As we move into 2015 at pace, one of this years undoubted highlights at Nyumbani will be the introduction of a further elephant herd from a neighbouring reserve to boost our current population. It brings not just even greater opportunity to observe these amazing creatures around the Reserve, but further genetic diversity to our current population. Currently we have a single mature bull and 14 strong breeding herd on the Reserve and we are rewarded with regular sightings of these animals on Nyumbani. They clearly have always held an affection of the south east section of the Reserve and thus are often found helping me with the bush clearing on the farm as they are more than partial to uprooting the occasional tree!! Sadly, many people view this as a reason to excessively limit the number of elephant on their properties, but these animals play a huge part in ecological cycle of the land and whilst there are casualties in respect of some of the trees, this in turn provides habitat for other smaller mammals and reptiles and in due course, returns further nutrients to the soils. Serious habitat degradation only occurs when confined populations of elephants are improperly managed. Definitely not the case on the Blue Canyon Conservancy.
The basic unit of elephant society is a breeding herd which consists of a “family group” of related adult females with their accompanying offspring. The group is led by the oldest female, the matriarch, whose role in the survival and wellbeing of the herd is considerable. It’s acknowledged that the survival rate in calves is greatly enhanced by the attendance of older and more experienced matriarchs. The Blue Canyon Conservancy also has a dominant bull who only joins the family group when one of the resident females is ready to breed. Male society in elephants differs from that of females considerably. The young bulls will stay with their mother until they reach adolescence in their early teens. At this stage they will be expelled from the herd, albeit reluctantly. What then follows is a difficult period for these young males when they will tail the herd from a distance, with any attempt to rejoin firmly rebuffed by his mother. Eventually the expelled young males will come into contact with the dominant bull in the area and he will take on the role of “askari”, a protector and teacher of “good manners”!! As soon as the young bull is ready to mate he will also only rejoin a herd for the purpose of breeding, preferring the company of one of two other males for the rest of the time and perhaps in his latter years, he will become mostly solitary. Elephants are not territorial animals but in essence operate over what is known as a “home range”. They will move considerable distances throughout their home range in their quest for both food and water. The knowledge of feeding ground and especially water sources in the dry barren months sits with the matriarch and the other senior cows, hence their role in being pivotal to the long term well being of the family group. The herd is very attached to their home range and is very reluctant to move to new habitat even when the local food supply is low. This is therefore the fundamental reason for the preference of our own herd for the south eastern corner of the reserve. Whilst we do see occasional wider movement of the herd, it is minimal and therefore the introduction of a further herd is key to the wider distribution of the species across our 16,000 hectares. When food and water are available most herds move up to about 6km per day but in the drier months this can increase to 40km or more, depending upon the ability of any young calves and their ability to keep up with the herd. Bulls will cover a much greater distance in search for food, water and also receptive females … up to 200km in some recorded instances. Water is not as critical as many people believe and whilst, by choice, elephants will go to water every day and consume between 70-100 litres of water, in drier conditions they will sometimes go for up to 3 days without drinking. A large bull will drink up to 100 litres at one time and up to 250 litres per day!! That’s quite some thirst!!
Most of our guests are surprised to find out that an elephant can have a very varied diet, very much dependent upon local conditions and ranging from nuts, leaves, grass as well as tree branches. Now we can begin to understand the benefit of having that versatile trunk which is capable of picking up a single nut off the ground with a finger like action, to shredding leaves from the branch of trees or ripping up roots. Given their comparative size, they eat surprisingly little; around 5% of their total body mass, on average around 200kg of food matter per day. In all, elephants can spend up to 16 hours per day feeding and such frenzied activity naturally has it’s consequences … the expulsion of up to 155kgs of dung every day!! In 2014 we witnessed the birth of our first calf here on the Blue Canyon Conservancy. It was quite a moment when we were at last allowed to get our first fleeting glance of the youngster as it busied around underneath it’s mother, surrounded by the protective wall of it’s older siblings and carers. Elephant cows typically are receptive to breeding when they reach 10-11 years and what then follows a successful mating is a pregnancy of some 22 months. What then begins is a bond between mother and calf that can last for 50 years. For me, elephants remain the quintessential image of Africa. No holiday or visit to Africa can be said to be complete without witnessing the beauty of these majestic animals. Maybe you will be able to join me at Nyumbani this year when we introduce our new herd? It will be the experience of a lifetime that is for sure.