As the world’s largest land mammal, the African elephant is an absolute giant. Adult bulls can reach up to 4m high at the shoulders and can weigh-in at up to seven tonnes! That makes them Africa’s true heavyweights and easily one of the continent’s most iconic wildlife species.
As big and impressive as they are, there’s one thing that humbles them and dictates their daily movements – water. Elephants drink every day (although they can go for up to four days without drinking) and generally need up to 200l a day to survive, often sinking this amount in one go! They move from water source to water source and are able to smell water from up to 5km away.
They can also detect water beneath the ground and are often seen digging for it in dry river beds, using their feet, trunks and tusks to access unseen aquifers. They perform a critical service in this way, creating small waterholes that can be accessed by other animals and sometimes enlarging existing waterholes.
Elephants drink using their trunks to “inhale” water which they “blow” back into their mouths. Drinking requires complete control of their trunks which comprise hundreds of thousands of muscles, and you’ll sometimes see baby elephants, who struggle to control this unique organ, sinking their entire faces into waterholes to drink!
When it comes to waterholes, rivers and other stretches of water, elephants invariably do more than drink… They love bathing, wallowing and swimming and generally “playing” in water. There is nothing to beat the sight of a breeding herd enjoying some downtime while quenching their thirst, spraying one another and taking the opportunity to stir up some wonderful mud! They use their trunks as snorkels and can easily copy with being completely immersed. They’re also good swimmers and can cross rivers and dams with ease.
Elephants need water to help them beat the heat too. Bathing and wallowing cools them down and regularly spraying their skin with water and mud helps to keep them cool and protect their skin. Here at Abelana Game Reserve we are blessed to have the beautiful Selati River running through the reserve, as well as several wonderful dams and pans, where we frequently see our elephants coming down to drink. It’s always amazing to see how they take such genuine pleasure in water and use it as a source of entertainment.