Recently in the Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia I spent an hilarious half-hour or so with a young elephant bull who, it appeared to all of us who witnessed it, simply wanted to have fun entertaining the humans.
Elephants are, in my mind, among the most expressive and interesting of all animals by far. And while many (if not most) animal scientists would have us avoid being anthropomorphical about animals – in other words don’t attribute human characteristics, emotions, behaviour traits etc to animals – I really believe that even anyone who has simply owned a pet dog or cat will honestly aver that these animals certainly do have emotions. Who can say their pet has never shown happiness, sadness, contriteness, anger, annoyance or irritation…?
Fortunately, the world of animal behaviour studies is being increasingly populated by more scientists with an open mind (many have pointed to the fact that there are now more women in the field, and that women are more perceptive to subtle nuances in mood and behaviour) and scientists like the legendary Cynthia Moss, Joyce Poole and others who have specialised in elephants will certainly agree with me when I say elephants more than any other species certainly show very typical and recognisable human behaviour traits.
Meanwhile, back to our young bull by the river, With a performance that immediately earned him the name Oscar, he displayed a repertoire unlike anything I have ever seen in a wild, untrained elephant! Certainly it was a virtuoso act that had my group of guests enthralled, giggling, laughing … and gasping.
We’d left camp in the late afternoon for a river cruise on a small tributary of the Zambezi, the Chongwe River, and after dodging hippos, watching baboons along the riverside, and photographing several other elephants crossing the river in the early evening golden light, were about to relax with a sundowner drink when we saw the young bull making his way down to the water’s edge.
After watching us briefly, he entered the water and waded across to a small island mid-stream, where he emerged with quite a theatrical climb up a steep albeit small bank. He then turned and faced us and gave several dramatic shakes of his head, flapping his ears vigorously. Impressive stuff, entertaining, great pics – but nothing unusual or unexpected.
He then made a few brief and exaggerated runs down the length of the little island, shooing away several cattle egrets with great flourishes of his trunk … which earned him quite a few chuckles from the now enthralled audience.Oscar seemed to enjoy the response he garnered, for he then turned to face us where we sat drifting languidly in the narrow channel, stood staring intently for a few moments … and then decided to give us the Full Monty!
Stepping down the small bank into the river with his forelegs, he sunk to his haunches and lowered his body to the ground so he was literally lying on his belly with his front legs dangling in the water. He then proceeded to flail his trunk about, squeezing its tip closed and squirting water out in different directions, and even closing it enough that the water he sprayed was little more than a fine mist.
It was extraordinary behaviour, unlike anything I’d ever experienced in more than 30 years photographing and following elephants, and he seemed to enjoy the response he was getting. The more and louder we laughed, the more he seemed to get up to. When I thought the show was over, he astounded me by rolling over onto his side, swishing his trunk in the water…and flailing his legs in the air!
What was totally evident to me then, as well as reviewing my images afterwards, was that he had his eyes fixed on us the whole time. Even when he was not facing us directly, like when he was lying on his side, his eyes were swiveled forward and focused on us, his audience. And I’d swear he had a big grin on his face too!
Rising to his feet again, Oscar once more gave us a good head-shake, then turned his attentions back to the egrets who’d settled on the small island. He rushed towards them, flailing his trunk and trumpeting loudly, sending the poor birds scattering in every direction. Then he’d turn back to face us, as though awaiting the applause. Which he certainly got from the appreciative audience…along with the staccato bursts of cameras rattling off multiple frames a second!
Once more he came to the water’s edge – we were literally only 10-15m from him on our boat – and repeated the whole performance, lowering himself to the ground, flailing and splashing and spraying with his trunk, flopping over on his side, lying outstretched totally relaxed as if gaining his breath or thoughts – or planning his next display!
And what a fitting grand finale it was. Rising to his feet once more, and by then having spent at least 20 minutes entertaining us, he stood tall, ears spread…and stepped down off the island into the water right in front of us. I heard a few gasps from my guests behind me (I was lying prone in the bow of the boat) as Oscar shook his head “threateningly” and then made a sudden dart forward with a huge splash in our direction. Water sprayed everywhere and for good effect he added a spurt from his trunk. He shook his head, “stood tall” and trumpeted loudly. Here we go again, I thought, expecting a good dousing of water as he once more made a quick little “charge” and splashed even more water in my direction. I heard the scuffle of feet as the folks behind me backed further towards the rear of the boat and urged them softly to “relax, he’s only playing…enjoy the moment”.
Oscar put on this little display about 6 or 7 times, each time coming a little closer, making even bigger splashes…but seemingly making sure the water itself did not quite reach us in the boat even though by this stage he was perhaps only a few metres from the bow.
Then, as though expecting the curtain to fall, he backed up, stepping backwards carefully and even reversing up the river bank until he’s retreated on to solid ground where, with a dramatic flourish in the falling darkness, he shook his head several more times before turning and disappearing backstage!
It was one of the most astounding displays I have ever experienced from a wild elephant … and there was nobody in my group who had any conclusion other than that Oscar was putting on a performance for us, that he was perhaps getting as much satisfaction from entertaining us, from our giggles, chuckles and outright loud laughs.
This was certainly one elephant who just wanted to have fun!
Wildlife authors & photographers Daryl Balfour and his wife Sharna have been running exclusive photographic safaris in many parts of Africa for many years. Contact them – they would love to welcome you to one of their up coming camps.