Food for thought - Elephants

By Ranger, Pieter van Wyk

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As a ranger

I’ve often been asked which is my favourite animal. It’s not an easy question to answer. Looking through my photographic collection you’ll find that I definitely take more photos of leopards. I get most excited when finding and following Cape hunting dogs. Seeing a rhino is emotional when you take into account their current plight. But, if I had to choose one species to observe for the rest of my days, it would be elephants. There is nothing that reduces us to our proper dimensions more rapidly and completely than spending time in the company of these pachyderms. Their awesome size and strength commands respect and they have proved to be supreme survivors, masters of adapting to different climates and habitats. Furthermore, their behavior and interactions are a treat to witness. I hope the ‘food for thought’ information that follows will, to some degree, enhance your next elephant sighting experience.

Elephant’s have highly intricate brains, which like ours are equipped with a well-developed temporal lobe. This provides them with self-awareness and understanding for others. Family relations are various and fascinating. They emphasize care, concern, loyalty and huge affection for one another. They look after their ill and elderly and they mourn their dead. I’ve spent enough time with elephants to see that they evince complex emotions such as anxiety, care and happiness. These qualities are shared by only a few of us in the animal world. They also harbor attributes quite unlike our own- using infrasound they communicate over many kilometers on ultra low frequencies below the threshold of human hearing. 400 calls have been discovered of which we can only hear a third. Despite all that is known about them, elephants still remain, on some level, unknowable.

Memory is the cement that holds elephant society together. In addition to having a developed temporal lobe they also have a large hippocampus and cerebral cortex, which are associated with memory and the power of recognition. The matriarch for example, has a mental map that pinpoints far-flung clay pans and seasonal fruiting trees linked by ancient trails pounded into the earth by the feet of many generations. An adult elephant also has the ability to recognize up to 200 different individuals.

The relationship between elephants and other animals is highly cooperative and symbiotic but field studies are only just beginning to shed light on elephant’s pivotal and complex role in the unique dynamics of savanna ecosystems. As a keystone species their activities profoundly affect the niches and population levels of a variety of less dominant life forms.

You can see first hand how elephants transform their environment in search of food. These mega-herbivores play a pioneering part in transforming tall grasslands into young regenerating grass shoots that are eagerly sought after by buffalo and zebra who in turn mow it down further attracting wildebeest and impala.


As bulk mixed feeders elephants have the ability to switch between trees and grass depending on the season. During the wet season grass is preferred and makes up 50% of their diet. In the dry season this drops to 10%. As annual grasses die back and perennial species wither (containing less than 5% protein) elephants turn to trees and shrubs that have 10-15% protein in their leaves.

An adult can consumes 50 tones of vegetation annually, of which 60% passes through their gut undigested. Via their abundant droppings elephants ensure a safe haven for the eggs of dung beetles and other insects. These dropping also provide for a valuable seed-dispersal service during their constant travels. As many as 12000 acacia seeds have been counted in a single ball of dung. Gastric juices soften the seeds outer casting and those not destroyed by chewing will have a 75% chance of germinating as opposed to 12% for seeds still in the pod.


Dependence on such powerful browsers for seed dispersal can be dangerous for the parent tree. The sweet, fleshy and vitamin c-rich marula fruit so loved my elephants on MalaMala is a case in point. Elephants feed not only on the fruit but also on the foliage and bark, which may damage or even kill a tree. Only female marula trees bear fruit but evolution has not provided them with stronger branches than males. Perhaps the selective pressure of browsing may favour trees with good re-sprouting ability.

The subject of marula fruits often brings up the question: do elephants get ‘drunk’ from gorging on large quantities? A study done in 2006 states that for intoxication to occur elephants would need to avoid drinking water and consume 400% more marula fruits than normal. They pointed the finger at marula bark as it contains poisonous beetle pupae but elephants don’t consume much bark during the wet season when marula trees are fruiting. Maybe elephants have a lower alcohol tolerance level than rangers do. The issue remains unresolved.

It is clear that elephants facilitate ecological processes but as human populations explode and elephant ranges shrink the ‘elephant compression’ debate heats up, which I’ll cover in my next blog on elephants.


*information obtained from Mitch Reardon’s “Shaping Kruger”. I highly recommend this book!

Travelling to MalaMala