Being a guide is a bit like being a parent, strictly speaking you aren’t supposed to have favourites. Saying that one of the most frequent questions guides and trackers are asked is “what is your favourite animal?” and that is not an easy question to answer! For me, my answer will be heavily affected by whatever animal I am looking at, at the time. Every animal species is special in its own unique way and when you begin to appreciate how seamlessly each species fits in with each other in the great balancing act that nature pulls off you appreciate that each species is a strong contender for the title of Favourite!
A small selection of some of the special species vying to be favourite! ©Sophie Barrett
One of the best things about working in the bush is having the opportunity to appreciate the incredible biodiversity that surrounds us. Guests have often heard of the “Big 5” but little do they realise that these iconic species are complemented by the “Small 5000”, and the more closely you examine each species the more they jostle for the position of favourite. With my days as a lawyer behind me I am no longer officially allowed to be a “fence sitter” so luckily I have come up with a solution to the “favourite animal” conundrum. When I am asked about my favourite animal, like any good lawyer, I add caveats to my answer. My favourite animal to see with guests is an elephant.
Guests being treated to a walk past by a herd of Elephants. Something incredibly special about these gentle giants deciding to walk so close by us. ©Sophie Barrett
Elephants never cease to fill me with awe and I like to think of them as my own personal therapists. I defy anyone to spend time sitting with elephants and not to come away feeling revitalised as endorphins flood their brain. Of course being the largest terrestrial mammals with the bulk and the strength to accompany the title, elephants need to be viewed with the utmost respect; but, as long as they are given the quiet and space they desire, their tolerance is quite inspiring. An elephant has the capability to roll a vehicle without breaking a sweat (helped by the fact that elephants can’t actually sweat), so make no mistake about it, if you are enjoying a sighting with elephants it is because they are permitting you to be there. For me there is something wonderful about elephants trusting you enough to let you briefly share their world. Despite our best efforts humans are typically an intrusive presence, we cannot help but generate a startling amount of noise and even the best game viewing vehicles are incredibly smelly for an animal with senses as well developed as an elephant’s.
One of my favourite experiences to share with guests is to take them on foot and to follow the tracks of an elephant. Guests quickly find themselves ducking and twisting to move through gaps that look far too small for them to make it through – let alone for an elephant to have moved through without damaging the vegetation! Following in the footsteps of an animal gives you a unique window into its world, its movements and its habits. Even without seeing the individual you can see where it has walked; where it has dozed; where, how and on what it has fed; which direction it has looked whilst walking; where it has soothed a troublesome itch on a handy tree and so much more! Whilst moving on the trail I ask guests to really focus on how much noise they make whilst they walk, to notice how much of a disturbance we create as we move. The next time we see an elephant together, be it on the walk or when we are back in a vehicle, I encourage my guests to compare the noise made by the elephant as it moves. The comparison is startling. It feels as though the elephants are huge grey ghosts moving through the bush from the minimal noise that they make. We only really hear them when they communicate or when they decide to break a branch or push over a tree.
Adult elephants feed for an average of 18 to 20 hours a day – and as an incorrigible snacker myself I feel quite the affinity with them. More importantly, this means that, unlike lions, elephants are more often than not awake when we see them, meaning there is always behaviour to observe and to share with my guests. If you see a herd there are interactions between individuals to study; there are feeding preferences and methods to watch; there is often even a bit of stealthy stealing of choice pieces of food if you look closely enough. You can spend hours with a herd of elephants and there will still be new things for you to notice (click here to read about one of our favourite previous sightings with an elephant herd).
If you see a lone bull you can observe an animal who is never forced into anything. Few animals give the impression of being so completely relaxed as an adult elephant bull (as long as he isn’t in musth)! When elephant bulls are not in Musth they have virtually no pressures on their time, they need to consume food equal to about 5% of their body weight, and consume on average 200 litres of water each day. On hot days they will need to ensure they stay cool which involves either a swim; a mud bath; or a dust bath – ideally a combination of all three! The order in which they carry out these actions is unimportant and aside from these essentials their time is entirely their own. There is something incredibly refreshing about sitting with an animal who is so in charge of their own time.
One of our oldest elephant bulls enjoying a leisurely dust bath, and showing us he is the absolute master of his own time. ©Sophie Barrett
Many guests come to the bush not just to see animals but to enjoy a change of pace from their usually hectic lives. Time spent with an elephant bull epitomises this change of pace for me. The most difficult decision the elephant must face is whether he wants social interaction that day or not. Studies have shown that elephants can use infrasound communications that travel through the earth to communicate with other elephants who are kilometres away, so their social interaction doesn’t even need to be in person. Fascinatingly, studies have also shown that adult elephant bulls, despite typically being seen alone, often have specific individuals with whom they will maintain frequent contact, making them significantly more social than we had given them credit for.
Elephants are animals that demonstrate sophisticated emotional intelligence. They are capable of being both majestic and so full of joy that you can mistake a 50 year old elephant for a 50 week old calf (trust me seeing elephants playing in water is too special for words)! Their society is complex and constantly changing. They are a species that is capable of great aggression and damage but that shows breathtaking tolerance. They are a species that has been horrifically impacted by our own behaviour and yet they are still capable of forming positive relationships with humans. If you don’t believe me take a look at the incredible work The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust carries out, or read The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony. Just like humans they are a “keystone species” – that is a species that is capable of and intended to shape and change the environment in which they live. In many ways I feel that elephants capture the best parts of humanity and show us what life might be like if we were able to leave our worse parts behind, and so perhaps it is no surprise at all that they are my favourite animal to show guests!