Rains produce thick vegetation in which herds can easily hide.

By JASON JACOBS
Potawatomi Zoo

Stories from Southbendtribune.com

March 3, 2005

OKAVANGO DELTA, Botswana — The sandy road was covered with hundreds of gigantic footprints and massive amounts of dung, both of which were fresh.

A large herd of elephants had recently moved through the area, and our guide, Ollie, was busy tracking them for us. The vegetation was so deep and thick that the herd could hide easily.

It was our third day of searching for the elusive pachyderms, and I was beginning to wonder whether I was even going to see them. Elephants have always been my favorite animals. In my mind, no trip to Africa would be complete without seeing them.

As a development director for the Potawatomi Zoological Society, I came to the southern African nation of Botswana to do research for an upcoming African exhibit at the zoo. With me on the trip was a small entourage of Potawatomi Zoo volunteers and a WSBT-TV photographer.

A love for elephants

came to the southern African nation of Botswana to do research for an upcoming African exhibit at the zoo. With me on the trip was a small entourage of Potawatomi Zoo volunteers and a WSBT-TV photographer.

A love for elephants

I remember my first encounter with a young elephant as a child growing up in Florida. I was about 3 years old, visiting a zoo in Miami and some zookeepers were walking the elephant through the facility. They let me touch it. I remember feeling the textured, rigid skin with its black, needlelike hair.

As I grew, so did my interest in animals — especially elephants.

When I was a teenager, I was able to work with young elephants at a zoo. I would scratch their backs, take them on walks, bathe them, give them the occasional apple or orange as a treat, and oh, yes, clean up after them. Funny thing is that the smell never bothered me.

Visitors to Potawatomi Zoo often ask why we don’t have an elephant. I tell them that you can’t buy just one. Elephants are highly social and need to live in a herd. At 23 acres, we are not a large zoo. We would need to displace a quarter of our current collection just to house a trio of elephants.

Rainy season

I always thought elephants are just one of those species that has to be seen in the wild to be appreciated. I didn’t realize how difficult they are to find.

The Moremi Wildlife Reserve in Botswana is home to thousands of them. Unfortunately, we were visiting during the rainy season.

During the summer rains — the seasons south of the Equator are reversed from ours in Indiana — both food and water are plentiful for the pachyderms. With abundant resources available, the herds split up and migrate deep into the reserve, as they do not depend on the water holes during the wet season.

Because of their large body size, they are constantly on the move looking for food, which consists of fresh leaves, grasses, fruits, and bark. An adult elephant eats about 300 pounds of food and drinks 19 to 24 gallons of water each day. As the world’s largest land animal, an elephant can stand over 10 feet tall and weigh nearly 13,000 pounds.

The females called cows, and they’re young life in herds led by the matriarch cow. Adult males, bulls, are usually solitary.

One morning, after searching for several hours, we literally reached a dead end. We came upon a skeleton of a bull elephant that had died shortly after Christmas.

Enormous skeleton

The skull was enormous, too heavy for me to move.

Elephants are not monsters, but their body size is monstrous. It took two of us to lift the bottom jaw bone.

I wish I could have brought back the entire skeleton to Michiana with me. Unfortunately, I don’t think I could have gotten through customs with the skeleton of a deceased elephant weighing several thousand pounds.

Finally, the reward

After breaking for lunch, we continued the search for elephants. I was getting “bushy,” which means you have been in the bush for too long and you start seeing things.

The abundance of termite mounds (which are the same color and height as elephants) made us constantly second-guess what we were viewing.

We cut the engine to the land cruiser, and I heard a low roaring sound from the distance. The African bush was obviously getting to me because that roar sounded like an elephant.

But it was unmistakable. It was a roar so deep that I could feel it in the pit of my stomach. After three days of searching, we had finally found an elephant.

We came upon two of the biggest elephants I have ever seen, two bulls feeding near a water hole.

It was such an emotional high that I shed a few tears of happiness: Here I was in Africa observing my favorite animal in the wild. I had waited 28 years to see this.

The bulls both easily weighed more than 6,000 pounds. They were in “musth,” a period when male elephants secrete testosterone hormones from the sides of their heads. The testosterone increases aggressive behavior and enables them to challenge other males for breeding rights to females.

Because of their size and the musth, we kept a healthy distance of about 100 feet from the bulls, with our driver ready to move the land cruiser out in the event of a charge.

We observed the bulls for about an hour, then drove off to celebrate the occasion with a toast of juice boxes.

As we parked the vehicle to watch the sunset, another lone elephant bull slowly moved out of the forest about 500 feet in front of us.

It was an amazing and unexpected finish to an incredible day.

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