Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether summer clothe the general earth
With greeness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Close Encounters of the Elephant Kind

We are back in Africa now as I still have a couple of posts to do about my visit there earlier this year. For Steve and Hannah it was still term time and although they took some leave there were a couple of days when Juliette and I had to amuse ourselves. On one of these days we went to Elelphant Whispers.

There are six elephants living here and all have been rescued from planned culling operations at various game reserves and now spend their time as 'elephant ambassadors'. They are used to teach visitors about elephants and to allow close interaction with these magnificent animals. All are young elephants the oldest being Tembo who is 27 years old. The four in the above photo are Medwa, Andile, Shamwari and Ziziphus.

Andile has been asked to lie down so that we can go up and really look at her closely. She is a young elephant still in her teens.

A good portion of an elephant's foot is composed of fibrous fatty tissue which acts as a shock absorber. It's like an elastic spongy cushion which helps the elephant maintain its grip on the ground and also allows it to move silently. When I pushed on the sole of Andile's foot I could feel it give quite substantially. You can see the huge toe nails here as well but these aren't actually attached to the toes and there are only four toenails whereas there are five toes buried deep inside the foot.

I found this illustration which shows the inside of the foot which doesn't look the way you'd expect. The elephant essentially walks on tiptoe!

Andile is showing us her teeth and tongue in this photo. Clicking on it will give you a better view. Her tongue feels like smooth satin when you touch it. An elephant has six sets of molars during its lifetime and as a tooth wears out from the constant grinding another one pushes forward to replace it. The worn down teeth wear off onto a shelf which eventually breaks off and falls out.The final set of molars appear when an elephant is about 30 years old and last until around the age of 65.  As the final molar breaks down it becomes increasingly difficult for the elephant to break down and digest food and the main cause of death in mature elephants isn't old age but starvation.

The thick, wrinkled skin helps elephants stay cool because water gets trapped inside the wrinkles and evaporates slowly thus cooling the elephant. And just look at those eyelashes!

Elephant's use their ears to help regulate their body temperature. The back of the ear has a huge network of veins and capillaries and the hot blood from the arteries is cooled as it filters through them before returning to the body.  They are used for signalling too - if you see an elephant with its ears spread wide it means it sees you as a potential threat!

Time for Tembo to take centre stage now as we take it in turns to stand between his front legs to have our photograph taken with him. I'm actually leaning against him and feeling extremely small!  Those magnificent ivory tusks are used to dig for water, salt or roots, for debarking trees and on occasion for fighting.

There was only one young couple there at the same time as us and they had only booked to do the interaction. Juliette and I had also booked to go for a ride and there were just the two of us for this part of session. We were lucky as the previous day had been very busy and we wouldn't have had quite as much time with the elephants when a large group were there. I was riding Lindiwe as she is the smallest elephant and as I have back problems I was told that the smaller elephant was a wiser choice.

Riding an elephant is an odd feeling to begin with, like camels they get up front feet first but the motion is different once they start to walk - I've ridden both horses and camels and it isn't like either. Apparently some people get motion sickness and we were told to tell our handler if necessary as there is an emergency stop command for the elephants!

Happily Juliette and I were fine and once I had adjusted to the rhythm I felt I could have gone on all day. Although only two elephants were being ridden all of them came on the walk presumably because they like to move as a herd.

Here I am saying 'thank you for a lovely ride' to Lindiwe, she is very keen to accept the treats I'm offering:) Her trunk is incredibly sensitive and can pick up something as small as a blade of grass. It's used for smelling, drinking, feeding and as an exploratory organ rather as we would use our fingers. It also gets used as a snorkel when they are swimming.
It was a really wonderful experience, being so close to these magnificent creatures and spending time with them was a real privilege and something I shall never forget.


Gretel said...

Oh how wonderful! What a fantastic experience, I adore elephants and would love to do something like this - next best thing is reading this and looking at the amazing pictures. Thank you!

Roy said...

What an amazing experience Rowan, yes you looked very small and slightly apprehensive {:).
Great Sun Hat.

Pomona said...

Quite amazing animals - really an unforgettable experience!

Pomona x

Dartford Warbler said...

It is good to hear that some of the elephants threatened by the culls have found a new place of safety.

What an incredible day you had. Thank you for passing on some of the things you learned. The educational aspect of the elephant sanctuary is what will probably do the most good in the long term.

I found the foot diagrams particularly interesting, compared to the structure and function of a horse`s foot/hoof. Amazing adaptation in both species.

Dog Trot Farm said...

What an interesting post! I am an elephant lover and your adventure is something I have dreamed of for a very long time. How wonderful for you to experience this fascinating journey! Thank you so much for sharing. Julie.

Mac n' Janet said...

Lucky you! I have always been very fond of elephants, would love to have shared a day with them as you did. I did get to ride one once at a zoo, but to do it in Africa, how incredible.

Kadeeae said...

Such an adventure!

Thanks for posting the lovely photos, what glorious creatures :)

Gracie said...

I've always loved elephants, they are so big and strong, but I see in them lots of tenderness as well....maybe I'm wrong, I've never been closed to them (exept just one time as a very young child, I was put on one baby elephant to have my photo taken in a circus, but I guess this won't do!).

Rosie said...

Looks as if you had a very rewarding and extraordinary day with those wonderful creatures. Something you will always remember:)

Cottage Tails said...

Oh wow I really enjoyed your blog post.
What an awesome experience.
Sounds like the elephants are well cared for.
Thank you for sharing
Love Leanne

Janet said...

What a fantastic experience! Elephants are such majestic animals and what a thrill it must have been to ride one and to be able to learn about them in such a small, intimate group.

laoi gaul~williams said...

oh rowan how amazing!
you are so lucky to have been so close to them, what an experience!

i love elephants and always call the babies 'poly-poly' from the film 'An Elephant Called Slowly' :)

John said...

Having seen all sorts of wildlife programmes about elephants I thought I knew all about them - how wrong I was. Thank you, Rowan, for such an interesting blog.

WOL said...

I hope I never live in a world that has no room for elephants.

Penny said...

What a wonderful experience. I have never seen in an elephants mouth and it was so interesting. Thank you!

Piecefulafternoon said...

What an amazing adventure!!!

Hollace said...

I had no idea you could relate to elephants like this.
I'd like some of those elephant shock absorbers for my feet, too.

Bovey Belle said...

What a wonderful experience. I never knew that they used elephants for teaching people about them, but a wonderful idea - and life-saving for those elephants too.

OurGangof7 said...

Hi I have just discovered your blog through the Down to Earth Forums and have been falling in love with those elephants lol. I have sat here gazing at the pics for the last few minutes, I so want to go to Africa!!!
I look forward to reading more of your blog.

Thimbleanna said...

Ohmygosh Rowan! How fantastic! I would think it would be a little scary too though, they're so BIG! My son is going to SA next year, I should tell him to look into this place -- I think he would really love it. I love the picture of you standing in front of the elephant -- what a wonderful memory!

Anonymous said...

Hello Rowan,
thank you for the lovely comment on my blog.
What a marvellous post, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your amazing experience with the elephants. I found all the little details about their teeth and feet etc. fascinating. I am delighted to have learned so much about one of my favourite animals.

Anonymous said...

What an incredible experience Rowan, lots of great memories, did you know elephants are lucky and you happened to ride on one! ;)
Have a great week,
Hugs Rosemary...XX

Anonymous said...

That is so fantastic. I love the pictures. You must have had such a wonderful time !!
Have a great day.

Jane said...

Great pics and story. The pic with Andile showing us her teeth, her trunk looks most tree-like. You were brave to stand so close!

Rita M said...

What an amazing adventure Rowan,thank you for sharing thus interesting post.

Have a nice evening,

Jayne said...

Wow! How lovely to get so close to an elephant, and thank you for sharing so much detail - really nice to read. :)

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

How lucky you are to have been so close with an elephant. They are one of my most favourite animals. So intelligent and so beautiful. I loved this post!!

Diane said...

What a fabulous experience Rowan - a great honour. You and your family were so lucky and I'm glad you shared it with us. xx

thesnailgarden said...

What an amazing experience! Pj x

Mary said...

I loved learning so much more about elephants from this post Rowan. The pics of you are great. I will be doing an elephant ride later this year in Thailand and then again when I return to Botswana next year. I feel less uneasy now I've seen you interact with these magnificent and huge creatures.

Thanks for sharing this excitement.