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Elephants, Elephants Everywhere! A Visit to Hwange National Park

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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."

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Elephants, Elephants, Elephants Everywhere!
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I set out to learn more about the African elephant at Hwange (WAN-gay) National Park, 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). One isn't allowed to walk unescorted inside the park, so to be on the safe side I took a tour. 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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Lions and tigers and zebras, Oh my!
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Settled back in the Sabona Tour's truck, it wasn't long before we saw a variety of wildlife, both big and small. We spotted two rhino, kudu (antelope), a herd of buffalo, and a giraffe taking a drink from a waterhole; there was even a 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. There are over 400 species of bird in the park and 100 mammal species.

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We also spotted a giraffe taking a drink from a waterhole
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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.

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Elephant Crossing
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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 my candy bar (I'm never without one). 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!
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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!

Monica
 

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