Monday, 23 September 2013

The Eternal Elephant

Elephants are probably my favourite animal - if I had to name one. All are of interest in Africa, and not just the predictable big five. I have learned more about elephants on this trip to Africa than on any of my others - perhaps because I have had more time on this trip to ask questions, but also because the guides at one camp, The Hide in Zimbabwe's Hwange national Park, were exceptional in both their enthusiasm and the depth of their knowledge. As we arrived a few days ago, it was the close of the animal census.
Two volunteers had sat counting the number of elephant that came to the Hide's large waterhole. At the end of the count, there were 452 visitors the waterhole. We saw the last bunch, arriving in family groups of 12 to 15 to 25 at a time. A truly amazing sight. The oldest in each group would signal to the rest of the family when it was time to go with a deep, chest rumble that can travel for hundreds of metres, if not kilometres. Once one group moved off, another magically appeared out of the gloom and sploshed into the water. The babies were especially neat, frolicking in the mud then flicking dust and sand onto their backs to keep the bugs off.

One of several in a herd feeding on the banks of the Chobe river. A water safari from a small six-seat tinny is a great way to creep up on wildlife - elephants and especially small birds.

A younger elephant leads the way as the family negotiate a narrow strip of
land surrounded by the Chobe river.

Sunset at the waterhole. Hwange Nat Park.
The dominant male leads the family, all suitably cloaked in dust and mud, back into the bush. This was my best shot from this sequence, with the lead elephant clearly out in front and highlighted by shooting at f4 @ 1/800s with my 300mm lens + 1.4X converter.
On average an elephant can suck up eight litres of liquid in its trunk. The trunk is also lined with pressure sensors that, along with similar sensors in the soles of the feet, detect vibrations. These are used to warn of possible danger - these receptors bypass eyes and nose and go straight to the brain - so the animal can sense danger even if it cannot see or smell warning signs.

While sitting in the Hide's own small hide, I got a bit bored. There were a few small birds, mostly ring-necked doves, poddling about on the water's edge. I looked away for a few seconds and then looked back and there was an elephant drinking from the water hole. They are very quiet. Within a minute twelve more arrived and were happily jostling for space at the water's edge.

Within a few minutes my long 300mm lens was completely useless and an increasing number of elephants came to the waterhole to drink. It was a great sight. Best tip when shooting elephants? Set the Exposure Compensation to minus one f-stop, maybe even minus 1.3 or 1.7 to compensate for the dark subject matter. If you don't, your elephants are likely to appear light grey. This can be fixed at the edit stage but it's always better to get it right from the start.

The Hide, Hwange Nat Park
(used to be called Wankie National Park)
Once the elephants have drunk enough to slake the immediate thirst, they frolic in a mud wallow to cake their skin, thus providing protection from the heat, bugs and moisture loss.
Elephants are also excellent swimmers.

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