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.