Recent Blog Posts:
- "When an Elephant Just Wants to Have Fun" (AKA: "Oscar the Acting Elephant")
- "About the image: A Cry for Rain"
"When an Elephant Just Wants to Have Fun" (AKA: "Oscar the Acting Elephant")
Middle-crossing, Chongwe River, Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia
View this amazing video clip of Oscar - captured by Stephen Culberson
To witness animal behaviour that has rarely, if ever, been documented before is probably one of the greatest factors that feeds my addiction to the African bush and its fascinating inhabitants. These uncommon behaviours however should never be taken for granted, as to witness an animal displaying utter disregard towards its natural instincts of personal safety, is a true sign that they have a much higher level of intelligence and emotion that is generally believed and documented. And, although many of the scientific community my frown upon my anthropomorphic approach (giving human characteristics to other things), I personally feel that the African elephant has the intelligence and emotion that can rival that of humans.
image: Oscar the acting elephant giving us an unforgettable show
During the course of last year, I was working in the Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia, an absolute elephant Mecca! And, while there were a fair number of aggressive individuals wandering around - especially on the western boundary of the reserve where elephants are in constant conflict with the local farmers - the overall elephant temperament was of a peaceful nature, provided you played by their rules.
One of these such sightings happened on a peaceful evening while myself and my accompanying guests were quietly drifting the on the tranquil waters of the Chongwe River, a small tributary to the Zambezi and making up the western-most boundary of the unfenced Lower Zambezi National Park. With me was a friendly and enthusiastic family from the United States led by their private guide, Daryl Balfour – a world renowned wildlife photographer and knowledgeable elephant fundi.
We departed the lodge in the late afternoon for a relaxing sunset boat cruise and, in a bid to get my guests the best possible photographic opportunities, I navigated our flimsy boat up the shallow hippo-rich waters of the Chongwe River – A small tributary that nourishes the mighty Zambezi River. After enjoying our short cruise up the Chongwe, photographing a few small herds of elephant, plenty hippo and hundreds of baboons that forage along the grassy banks of the river, we decided to stop for our much awaited sundowner drinks as the sun dipped behind the Lower Zambezi escarpment.
While drifting along sipping on our gin and tonics (the most popular safari drink in Africa) we noticed a young bull elephant enthusiastically trotting down to the water’s edge pausing briefly to acknowledge our presence. Keeping a wary eye on us, the young bull proceeded to cross the river funnelling litres of water into his mouth as he went. Pausing halfway across the river, I believe his curiosity must have gotten the better of him, as he spontaneously veered off course and headed in our general direction. Reaching the edge of the small island, along which we were floating, he shakenly heaved his bulk onto the grassy knee-high plateau and proceeded in our direction.
image: Oscar fighting to control his curiosity
Still slightly wary of the presence of our tiny floating vessel he proceeded towards us displaying a comically over-exaggerated mock-charge in our direction stopping at the perimeter of the island, only meters from our boat. When giving a mock-charge a young bull is attempting to assert his authority and send us on our way. But we stood our ground and he stood his. Now slightly confused with our bravado, he stood only meters before us and with head raised high and gave us the typical “leg sway of uncertainty” – a confused uncertain reaction displayed by many elephants, especially young bulls, when standing your ground and challenge their threatening mock-charge.
Then suddenly, as if triggered by our joyful responses and cackles, he lowered his hefty head and young Oscar allowed his true character to shine through. And now, with his nerves aside, he began a breath-taking performance with a truly impressive water show. We were in awe as Oscar confidently sprayed water from using as many different techniques as his pressured aptitude would spawn, all within mere meters of our boat.
image: Oscar trying his hardest to intimidate us with his hilarious mock charge
image: Oscar demonstrates the use of his trunk as a hose-pipe
The more he performed the more he entertained us; we were giggling, gasping and talking excitedly amongst ourselves, which seemed to collectively augment his confidence and creativity. As if rehearsing for a big audition, Oscar gave us everything he had in his book of tricks, from funny adorable poses to rolling around on his side and kicking his legs in the air. If our humorous responses lessened he would quickly pick up on our loss of interest, pause for a moment, change position and try something new until he received the positive rise that he was after.
image: After an optimistic attempt at rolling over, Oscar pauses, lifts his head and fixes his gaze on us, just to ensure that his prized audience were still enthralled by his performance
Our new found friend Oscar was, without an ounce of doubt, procuring immense satisfaction and fulfilment from our joyous responses to his comical and entertaining show. We witnessed this young bull behaving in a way that has convinced me that animals can certainly pick up on our many moods and emotions as well as gain great joy and raised enthusiasm from another species positive responses. Observing the photos closely one will notice that Oscar very rarely took his eyes off us throughout his whole performance, which lasted in-excess of half an hour.
To bear witness to unexplainable animal behaviours, such as our encounter with Oscar, is a true honour and privilege; and to have had the opportunity to have shared this experience with a group whose feeling were mutual, is one in a million. To this day I still find myself scrutinising images, mentally recording each individual nick and tear in Oscars ears, hoping to one-day identify this entertaining bull and spend a little more time with him to further observe his unusual behaviour.
image:Shortly before it became too dark to successfully photograph our new friend Oscar, I pulled out my fixed 50mm lens and snapped this stunning puppy-like image of him
Below is a number of captioned images that I managed to capture of this bizarre encounter:
image: Another funny mock charge
image: Standing tall in intimidation
image: Oscar the acting elephant giving us an unforgettable show
image: Oscar giving up his attempts at completely rolling over
image: Oscar displaying an array of different poses he thought may be fitting
"About the image: A Cry for Rain"
Upper Narrows, Lake St Lucia, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa
As a drawn-out subtropical dry season of South Africa comes to an end, high-hopes for drought-ending rains are silently expressed by those desperately dependent on it. These silent cries for rain are drowned out by the overpowering voice of the “suffering” population, the complaints of river-draining farmers and the government blaming the drop in the South African economy on the lack of rains.
image: A Cry For Rain – iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa
This image titled “A Cry for Rain” depicts a pod of hippopotamus calling out for the much needed relief of the summer rains, as they face yet another relentless drought and further devastation of their ecologically vital habitat, Lake St Lucia. This (incorrectly-titled) lake is in fact Africa’s largest estuarine system and is the key feature of South Africa’s first UNESCO world heritage site, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. For decades this lake, or estuary, has been cut off from the life-enriching waters of the ocean, and due the lack of fresh water entering the system, has progressively reduced in size.
I took this image in November 2014 as the belated wet season approached. Week after week we waited in anticipation, convinced that we were in for a successful wet season as the skies progressively darkened. Weeks subsequently turned to months and the much needed rains never arrived. But can we truly blame this crisis on the short term lack in rainfall? Or should we dig a bit deeper and look at the detrimental effects caused by the commercial sugarcane and pineapple farmers?
The major perennial rivers feeding the lake have been canalized and transformed into dry riverbeds flowing only after substantial rains that fall hundreds of kilometres inland in the river’s catchment areas. River floodplains have been drained and converted into plantations, eliminating the rivers natural ability to filter out silt, which consequently flowing directly into the estuary, choking it and reducing its ability to stay open to the Indian Ocean. And the list goes on as one of the world’s most essential estuarine systems dies out and along with the thousands of organisms, large and small, that are dependent on it.