In the 1970s, authorities culled elephants in Kenya because they worried there were too many elephants to support their habitat. Sharpshooters killed them by the tens of thousands. Some herds were completely destroyed, and other herds had damaged, torn families from which to pick up the pieces.


Their “social understanding” was disrupted too, because there were no adults to teach some clans. Later, a long drought killed many more elephants. Experts worried they would lose the remaining elephants because of it. Birth rates plummeted, keeping the numbers low until the rainy season returned. Over time the herds recovered from the drought.

In the dry season and particularly during droughts, the matriarch of an elephant clan knows where to find aquifers of clean, pure drinking water for her herd. This knowledge comes from memories handed down from one matriarch to the next. That’s why it is particularly disastrous when poachers kill a matriarch. They kill the institutional memory of an entire elephant clan and put the herd at greater risk. A young matriarch, less experienced and knowledgeable, will do her best, but she can only be as good as the history she learned from her elder.

I read about a matriarch who led her herd to a spot that looked dry and barren and began digging with her front feet. Those huge toenails and strong tusks help them grind down into the packed soil to underground aquifers during the dry season. When she finds water, the others help her dig the hole until there is enough water to drink.

Once there is enough water, the elephants take turns drinking, each patiently waiting their turn. Then they step back even though their thirst is only partially satisfied and let lions, impala, kudu, zebras, and giraffes take their turns at the water. This time of peace at the new source of water is one time predators will leave their prey alone. As soon as they’ve had their fill, they will go back to their hunter and hunted status. When the other animals leave, the elephants return and finish drinking.

They will stay until they have taken in as much water as they need and then the matriarch will lead her clan to a destination she remembers where there is food that will keep them alive until the rains come. Many of the watering holes elephants created will become lagoons with the rains and host an entire ecosystem with fish, waterfowl, crocodiles, and hippos. Or they will hold enough water to give plant life a good start.

Imagine Zambia’s bush without elephants. The bush would choke out thousands of acres of grasslands and replace them overnight with thorny scrub if there were no elephants.  There wouldn’t be any herbivores because there would be no places for them to graze; no predators because they would have no prey. Reptiles may survive, although their habitat may change so much that the snakes and monitor lizards and even the crocodiles could not thrive there.

Birds in Zambia are stunning. It’s hard to believe such beauty exists in such a rugged climate. Bird-watchers go there on safari after the rainy season because birds are abundant. But birds need water and food. Birds of prey would also disappear. Even if an array of exotic birds thrived, I would want to see elephants and the other wildlife in Zambia. I would want to know that all is right with the world because they are here for the next generation to protect and enjoy.

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