Elephant spotting in the wild

Guests Carlos and Gladys from the Netherlands witnessed a breeding herd of elephants in the Sterkstroom Valley in early November with Makweti’s Manager Gary Parker. Gary took this image of a calf, estimated to be about four weeks old.

We all know the old saying that “an elephant never forgets” and while it is true that these giant beasts have exceptionally long memory for certain details, the same is not always true for humans, who might struggle to tell the difference between two ellies.

Elephant scientists have devised ways to recognise who’s who in the herd, as knowing each mammal as an individual is essential for research purposes. Key characteristics to look out for include body size, gender, ear pattern and tusk configuration. “One tusk can be higher than the other, or there could be specific characteristics in the ears such as notches or tears which develop over the years,” says Gary. Male elephants can grow to be up to twice the size of female elephants, while the ladies of the herd can be seen to have mammary glands between their front legs. “Female elephants have tusks which are more slender and foreheads which are more angular.”

The tail of an elephant can also have characteristics unique to that elephant – some might have straight tails while others have kinks in them. “You could even find an elephant with half a tail, where it has possibly been bitten off by a predator when it was a calf.”

Even the veins on the elephant’s ears can be used as an aid to identify an elephant, as these are as unique as a human fingerprint. African elephants have ears which are more than twice as large as that of the Asian elephant, and have a distinctive shape often described as a map of Africa.

Just the way humans are either left or right-handed, so too are elephants either left or right-tusked. “What this means is that they favour the use of one particular tusk as a tool. This usually results in the shortening of that particular tusk.”

Identifying elephants thus requires excellent observation skills and takes a bit of practice, and much like game viewing, some patience, too, since you will have to wait for the elephant to show off all of his features.

The Makweti Team

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