Have elephant balls
South Africa, simply beastly
A visit to the "Elephant Whisperers" in Hazyview
Text and photos: Rainer Heubeck
At the Elephant Whispers in Hazyview, Brighton Machipisa explains the body of the elephant from head to toe. The two-ton young elephant Lebua, who is rewarded with food every now and then, plays along well - and even lies on its side on command. Brighton Machipisa and a group of campers took the opportunity to look at the pachyderm's belly.
Brighton explains how the elastic pads in the elephants' legs absorb the weight as they walk. “These pads work so well that an elephant makes next to no noise when walking - it moves like a Mercedes, smoothly, quietly and with good suspension,” explains Brighton, clearly showing that the animal's front and rear feet are shaped very differently. “The front feet are round, they are shaped like a football, the two rear feet are shaped like a rugby ball. The different foot shapes help with balancing - and they have developed because the front feet have to carry more weight than the rear feet. "
Football and rugby, the two national sports of South Africa, are united in one animal that becomes all the more fascinating the closer the elephant whisperer Brighton makes us familiar with the physical characteristics of elephants and their social behavior. The importance of the feet - whether football or rugby-shaped - for the largest living land mammal should not be underestimated. Because when walking, an elephant only lifts one leg, the other three stay on the ground. "An elephant with only three functioning legs and feet can no longer move; it will inevitably die," says Brighton. In the case of minor injuries, however, elephants know how to help each other: If an elephant has a thorn in its foot, it can remove it by walking about 300 to 500 meters on soft ground - if its feet expand and contract often enough in the process, the mandrel is pressed outwards. “Our elephants here in camp don't do it that way, they just come over to us and raise their feet,” says Brighton Machipisa.
Elephants have four legs, but only two knees: “Their knees are in front of their hind feet, not in the back of their hind feet as is the case with buffalo. That's why elephants can't jump or gallop, ”adds Brighton. However, the animals are by no means slow: "A fast elephant can run at short distances of up to 45 kilometers per hour."
As an elephant whisperer, Brighton also knows how to recognize the mood of an elephant. Elephants do not cry, but if they are rutting and therefore particularly irritable, their cheeks still get moist. The fluid on your cheeks does not trickle from your eyes, but is secreted by a gland that sits between your eye and your ear. It swells when the elephant is emotionally troubled.
Ears like the African continent
When Brighton explains the anatomy of elephants, almost no part of the body is left out. The South African looks at the elephant's throat and explains how the elephant's tooth blocks are built - and that the molar banks are renewed six times during the elephant's life. He looks the elephant in the eye, explains that the long eyebrows of the elephants, which arouse the envy of many female visitors to the elephant camp, protect against mud, dust, flies, leaves and sand. He lifts Lebua's huge ear and lets the guests feel the smooth, leather-like, veined ear fans. "If you look at the ear, it's almost the same shape as the African continent, look, it's Cape Town down here," jokes Brighton.
The sensory organs of elephants are only partially related to those of humans - for example, sight is not so important for elephants. They only see black and white and blurred, but their sense of smell and hearing compensate for this deficiency. “A blind elephant,” says Brighton, “can easily survive; if you watch it, you won't even notice that it is blind.” According to Brighton, the olfactory sense of an elephant is 14 times better than that of a Saint Bernard, and this in turn perceives smells 70,000 times better than humans. "Elephants register smells up to 500 meters away, they can even pick up smells through the water," explains Brighton. Elephants are too unwieldy for use as drug sniffers at airports, but the subtle proboscis have long been used successfully in the hunt for poachers and in the search for land mines.
After so much theory in elephant whispering, the practical part now begins. And for this, Brighton did not choose the comparatively small Lebua, but the six-ton elephant giant Tembo. The 26-year-old pachyderm is a good 3.2 meters high up to his shoulders - and therefore not even fully grown. “Brave ahead” is the motto, because now is the time to stand between the elephant's legs and then - an ominously large Tembo head with two tusks above one - to have a souvenir photo taken. “It is important that you approach from the side and also walk away from the elephant to the side, then nothing can happen to you if he suddenly raises or lowers his head. And it's good if you touch the leg and pat it, because then Tembo knows that you are there. ”Using Tembo as an example, elephant whisperer Brighton explains other special features of the jungle giants. For example, that the trunk, which is traversed by more than 60,000 fiber muscles, not only serves to breathe, but also to absorb water. “A large elephant like Tembo can hold up to 25 liters of water in its trunk.” If an elephant loses its trunk, for example because a crocodile bites it off, its life becomes difficult. “But if the herd's lead cow is intelligent, it can survive. Then the lead cow can get the herd to take care of him. When it is time to drink, the other elephants come and help him, as well as when it comes to taking the mud bath, ”says Brighton.
A broken tusk is less of a problem than a damaged trunk, because tusks grow back again. They can grow between 10 and 15 centimeters per year - and if they did not break off occasionally, they could be up to three meters long. “Humans have right-handed and left-handed people, and elephants are similar,” says Brighton. The shorter of the two tusks is usually the animal's “working tusk”. It uses this particularly often when digging up roots or tearing off branches - and that's why it breaks off more often.
Elephants, as becomes clear when you visit the elephant whisperers, are extremely intelligent animals. The pachyderms in the camp obey more than eighty verbal commands. No dog would ever be able to remember so many instructions. “We didn't teach the elephants circus tricks, we don't beat them, we don't train them - we just reward their natural behavior,” says Brighton. After interacting with the elephants, visitors to the camp in Hazyview have the opportunity to go on a small horseback ride with the camp elephants. Guide Andrew chose the 13-year-old elephant Ziziphus for me, a good-natured pachyderm with a particular fondness for oranges. When the animal gets up, I hold on to Andrew, who is sitting in the saddle in front of me, then the six animals trudge in single file on a forest path that leads them close to the bank of the Sabi River.
Elephants are by no means only to be admired in South Africa at the Elephant Whispers, there are also in the Kruger National Park. This is currently even suffering from a veritable flood of elephants, because the animals, which have hardly any natural enemies within the park and are relatively safe from poachers there, have increased significantly in recent years. Experts say that an elephant population of 5,500 in Krugerpark would be ideal, 7,500 are still manageable - but more than 14,000, as is currently the case, are clearly too many.
In the Nkomazi Game Reserve
One of the most beautiful ways to see elephants is to go on an animal observation drive in a private safari park, for example the Nkomazi Game Reserve, which was created in 2008 and is located in a dreamy steppe landscape south-west of the Kruger National Park, crossed by a river. In the Nkomazi Game Reserve, Jan Kriel, a South African who has worked as a ranger in the Kruger National Park for a long time, regularly drives his guests to observe wildlife, at least when he is not busy putting out a bush fire. “My mother and father were also park rangers. When I was a child, my mother raised lions in our home. That is why I became interested in nature and animal life very early on, ”says Jan Kriel.
While he was so used to lions from an early age, Jan Kriel always had great respect for elephants. “Elephants are fascinating animals, they can skewer a peanut with their tusks, or they can kill you with it. I was afraid of them for a long time. But in order to overcome a fear you have to face it - and I did that, ”reports Jan Kriel, who has now recorded some of his most dramatic encounters with elephants in a book. Jan Kriel has drawn two important lessons from his experience in animal observation: do not disturb the animals in their comfort zone and do not strain the tolerance limit of the pachyderms and other animals by staying too long.
We are lucky on this late afternoon - after a long search in which Jan Kriel drives his off-road vehicle along the foot of a hill several times, a small herd of elephants approaches from the left and crosses the path about fifty meters in front of us. The animals, including some baby elephants, head for a group of trees with fresh green branches. Shortly afterwards, the branches are processed with trunks and tusks. "The elephants break off the branches because there is a stalk with a lot of water in the middle, they drink it," explains Jan Kriel, before after about 15 minutes he urges them to leave to give his guests giraffes, zebras, impalas, ostriches and to show a giant rhinoceros.
In contrast to a rather simple camp, as can be found in the Kruger National Park, a private game resort offers real luxury. The resort's twelve luxury tents are significantly larger than many hotel rooms - and also extremely tastefully furnished and even equipped with a shower and toilet. And since the stars in the sky can hardly be seen sparkling more clearly than here, in the African savannah, it is worthwhile to sit on the terrace in the evening. It seems almost decadent that there is not only a small swimming pool installed there, but that there is also a large, white enamel bathtub in front of the tent, in which the bather can enjoy the view of the starry sky and the sounds of the wilderness .
If you want to move on after three or four days of safari in the Nkomazi Game Reserve, there is a lot to discover in the area. For example the wild horses around Kaapsche Hoop. Or the Adams Calendar, a mysterious rock formation that is said to be around 75,000 years old. It is worthwhile to take the Mietwangen along the Panorama Route from Hazyview to the north. "Gods Window", the up to eight hundred meters deep Blyde River Canyon, the "Burke's Luck Potholes" and the three "Rondavels", three rocks that are reminiscent of huge African round huts, are just some of the scenic features that make this trip an unforgettable one Make experience.
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