17 August 2012 by Julienne du Toit

Elephants – a photographic tribute

Africa has been shaped by elephants. Its savannahs might have been overgrown woodlands were it not for these gigantic beasts. And southern Africa is an elephant stronghold.

A clear intelligence shines out of their eyes. Photo Chris Marais

Africa, unlike most other continents, still has megafauna. And no creature qualifies for the title more than an elephant. Weighing in at 6 tons or more, it is the heaviest land animal. It is intelligent, beautiful, comical and critical to the ecosystem.

 

Photo Chris Marais

 

Ecologists are starting to think that this continent would look vastly different without elephants. Apparently there are dozens of African trees whose seeds cannot grow until they have been through an elephant’s digestive tract.

 

Photo Chris Marais

 

In fact, scientists often refer to them as ecological engineers. (More whimsical people prefer descriptions like 'the gardeners of Eden'.) They knock down and uproot trees, and create the right environment for other plants to grow. They physically create waterholes by digging, and carry away vast quantities of earth on their bodies.

 

Photo Chris Marais

 

It's astonishing to consider now, but in the early 1900s there were almost no elephants left in South Africa thanks to ivory hunters. In the Eastern Cape, there was a small but persecuted population. When their numbers had sunk to only 11, a public outcry resulted in the creation of a sanctuary. This became the Addo Elephant National Park (declared in 1931). Owing to ivory hunting and a genetic bottleneck, nearly 98% of the females there remain tuskless.

 

Photo Chris Marais

 

Elephants play more than most other species. One of the best places to see this is at a waterhole, especially at sunset. The calves and sub-adults act like human youngsters do when confronted with glorious mud and water.

Douglas Chadwick, writing for National Geographic in 1991, said: 'Their range of emotions and the intensity – the freedom – with which they express them seem to spill over to the observer. How else to explain why the sight of elephants together gives such a burst of pleasure?'

 

Photo Chris Marais

 

Elephants have superb senses, but eyesight is arguably their weakest. As a result they are especially irritated by lights being shone in their eyes at night. Their hearing is superb, but is not limited to their ears alone. They pick up each other's infrasonic rumbles through their feet. Sometimes you'll see them looking thoughtful and holding one foot above the earth.

Would humans have evolved in Africa if it weren't for elephant? Zoologist Sylvia Sikes once asked, 'Given the elephant's dynamic role in promoting biological diversity in the tropical forests and savannah woodland, what influence might its kind have had on the long sequence of primate evolution that led to Homo sapiens? Who planted the tree where our ancestors were born?'

Category: Wildlife

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