THE MAGIC OF ELEPHANTS

not all those who wander are lost

Elephants are incredibly special. As far back as I can remember, I have always loved them. I’m not sure whether that was AA Milne’s portrayal of ‘Heffalumps’ or because my mom had ornaments of them with upturned trunks (or perhaps both). This was a necessary attribute to a suitable elephant ornament because elephants are spiritual. They greet each other with their trunks in the air, and symbolically, this represents blessings, compassion, and good fortune, and we can always do with some of that.

I am happiest amongst ellies. There’s an undeniable peacefulness in the way they move and interact with each other, and whilst they are actually quite speedy when they want to be, covering vast areas in haste, they spend most of their time grazing slowly, strolling between the vegetation without any sense of urgency. Elephants live long lives (around 70 years) and time for them must feel entirely different to how it feels for us.

We know a lot about these beautiful super-sized mammals. We know that they’re exceptionally smart, with the largest brain of any land animal. They use this unrivaled spacial-temporal and social memory to recall the best routes to food and water over astonishing distances, to recognise other elephants and other species, as well as communicate with each other with a complex language of vocalisations, seismic vibrations (which travel through the ground up and are absorbed by their marshmallow-y soft feet from up to 20km away), touching, visual displays and semiochemicals, which can occur through feces and urine as well stream from the temporal gland right in front of their ear.

They can detect thunderstorms 100km away too and can ‘sing’ using low-frequency sound vibrations from 1 to 20 Hertz, below our hearing range. And if this wasn’t superpower enough, elephants have the largest number of olfactory receptors out of any animal and have a sense of smell twice as powerful as a bloodhound which they use to develop complex odour memories.

When it comes to people, studies have established that elephants can even recognise different human languages, as well as the individuals speaking, and can distinguish the difference between gender, age and ethnicity purely by listening to us.

They’re also emotionally intelligent too, displaying behaviours that we humans recognise as compassion, kindness and even altruism. Elephants display empathy, coordinating to help and comfort sick or injured individuals, reassuring and consoling each other. They mourn their dead and perform rituals whenever they pass the bones of a family member (and even elephants who aren’t related), and have strong bonded relationships, helping them to navigate tough times together as a unit, giving them the very best chance of survival.

They are also self-aware and wipe mud off their faces when they look in the mirror! One of my favourite elephant fun facts is that studies have shown that their brains react the same way ours do when we see a puppy, which suggests that they think we’re cute too!

For everything we do understand about elephants, there is still a lot to learn. Humans haven’t been studying elephant well-being and psychology for very long, and really, when we consider how much we understand about the natural world, it is only in recent years that great strides have been made toward learning about animal behaviour.

THE MAGIC OF ELEPHANTS

not all those who wander are lost

Elephants are incredibly special. As far back as I can remember, I have always loved them. I’m not sure whether that was AA Milne’s portrayal of ‘Heffalumps’ or because my mom had ornaments of them with upturned trunks (or perhaps both). This was a necessary attribute to a suitable elephant ornament because elephants are spiritual. They greet each other with their trunks in the air, and symbolically, this represents blessings, compassion, and good fortune, and we can always do with some of that.

I am happiest amongst ellies. There’s an undeniable peacefulness in the way they move and interact with each other, and whilst they are actually quite speedy when they want to be, covering vast areas in haste, they spend most of their time grazing slowly, strolling between the vegetation without any sense of urgency. Elephants live long lives (around 70 years) and time for them must feel entirely different to how it feels for us.

We know a lot about these beautiful super-sized mammals. We know that they’re exceptionally smart, with the largest brain of any land animal. They use this unrivaled spacial-temporal and social memory to recall the best routes to food and water over astonishing distances, to recognise other elephants and other species, as well as communicate with each other with a complex language of vocalisations, seismic vibrations (which travel through the ground up and are absorbed by their marshmallow-y soft feet from up to 20km away), touching, visual displays and semiochemicals, which can occur through feces and urine as well stream from the temporal gland right in front of their ear.

They can detect thunderstorms 100km away too and can ‘sing’ using low-frequency sound vibrations from 1 to 20 Hertz, below our hearing range. And if this wasn’t superpower enough, elephants have the largest number of olfactory receptors out of any animal and have a sense of smell twice as powerful as a bloodhound which they use to develop complex odour memories.

When it comes to people, studies have established that elephants can even recognise different human languages, as well as the individuals speaking, and can distinguish the difference between gender, age and ethnicity purely by listening to us.

They’re also emotionally intelligent too, displaying behaviours that we humans recognise as compassion, kindness and even altruism. Elephants display empathy, coordinating to help and comfort sick or injured individuals, reassuring and consoling each other. They mourn their dead and perform rituals whenever they pass the bones of a family member (and even elephants who aren’t related), and have strong bonded relationships, helping them to navigate tough times together as a unit, giving them the very best chance of survival.

They are also self-aware and wipe mud off their faces when they look in the mirror! One of my favourite elephant fun facts is that studies have shown that their brains react the same way ours do when we see a puppy, which suggests that they think we’re cute too!

For everything we do understand about elephants, there is still a lot to learn. Humans haven’t been studying elephant well-being and psychology for very long, and really, when we consider how much we understand about the natural world, it is only in recent years that great strides have been made toward learning about animal behaviour.

^^ you can see harry’s collar here just above his head. collars typically have radio
transmitters of different frequencies so that each animal is uniquely identifiable.

^^ you can see harry’s collar here just above his head. collars typically have radio transmitters of different frequencies so that each animal is uniquely identifiable.

UNDERSTANDING ELEPHANT BEHAVIOUR

With more people realising how close we are to losing the world’s most loved (and sometimes least loved) species, the spotlight has shifted away from humans believing we’re the only animals capable of complex feelings, and illuminating those of animals such as the elephant.

55 million years ago, elephant ancestors roamed the planet, and elephants as we know them have been around for over 5 million years! Yet in a modern world, particularly in South Africa, the remaining elephant populations are contained within small fenced reserves, no longer able to traverse huge distances or communicate with neighbouring elephants in a chain of silent (to us) messages that probably spanned the entire continent.

For us to better understand how environmental factors and social dynamics affect elephant behaviour in small fenced reserves, research is key and there are a couple of ways to do that.

The first is to fit tracking collars. This helps researchers establish movement patterns, correlating this data with the availability of water and vegetation, the birth of calves, other stressors (including human stressors, such as the construction of buildings, the use of e-bikes*, negative interactions with guests, traffic etc), musth or simply determining whether, in good times of abundance, elephants simply just feel like hanging out in certain areas.

Tracking also helps researchers to determine if the ellies have been nearby of other elephants. Keep in mind that whilst the herd generally consists of females (sisters, cousins, aunts, mothers, and grandmothers) as well as their infant and adolescent offspring, bull ellies tend to live predominantly solitary lives, though they do occasionally join up with other bachelors for company, as well as to pass on and receive critical life skills.

Elephants grow continuously throughout their lives. The largest bulls are often the oldest and female ellies get metaphorically weak knees at the idea of passing on genes that give their babies the very best chance of living long, healthy lives too. Older, dominant males are usually much wiser and calmer than young bulls, though the youngsters sometimes like to energetically challenge for a claim to the throne. By tracking elephant movement, we can see how these interactions may differ from the norm. Who slunk off to nurse wounds and who met up with the girls for a victor’s party?

The second way to track elephants is to spend time with them in the field, making notes about their behaviour, charting environmental factors and collecting dung samples to test for various hormones that may be present. All of this data then adds up to humans being able to make welfare decisions based on who is thriving in a certain reserve and who may need to be moved elsewhere or implement an alternative strategy. Sometimes, a bull elephant may need a suitable role model bull to come in to help him learn to be more relaxed and come out of an elongated period of musth (a normally healthy period for bulls to be in where their reproductive hormones are increased and can sometimes make them a challenge to handle), for example.

UNDERSTANDING ELEPHANT BEHAVIOUR

an ellie education

With more people realising how close we are to losing the world’s most loved (and sometimes least loved) species, the spotlight has shifted away from humans believing we’re the only animals capable of complex feelings, and illuminating those of animals such as the elephant.

55 million years ago, elephant ancestors roamed the planet, and elephants as we know them have been around for over 5 million years! Yet in a modern world, particularly in South Africa, the remaining elephant populations are contained within small fenced reserves, no longer able to traverse huge distances or communicate with neighbouring elephants in a chain of silent (to us) messages that probably spanned the entire continent.

For us to better understand how environmental factors and social dynamics affect elephant behaviour in small fenced reserves, research is key and there are a couple of ways to do that.

The first is to fit tracking collars. This helps researchers establish movement patterns, correlating this data with the availability of water and vegetation, the birth of calves, other stressors (including human stressors, such as the construction of buildings, the use of e-bikes*, negative interactions with guests, traffic etc), musth or simply determining whether, in good times of abundance, elephants simply just feel like hanging out in certain areas.

Tracking also helps researchers to determine if the ellies have been nearby of other elephants. Keep in mind that whilst the herd generally consists of females (sisters, cousins, aunts, mothers, and grandmothers) as well as their infant and adolescent offspring, bull ellies tend to live predominantly solitary lives, though they do occasionally join up with other bachelors for company, as well as to pass on and receive critical life skills.

Elephants grow continuously throughout their lives. The largest bulls are often the oldest and female ellies get metaphorically weak knees at the idea of passing on genes that give their babies the very best chance of living long, healthy lives too. Older, dominant males are usually much wiser and calmer than young bulls, though the youngsters sometimes like to energetically challenge for a claim to the throne. By tracking elephant movement, we can see how these interactions may differ from the norm. Who slunk off to nurse wounds and who met up with the girls for a victor’s party?

The second way to track elephants is to spend time with them in the field, making notes about their behaviour, charting environmental factors and collecting dung samples to test for various hormones that may be present. All of this data then adds up to humans being able to make welfare decisions based on who is thriving in a certain reserve and who may need to be moved elsewhere or implement an alternative strategy. Sometimes, a bull elephant may need a suitable role model bull to come in to help him learn to be more relaxed and come out of an elongated period of musth (a normally healthy period for bulls to be in where their reproductive hormones are increased and can sometimes make them a challenge to handle), for example.

*Did you know that elephants have an aversion to bees that humans now use to their advantage? In Kenya, farmers are implementing bee hive fences to deter hungry elephants from breaking into their fields to raid crops with huge success! Just food for thought as I mention this because e-bikes tend to buzz like bees.

🐘 IMMUNOCONTRACEPTIVES & ELEPHANTS 🐘 

Elephant immunocontraception is a compassionate tailor-made approach to managing elephant populations, specifically those in a small fenced reserve. It is administered to elephant cows and helps to control and maintain the elephant numbers to prevent food pressure and keep balance in the ecosystem. The pZP immunocontraception vaccine is a non-hormonal, non-steroidal vaccine, and is completely reversible. It uses the elephant’s own immune system to prevent conception.

It takes a village to care for ellies on a small fenced reserve, like Mount Camdeboo. The Humane Society International Africa, The Elephant Reintegration Trust, Global Supplies Africa, Ikala Veterinary Clinic and bush pilots Dawie and Marie, as well as the Mount Camdeboo Reserve Team, all got stuck into fitting new collars on Harry & Layla. Immunocontraceptives were administered to Layla and other cows at the reserve, helping to keep the herd healthy and thriving.

IMMUNOCONTRACEPTIVES & ELEPHANTS 🐘 

Elephant immunocontraception is a compassionate tailor-made approach to managing elephant populations, specifically those in a small fenced reserve. It is administered to elephant cows and helps to control and maintain the elephant numbers to prevent food pressure and keep balance in the ecosystem. The pZP immunocontraception vaccine is a non-hormonal, non-steroidal vaccine, and is completely reversible. It uses the elephant’s own immune system to prevent conception.

It takes a village to care for ellies on a small fenced reserve, like Mount Camdeboo. The Humane Society International Africa, The Elephant Reintegration Trust, Global Supplies Africa, Ikala Veterinary Clinic and bush pilots Dawie and Marie, as well as the Mount Camdeboo Reserve Team, all got stuck into fitting new collars on Harry & Layla. Immunocontraceptives were administered to Layla and other cows at the reserve, helping to keep the herd healthy and thriving.

 

the elephant reintegration trust

  • This incredible organisation facilitates the reintegration of captive elephants into a wild system.
  • They also monitor the elephants involved in these projects, as well as relocate elephants in different environments in order to advocate for their welfare needs. Their research is an invaluable tool for proactive elephant management.
  • ERT and their partners work to translocate elephants to new areas when necessary to ensure happy, healthy herds and individuals.

humane society international africa

  • Humane Society International/Africa is a leading force for animal protection in countries across Africa, with active campaigns to improve conditions for farmed animals, protect wildlife, reduce the use of animals in testing and better protect companion animals.
  • As part of one of the largest animal protection organizations in the world, Humane Society International Africa is committed to making the world a better place for everyone.
  • Their hands-on approach to elephant immunocontraceptives is what makes them so special!

the elephant reintegration trust

  • This incredible organisation facilitates the reintegration of captive elephants into a wild system.
  • They also monitor the elephants involved in these projects, as well as relocate elephants in different environments in order to advocate for their welfare needs. Their research is an invaluable tool for proactive elephant management.
  • ERT and their partners work to translocate elephants to new areas when necessary to ensure happy, healthy herds and individuals.

humane society international africa

  • Humane Society International/Africa is a leading force for animal protection in countries across Africa, with active campaigns to improve conditions for farmed animals, protect wildlife, reduce the use of animals in testing and better protect companion animals.
  • As part of one of the largest animal protection organizations in the world, Humane Society International Africa is committed to making the world a better place for everyone.
  • Their hands-on approach to elephant immunocontraceptives is what makes them so special!

elephant numbers

  • 100 years ago, scientists estimate that there were 12,000,000 elephants roaming the planet, but that number has decreased to around 415,000 according to the WWF as of 2023. This is due to the ivory trade, poaching, human conflict, and habitat loss.
  • Botswana is one of Africa’s last strongholds for ellies, with over 130,000 within its borders, which makes sense, as they have tight hunting controls and are neighbours with countries battling with conflicts.
  • An elephant trunk is packed with over 50,000 muscles and is incredibly powerful and dexterous. Elephants use it to smell, eat, breathe underwater, trumpet, clean themselves, and defend themselves. An elephant trunk is extremely sensitive and helps them differentiate between a variety of plants and choose their favourites. They also use their trunks to hug, comfort, and caress their family members.

ellie fun facts

  • It’s a myth that elephants can’t lie down, but they do often sleep standing up, particularly living in the wild, saving them time and energy to scramble to their feet if predators are around.
  • Elephants essentially walk on their tippy-toes. Their heel is made of a tough, fatty pad of connective tissue, which enables them to stride silently through the terrain. It also allows ellies to absorb vibrations through the ground. These vibrations could be rumbles from other elephants or thunder hundreds of kilometers away. 
  • Elephants are usually right or left ‘handed’ and you can tell by looking at their tusks. The side that is more worn down is the side they favour.
  • There are three distinct species of elephants and at least three subspecies. The African Bush Elephant or the African Savanna Elephant is the largest living terrestrial animal on Earth.

elephant numbers

  • 100 years ago, scientists estimate that there were 12,000,000 elephants roaming the planet, but that number has decreased to around 415,000 according to the WWF as of 2023. This is due to the ivory trade, poaching, human conflict, and habitat loss.
  • Botswana is one of Africa’s last strongholds for ellies, with over 130,000 within its borders, which makes sense, as they have tight hunting controls and are neighbours with countries battling with conflicts.
  • An elephant trunk is packed with over 50,000 muscles and is incredibly powerful and dexterous. Elephants use it to smell, eat, breathe underwater, trumpet, clean themselves, and defend themselves. An elephant trunk is extremely sensitive and helps them differentiate between a variety of plants and choose their favourites. They also use their trunks to hug, comfort, and caress their family members.

ellie fun facts

  • It’s a myth that elephants can’t lie down, but they do often sleep standing up, particularly living in the wild, saving them time and energy to scramble to their feet if predators are around.
  • Elephants essentially walk on their tippy-toes. Their heel is made of a tough, fatty pad of connective tissue, which enables them to stride silently through the terrain. It also allows ellies to absorb vibrations through the ground. These vibrations could be rumbles from other elephants or thunder hundreds of kilometers away. 
  • Elephants are usually right or left ‘handed’ and you can tell by looking at their tusks. The side that is more worn down is the side they favour.
  • There are three distinct species of elephants and at least three subspecies. The African Bush Elephant or the African Savanna Elephant is the largest living terrestrial animal on Earth.

We’re volunteering our skills, time & passion to help tell worthy South African wildlife conservation stories free of charge. We’ll help support your cause with videography, photography & copywriting.

We’re volunteering our skills, time & passion to help tell worthy South African wildlife conservation stories free of charge. We’ll help support your cause with videography, photography & copywriting.