Elephant fiesta in the Okavango Delta

By Gaia Vince 26 October 2010
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Gaia Vince reports back on the elephants, hippos and crocs she encounters in Africa.

UNLIKE MOST OTHER rivers, the Okavango does not encounter any sea or ocean on its 1430 km journey from its source in the hills of central Angola to where it spills into a vast wetlands even further inland in northern Botswana.

About 97 per cent of the Okavango waters evaporate in the delta and are replenished by annual rainfalls in the Angolan uplands and further south in Botswana. The Delta’s wetlands swell to around 28,000 sq. km – all this in the heart of the bone-dry Kalahari Desert. The floods, which handily occur during the dry season, attract migrating wildlife from far afield, including elephants and zebra from Zambia, Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Botswana is home to the largest remaining population of African elephants (Loxodonta africana) in the world, estimated at more than 100,000 individuals (there are fewer than 600,000 elephants worldwide), largely thanks to government-backed conservation and protection programmes that mean poaching is almost non-existent in the country.

Elephants in neighbouring Zambia are evolving shorter, stumpier tusks because those with bigger tusks have been poached, leaving shorter tusked animals to continue the gene line, according to a group of researchers I meet. They are carrying out genetic research on Zambian elephants to prove the theory, which follows similar findings a few years ago by a team of zoologists at Oxford University, UK. But, wildlife experts I speak to in Botswana (where many of the animals migrate) tells me this theory is nonsense. They say that the length of an elephant’s tusks depends on the mineral content of the soils it eats. Poor soils mean shorter tusks and elephants are increasingly being confined to poorer soils as the human population increases and farmers move onto better lands.

Warning charge

There are three species of elephant: the Asian, African forest and African savannah elephant – the last of which is found in the Okavanga. It is the largest of the three and the largest of all land mammals, standing at up to 4 m tall (at the shoulder) and weighing a colossal 12 tonnes.

Elephants are less dangerous than many of the other animals here because they give you a warning first – or so we’re told. The first charge is a scare tactic, the second is a proper warning, and the third – well, you’d best get running. And if an elephant does charge, climbing a tree won’t save you, the elephant will just pull it down. The only way out, we’re advised, is to throw your hat down and flee while he/she is engrossed in the hat. I make a mental note to always travel elephant territory with a hat on.

I gulp at this information during the next day’s mekolo ride. We encounter an elephant taking his bath, who looks lovely, until he begins to charge at us. “Quick, make the boat go faster,” I shout at our poor poler. He tells me, it’s only a teenage elephant showing off – “he’s only about 45-years-old, don’t worry,” I’m told.

We are the only boat on a vast expanse of river that’s boiling with hippos and crocs, whose heads appear disturbingly near us as we cruise by. “I’ve lost a couple of tourists in the past few months,” says Setsani. “One fell in the water drunk and got eaten by crocodiles. The other was on a fishing trip and got dragged in by the line.” I shift back a bit from the helm. Just one of these hippos can overturn our boat, should it choose, Setsani says.

We spy fish eagles and kingfishers, antelope and deer, hippos and giraffes. We stop to watch an elderly male elephant pee, poo and then cross the river from an island to the other bank. Then we come across a broad, shallow bank where around a hundred elephants have gathered to play, wash, swim and bully each other.

It’s a magical sight and we stay a while enjoying the scene. A tiny baby elephant, no bigger than a dog, trots down the bank towards the river and is knocked over by a clumsy adult male dashing past. Immediately, a group of 10 concerned, mainly female, elephants rush over and encircle the baby, protecting him from further injury and stroking him with their trunks. Meanwhile, a couple of teenagers run around tormenting birds, chasing them till they fly off and then rushing after them and trumpeting when they settle again.

We survive our stay in the beautiful delta – although whether the delta will survive is another question. Climate change is shrinking this vital desert watering hole yearly, with evaporation rates increasing and precipitation decreasing. Countless species of animals depend on this water source.

Gaia Vince is an Australian journalist who is travelling around the world reporting on the effects of climate change and sending regular dispatches to Australian Geographic. She writes for the BBC, New Scientist and The Guardian. Find her blog at wanderinggaia.com.

Read about more of Gaia’s adventures
AG Society expedition to Africa, 2011