It was almost like the old cowboy movies when the cook rang the triangle to call everyone to eat. But this was a call to drink and bathe. And it was elephants, not cowboys.
Like clockwork, the animals come to the waterfront in the heat of the afternoon. We were on the Chobe River in Botswana watching about 10 elephants in the thicket, near the water’s edge, slowly moving closer and closer. I was on a boat with Mike Chase, of Elephants Without Borders, conducting research on elephant conservation (see post, Elephant Search: Finding a Needle in a Haystack). Sometimes, watching elephant behavior is better from a boat than from a truck, so on this day we decided to observe the elephants from the river.
The elephants meandered to the water in small- to medium-size herds. Some of the adults were lookouts, or sentinels, with their trunks lifted up into S-shaped periscopes above their heads, sniffing for danger. They would also spread their ears, as if butterfly wings, to listen to possible sounds of danger. Their heads would swivel as they checked out the area. Not too many creatures pose a danger to elephants, but they still were very, very cautious in approaching the waterfront. While the adults were alert to danger, the youngsters were butting heads and playing with each other.
As the herds moved toward the water, it was a challenge to spot the calves. They were usually surrounded by the older animals, which were very protective. Little by little, the elephants dipped their feet into the river, slowly moved further away from land, placed their trunks into the water, sucked up the river, and squirted the water into their mouths. The younger calves were usually in the middle of a group of animals, hidden underneath the larger animals and nearly up to their eyes in the river.
What began as a relatively small herd grew into a community of elephants. They kept coming over the ridge in little groups that joined up at the waterfront. Soon, we were watching over 100 elephants, milling about in the water. They were drinking, playing, bathing, and greeting each other with their trunks intertwined. Some were always alert. It wasn’t all fun and games, however, since they had also come to pay their respects to one of their companions who had died (see an Elephants Without Borders post). But, in general, the elephants were there to fill up with water, cleanse themselves, and go back into the bush to eat more.Not only elephants meander to the waterfront during the heat of the day. While in the boat, we also saw Cape buffalo, kudu, lechwe, impalas, and, of course, some crocodiles. The diversity of wildlife was phenomenal! Our conservation research plan is to focus on elephants, but while doing so, we are preserving large ecosystems. We want to ensure that future generations will be able to be as hypnotized as we were by watching the incredibly intricate social dynamics of an elephant community.