Each day, an elephant family makes its way up the steps at the entrance to Mfuwe Lodge like royalty attending a state visit. They sway carefully through the lobby, stopping now and then to inspect the reception desk and snake their trunks around the counter feeling and smelling for treats. Next, they pick their way down the rear steps to get to the trees. They move slowly with quiet dignity and grace and pick their way down the steps carefully planting each foot in just the right position. The matriarch, Wonky Tusk, leads the clan onto the lodge grounds. There is usually another very large elephant standing guard at the entrance while the others eat.

The elephant herd visiting us consisted of male and female calves, mothers, aunties, cousins, and grandmothers, but no adult males. Female elephants who help care for the herd’s calves called “allomothers,” keep a tight fence of legs surrounding newborn and very young elephants.

The young elephants picked up mangoes from the grass as the older elephants plucked them from the trees. The mangoes in Zambia were smaller and shaped differently from those I buy at home. The baby elephants tried to manage their trunks to pick up mangoes and put them into their mouths, but their trunks didn’t always cooperate. I watched a very young elephant step on its trunks and then panic for a moment when he couldn’t lift his head.

It is very unusual behavior for wild elephants to relax like this when humans are so close, but the humans, knowledgeable about elephant behavior, stay well away from them, and the elephants know they can trust humans here. We were thrilled to see them where we could spend as much time as we wanted and observe details we would never see this easily in the bush. For example, their large ears, much bigger than those of their Asian cousins contain miles of capillaries that turn their ears into air conditioners when they get too hot. Elephants don’t sweat, so waving their ears back and forth like giant palm fans cools the blood that circulates in their ears and helps lower their body temperature.

The lodge is also careful to put up barriers while the elephants are eating, so an unsuspecting tourist doesn’t wander in. Getting in between a mother and her calf can make the mother elephant forget all about her warm feelings for most humans.

The common lodge area, constructed with wide-open sides, allows visitors to sit right next to the short walls that separate the elephants from the guests and watch them for hours. I could have reached out and touched one, but that is a dangerous thing to do. Elephants can grow up to eleven feet tall and weigh up to eleven thousand pounds. A short brick wall wouldn’t stop an elephant from flattening one of us dumb enough to try and touch one. I was beginning to get a sense of appreciation for how different these elephants were from the poor captives I saw in amusement parks and zoos years ago.

Written by Patricia Cole

An Africa Hope Fund board member for 7 years, Pat is a writer and a conservation activist. After traveling to Zambia, she became dedicated to helping Africa Hope Fund provide education to the next generation of Africans and ensure their future by protecting wildlife. Find Patricia on Facebook and Twitter, or on her websites www.writepatwrite.com and www.patmcole.com.

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Carol Van Brugen