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Adventures with the naughty elephant

You may previously remember my adventure with the sleeping elephant and how, in a previous entry, I mentioned how elephants are very naughty.
It seems that this time I met one of the naughtiest elephants around the entire wildlife reserve and he couldn’t get enough of where I live.

Big African Elephant bull (Africana loxodonta) camouflaged and peeking at us through the dense foliage.

Big elephant bull (Africana loxodonta) peeking at us through the dense foliage.

It was early morning when me and Nick were walking around the path and heard some tree shuffling and crashing sounds nearby. We are quite aware that there is only one species capable of crashing down a tree, elephant, so we got into vigilant mode immediately looking for the origin of the sound. We spotted a big elephant bull a few meters away from us having some fun with the water pipes.

Just to give you a little context on the situation, I’ll try to summarise a bit what has been happening here for the past weeks.
Last month there was a big fire that burned down completly the main lodge. Fortunately no one got injured and it did not affect the other areas of the site. However, fires can do a lot of damage and for a while there was no water, electricity or sewage as all the pipes and cables that went by the (main) area were either burned down or severely damaged. Because of that, things have been quite chaotic lately. Most of the pipes and cables have been now restored but were still laying on top of the ground as there is still management work to be done.

The elephant found the water pipes quite easily. Most of the naughty elephants will hear and sense the water flowing in pipes underneath the ground and dig them out to have a drink or a “quick shower”. This big fellow was quite lucky since there was no digging to be done. He just had to pick them up with his massive trunk and pull, push, shove, do whatever he wanted to do to obtain fresh water.

Me and Nick got into one of the vehicles and followed him from a distance as he “inspected” some of the villas in the camp. He wasn’t shy at all and walked wherever he wanted to.

The big African Elephant bull inspecting one of the villas around our wildlife camp in South Africa

The big elephant bull inspecting one of the villas around the camp.

Eventually we thought he had had enough and moved away so we got back to work. A few minutes later he was close to me peeking to check out what I was doing.

African Elephant bull gets curious and close to the lodge deck

Elephant bull gets curious about what I was up to.

African elephants can be quite aggressive when annoyed but this big guy was quite the opposite (even though some of the other members of staff kept shouting at it and trying to get him to go away). As for me, I was just talking to him softly and quietly while busy with my task. He was just curious and in the mood for a nice meal and fresh drink.

At some point he went around the burned main lodge, to the area where the pool was, and got his trunk inside, probably thinking he would get some nice water. We figured he had been here a few times before as he knew exactly what he was doing.

African Elephant male tries to drink water from where the pool was before the fire.

He tries to get water from where the pool was.

Time went by and he kept checking out the camp, reaching for leaves from every corner. At some point I didn’t know if we were following him or he was following us but either way, we seem to get along quite well. It was quite surprising how close we were to a 7 tonne wild animal that could kill us on a whim. At some point we got as close as 2 meters from him while he fed on some tasty leaves just next to the path.

African Elephant bull trying to reach and eat tasty leaves from a tree on the other side of the path.

Reaching for the tasty leaves on the other side of the path.

Big male African Elephant trying to sneak past in a South Africa wildlife camp.

Trying to sneak past.

Big male African Elephant feeding from the nearby trees just a few meters from us in the camp in South Africa.

Feeding from the nearby trees just a few meters from us.

Obviously we made sure we always had something between him and us, either enough distance, a wall or just some wooden railings. However in his quest for the best leaves there was not much that could stop him.

Big male African Elephant damaging the wooden railings while stretching to reach the leaves in the nearby tree.

He easily damaged the wooden railings when stretching to reach the leaves.

Eventually he got tired of eating and messing the pipes around looking for fresh water. By then we had turned off the water valve hoping we could stop the leakage.
Little did we know this big guy was smarter than the average elephant. As soon as he realised there was no water coming from the pipes he decided to go to the source… the water tanks!

Damage made by a big male African Elephant on our water tank

Damage at the water tank caused by his tusk.

They are protected by an electric fence so he did what any smart animal would do, he used his tusks to lift the fence and slide it over so he could pass without getting harmed.
Once inside he poked around the tanks and decided that the best and fasted way to get the water was to just make a hole in one of them with his massive tusk.
A little push was all that took to get a water jet directly to his mouth.
Me and Nick looked at each other and ran like crazy to the kitchen, got some empty water bottles and started filling them in with whatever water was left in the pipes. We knew quite well what this little misdeed of his meant, there would be no water for the near future and there was nothing we could do about it…

Just as we thought that there was nothing else he could destroy he decided to go to our improvised storage room (the original one was destroyed by the fire) and inspect it. He found a big bag of livestock food pellets and had another great meal at our expense.
One of our colleagues thought it was a good idea to throw a potato to scare him off while he was busy with the pellets. You can imagine the result… instead of a bag of livestock food he had a bag of livestock food and a potato!

African Elephant dung

Some of the remains of the elephant visit.

Eventually he wandered off leaving the entire camp with remains of his visit, pipes bent and destroyed, big piles of dung, knocked down trees and branches, some messed up wooden railings, a pierced water tank and an empty bag of food pellets!

At night me and Nick ended up taking our shower using the only (5 liter) water bottle we managed to fill while he had a go at the water tank…

It was quite an exciting day and I must confess I’ll miss the big guy. He did some intense destruction but he was so friendly that I almost wish he would be back soon!
Hope you enjoyed the story and the photos.

Até à próxima!
~Sofia.

 

Edit: Click here to find out what happened with the big elephant bull came back to the camp!

 

If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our Mammals category.
Previous Mammals entries:
Nonverbal communication between humans and animals
Predator or Prey: Who do we cheer for?
Living in the African Bush
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[Top 10] ~ October 2013 Photos

This past month has been crazy. Many things happened (most of them bad unfortunately) but I still managed to get some nice photos. This time I was mostly focusing on getting photos from my surroundings, images of species that are seen so many times around the reserve that most people don’t look twice. I still hope you like it!


A beautiful specimen of a Cape White-Eye (Zosterops pallidus) on a nearby tree.

A beautiful specimen of a Cape White-Eye (Zosterops pallidus) on a nearby tree.

A male Chacma Baboon (Papio ursinus) keeps track of his surroundings to help protect his troop.

A male Chacma Baboon (Papio ursinus) keeps track of his surroundings to help protect his troop.

A Helmet Guinea Fowl (Numida meleagris) making a lot of noise.

A Helmet Guinea Fowl (Numida meleagris) making a lot of noise.

A robber fly, a very strange looking insect.

A robber fly, a very strange looking insect.

A beautifully coloured solifuge, one of the most interesting types of arachnids.

A beautifully coloured solifuge, one of the most interesting types of arachnids.

A Southern Rock Agama (<em>Agama atra</em>) gets a well deserved sunbathing on a large rock.

A Southern Rock Agama (Agama atra) gets a well deserved sunbathing on a large rock.

A Warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) sniffs the area looking for food.

A Warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) sniffs the area looking for food.

A male Chinspot Batis (Batis molitor) rests on a tree branch.

A male Chinspot Batis (Batis molitor) rests on a tree branch.

An African Striped Skink (Trachylepsis striata) enjoys the afternoon sun of the African savannah.

An African Striped Skink (Trachylepsis striata) enjoys the afternoon sun of the African savannah.

A dung beetle frantically rolls a fresh ball of a very special dung.

A dung beetle frantically rolls a fresh ball of a very special dung.

Até à próxima!

~Sofia.


If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our Photography category.
Previous Photography entries:
[Top 10] ~ September 2013 Photos
[Top 10] ~ August 2013 Photos
[Photo] Cheetah with kill
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Nonverbal communication between humans and animals

Animal cognition is one of my favourite scientific areas of study. It helps us understand what cognitive abilities animals in general or specific species possess and how they affect their behaviour. Comparative psychology or comparative cognition then compares animals’ cognitive skills with humans’ cognitive skills and often we end up with the media over simplifying headlines with things like “Chimpanzees smarter than humans“.

 

Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is defined as the transfer of information between individuals through ways that don’t involve the use of language. This communication is passed by means of visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic cues usually between members of the same species.

Humans are experts at reading and interpreting non verbal communication; we’ve been using it to communicate with each other for thousands of years. Being able to convey what you want without using sound is a great asset when hunting, chasing, tracking and stalking prey.

Nowadays humans don’t really rely on being quiet to be able to acquire food but the majority of the daily human communication is still nonverbal. We use hand gestures, eye gaze, body posture, clothing, facial expressions, among many others, to transmit feelings, emotions, orders, directions and much more.

We take it for granted that when we smile people understand that we are happy and when we cry people perceive us as sad. We rely on body language, pointing and gazing for most of our directional communication.

 

Pointing

That children are capable of understanding what adults mean when they point to the food plate and ask “Do you want some?” is not a surprise. We evolved this way over millions and millions of years of social activity and constant group communication and babies already understand instinctively from very early in their development what pointing means.

That nonhuman animals are able to understand the information we are trying to transmit when we point is a complete different matter.

Most animals don’t have the need to interact with us to a level in which, to understand human hand gestures, might be beneficial for them in terms of survival, however, there is a species that the high level of coexistence with humans over thousands of years led to them being able to comprehend us much better than any other species. Of course I’m talking about dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Even chimpanzees fail at being able to understand pointing and gazing cues.

Animals that understand human nonverbal communication such as pointing are a rare thing.

Our canine friends are one of the only animals on our planet capable of understanding humans to a degree that if there’s a food item hidden and two available options, they will wait for a visual cue from the human to locate the food. They are even capable of using pointing to help us locate something like in the case of hunting dogs. Surprisingly, one of our closest living relatives, the Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) is incapable of performing the same feat.

Interestingly enough wolves (Canis lupus), the closest relatives to dogs, don’t seem capable of using the same system to achieve a food reward. This is most probably due to their almost non-existent coexistence with humans over thousands of years, unlike dogs.

 

Nonverbal communication in wild animals

So you might think that the only reason there is a species on our planet capable of understanding subtle facial and gestural cues from humans happened due to years and years of the specialised breeding of canines in order to achieve individuals capable of understanding us faster and better. That is the main reason however recent research showed that African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) are also capable of understanding what pointing means.

Click the following videos to check out the research in action. Video 1, Video 2, Video 3, Video 4.

Humans didn’t really have much influence on the evolutionary biology of elephants or their cognitive capabilities’ development over millions of years so why do they have this innate ability to understand what is meant when we use gestural communication?

Elephants and humans are not that different from each other from a social perspective. Both species form friendships that last a lifetime, take care of their young and family, show altruistic behaviour sometimes towards humans, they mourn their dead such as we do and are even capable of using tools to achieve goals or just for pleasure (such as canvas painting).

Their “extra member”, the trunk, which allows them to forage, feed, socialise and scan for danger, is also used to inform other members of the group of a certain place, usually to make them pay attention to specific areas. For that matter it’s not such a big surprise that when we use our arms and hands to point at an object or a direction, they are capable of interpreting and inferring the meaning behind the gesture.

Hope you liked today’s entry.

Até à próxima!

~Sofia.


If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our Research category.
Previous Research entries:
Adventures with the sleeping Elephant
Elephants avoid a full moon when being naughty
What perfume to wear on an African safari
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