Elephants: gentle giants of the plains



Elephants: gentle giants of the plains




Nimali Africa


December 2023

Elephants: gentle giants of the plains

The African elephant is without a doubt one of Africa's most iconic mammals. Celebrated for its remarkable size and intelligence, and deeply embedded in traditional folklore for embodying strength, wisdom, loyalty, and an extraordinary memory, this colossal mammal holds the title of the world's largest terrestrial animal.

Elephants symbolise the soul of Africa. Their huge ears are even shaped like the continent! They are the biggest and the best of the wilderness, with adult bulls weighing over six tonnes and towering up to 4m high at the shoulders.

With an impressive lifespan of up to 70 years, both males and females possess tusks -modified teeth that continuously grow throughout their lives, reaching lengths of up to 2.5m. Their molar teeth, replaced up to six times, can weigh up to 5kg. African elephants face the challenge of potential starvation after their final set of teeth wears out, a testament to their exceptional longevity.

Notably, elephants endure the longest gestation period among mammals, spanning an astonishing 22 months, and give birth to the largest babies, weighing in at up to 120kg!

More than statistics

While statistics like these offer insight into the physical attributes and geographic spread of elephants, the essence of these magnificent creatures is much more than mere numbers.

At Nimali in Tanzania, encountering elephants prompts a pause, emphasising the importance of respectfully observing them in their natural habitat. By allowing them space and avoiding disturbance, we learn valuable lessons about their social structures and behaviour, as well as gaining insight to their incredible intelligence and sentience.

Contrary to their immense power, elephants are predominantly gentle giants, expressing discomfort through body language rather than aggression. Living in family groups led by a single cow or matriarch, elephants showcase complex decision-making, using their knowledge of the terrain to guide their families to optimal feeding and watering areas.

Communication involves a range of vocalisations and body language, including low-frequency rumbles that travel vast distances, facilitating contact and message-passing within extended family groups.

Elephants play a pivotal role as ecosystem engineers, maintaining environmental balance by creating and maintaining waterholes, clearing vegetation, and dispersing seeds through their dung. Their historical impact is evidenced by ancient pathways between water sources, often repurposed by other animal species and even forming the basis of modern African road systems.

It's their single status that adds to their mystery, along with their predilection for secrecy. Leopards don't like to advertise their presence because their dinner depends on going undetected! Those gorgeous rosettes - the rose-like collection of spots and blotches that make leopards so visually appealing - are almost like a cloaking device, working as effective camouflage in dappled undergrowth, allowing for absolute stealth.

Conservation challenges

Tanzania is home to approximately 60,000 elephants, with a significant concentration in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem and particularly in Tarangire, which is renowned for its thriving elephant population.

Across theAfrican continent, the total elephant population is estimated at just over 400,000 - a stark decrease from the millions of these animals that roamedAfrica just 50 years ago and a reminder that the scourge of ivory poaching is still with us. The loss of an elephant every 15 minutes to poaching in Africa -that's around 100 elephants a day -  underscores the urgency of conservation efforts.

Elephants also face severe threats from human expansion and resource demands. InTanzania, human-induced habitat loss poses a significant challenge, emphasising the need for collaborative initiatives with local communities and commercial interests to promote coexistence, education, and to ensure sustainable resource use.

Every time we see an elephant at Nimali, we are reminded of how blessed we are to live in a world where they still roam freely but also of just how important it is to conserve and protect these incredible behemoths of the African wilderness.

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