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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Elephant Safari

In 1996 when we traveled to Nepal, we made arrangements to visit the southern jungle bordering on India where rhinos could be hunted using elephants. As the picture shows, the rhinos must not consider elephants any threat because they pay no attention to them nor to the gaggle of tourists on their backs.

Our first morning there, we are awakened to the sound of elephants returning from the jungle where they had spent the night chained to a tree feeding and sleeping. Though tamed, the chains are routine and necessary to keep them from wandering off.

Each elephant is always accompanied by its mahout, the man who controls it. Mahouts apparently start as boys when they are assigned a young animal. They form a bond with their elephant that often lasts through much of their lives. After breakfast, we were shown the elephant enclosure where they are groomed and trained. The younger elephants being in close contact, learn from the older ones and the video shows that the elephants learn vocal signals as well but usually won’t react to any command unless given by its own mahout.

To go on safari we had to climb up to a high platform built so the elephants could come alongside and we could step onto the ‘howdah’ or the carriage strapped to their back. It was comfortable enough as we moved slowly along the trail being rocked from side to side. We soon reached a clearing where rhinos were grazing. They seemed dwarfed by our huge mounts and we certainly had a good look at them.

.Actually I was more interested in the elephants. They are among the smartest in the animal kingdom with 160 gestures and more than 70 sounds that they use in communication. Many vocalizations are complex and sophisticated and progress has been slow in the study of elephant language. I was even more intrigued when I read that in the wild, male and female elephants live separately and that female groups of up to 20 close family members spend their lives together. The life cycle of females is similar to that of humans in that they live 20 or 30 years after their last child. I am reminded of the piece I wrote about the ‘grandmother effect’ and how the close contact of the older women with the young allows them to pass on their accumulated knowledge. Elephants may be wiser than we realize.

The biggest treat for me on that safari was in the afternoon, watching the elephants playing in the river where they were having a fine time together. It was easy to see they were interacting and you could truly feel their affection for each other. Rie

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