I was never really a big fan of elephants. Their size and tusks terrified me! Whenever my family and I went camping at the Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape, I used to quickly drive past the elephant bulls just in case they were in musth and I didn’t notice. Then during our trip in the summer of 2011 we saw a young elephant bull with a broken leg. Apparently he was in a fight with another bull a couple of weeks before when this incident happened. We saw him almost every day.
On our second last day at the park my parents and I spotted a crane somewhere on Mpunzi Loop, so we decided to drive there and have a look. It was the young elephant bull. He was dead. We watched as the rangers removed his tusks and documented everything. We didn’t stay long, so as soon as we got to our campsite I jumped into my car and drove back to the site hoping to see some hyenas feeding on the carcass at some point during the day. But what happened next astonished me!
A very large elephant bull walked towards the carcass and started behaving very strangely around it. I was so focused on this bull’s behaviour that I didn’t notice an entire herd coming towards the carcass from behind. The matriarch immediately chased the bull away from the carcass and then turned towards my tiny green Hyundai Atos and stared straight at me. I was the only car on Mpunzi Loop that morning and my engine was switched off. The next minute she initiated a mock charge on me with about four or five other cows following her lead. I was completely paralyzed by fear and just prayed that Abba Father would keep me safe. After only a few seconds the elephants calmed down and the dust settled. I still couldn’t move and could hardly breathe. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. What a relief nothing bad happened! Things could have gone wrong so easily in this situation! I wanted to drive off immediately once I realised what had just happened, but I couldn’t. The behaviour of the elephants towards each other and the carcass fascinated me, so I stayed.
The elephants stood around the carcass trying to push it back on its’ feet, almost as if they couldn’t accept the death of their beloved family member. What was quite interesting was that the cows didn’t want the bulls or calves near the carcass when they were there. They were extremely dominant. After the cows gave way, the larger bulls stood around the carcass. One of which is the largest tusker in Addo, a former Kruger bull. The younger bulls followed and the calves were last in line. I sat in my car for eight hours that day just watching their behaviour. It was the longest and most exhausting sit of my entire life, but it was worth every minute!
But the day wasn’t just very long, it was also very emotional. I have never seen, nor have I ever felt so much love before in my life. There was something about their relationships with one another that was just truly amazing! It’s one of those things that cannot be explained in words. You have to experience it in order to understand it. All I can say is that it touched my heart!
Closer to the end of the day I noticed that the elephants were pouring dust on their heads which was something I’ve never seen before! Yes, elephants do cover their entire bodies in mud and dust to protect their skin from the harsh rays of the sun, but this was different. They literally just poured dust on their foreheads whilst making the most intense melancholy sounds. That evening when I got back to our campsite, I shared my day’s experiences with my parents. My dad reminded me that in Scripture ashes have to do with mourning and that is exactly what they were doing – mourning.
The next morning I was the first to arrive at the park’s gate. When I got to Mpunzi Loop I found what I was initially waiting for the previous day. Spotted hyenas and black backed jackals were feasting on the carcass. Bloodcurdling laughs and the cracking of bones pierced the silence every now and then. One hyena decided to come closer for inspection and tried jumping up against my car (Not too cool when you drive with all your windows open…).
After nearly an hour of watching these carnivores tear the carcass apart, I heard rumbles and trumpeting coming from behind. The next minute the matriarch stormed straight towards the hyenas! She once again lead the charge, but this time it was a full on charge, not just a mock charge. The hyenas and jackals ran off, but didn’t stray too far from where the carcass laid. I sat and watched in amazement as they defended their beloved’s lifeless, ripped apart body. Within minutes everything settled and they gathered around the carcass like the day before.
There was a cool breeze in the air this morning with rainclouds covering the sky. It was almost as if nature felt their loss. That morning I heard elephants cry. I saw the tears rolling down their cheeks and the heartache in their eyes. It was indeed a day of mourning…
Then the matriarch who initiated the mock charge on me the previous day, as well as the charge on the hyenas that morning, came up towards my car with another elephant cow. They stopped and just stared at me for a few seconds. My car’s engine was off, once again, but I felt calmness and just stared back at them. Then the matriarch came right up to me and greeted me (elephant style). The moment was so overwhelming that I just burst into tears thanking Abba Father for this incredible encounter! They accepted me.
Ever since that wonderful encounter, I have gained so much more respect for these majestic creatures. I can sit and watch them for hours on end and don’t mind them getting up-close and personal, which is something they do quite often. They are truly Africa’s gentle giants.