Written by Isaiah Banda
As the season changes. The terrain is slowly transforming from the bright greens of summer to golden-brown hues of winter. The rains we had this year were amazing, with the rivers full and the water tables high.
Animals were spoilt for choice, guides as well with great sightings, with the vegetation being full and lush for the months leading up to now. However, as the temperatures begin to drop and days grow shorter, the landscape begins to change around us.
Where once the drainage lines boasted water and the dams were full to bursting, water levels are now dropping, slowly but steadily. The wallows with enough slushy mud to coat an elephant are now hardened, with only deep footprints as evidence they were being visited regularly by all those animals who enjoy a good mud bath, including the buffalo and warthog. A highlight of this month was a phone call from our Reserve Manager, Ivan Killian, inviting me to join the reserve team on an elephant bull darting to be fitted with a collar for reserve management research and monitoring. Now, this is the type of call you don’t want to miss and hesitate to give an answer. And my answer was yes, yes and yes!
We all got together at Kiewiets corner waiting for the vet and helicopter to arrive, briefing was done. Vet and helicopter took to the sky heading to the area where the elephant herd was seen with the bull to be darted. After a few minutes there was a radio call, “Brian…come in Brian, the dart is in you can approach.” On arrival, the bull was about to go down and we waited for few minutes for the dart to take effect. He was quickly placed in a correct and comfortable way for the vet to work on the elephant. Tusk, foot, height, tail and trunk measurements were all taken and recorded. It was amazing to see that the bull was measuring a height of 3.2 meters. What a pleasure to be part of darting one of these majestic animals on the reserve.
Being so big and strictly herbivorous, they have a pretty impressive appetite to uphold and have only one smallmouth within which all the food needs to go. The ability to eat their entire body weight in plant matter in about 20 days seems like an unbelievable task. Their teeth are essentially made up of one long molar, with cross-sectional ridges. These are constantly being renewed or replaced as they are relentlessly worn down while feeding. However, they have six sets of teeth that run on a ‘conveyor belt system’ of sort, as the front of the teeth wear down, the ridges break off and are replaced with new ones pushing through from the back.
Elephants stand pretty tall and being able to feed would be a challenge so they needed the means to get the food into their mouths and thus evolved the trunk, an arm like appendage with very prehensile finger-like protrusions on the end. Strong enough to lift up to 136kg and even more but delicate enough to pick up the smallest of marula fruit. All being done with a dense collection of about 50 000 muscle fibres and absolutely no bones in the trunk. Some fibres run in a longitudinal direction in the trunk that allows the elephant to lift it up and move from side to side.
There are also circular muscles that allow the elephant to expand and contract the trunk as well, this is particularly helpful when stretching for branches at the top of the tree, sucking up water and spraying it into their mouths, or holding their trunk up tight when running. When thinking about our arms, it is clear that we need the bones for the support and strength, in the elephant’s case – they don’t. The trunk is made of solid muscle and adds a tremendous weight to the head resulting in a shortened neck situated close to their forelimbs for extra support.
Natural selection has given elephants the advantage of a long trunk, which helps to reach some high branches, however, there is another advantage their trunks are mostly to help with drinking. If we look at a giraffe, they have to bend their heads right down to drink and so in this case having a smaller head is beneficial.
With a smaller head, the giraffe in turn has a smaller brain size. By elephants evolving a straw-like trunk helping them drink, they could afford to have larger heads and brains, and therefore better cognition and thought the process. We know that elephants are intelligent but cannot specifically link this to their ability to drink with their trunk.
Constantly roaming and feeding, elephants spend most of their lives on their feet, meaning the feet play a huge role in the elephant’s survival as they deal with the colossal weight above them. The surface area of their feet is not that much bigger than the soles of an average man’s foot. So how does it carry its weight? Firstly, there is no marrow in the middle of the leg bones, making them firm to hold the weight. Secondly, its foot has a large soft cartilage pad in the heel which compresses and lifts like a spring, acting as a shock absorber. The front of the foot is structured as though it is standing on tip-toes and pushing off a huge heel-pad.
So in short, elephants evolved many ways in which to survive and occupy a niche. They evolved the trunk to help them feed and drink, however their high-fibre food then needed to be processed and in turn they evolved six sets of large ridged molars. To process their excessive diets their gut size increased too. To get enough food they needed to move around a lot and migrate, their adapted feet which could bare their weight for lengthy periods of time was the solution. If the trunk and ability to drink without bending down was a contributing factor to brain size, this would help them remember migration routes and feeding sites as well as water holes along the way. All contributing to the large, but successful body size of one of Africa’s Giants.
Elephant may be able to get information they need by simply sniffing, if not the elephant will collect the substance on the tip of trunk. Once collected on the trunk this chemical information is passed on to the vomeronasal organ on the roof of the mouth for interpretation. This type of process is known as the flehmen response. Information gained is sent onto the brain. In front of the vomeronasal organ is a row of pores known as palatal pits. These pores may work to enhance chemical communication by interpreting molecular information brought to the trunk for inspection.
One of the other exciting activities I enjoy the most is a guided bush walk. This month I decided to give my guests a different experience. With a backpack on and shoes tied tightly, we headed off on foot to experience a whole new side of the Mabula bush. We all know that the main activity when you visit a lodge is the safari drives, and while they are the main focus, bush walks are equally as stimulating.
The feeling of walking through the bush is very different and gives another perspective on what the safari experience is about. One of the aspects that I enjoy the most about bushwalks is knowing that you are walking along the same paths as many animals have before you, and as you walk along these paths you can see evidence of that almost everywhere – be it the track of a large bull elephant, or the tracks of buffalo that seem to be cemented in the ground from when the soil was wet and has since then dried out. This concept really gives the sense of being one with nature when walking.
When you walk through the bush you are completely immersed in nature, the sound and feel of the safari vehicle are gone and it’s just you and the bush. You are able to hear the many sounds around you, both near and far – such as the sound of the hooves of zebra running across the plains, or branches breaking as a herd of elephants move in the distance. The wingbeats of birds become louder and you begin to look using your ears and not only your eyes.
Animals and trees seem larger and yourself much smaller on a walk, and coming across antelope is suddenly a different experience all over again as you see life from their level and perspective. As you stand there and watch their constantly moving ears flicking back and forth, listening for the slightest bit of movement, you begin to do the same and become much more aware of your surroundings.
While walking, you are also able to focus on many smaller things such as flowers, trees, grass and insects and you will notice how all these things around you, however small, play an integral role in sustaining the natural environment. A very simple example that causes a chain reaction is the pollination of bees. Bees pollinate plants and are therefore responsible for their abundance, the plants in turn are eaten by herbivores who are then eaten by carnivores. This shows how the smallest organisms can play the largest role in keeping balance in an ecosystem.
Walking rejuvenates your mind and keeps you active, and it is something that has come in handy throughout lockdown. While many of us have been unable to go for a walk in the bush, a walk through a nature sanctuary or to the local park has done wonders! I look forward to going back and being able to experience these bush walks with people from all walks of life again! So, the next time you visit, put on your walking shoes with us and let’s explore!
Our new males are settling in nicely on the reserve. It’s true that the reserve is never quite complete without the sound of lions roaring across the reserve. The wild, guttural roars echoing through the valley will bring chills down the back of even the most experienced guests.
The sound of a lion conjures both fear and wonder, taking your mind back to a time before technology when people still roamed the bush freely, and the sound of lions meant one thing: be careful! A roar is the real sound of Africa, and something that no guest will ever forget when they hear it for the first time. In general, the males have been very mobile in the reserve over the last few weeks of their release from the boma, as they explore the area and find the places that suit them best. We’ve been seeing them move from one area to another and mostly favouring central parts of the reserve.
The Kalahari, where these male lions were born, is more open scrub and grassland, whereas Mabula is much thicker, gullies and koppie. This change in situation does not seem to have stopped these wonderful and healthy creatures adapting to the dense bush, and they have already made a number of kills which include wildebeest, zebras and impalas.
The males have already begun mating with a lioness on several occassions. We have seen all three males getting turns to mate with her. Our hope is we may soon have a few new additions to the Mabula family. Cubs will certainly change the dynamics of the pride.
The general game in the area must have had a shock when they realised all of a sudden there are three new huge maned predators. It seems like the plains game have started to change their behaviour as they become more aware of their new nemesis and now spending most of the time on Serengeti plains.
All in all, we are extremely excited to see what else the male lions get up to in their first year on Mabula; and hopefully we will see cubs very soon. We are really looking forward to keeping everyone up to date.
It really is something special to be able to witness the changes happening around us. Day by day, we notice even the small details, that over time build up and result in a complete transformation of the bush, to the point where you cannot fathom that you are in the same reserve. Nature is an amazing thing, which is why we are so passionate about protecting this environment and share it with those willing to open themselves up to all that nature has to offer.
That is all for this month, until next month again…. Enjoy reading.
From Isaiah Banda & Mabula family.