk their fill, she led them off to find food to eat.

There is a famous lodge in Zambia that was built on the route that a matriarch had always used to take her group to eat mangos in the season when mangos are ripe. When she found that the lodge had been built in their path, she decided just to lead her group right through it. They regularly walk through the reception area quite peaceably and don't do any damage.

Elephant family leaving the river
Elephant family leaving the river
Tarangire

Male elephants have to leave the group when they get to be "teenagers" and rambunctious. They are very powerful and can be dangerous. The first big male we saw up close came to our lodge one evening to get water from the laundry area. There was a strong fence all around the lodge to keep wild animals out, but the gatekeepers had instructions to open the gate if an elephant wanted in, since it would just knock the gate down otherwise and come in anyway. It doesn't seem to be possible to build fences that will keep them out, but people have found that playing recordings of buzzing bees will get them to leave an area. (They don't like having bees sting the delicate tips of their trunks.)

Lone adolescent male Elephant
Lone adolescent male Elephant
Tarangire

Despite the fact that they are only about the size of a rabbit, these little animals, which are called Bush Hyraxes, are close relatives of elephants! We found them huddling together on a sunny rock one morning trying to get warm.

Bush Hyraxes
Bush Hyraxes
Seronera Lodge, Serengeti

There was another very small animal that I became quite fond of, the Kirk's Dik-dik, a tiny antelope. Dik-diks weigh about 15 pounds and stand about 2 feet tall. They are very unusual for ungulates in that they mate for life. We always found them in pairs or in pairs with their young.

Dik-diks
Kirk's Dik-diks
Serengeti

Our guide told us that his wife, who grew up in Kenya, had a pet Dik-dik like this one when she was a child. Her Dik-dik lived in her bedroom and protected it from her brothers and their friends. If any boys tried to enter, he would charge them and butt them with his tiny horns.

IMG_0530
Kirk's Dik-dik
Tarangire

Aunt Melinda