Coming across elephants while out on a game drive at Abelana Game Reserve is always a highlight, but when Abelana River Lodge safari guide Annie White encountered a young elephant bull on a recent drive with guests, some unexpected behaviour made for an interesting and exciting sighting, which was captured on camera!
Put simply, the young bull engaged in what we in the safari industry like to call “showing off”. To begin with, as Annie observes, he approaches the vehicle along the road but pretends not to notice it and engages in what’s known as pseudo feeding, picking at grasses along the way without actually putting them in his mouth while taking time to “suss out” the situation.
The bull then appears to make his exit into the bush, but instead takes a circuitous route back towards the vehicle before rushing at it, attempting to intimidate everyone with a mock-charge, spreading his large ears to make himself look big and aggressive and waving the vehicle off with his trunk. This is the elephant’s way of saying “look how big and strong I am so you better go away!” Annie talks firmly and calmly to him to let him know that she sees him – telling the young elephant that she knows what he’s doing. He retreats, pauses, pretends to feed some more… But Annie knows what’s coming next – another mock charge! He turns around and raises his head, ears out and Annie begins to “talk him down”, using a calm tone of voice to announce to the elephant that she and her guests are there, and that they do not represent a danger. He seems to think twice before making another, half-hearted run at the vehicle, where everyone is calm and relaxed. Annie talks calmly again to him and once more he retreats, still posturing, apparently walking away, through the bush, back to the road, where he turns and once more runs at the vehicle, this time kicking sand at it with one of his front feet! Annie continues to talk him down, and he finally finishes his display, retreating back the way he came!
It’s a thrilling encounter and one our guests will never forget. But why did the young elephant behave this way? The majority of elephant charges are mock charges. Mock charging and sand kicking are all part of an elephant’s threat display toolkit, designed to intimidate and test you, to see if you respond aggressively (and are therefore a threat) or passively (representing no threat). It’s the elephant’s way of letting you know it’s not comfortable with your presence. But in a young bull’s case it’s also a way of flexing muscles and really is about “showing off!”
Elephants have a matriarchal society led by a single, dominate cow, known as a matriarch. She presides over the herd, which is her extended family, and is made up of related females – mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts – as well as their sons – young and adolescent bulls. When the adolescent bulls reach sexual maturity – at somewhere around 14 years old – they move away from their family herd and either join other families, or move from family to family, or form small bachelor groups. Sometimes these bachelor groups join with an older, mature bull, who shows the teenagers how to behave and disciplines them in the ways of socially acceptable behaviour. Researchers have found that young bulls tend to follow this pattern of social spread until they are around 25 years old, spending as much as 80% of their time with various family groups, forming friendships with other non-related bulls in their age group and learning the skills and knowledge they will need to survive as older males.
When this phase of their life is over, the bulls tend to spend a lot of their time alone, but the strong social bonds they have made with other bulls during this time persists, and they meet up regularly! All of which demonstrates just how amazing our elephants are, and why encounters like the one captured in this video allow us a window into their fascinating and sophisticated social behaviour!