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Written by Isaiah Banda

Another incredible month at Kwafubesi Tented Safari Camp has come and gone, leaving guests, and guides alike with special memories that will last a lifetime. Although there is something magical about winter in the bush, the beautiful greens of summer and the rich vibrancy of life across the landscape rejuvenate one’s soul. It is always so gratifying for me to spend time with wild animals.

Changes in the seasons throughout the year bring different benefits to all the organisms in the natural ecosystem. As another incredible month on Mabula Private Game Reserve comes to a close, we reflect with fondness on the extraordinary highlights shared with our guides and guests. Beyond the tangible achievements and transformations, the greatest highlight lies in sharing the beauty of our reserve with our guests and instilling a love and passion for our natural world.

Pharyngeal pouch of an elephants,

Elephants are one of the most intelligent and astonishing animals we have walking on Mabula Private Game Reserve. With them also being the biggest land-living mammal in the world, they have many adaptations to make their survival rate so successful. Water plays a big role in the majority of an animal’s life and without water, it is almost impossible to survive.

Most of us and guests who have been on safari before and have spent time with these gentle giants and have likely heard a very low rumble noise from breeding herds or even bulls. If not, maybe you have seen an elephant putting its trunk in its mouth and then spraying water over themselves, all this without drinking water from a waterhole. How is this possible?

Elephants have something we call the “pharyngeal pouch” and where is the pharyngeal pouch situated? It is situated behind the tongue, in the upper part of the throat. Perfectly positioned to receive water as the elephant drinks from a waterhole. This pouch has multiple uses for elephants and is essential for their everyday life. It absorbs water when the elephant drinks water and then stores the water, up to 4 litres, in the pouch. This is all for elephants to regurgitate water from the pouch to drink it if they can’t find any water or struggle to find water.

This comes in very handy especially in drier areas where water is not always available. The pharyngeal pouch will be used as a last resort for water as they don’t want to use all their reserves and be stuck with no water, which can lead to dehydration of the animal. Elephants also use these pharyngeal pouches for communication. They communicate in multiple ways which include to touch one another, visual displays as well as vocalisation.

Another way for elephants to communicate, is the rumbling noises that they produce with the pharyngeal pouch. The rumbling sound we hear are the muscles in the pouch pulling together and relaxing again, rushing the water with high pressure through the pouch, which will then give off a certain message to the rest of the herd. This can sometimes sound like a sort of stomach rumble or even a nasal sound that is being produced, but don’t be fooled, this is indeed the pharyngeal pouch pulling its muscles together and relaxing it again.

Another good use for the pouch is for cows that have calves. On warmer days, elephants spray their body full of mud and water to bring down their body temperatures. In drier times, when water is not always available, the cow can regurgitate water from her pharyngeal pouch, put her trunk in her mouth to suck the water up and spray herself and her calf to cool down. They can also use these pouches as a heat absorption method, moving most of the body heat towards the pouch, which is filled with cool water, cooling the body temperature down.

When elephant drink, about 4 litres of water moves straight to the pharyngeal pouch where it remains. The pouch has plenty of muscles around it that can squeeze the opening to open and closed so food and other water can move over the pouch, down the throat and into the stomach. Every time the elephant drinks water, the water in the pouch will be refreshed and the ‘old water’ will move down into the stomach.

With elephants being water dependent animals, they need to drink on average between 100 – 150 litres of water per day. If they can’t find water, they also use their tusks and trunks to dig in drainage lines in dry riverbeds to get down to the water table and get fresh water. The pharyngeal pouch will be a last resort if they are desperate. Luckily here at Mabula water is available all year round. When elephants can’t find any water, the body will slowly start absorbing water from this pouch, just enough for their body functions to operate as normal without dehydrating itself. This can keep the elephant going for days without drinking water but is not the perfect situation.

This pharyngeal pouch can almost be seen as a life pouch that elephants can rely on in times of need or stress. With their massive size, these animals need all the adaptations they can get to survive in the harsh elements of the African bush. It just goes to show again how incredible mother nature is.

Until next time…
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.
Safari Greetings.