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Elephants, Elephants Everywhere! A Visit to Hwange National Park

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Elephants, Elephants, Elephants Everywhere!
Contrary to popular belief, elephants are not afraid of mice, they do forget things occasionally, and they like other food besides peanuts. Although their ears are big, they've never been known to fly except in the animated film Dumbo. What is true, however, is that the African elephant is the largest land mammal on earth. And, as my tour operator Patrick pointed out,"When you look at the ear of an African elephant, you will see the map of Africa."

I set out to learn more about the African elephant at Hwange (WAN-gay) National Park, located in the northwestern corner of Zimbabwe, just south of Victoria Falls. If you'll remember, Kavitha and I took the train to Vic Falls a few weeks ago, staying in a first-class sleeper car for the overnight voyage. This time, because of recent price increases, I decided to go economy class, which is seated only. My ticket cost $56Zimbabwean, about $500Zim less than the sleeper car ($36Zim = $1US). I took the same Bulawayo-Vic Falls route and planned to stop in the town of Dete (DAY-tea), the rail station nearest to the park. The train pulled into Dete station at 1:30am, and my seatmate Bongani and I found a place to sleep on the concrete floor of the first and second-class ladies' lounge. It was very cold and my backpack doesn't make a comfortable pillow.

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Lions and tigers and zebras, Oh my!
At dawn, I shouldered up my stuff and began hiking down the road to the Main Camp, located 19 km inside the park. Luckily, I caught a lift and didn't have to walk the whole way. Hwange, covering 14,600 sq. km, about the size of Belgium, was named after "Whange," a local Nhanzwa chief. It achieved National Park status on January 27, 1950 and used to be called "Wankie" but recently underwent a name change- the pronunciation is the same. At Main Camp, I met Patrick of Sabona Tours, who took two visitors from the Netherlands and I on a tour of the park. One isn't allowed to walk unescorted inside the park, because, as some people in Dete told me, "It's very dangerous. There are big animals all around." Big animals, indeed. I later found out that a pride of 18-20 lions stays right near the Waterbuck's Head bar in camp, no doubt stalking the frequent impala who graze outside the restaurant and the hyena who visit the campgrounds at night.

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We also spotted a giraffe taking a drink from a waterhole
Settled back in Patrick's truck, it wasn't long before we saw a variety of wildlife, both big and small. Striped mongoose searched for snakes to eat, eland (antelope) meandered through the trees, and a black sable crossed our path. We also spotted two rhino, kudu (antelope), a herd of buffalo, and a giraffe taking a drink from a waterhole- well away from the crocodile lurking nearby. The park also features incredible bird life like the yellow-billed hornbill, which some call the "flying banana," because its beak looks just like a banana. The crimson-breasted shrike, found only in the African thornveld is easily spotted with its black plumage and bright red breast. I also enjoyed seeing the lilac-breasted roller, a brilliantly colored bird, with pink, purple, red, blue, and green all over its body. There are over 400 species of bird in the park and 100 mammal species. I recommend Sabona Tours, only a year old, for your next trip to Hwange. As Patrick says, "We all used to work for other operators and so we've learned a thing or two about the business." Except for lion, Patrick showed us everything we wanted to see.

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Elephant Crossing
Up until early afternoon there was still no sign of an elephant. Being tired, I had started to doze off in the back seat when suddenly, Patrick hit the brakes hard! The Dutch couple gasped. My foggy vision cleared and I saw what had been so startling: A very large, very old bull elephant was lumbering towards us on the dirt road! It was the closest I'd ever been to a wild elephant and I felt a thrill of excitement in my spine. Patrick slowly backed up and constantly revved the engine so the big guy could hear us. He whispered that their eyesight isn't that good and elephants need other clues that we're nearby. They emit low-level pitches in a type of infrasonic 'hearing' that allows them to navigate and communicate up to a 5km radius. Being downwind, he waved his trunk around, probably smelling the Cadbury's Whole Nut Candy Bar that I'm never without. He had very large tusks, signifying his age, as well as the hump-like head that characterizes males. Females have a smooth head.

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Hey! That elephant's headed this way!
He seemed undecided as to what to do, and walked a few paces towards us. His eyes creased, and with his trunk he grabbed some dust to throw on his body. We were gaping at him in awe when suddenly without warning he pooped! This was not exactly the greeting I had expected from my first African elephant. But, as it turns out, elephants spend 16-18 hours of each day eating, and can poop 18 times a day, once an hour. So I was a bit more understanding.

Another tour truck drove up behind the big bull, and all of us-- our group, the elephant, and the other group-- stood there for a moment watching each other. Then, the other truck zoomed up to us, and the elephant dodged out of the way, into the trees. Hurray! Elephant Encounters of the Close Kind!

Elephant Poop

Louise, who works with Earthwatch, and Laura, a wildlife researcher, explained to me the positive effects of elephant dung. "Their dung is a source of food for many animals: birds, mammals, insects and monkeys," they said. Further, their dung disperses seeds. Because elephants don't digest very well, their poop is high in nutrients. "Stone Age bushmen even used it for fires," added John Foster, who has studied the bush for more than 30 years. "And it works, every time!" chimed in Louise. "It was also used as an insect repellent," added Laura. "Elephants are a keystone species, along with termites. They form opposite ends of the spectrum," Foster continued. Elephant dung, as a source of food and seed dispersal, forms an integral part of the ecosystem.

Later that day, after a stop for lunch and sodas, we moved to Tshebetshebe waterhole, where by 5pm I had counted three herds of matriarchal elephants, about 20-25 apiece including calves, arriving to drink. Elephants drink on average 50 gallons of water per day. The waterholes number more than 65 and are humanly designed and maintained. They can supply water to 3/4 of the park animals, especially during the dry season. There were two other herds on the way, and the sight of all those elephants splashing and playing in the water, so close to us, was a real treat. Two calves locked trunks and played underneath their mother's legs, occasionally reaching up to suckle for milk. The two Dutch visitors said that the day before, they had seen plenty of babies in other parts of the park. I didn't realize that elephant calves could be so cute!

Some believe that the elephant population of Hwange is much too big: it is one of the largest in all Africa, numbering from 30,000 to 50,000, depending on whose estimate you use. Some wildlife managers advocate culling as the best way to manage the herds. Please, please read more in my other article about culling. Regardless, the rising human population and human needs are playing more and more of a role in the balance between wilderness and agriculture. "Living space is the key to wildlife survival," displays the board which visitors first see, along with a prophecy that Zimbabweans would do well to heed: "All of Africa's rich heritage of animal life must rely for its survival on an uncertain element--man's compassion."


Kavitha - Sunday in Bulawayo, Let's Head to the Market!
Kevin - 13 Guys and a Girl: Training to Become a Commodity
Making a Difference - Go and Score a Goal!
Monica - To Be, or Not to Be: The Question of Elephants at Hwange
Abeja - From 1st World to the 3rd: How Big Is Your Mess?

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