Watching elephants

One of the pleasures of visiting Amboseli national park is that you get to watch elephants at close quarters. We came on a large herd which was hanging out in a marshy area close to lake Amboseli. Their normal routine was interrupted by our arrival; two adults closed up against a baby playing in the mud (featured photo). But these herds are used to tourist vehicles. They watched us for a while, and then decided that we posed no immediate threat.

The baby was unconcerned. It continued to play in the mud. We’ve seen young elephants enjoy mud so much that they sometimes refuse to leave with the rest of the herd, protesting as much as a human child who has to leave a playground. This little one had no eyes for anything around it, and continued to stamp about in the mud for as long as we were there.

Young males in these herds often like a mock fight. I’d not seen how the chase which you see in the photo above began, but FONT said that it had to do with the younger one repeatedly provoking the older. This led to a short chase which ended with the young one stopping and turning to face the older one.

The fight continued with a bit of trunk wrestling. I’ve seen young Indian elephants trunk wrestling, and this seemed to be exactly the same behaviour. The trunk wrestling did not lead to any violence but continued for quite a while.

Herds of elephants are almost impossible targets for predators, but that does not mean there is no watch. We’d already seen that all the adults were alert to intruders, but there were a couple who were clearly perimeter guards. The tusker in the photo above was one of them. You can see from the elephants in the background in all these photos that this herd was quite large. None of us counted, but it was certainly over twenty individuals.

I saw some of them go into a defensive huddle suddenly. It is interesting how they gather together with all the young ones in the middle and adult defenders facing out from the core. I was slow to figure out why the group had gone into a huddle.

It turned out that another group had broken out of the trees on the far side of the road. I’ve not read of tribal conflicts between elephants, but I guess that any social animal will be on guard against strangers. The previous day I’d watched two groups of elephants cross each other’s paths, each taking care never to come too close to the other group.

The new herd which had arrived was small, two young, one juvenile, and three adults. They crossed the road and carefully skirted the group we had been watching. You can see how they walk in a file with the young ones as well protected as possible even while walking. I know someone who had once worked on the social life of Indian elephants, and much of his doctoral work had consisted of measuring distances and angles between elephants in photos taken from the air. When you watch elephants in the wild you begin to appreciate why this method may be useful.

First view of Lake Amboseli

Our first view of Lake Amboseli was enchanting. The lake is very shallow but extensive. We drove past rapidly, since our guide wanted to show us large mammals. But even in that quick pass I managed to take several photos. I didn’t want to stop longer because we still hadn’t got ourselves a field guide for the birds of Kenya, and we would not be able to identify what we saw. In retrospect that was a mistake, because we could have taken photos for later identification.

Looking at them later I discovered more than 15 species of birds. Here you see three plains zebras (Equus quagga) and a considerable number of greater and lesser flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus and Phoenicopterus minor, respectively). If you look carefully at the photo you’ll see a black winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) and a Blacksmith lapwing (Vanellus armatus). The last species is found only in Africa, from the Cape of Good Hope northwards to Angola in the west and Kenya in the east. Although it is common, this was a lifer. We’d seen the other three in India.