ELEPHANTS UP CLOSE

Elephants Up Close.jpg

Each season in the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia visitors view some wildlife they might not see another season. Elephants mostly come through Mfuwe Lodge around November for mangos, although they wander through other times of the year because the small grassy area behind the lobby is safe. Wild dogs have pups in June, and they don’t come out of their dens except to feed. Crowned cranes so abundant in November are scarce in June. We were at Mfuwe Lodge when the mangos were ripe and beckoning to Wonky Tusk, an elephant matriarch and her family.

Photographers for National Geographic filmed elephants while we were there, and experts like world-renowned naturalist Phil Berry, who happened to be in the lobby, were generous about sharing what they knew about elephants and the Luangwa Valley’s ecosystem. Later, in the lodge over tea, travelers, videographers, writers, and scientists from all over the world could hardly contain their excitement about walking safaris and game drives into the park.

The elephants in garden at Mufwe Lodge were close enough to me that I could take my time studying their skin in detail. Their big brown eyes and long eyelashes, and reptilian trunks, but kept at a safe distance by barriers to keep unwitting tourists safe.

Elephants descend from the wooly mammoth, extinct from 400,000 years ago. African elephant’s trunks have two “fingers” at the tip capable of grasping objects while Asian elephants have only one. African elephants pinch their opposing “fingers” at the end of their trunks. Asian elephants, most commonly seen in zoos, must wrap their trunks around objects to hold them like a boa constrictor grabs its prey.

We can live without our noses, but an elephant cannot survive the wild if it loses its trunk. When elephants are foraging, they pull grasses and other plants by the roots with their trunks and bang them against their legs to knock the dirt off before shoving them into their mouths. They also use their trunks to grasp bundles of tree branches to eat or to grab bark from trees after they’ve used a tusk to strip it loose. Elephant trunks are strong enough to lift an industrial refrigerator and dexterous enough to pick up a blade of grass. Elephants can also drop rocks on electric fences, swat flies, or scratch themselves using a tree branch or other vegetation held in the trunk.

An elephant’s trunk contains more than 40,000 muscles. The human body has only 639 muscles. Elephant trunks also connect to large nasal passages that allow an elephant a sense of smell up to four times as sensitive as that of a bloodhound, and they are said to be able to smell water from miles away.

Elephants eat, drink, show affection, and talk with their trunks. When they are happy to see each other or want to scare off an intruder, they hold their trunks high in the air to make sounds that vibrate like a loud trumpet. When good friends or relatives first greet after an absence, they intertwine trunks and caress each other’s faces as if to get a taste and smell of the one they are happy to see again. Mothers or extended family members use their trunks to caress and gently nudge, guide, or help babies when they need a little extra boost.

We spent our free time at Mfuwe Lodge, studying elephants up close but safely.

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