Published on Jabulani Safari.
The cool still dam in our wilderness is quickly disturbed by the hurry and scurry of elephant feet heading into it with speed. Some of the elephants stay on the muddy edge of the water while many walk right in. They head in deeper and deeper until soon up to their tusks with water. Sebakwe, the dominant bull, quickly finds a broken tree branch to pick up with his trunk and splash and thrash about like a gladiator in the ring. Sebakwe loves the water, but he isn’t alone in this.
Elephants don’t just drink water, they use it for evaporative cooling, they play in it, wallow in it, bond in it, and swim across it in cases of rivers to get to greener pastures.
They are strong and natural swimmers (unlike humans, who need to learn to swim) and recent studies have even suggested that elephants may have an aquatic ancestry and that the trunk may have developed for snorkelling. Science has revealed that they used to live partially in water – back in the age of an ancient elephant ancestor called Moeritherium, which spent most of its time in rivers and swamps.
Fishan, Bubi, Timisa, Limpopo, Zindoga, Mambo and Jabulani are the big swimmers in the Jabulani herd, along with Sebakwe, but all African elephants enjoy frequent swims, splashes or drinks when water is available. They are the only mammals that can remain submerged deep below the water’s surface while snorkelling.
Because of their natural ability to float and a trunk which acts as a snorkel, they can swim for hours without stopping. Their massive bodies help them to float with ease and rest when they wish, but elephants can also walk along the bottom of the dam or river when it’s shallow enough, with their trunks out for breathing.
In addition to the help from their long proboscis, their lungs are uniquely adapted to deal with the pressure changes caused by snorkelling – or when inhaling large volumes of water into the trunk before drinking or spraying it onto the skin.
Their trunks are phenomenal for many reasons but while watching them beside the coolness of a dam, drinking from the banks, you can see how they use these strong organs to suck up and hold water (up to around 12 litres), which they pour into their mouths to swallow. With their incredible olfactory skills, the trunks can also identify water sources from a great distance away, scents they can commit to their long-term memory.
Watching the Jabulani herd splash and bob in a dam, while we park close by their waterworks… it’s one of the most remarkable of sights that either silences our guests with awe or spurs a lot of excited questioning. These great gentle giants, so large and majestic as they saunter across the green bush suddenly look no different (alright, a little different) to you or us, homo sapiens, when at the beach on a toasty day. It’s comforting, refreshing, joyful and totally energising, sinking into a cool ocean or dam.
The herd bulls get a little extra energised from time to time and take to playful sparring in or beside the water, whether it’s the young bulls, Mambo and Zindoga, or Mambo taking on Sebakwe. This tussling is a show and sussing out of one another’s strength, often with water splashing this way and that between the gently boisterous shoves and pushes.
Elephants’ caring and fiercely protective nature as a herd can also be seen at the waterhole. With little albino calf, Khanyisa joining the Jabulani herd now for swims during their days out in the reserve, some of the elephants will always rally around her, keeping her close and well-monitored to ensure that she doesn’t drown or get into trouble. Whether around the muddy edges or in the deep (which is obviously much deeper for her little legs than those tree trunk legs of the great Sebakwe), they are always only a foot or trunk away from nudging her to safety.
Observing the herd in the waterhole is a great teacher of elephant behaviour, from the elephants’ first dash to the dam to the last muddy rub up and down against a tree on the way out. Witnessing the playing, bonding, bathing, learning, sparring, breathing, spraying, splashing, submerging and drinking, you also realise how important water is in the lives of elephants, in the lives of us all.