Elephants Everywhere

We’ve seen lots of African elephants on our trip — in South Africa, Namibia, and especially, Botswana.

In some places in Botswana, there are herds of elephants right by the side of the road (and numerous road signs reminding drivers to slow down and watch out for elephants.)

Elephants on the side of the highway
Elephants on the side of the highway

In Chobe National Park (Botswana’s second-largest national park), there are more than 70,000 elephants!  Because there are so many, in the past, they’ve taken some to Mozambique and Angola.  But the stories about elephants having good memories are true:  many of the elephants taken to different countries actually found their way back to Botswana.

As we’ve traveled, we’ve learned lots about elephants.  Here are a few things we’ve seen and learned:

– Elephants can snorkel!  Elephants are great swimmers.  In Chobe, we saw a male elephant swim across the river to feed on the long grasses there.  The females swim also, but not when they have babies to protect.  Rather than leaving their young alone and vulnerable to predators, females will wait until their babies are grown.

Snorkeling elephant
Snorkeling elephant

– However, although they may not swim across a river, they will certainly take a bath!  We saw more elephants than we could count swimming and bathing at this watering hole near the Botswana border, in South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve.

First, we saw a few bathing...
First, we saw a few bathing…
Then, more and more kept coming...
Then, more and more kept coming…

– We saw elephants eating grass — but also elephants eating soil!  The soil gives them minerals and salts that their bodies need.

Elephants eating soil
Elephants eating soil

– We learned that elephants will “mock charge.”  When you hear an elephant trumpet, it’s often a challenge.  Our guide in Chobe told us that if an elephant trumpets at you, you should stand your ground.  It’s usually just a challenge.  If you run, the elephant will be more likely to chase you.

– Speaking of danger and elephants, we learned to give certain male elephants a wide berth.  Which ones?  Those in “must,” which means they’re in their mating season.  You can spot an elephant in must because he looks like he’s crying:  there’s a gland behind the eyes that secretes a fluid, which runs down the sides of the elephant’s face.  These elephants can be aggressive, and it’s best to steer clear of them.

Elephant in must
Elephant in must
Close-up of fluid behind elephant's eye
Close-up of fluid behind elephant’s eye

– In some parks and reserves, drivers are encouraged not to drive over elephant dung.  Why?  Because it provides a habitat for insects and beetles.

And from some of the books we’ve read, here are a few other facts:

– Baby elephants grow inside their mother’s womb for nearly 2 years (22 months) before they are born.  Calves weigh up to 260 lbs (120 kg) at birth!

– An elephant’s brain weighs about 13 pounds.  And its heart?  A whopping 44 pounds!  To compensate for its tremendous size, an elephant’s skull has air spaces, to help reduce the weight.

– Because elephants are so big, they generate a lot of heat.  To help prevent overheating, their big ears contain a network of blood vessels.  An elephant’s blood cools as it travels through its thin-skinned ears.  This is one of the reasons elephants flap their ears — to cool off.

– The elephant’s trunk is an extension of its upper lip.  It’s a multipurpose organ — for feeding, drinking, washing and socializing (and snorkeling!)  Newborns have little control over their trunks and have to learn to use them in a coordinated way.

– Both males and females have tusks.  Most tusks are between 5 and 7 3/4 feet.  Tusks typically weigh 50-100 lbs.  The record tusk length is 11 1/2 feet — and the heaviest tusk ever recorded is 236 pounds.

Here’s a video we took in Chobe National Park of a snorkeling elephant and elephants eating soil.


Study Guide Questions

1. Why would an elephant eat soil?

2. True or False, the elephant’s trunk is part of its leg.

3. What is one sign that a male elephant is in must?

4. Is the time an elephant baby spends inside its mother’s womb longer or shorter than the time a human baby spends inside the womb?

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