I had found a generous tree to sleep under, fortuitously a few hundred metres away from the waterhole so that I would disturb visiting animals as little as possible.
As the sun began to stretch the shadows eastwards, this bull herd came gently swaying out of the bush in single file, on their way to the water (photographers, please pardon my poor pic). I was downwind from them so they were unaware of my pottering, and when I thought I was ready to make it through the night, I took my binoculars and crept closer to watch them for a bit.
There were eight of them of various ages. They were taking their time at the pool, drinking, spraying themselves, splashing around, grunting and rumbling and occasionally squealing – when I had visited earlier to fill my water containers, I saw that it was a rocky pool, so they couldn’t indulge in mud-baths.
The pool was quite small. It could only accommodate four or so of them at a time and it was clear that an established hierarchy was strongly insisted on for who was allowed in and when – much more severe than would have been the case had it been a herd of cows, was my observation.
This is actually a good illustration of quite typical elephant behaviour.
The bull in the centre with just his back visible above the others was the senior. He considered only one other, the one on the left, to be of sufficient status to join him in the pool. The three bulls to the centre-right, although adult or almost adult, had to wait on the edge. The other three lowest-ranked were even further back among the trees. Once the two seniors felt they had indulged themselves enough, they nonchalantly moved out and started dusting themselves on the edge of the pool.
The Gang of Three went in together, but even among them there was a strict hierarchy, which the more dominant constantly and bluntly kept the lesser aware of. The last three, younger and about equally-aged, had in the meantime moved up.
They were all allowed in after a bit, with the largest of the Gang Of Three still in the water. The scene now became less settled. The youngsters were livelier, but it was if they were constantly in trouble for some infringement of elephant behaviour code – such as coming too close, or being in the way, or maybe just displaying a hint of insubordination – and the big one let them know in blunt elephant terms that it was not to be tolerated. When the big bull finally left too and the three youngsters were alone, things got a lot more boisterous, with jostling and splashing and generally messing up the water. I was glad I had already filled my containers. The water wasn’t very clean then, but now it would be closer to mud-soup!
Many of you might know that elephant breeding herds are typically close-knit family groups, made up of a matriarch, who is the most experienced and the leader, and her sisters, daughters, nieces and nephews. Adult males are seldom seen with them – usually only when one of the females is in oestrous.
The nephews, when they start taking an interest in the females from around twelve-plus years old, are pushed out of the group, if they had not already left of their own accord. The young bulls often hang around in the vicinity of their family, but eventually wander off. They may roam around on their own but will, at least from time to time, join with groups of other bulls. These groups are made up of bulls of various ages but associations are loose and bulls move in and out all the time. However, the bull-to-bull interaction that takes place there and that I had observed at the waterhole, is very important for the younger bulls to learn their place and manners in elephant society. In fact, young bulls or calves captured or taken from breeding herds during culling operations, and raised alone, have been observed to display roguish behaviour harmful to themselves and their environment.