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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Big Five: African Elephant Part I

It has been SOOO hard to keep up with blogging. We returned from Africa only to have all the craziness that goes with the start of the semester. So far, I have only managed a single safari post and that was just an overview. Tonight, let me start a series of posts regarding the "Big Five". I was only vaguely aware of the term "Big Five" before researching our safari and knew it had something to do with trophy hunters. In fact, the term refers to the five game species hunters sought that were both dangerous to humans and provided fascinating trophies. From the hides of lion and leopard to the horns of rhinos and buffalo to the tusks of elephants, the Big Five seem to still be the standard many safari-goers judge their experience by. We saw several tour companies that incorporated the big five in their name and/or logo and many more that took great pains to feature those species on their websites and in their itineraries. Don't get me wrong, we wanted to see them too. But that is only because we wanted to see EVERYTHING.

African elephant with injured trunk
(Serengeti National Park, Tanzania 8/2011)
 Of the Big Five, it is usually the leopard that is hardest to spot. That was true in our experience. We only saw two leopards (one in Kenya and one in Tanzania... but that will be the subject of another post!). In contrast, we saw hundreds of elephants. We visited seven parks/reserves and I believe we saw elephants in all of them. This posting includes some of my favorite elephant photos:
Short trunk: Laura was the one to notice that the elephant pictured to the right had an extremely shortened trunk. It appeared to have been severed. Our guide guessed that perhaps it had been accidently caught in a poacher's snare. The elephant appeared to be healthy and since they live so long, this injury could have been sustained many, many years ago. Still, one has to think this is a hinderance! We saw the elephants do some truely amazing things with their trunks. This girl seems to have thrived despite her injury.

African elephant in the "swamp"
(Amboseli National Park, Kenya 8/2011)
 "Swamps": In several parks, most memorably Amboseli National Park in Kenya, wetlands were present that our guides called "swamps". In the US, we would call these areas "marshes" as they were dominated by soft, emergant vegetation (that is, plants that grow up through or emerge from the water). Swamps are dominated by standing timber (dead or alive). The softer vegetation would be easier to digest and although we saw elephants of many different ages in these African "swamps", they are most essential to the oldest elephants who have worn teeth and can no longer process the tougher foods found elsewhere. It was amazing to see the elephants  feeding as they were partially submerged in the water. From a distance, it appeared that they were standing in high grass. But the white cattle egrets walking on the ground would give away the true situation (There is one under the ear of the elephant in the foreground and two near the elephants int he background.). The elephant in the photo above has just gathered a large trunkful of soft vegetation and is about to bring it to his mouth (Imagine how the elephant with the injured trunk would accomplish this!?!). Note how the trunk looks dark because it is wet.

African elephants
(Amboseli National Park, Kenya 8/2011)
 Family: In the final photo for this entry, have a look at the dark line on each of these elephants. They have clearly just gotten wet, perhaps from a river crossing or perhaps from venturing into a swamp. Since each elephant was a different height, each faced a different challenge when negotiating the water. You can almost trace a straight line through each of them and imagine the depth of the water! Well, almost all of them. The little guy looks completely dark and must have been completely submerged at one point :)

We all agreed that the "ellies" (as our Australian relatives would say) were favorites and we simply did not tire of seeing them. I will have to write another post or two about them to do them justice.....

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