There’s a little-visited area of Hwange National Park that has no standing water, yet it attracts large herds of elephant. They dig for water in underground seeps and there are the remains of a ramshackle old hide nearby from where you can watch. On this occasion we were there for 24 hours conducting a game count. One trio of elephants – a mum, a sub-adult daughter and a much younger son – stood out from the rest by their odd behaviour. Mum allowed the daughter to access her seep, but every time junior tried to get his trunk in, mum shoved him away.
This went on all afternoon and the poor little chap was getting very distressed, desperate for a drink. It was quite upsetting to watch. Then, as dusk approached, junior was eventually allowed to drink, but while he was preoccupied, making up for lost time, mum and daughter slipped away into the bush leaving the lad alone with the grown-ups. All night we watched him hunting around for mother. By daybreak he had calmed down and was taking his turn at the seeps.
(Photo: Elephants, Zimbabwe © Paul Murray)
Why did mum abandon him? Surely elephants are supposed to have highly developed social and family structures? What would now happen to this lonely little elephant? At about 09.00 the answer became clear. In the distance we saw two elephants running in at nearly full speed: mum and daughter. They found junior and amidst much joyful trumpeting and wrapping of trunks, the trio were reunited. Surely there is only one explanation: this was the youngster’s first lesson in fending for himself. Full marks to mum for devising such a clever way to leave him on his own, safe in the knowledge that he was in the good hands of the rest of the herd.