Spending time out in the bush for about 8-9 hours during the day, I inevitably met or saw other residents of the Delta, not just the Abu herd. Mostly these were of the small variety- birds, invertebrates and a baby leopard tortoise.
One of the mahouts, Boago, brought me this cutie to see. The mahouts told me it was a female, as she didn't have the groove on her scutes underneath and they estimated her to be about 9 months old. After a quick look we put her back where she was found, to carry on her way.
Baby leopard tortoise
Mantis nymph sizing up my index finger
Although the bigger animals were around, they would have known about our presence and kept clear, that is, all except one VERY big resident.
I had been out on a route drive that morning with two researchers, Charlie and Mphoeng, since around 7am and on our return route back to camp, they dropped me off with the mahouts at their day camp with the Abu Herd, around 9.30am. The camp was under a grove of Langostine trees, which was at the edge of a large open pan. Right across the other side of that pan, in the distance, stood a large wild bull elephant.
Charlie and Mphoeng headed off to get a focal on him from a respectful distance and to ID him, before they went back to Seba camp. As it turned out, he only had a number to identify him in their records, so Charlie named him Hunter, after a TV wrestling star.
I settled in with the mahouts, Mohambo and B (which is short for Boago – pronounced Boaho), and an hour or so after the researchers had done their focal on Hunter and left, I asked Mohambo if I could go and sketch ‘the girls’ before it got too hot around midday to sketch out in the open. I went with Mohambo, over to the tree line on the side of the pan to the right of the camp, Gikka, Sherini and Paseka were browsing just in front of the trees amongst shrubs and bushes.
Sherini in the background, Paseka foreground left and Gikka foreground right
We kept an eye on Hunter, across the pan, who was staying relatively still in the same spot. We couldn’t see what he was doing, but he stayed pretty much close to the spot he was in when I had first arrived earlier.
Rough plan of camp in the langostine grove and the pan where Hunter was. This isn’t to scale.. it’s just to give an idea of the scene and where we all were in relation to each other.
We had been there a short while as I sketched Gikka, when we saw that Hunter was now slowly heading our way. He was in no hurry and looked very chilled and relaxed. What should we do?
Mohambo told me it was ok and to keep sketching as he kept an eye on Hunter’s progress. Soon the girls were visibly aware of the approaching bull. I say visibly as it is quite possible they had been in communication all morning with the bull and knew he was there. Elephants can communicate at frequencies much lower than our hearing can pick up. As he approached they stood looking his way with their trunks up smelling the air.
Gikka's reaction to the approach of Hunter
Hunter slowly moved towards us, or rather the girls of the Abu herd. Sherini was further away from us than Gikka and he headed towards her first, but never actually went up to her. I had stood alongside Sherini - her eye was above my head (I’m 5’8”) and it felt like she towered over me. But now as Hunter got close to her, this elephant I had seen as big, now suddenly seemed to shrink in size. Hunter stood way higher than either Sherini or Gikka. How tall was he?
I asked Mohambo if wild bulls, visiting the girls, was a problem. He replied that the bulls aren't aggressive towards the girls so they were quite happy for them to walk among them. Sometimes a bull will mate with one of the adult females if they are in oestrus; a few calves have been born into the Abu Herd this way.
Hunter comes to say Hi to Gikka. She turns sideways at his final approach and there were a series of low rumbles.
We backed off a bit as the bull slowly walked from Sherini’s position towards Gikka, but he seemed unconcerned with our presence, obviously more interested in the girls. The wind shifted direction slightly.. I was aware that it had been in our favour blowing our scent away from the bull, but a small shift changed the direction towards him.
It was then that he took notice of us. I can’t believe he was not aware of our presence before that.. but the change in his focus was apparent. He lost interest completely in Gikka. His head went up and he stood still, ears forward, gently wafting as he sized us up. I knew I shouldn’t run, so I looked to Mohambo.... What do we do now? He reached smoothly down and picked up my backpack in a slow but fluid movement and indicated for me to put my sketchbook in it. Time to move.
Hunter studying us
Mohambo directed me to start walking back to the encampment, slow and sure. “Walk smartly, but casually.” He advised. Easier said than done. The ground under foot was rutted and not easy to walk across without pressure, such as a huge bull elephant just yards away. Now it took some concentration to try and keep body movements relaxed as I stumbled over the ground. Relaxed, yet casually hurried!
As we walked away I looked over my shoulder and my heart leapt as I saw that Hunter had begun to follow us. That walk back to camp and safety, making a bee-line for the grove of trees, over several hundred yards of rough terrain away, seemed like 5 miles! Trying to hurry, but not look like it, whilst trying to watch the ground through rough grass for safe footholds so as not to slip or make any sudden jerky moves AND constantly checking over my shoulder to see the looming shape of the elephant coming up behind was not an easy task.
Mohambo positioned himself, so that he was always between me and the fast approaching bull. Kate’s words rung in my ears, “You can trust the mahouts with your life. They will take care of you.” Although Hunter walked slowly and easily, his long legs paced out much longer strides than our own and so pretty soon he had caught up and was walking alongside us! I couldn’t resist using the camera that was slung around my neck and took a few shots when I could. Hunter didn’t flinch or seem at all agitated. He just walked alongside looking down on these puny two legged stick animals as they made their way to the trees; he could probably sense that one was quite relaxed, but the other had elevated heart beat, breathing, excitement and anxiety, even if she did point that clicky thing at him a few times and look on him with wonder and awe. He kept pace with us then right up to the grove of trees.
I was only too aware that at any time, he was close enough to create a problem, if he chose to.
Hunter strides slowly alongside
I had the standard lens on my camera at the time... no need for zoom!!
B was resting under the trees and so didn’t know we had a bull parallel walking us back to the now very flimsy looking camp. I was drawn towards the makeshift tent (a tarpaulin sheet thrown over a metal frame) and watched with a heady mix of some trepidation and excitement as Hunter’s big grey form skirted the camp, just visible through the thick cover of branches and leaves to my right. We were safe now, right?
He made no sound as he followed the tree-line. Then there was an ominous sound of branches breaking and a great rustling of vegetation as Hunter pushed through the outer line of trees and bushes surrounding the camp. And there he was! Larger than life! Standing in the camp area about 40-50 yards from where my feet seemed planted on the ground. His entrance had been noisy and showy.. not with trumpets or rumbles, but just the sound of him shoving through thick bush cover after the silence of his approach round the trees, was dramatic enough.
At some point I’m sure my heart must have stopped or my instinct to breathe was interrupted, or both! He was an awesome sight and I looked from him to the ‘tent’ I was standing behind, it was hardly a good ‘hiding’ place. Not exactly a place of safety; he could brush that frame aside like a feather! I wondered how out of practice my tree climbing skills were as I looked around for somewhere safe to go to, should I need it. The tree by the tent looked sturdy enough to withstand a bull elephant's pushing and shoving, but even that I couldn't be sure of.
Mohambo and B stood watching him; they looked relaxed and unperturbed. Hunter walked showily across in front of us, coming out into a more open spot under the trees.. clear line of sight both ways. He was side on to us, his head held high and he shook it a few times, sending his large ears out noisily as they slapped his neck and shoulders. He proceeded to pull a few small branches off a tree and thrashed some nearby vegetation. He was showing us his strength, his size and just letting us know he was the boss around here, I guess, in a relatively mild way for an elephant. Even so, the impact on this puny human was impressive enough. Whilst marvelling in the experience and spectacle, it was also on my mind of what would happen if this turned into something more threatening? Just before Hunter had crashed through into the camp, I had asked Mohambo what if this bull got aggressive and charged. Mohambo said he would shoot a warning shot and that usually works; he was happy though that it wouldn’t come to that, as this bull was “ok, just curious”. But he did say that should the bull come for me, he would have to ‘drop’ him. Strangely I felt guilty that this would have to happen, should things go that way. I fervently hoped Mohambo was right in his assessment of Hunter’s mood; I didn’t want to be the cause of an elephant’s death, even if it was to save my own life.
This phase didn’t last long, once his ‘point was made’ he then stood watching us for a bit before settling down to munch away on the trees and plants around him. At that point Mohambo and B motioned at me with their hands. I wasn’t sure if it was to indicate to me to back off or for me to come closer. I assumed the latter… surely!
I started backing up. Mohambo smiled, shaking his head “No, no this way.”
“Are you sure? I asked incredously… he nodded and said “You can’t sketch him from back there.” !!
So I carefully walked to their position, every broken twig underfoot sounded like a gunshot. I was now standing about 20-30 yards away from this incredible bull. Not knowing how long he would be there I quickly took a couple of photos before attempting to sketch. Talk about pressure! I could feel my blood pumping around the veins in my temples and my heart had been hammering so hard I could almost feel it now knocking the insides of my ribcage; added to that my hands were shaking slightly with excitement. It was hard to switch off from all that to get the brain into sketching mode. I have to say I struggled to sketch. I did something that looked sort of like an elephant, but it was bad and didn’t look much like him. I wasn’t happy with my attempts and it has taken me a long time to decide to show them on here. As a compromise, I admit, I have masked out one side of each head sketch.. it is just too embarrassing to show the complete mess I made, so I'm showing only the bits I'm happier with. Although not by much!
Mohambo whispered as I sketched “Breathe Su. Breathe.” My brain had been concentrating so much on sketching and that damn big bull, it seemed to forget to keep my lungs going properly! I let out a long badly needed breath. Then it was hard to try and breathe calmly as my lungs fought to gain the oxygen I had denied it for… well, I don’t know how long. Obviously long enough for Mohambo to notice and suggest I remedy!
Eventually Hunter took his leave of us and departed from the grove of trees in a much quieter manner than he arrived.
He walked away slowly and steadily back out across the pan, leaving me with a 40 minute encounter I will never forget. As he left I silently thanked him and wished for him a long life, safe from human greed and cruelty, with many strong calves to continue his lineage.