The African elephant is the largest land mammal. An adult bull elephant can weigh between 5 000kg and 6 300kg (14 000lb), standing 3.2m to 4m (13ft) at the shoulder. A cow is slightly smaller, weighing 2 800kg to 3 500kg (7 700lb) and standing 2.5m to 3.4m at the shoulder. Bulls usually have larger tusks than cows and a more rounded forehead; the cow is more angled.
The elephant’s tusks are just modified incisor teeth, used as weapons and as an aid in procuring certain foodstuffs, like the bark of trees, for example. The heaviest pair of tusks on record weighed 102.3kg (225lb) and 97kg (213lb) respectively.
Other distinguishing characteristics of elephants are their large ears. These serve as a display function, as well as performing a cooling effect. This is due to a high percentage of blood vessels that cool the blood when the ears are flapped.
The elephant also has a long trunk that it uses to drink and feed. There are 55 000 muscles in an elephant’s trunk, making it an extremely sensitive, prehensile and dextrous appendage, critical to its owner’s survival. An elephant’s trunk can hold up to 15 litres of water. It uses its trunk to locate food by touch and smell, as an elephant cannot see down its trunk. If an elephant loses the use of its trunk it will die.
Elephants have a wide habitat tolerance. They eat 90% of the plant species in their habitat. An adult elephant may consume up to 300kg (660lb) of food in a day and drink 150 to 200 litres of water. This is due to their being non-ruminants (along with zebras), consequently they digest only about 30% of the food ingested.
Elephant herds are matriarchal, with an older cow leading the herd. The herds are usually family groups of up to 16. However, a number of family groups may congregate at watering sites, forming large herds numbering several hundred. Adult bulls live separate lives, but will join up with other males and with herds on a temporary basis. After a 22-month gestation period a single calf is born weighing 120kg (264lb) and standing 85cm (34") at the shoulder.
Elephants live for approximately 60 years and have a large brain capacity. They are intelligent animals, and information necessary for survival, such as the presence of waterholes in times of drought, is memorised by the older members of the herd.
An elephant’s lifespan, apart from poaching and other unnatural forms of death, is governed by its six sets of molars. As one set is worn down it is replaced by another set. This appears to be every 10 years. This process continues until all six sets have been worn down, in which case the animal can no longer chew its food and will starve to death.
Visitors to MalaMala will have noticed a substantial change in elephant numbers over the past 14 years. In 1950, a fence was erected around the Kruger National Park, including its border with MalaMala. This was a six-strand barbed-wire fence, purely to keep animals from mixing with domestic stock and thereby transmitting diseases. Between 1950 and 1993, when the fence was taken down, only male elephants were seen on MalaMala. The reason for this is surely that females baulked at bringing their calves across or through this obstacle. Male elephants in this area tend to be found in a state of orbit around the herds, either joining or leaving them, and since there were no herds on the property, the number of males coming across was very small. On average there would be one male elephant found on the property at any one time, at most three.
Since the fence was taken down, herds of females with their calves started being seen. Their numbers were initially very low as they explored this hitherto unavailable tract of land, but over about seven years built up to the point where there were up to 500 elephants on the property at a time. Perhaps owing to the fact that it is new terrain to them, the density of elephants on the MalaMala Game Reserve and surrounding the Sabi Sand Wildtuin is far higher than within the Kruger Park as a whole, and this clearly has consequences for the environment.
Curiously, the increased number of elephants has not resulted in an increase in camp depredations. Nocturnal incursions into the camps used to be a regular feature before 1993, to the consequent grief of the trees and larger pot plants within. Visitors to MalaMala in the 1980s and early 1990s will doubtless remember an inveterate criminal that raided the camps on a regular basis.
There were many tales of his exploits, but the most curious was the gate that was built for him at the old Harry’s Huts on Toulon. In exiting the camp after molesting the magnificent strangler fig that was the centrepiece of this camp, he broke through the reed wall. The camp manager at that time ventured the opinion, based on numerous observations, that the elephant did not wish to be destructive but there was no other exit. So he built an elephant-size aperture the next time the wall was rebuilt (with a staggered screen so that it did not look as though there was a hole in it), and ever thereafter the elephant made use of his doorway.