The Merry Family

Merry Mission Journal

April 14, 2005


One of the “Big Five” (elephant, rhino, leopard, lion, buffalo) animals of Africa that you will find in Malawi is the elephant. To see this majestic animal in the wild is different than any zoo sighting that I have experienced.

These huge beasts were hunted almost to extinction in Africa because of the valuable ivory in their tusks. In 1977, 1.3 million elephants lived in Africa. By 1997, because of poaching and wholesale slaughter, only 600,000 remained. Today they are a protected species and are making a comeback in reserves. Malawi has large herds in Liwande National Park. We spotted one elephant on our boat ride into the park, grazing on the tall marsh grass beside the river. But pachyderms (the Latin term, which means “thick skinned”), are elusive and during the driving safari on land, we were unable to spot a single elephant, although we spotted their paths throughout the savanna and forest. When Dan and I went on a walking safari at dawn, we did not see any either, but there was lots of evidence of them! Our guide, in fact, took us over to a heap of elephant dung and told us a lot about it.

Because of the heat that it still retained, the dung had been deposited at about 4 a.m. Elephant dung is darker in color than hippo or rhino dung because of the variety in elephant’s diets. While hippos and rhinos prefer grass, elephants eat almost anything that grows (they are herbivores). An elephant will chow down grass, tree leaves, bark, roots, fruit and even cactus. The thorns on cactus and the spiny acacia tree don’t bother its digestive tract at all. Only 40% of what an elephant eats is converted into food, the rest is excreted. Therefore, the dung that we looked at was full of plant fiber and even fruit that had not been digested. The monkeys like to come along and pick up the undigested fruit and eat it, because it is soft. However, he cautioned us not to walk over elephant dung in bare feet (!) because all of the thorns that the elephant eats are in it.

Elephants are family animals and usually travel in herds. A PBS special on African Elephants reports that an elephant calf is usually born into an extended family, headed by an older female elephant who serves as matriarch. Families are cohesive groups of females and their young. Adult males leave the herd at 14 years of age, and either range alone or join other bull elephants in "bachelor herds," rejoining females only at breeding times. The mother is responsible for providing the 250-pound newborn with milk. But when it comes to caretaking and protecting babies from predators, the whole herd pitches in.

The mother receives help from aunts, sisters, and cousins who serve as nannies. Known as "allomothers," these baby-sitters are young female elephants learning how to care for babies. Teaching a potential mother how to rear her child is an important task, since the calves' survival depends on it. And since elephants bear young only once every few years, each baby is essential to the herd's ultimate survival.

After five years of rearing this young elephant, the mother gives birth to a new infant, weaning the now adolescent calf at the same time. By then, the young elephant weighs nearly a ton and has learned how to forage on available vegetation. Males tend to leave their mothers earlier than females, with young bulls beginning to wander beyond the protective family circle at the early age of six.

As a young elephant grows, it learns how to become independent by watching and mimicking others. A calf will begin to experiment with its trunk, using it to grasp grass and other solid food, at about four months of age. But the PBS documentary reports that it takes a lot of practice to master the more than 40,000 muscles that give an elephant's long snout so much dexterity.

When you watch an elephant tear grass up and place it in its mouth, or dip its trunk into the water to take a drink, you realize what a miracle it is. Researchers tell us that with the two finger-like points on the end of its trunk, an African elephant can pick up fruit the size of a marble -- or a branch a foot thick. This elongated proboscis is an incredibly versatile tool. It provides a means for smelling, breathing, and touching, as well as drinking and eating. Mothers caress their young with their trunks, while infants use theirs to investigate everything from plants to playmates.

The trunk also acts as a hose, whether for a drink or a dust bath. (A coating of dust, like mud, repels sun and insects). To drink, an elephant sucks water into its trunk, pokes the open end in its mouth, and releases the water to let it drain down its gullet.

We were also fascinated by the elephant’s tail, which acts as a giant fly swatter, and swings back and forth as the largest land mammal walks.

Our patience and perseverance paid off, and during the River Safari, we were able to see many elephants. Our guide got us as close as 20 feet to these gray giants. We could see cattle egrets perched on top of their backs, the way they tore marsh grasses and stuffed them into their mouths, and the way they protected the calves. It was incredible!

Although the farmers in the area complain that the elephants trample their crops and eat their orchards, the government knows what a national treasure the pachyderms are. They will continue to protect Malawi’s elephants.

Beth Merry

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