Thursday, 15 March 2012

An emotional morning with the Elephants

I have to admit I am struggling to know how to start this post today. To put it bluntly this morning (15th March) I probably had one of the most emotional sightings I have ever had and one that I am unlikely to ever see again.

After spending some time with the cutest little hyena pups first thing we bumped into the four 'breakaway' females from the Marsh pride, just up above Paradise plains. They were looking to hunt and would likely be seeking out Warthog in the long grass. This sighting was 'enroute' to the Musiara Marsh, where we had heard there was a dead elephant. This was going to mean that we could potentially have a visit from a number of different predators, and perhaps even the Marsh pride so we decided to track this way.

As we approached we saw the carcass, it's tusks intact so this fortunately meant it had not been poached, but its cause of death was still unknown, perhaps it was sick or indeed just old age. It lay in the open, but in long grass, not too far from Governors Camp.

Two of the young males from the Marsh pride (those sired by Romeo/Clawed) were sitting near the carcass but not yet feeding, simply guarding from other potentially interested critters. One appeared around 3 years old and the other older, at around 4 I would estimate. Not too far there was a large clan of Hyena who wanted to advance but were deterred by the presence of the males - this was surprising in itself as there were at least 20 Hyena, who with the ratio in their favour could have potentially pushed the boys away.

This is where it started to get interesting and you are probably expecting me to now write about how there was a huge fight between the lions and Hyena, but no that's not where this post is headed and nor did that happen!

Instead approaching from the right we noticed three elephants, all different ages. They appeared to be advancing toward the carcass. Sure enough they did and what followed was an incredibly emotional scene and one I will never forget.

The lions ran off as the elephants approached closer, the younger male heading into the woods and the older one remaining in the area but just moving further from the carcass. With Hyenas still keen to advance to the carcass the elephants started to slowly and silently approach the dead elephant. They arrived at the scene and began to smell and gently touch and caress the carcass with their trunks. Gently prodding as they circled the fallen elephant.  If I said that the elephants looked sad you will all possibly laugh at such a comment and the fact I here I have 'inappropriately' associated a human emotion with an animal. However, on in all seriousness this really appeared to be the case here. They say that elephants possess a very high level of emotional intelligence and many research papers have been written about cases where elephants appear to mourn the loss of a relative, just as humans do. This appeared to be was exactly what I was witnessing right in-front of me. My thoughts at this point turned to my husband, I so desperately wished he could witness this behaviour with me, instead of being stuck back in the UK, stressed and having to work!

One particular elephant paid a greater level of attention to the carcass than the others, refusing to leave it while the others circled, walking back and forth.  I really had a 'lump in my throat' at this point and we were all in complete shock at the behaviour we were witnessing. It was incredibly moving and an emotionally charged moment. I really cannot find the words that will express what we were seeing, or how we were all feeling as we watched this all unfold in front of us.

Soon more elephants began to arrive on the scene, probably another 6-8 or so, with the one elephant still refusing to move away. As the others arrived they stopped a distance of around 5-10 metres from the lifeless body and just stood as they watched the single elephant stand motionless next to the fallen pachyderm, occasionally feeling with its trunk. It was becoming apparent that this elephant was really affected by the death of this animal. The way in which it was behaving was quite possibly as it had just lost very close family member or perhaps it was it's mother who lay there. Elephants have an incredibly tight knit relationship within the herd and these bonds last a lifetime. When a family member is lost it affects the herd and specific individuals in many ways. It was at this point we almost began to feel that we were intruders in a private family moment, but starting the vehicle would have caused more disturbance then by sitting their quietly and at a distance. Fortunately there were only a small number of cars at the sighting and their was a silence that was respectful of what was happening.

Slowly the other elephants who had also congregated moved closer, some again touched the body with their trunks and some just stood in silence, watching. One elephant approached the young elephant that was standing vigil and gently entwined their trunks together, a process of exchanging information between elephants, but was this also perhaps a way of offering some form of reassurance and comfort. It certainly seemed that way. It was as if all of these elephants were coming to pay their respects. One large adult moved in and even touched the dead elephants trunk with her large feet, as if to see if there was any life left.

At this point the Hyenas were just getting too impatient and sized the opportunity to try and move in as the elephants came back and forth to the carcass. The one particular elephant was just not wanting to leave no matter what. However, each time the Hyena advanced they were scared off by the elephants who charged at them, trumpeting as they did. The noise of the Hyenas 'giiggling' and whooping, together with the echo of the elephants trumpets resonated with power around the marsh and that was a sound I will also never forget

In this time the older of the two male lions kept trying to move in, but was moved off again and again by the elephants, although they seemed more interested in the Hyena and this was making tempers flare and causing a great deal of stress for the elephants.

Finally the Hyenas had the opportunity to move in started to open up the carcass. Their sharp and powerful teeth, that can crush a cast iron kettle made light work of breaking through the tough skin. However, their attempts to feed were constantly interrupted by the elephants who wanted the Hyena off the carcass.

This was one of those occasions when you wish you had a good video camera with you as the stills just don't capture the scene as filming would have done. One lucky man at the sighting was 'armed' with a good quality video camera, he was one lucky fella to be capturing all of this amazing behaviour!

All around the Marsh elephants appeared, some moving in to inspect closer and some staying close to the edge of the wood. Were these elephants gathering to mourn a family member? It really seemed and if this was so. 

After around an hour the elephants eventually moved off, with the one Elephant that had remained at the carcass nearly all of the time being the very last to leave. It ambled off slowly and seemed to exhibit a great deal of reluctance that it needed to now rejoin the rest of the herd again.

Its fair to say that after this left we all felt incredibly moved. Paul, in all of his years of guiding had NEVER seen such behaviour before.

Tomorrow morning we will return to the scene as by this time we think that some of the Marsh pride will appear later this evening and will watch as the story unfolds of life and death on the African plains.

Curious Hyena cubs investigate our vehicle!

 The four 'ex marsh' breakaway females

The first three elephants come to investigate

One of the young marsh males and the elephant who would not leave the carcass

Chasing away the young Marsh male 

More elephants come to investigate and 'pay their respects'

The protective young elephant tries to chase off Hyena

The herd stand by as the young Elephant still waits by the carcass


  1. Emotional stuff indeed, hard to portray in still images but a great story, well told (as are all your posts). I remember seeing a similar thing on a documentary where the matriarch came across the poached body of one of her family and I was amazed when I saw that, so to see it in real life must have been a real honour, but hard to come to terms with at the same time.

  2. I believe animals grieve loss and Ive been witness to a baby rhinno standind by its slaughtered mother(poachers had got to her) leaving the baby for dead without a mother that young...the baby had tears in its eyes running down its face ! Broke my heart. As lions lose their cubs I see the panic pacing and when they have found them dead they cry out there is a sadness they may recover quickly compared to humans but their own survival depends on their sharpness quick reflexes. But doesnt make their pain and loss less real !