When Vicky and I first arrived in East Africa we had a lot to learn. We’d spent thousands of hours filming underwater, but very few on land, and none in Africa – we were, quite literally, wet behind the ears. We were plunged into Serengeti. It was total immersion – with shiny new film cameras bolted to our Suzuki 4WD and a book in each hand: Cynthia Moss’s excellent ‘Portraits in the Wild’ and ‘Footprints and Tracks’, by an author, whose name I can’t remember. The former was invaluable, the latter next to useless. It would probably have enabled me to distinguish a rhino footprint from a dik-dik’s but as rhino were ecologically extinct by then, it wasn’t a skill I needed. My biggest frustration with it was that it made no mention of how to identify a large snake track that I’d spotted just a week after arrival . Elephants had crossed the path, and the fine dust they had left in their wake had taken the imprint of the giant reptile. One evening, I mentioned my frustration with the book to a gathering of scientists, and the intensity of mirth and glee it caused stays with me to this day. What I’d mistaken for a giant snake track, turned out to be the scuff mark left by a elephant’s penis as it swung from side to side while its owner dragged it through the dust.
I was reminded of it this week, when I came across similar tracks on a muddy flay. Twenty five years ago I would have said it looked as if an army of giant snakes had been in pursuit of a herd of elephants; today, it confirmed that the ‘mating pandemonium’ I’d just heard, lay up ahead.
We’ve had an extraordinary wet season in Tsavo. The short rains have merged with the long rains without the usual interlude of a three month dry season. It has been fascinating to see how animals have reacted.
In December, a pair of red-billed hornbills nested in the trunk of a Dobera tree outside our tent. They usually nest once a year if the rains are good. They raised three youngsters, which broke out and fledged a week or so ago. The male and female courted briefly for a morning and immediately she sealed herself back inside again. She’s molted her new feathers, and laid another clutch of eggs.
Grey tree frogs normally have an orgy after heavy rainfall – they did, but there has been no let-up, no time to recuperate. They have carried on mating sporadically but the frogs are now spent. They are shriveled wrecks. Now when it rains they can barely muster the energy to call to each other, let alone get together.
Food for elephants is everywhere and its abundance has allowed them to form large loose-knit herds – sometimes hundreds strong. Family herds have joined together and they are followed by bulls. When a bull finds a cow in oestrus, pandemonium breaks out. The squeals and bellows get everyone going – large bulls rush in to try and break up the mating pair, younger bulls mount each other, and cows run around trumpeting, trying not to lose their calves in the melee. The testosterone is almost palpable – it is as if you could strain it from the air and bottle it.
There are temporary waterholes scattered throughout the bush. The elephants aren’t tied to permanent sources of water as they are later in the year, so they can move where they want. Last week, they flowed through camp. The first we heard was a mating pandemonium in the fig trees behind us. As the morning warmed up, the elephants became quieter and drifted into camp. Soon every available tree shaded a family. One beautiful matriarch had such long tusks, that she rested them on the ground to support her head. Calves and adolescents lay down and slept at the feet of dozing females. Gentle snores set the the tempo for the day – even the white flitting of the butterflies seemed slower, as if overtaken by a glorious languor. For an hour or two, it was as if the entire world was at somnolent ease.
It felt right – humans and elephants sharing the cool green oases of shade that the trees provided. There were so many elephants that it was impossible to walk the length of camp or drive out. As we sat quietly eating beneath a tarpaulin slung between the branches, a bull calmly wandered to within a few yards – and we had to tap gently on the table to remind him we were there.
Later, as the shadows lengthened, we counted over two hundred elephants moving out onto the flood-plain to feed. We watched as they walked down into the river bed at dusk and started to dig in the damp sand, their forelegs penduluming backwards and forwards – more kicking than digging. There was no urgency to it. It was really a social gathering and their desire to drink cleaner water than the muddy waterholes provided.
The river had only recently stopped flowing, so the water wasn’t far beneath the surface. As they dug, the females would gently block the youngsters. They’d blow the first few dirty trunkfuls away and wait for clean water to fill the hole. They’d drink their fill, then step back to let the calves in. Inevitably the youngsters would collapse the sides and the process would be patiently repeated.
We left them when it became too dark to see and drove the short distance back to camp. We had no need to speak about the day. It is days like that, that give us hope – when for a few hours we forget the threat of poaching, the loss of habitat, the human-elephant conflict, the politics – and instead are given a privileged insight – a glimpse into what life for elephants can be like, and a glimpse of what life with elephants should be like.
The next morning, the elephants had gone. They’d moved on – their visit had been just a footstep on their endless journey of following the rain.
© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.