We’re driving through the Naboisho Conservancy; it’s one of the Masai Mara National Reserve’s calmer cousins. Naboisho’s profile may not be quite so famous as that of her mega-star neighbour, The Masai Mara, but nor are quite so many people fighting to take snap shots of her. And this is just one of the many advantages enjoyed by the fourteen or so conservancies that encircle the Reserve. Not only are they places of calm and retreat for humans and animals alike but they also offer a much more intimate game-viewing experience, a greener eco-lodge profile and an infinitely wider range of activities. You can, for instance, walk in the conservancies, horse ride, camel ride and bike ride too. You can also interact much more authentically with such ethnic groups as the Maasai, who offer village visits, craft markets and heritage displays. Typically, in the trans-Mara region, the conservancy land is Maasai-owned, which means that the Maasai community also benefits from the incoming tourism dollars. Finally, because vehicle numbers are limited and the ratio of beds to square kilometers is vastly reduced, you may rest assured of seeing the optimum species of wildlife and the minimum of your own. The conservancies, then, are to the Kenyan national parks and reserves what fringe theatre is to Broadway.
Right now we’re driving through one of Naboisho’s denser thickets. The track, seldom used, is tortuous and the safari vehicle is lurching from rut to rut like a ship in a storm. Its suspension, aggravated by dust, is complaining bitterly and so would we be: if we dared. But our driver/guide is not a man to be trifled with. He’s traditionally dressed in a scarlet Masai shuka, bandoliers of beads glitter across his chest and the dagger in his belt would make a rampaging lion think twice. Despite all this, however, our attention is wandering.
Why? Well, the sad fact of game-driving is that it is time sensitive. There is only so long you cling to the edge of your seat poised for imminent safari drama. Only so long you can keep your eyes peeled and your inner cave man primed for blood. And we’ve crossed the attention threshold. Mobiles are being fingered; cameras have been discarded. This is the moment beloved of safari guides. ‘Do you see him?’ ours asks. See what we wonder? We’re surrounded by thick undergrowth. A stream flows through a miniature valley, its banks are quilted with green moss and sprout tight-curling primordial ferns. It’s only as a large grey trunk snakes into view, gently winds itself around a fern and brutally rips it from the ground that we see the elephant. It’s a bull and he’s straddling the stream. It’s a tight fit – cork in a bottle – but he’s fern-harvesting with single-minded determination. Brilliant green fronds stick out from either side of his mouth. Up comes his trunk to push them more firmly between his masticating jaws. Down it goes again to wrench more greenery from the ravaged ground. His trunk is a formidable implement weighing around 400 pounds and containing around 100,000 different muscles. And at its end, or so we are told, are some finger-like appendages so delicate that he could pluck a single blade of grass.
‘He’s a leftie’, observes our guide. We stare at the back of the man’s head. It’s all we can see of him perched as we are on our raised seats. Is this a manifestation of the famous Maasai humour? Is he suggesting that elephants have political leanings? ‘Look at his tusks,’ the guide says ‘the left is shorter than the right’. We look: he’s right. Elephants, the guide explains are like humans in so much as they are either right or left tusked (‘lefties’ or ‘righties’ in safari-speak). And, because they use the same tusk to strip bark, tear leaves or fight other elephants – so it is that the more frequently used tusk grows gradually shorter over time.
We watch entranced as the elephant decimates the ferns. The sound effects are impressive – a ruthless tearing, a massive, mauling, mastication; and the odd blow-off of gas as profound as a Texan oil well. The guide has our attention now – and the facts come thick and fast. We learn that an elephant must feed for 12-18 hours a day, consume 200-600 pounds of vegetation, expel 250 pounds of manure a day whilst dealing with a digestive system so poor that it functions at only 50% efficiency. Despite all this volcanic internal activity, however, the elephant has an extremely slow pulse rate of around 27 beats per minute as compared to that of the average human being whose heart beats 80 times per minute (or the canary whose heart pounds at 1000 beats per minute). We learn that bulls can grow up to 13 feet in height, cover 30 feet from trunk to tail, and weigh up to 14,000 pounds. ‘Which is why’ continues our guide, ‘they are the only mammal that can’t jump’. As facts go, this one is slightly left-of-field and we’re temporarily silenced by the mental image of an elephant jumping. But the next fact bowls us over: African elephants, it appears, walk on their toes, as if they are wearing high heels.
The guide has to be kidding. And yet he’s not. Studies of elephant walking patterns (using pressure-sensing platforms to map the distribution of weight on elephantine feet) have revealed that elephants put the most pressure on the outer toes of their front feet and the least amount of pressure on their heels – they tip-toe.
This elephant is far too tightly wedged between the banks of the stream for us to judge whether or not he appears to be walking in heels. But as we return to our camp, we encounter a matriarchal herd. There are nine of them, graduated in size from impossibly tiny to dauntingly huge and they’re doing what elephants do best – tearing branches off trees and cramming them into their mouths. Spellbound, we stare at their feet.
Heels are not in evidence.
Elephants have highly developed brains, the largest in the entire animal kingdom (three to four times larger than a human brain.)
Though incapable of jumping, elephants can run at a speed of 25 miles (40 km) per hour. Yet even when they are moving at their fastest, they still keep at least one foot on the ground at all times.
Elephant eyelashes grow up to five inches in length.
Elephant skin is over an inch thick. But because it’s loaded with nerve endings, their skin is also highly sensitive.
Elephants from the same herd will often use touch to greet each other, either wrapping their trunks around each other or giving each other friendly taps on the body.
In addition to trumpeting, elephants purr much like cats do. Research has also shown that they can communicate over long distances using a sub-sonic rumble that travels over ground faster than sound through air. Other elephants receive these messages through their feet and trunks.
Elephants have large, thin ears that contain a complex network of blood vessels that help to regulate body temperature. The average ear of a male African elephant weighs over 100 pounds.
The tusk of a male elephant grows at a rate of around 7 inches per year.