Seeing your first elephant in the wild

Elephants are probably my favourite African animals. They aren’t necessarily the ones I get the most excited about when I spot them but I could sit and watch them all day. Even so, for some reason, I can’t recall my first elephant encounter in the African wild. I know it was in Botswana, but I can’t remember the sighting or the feeling I had. I can remember my first lion, leopard and rhino sightings, but not the elephant!

The good news is I recently got to live someone else’s first elephant sighting and it was so special I know I won’t forget it (and nor will they)! Van and I were at Selati for a couple of days with a new Professional Field Guide course group, who had just started their Field Guide course. As they had been taking things quite slowly for the first week, the only big mammals they had seen so far were rhinos. They had also just started driving the vehicle themselves out on a drive, practising being a real live guide.

Enter Abigail Best (referred to as Abbie), a young British lady who was very ‘fresh off the boat’ to Africa but absolutely loving it all so far. She LOVES elephants but had not seen one yet – that was what she was most excited about for the whole year course. Abbie was also very nervous for her first drive as (like just about everyone else) she had never driven a big land rover before. It turns out she had nothing to be nervous about as she was quite a natural at driving and did an excellent job!

Now I know you probably all think you know what happened on this drive, given the title and the fact Abby loved elephants but had never seen one… and pretty much everything I’ve written so far. YOU ARE RIGHT. But keep on reading because there’s more to the story that you haven’t guessed yet (probably).

As Abbie was driving along, I employed my newly-acquired supersonic spotting skills (see: a lioness, 5 cubs and a kudu kill) to spot an elephant bull in the trees. OK, I get that spotting a 5000 kg elephant is probably not something to be crazily excited about, but NOBODY ELSE SPOTTED IT so I’m still claiming it as a superior spotting ability.

Understandably the students are all pretty excited about MY amazing elephant spot (not just the fact I spotted it but also the elephant itself). There were two people in the vehicle who had never seen an elephant before – Abbie and a German student named Freddy. CUE EXCITEMENT ALL AROUND. Van noticed immediately that the elephant appeared to be in the early or late stages of musth (read: Caught between a lion & an elephant bull in musth for more insight into what this means) – so we needed to be particularly careful. Abbie did a great job following Van’s instructions on where to stop and position the vehicle so everyone could have a great sighting but we still gave the bull plenty of space. All this while tears are running down her face as she was so happy and excited to finally see an elephant in the African wild!

George (the elephant) started showing off by attempting to push a tree down, then headed into the bushes to bathe in a pool of water. We sat there watching him for about 15-20 minutes until he decided he was going to investigate who/what we were.

He came sauntering out of the bushes and smelling us – staying behind a tree for the most part (yes, we can STILL SEE YOU AS YOU ARE AN ELEPHANT). Then he came out and made a little bit of a fuss before heading up the road away from us. He seemed slightly agitated as he did stick around a little bit further up the road, so Van decided (much to the student’s disappointment) that we were best to let him be since he had given us fair warning and we had seen him very nicely.

Off we drove and stopped a little bit further down at a lovely stream to discuss more what we had seen and learnt in that experience. Words probably don’t do this experience justice (at least not mine) but it was truly something special to share in that incredible moment with Abbie. Not only did she see her first elephant, but it was a big bull in musth AND she was the one driving the vehicle! By the end of her course, I am sure Abbie will have seen hundreds of elephants, but I know that this one is one she will never forget, and I’m pretty sure this is one ‘first elephant sighting’ that I won’t be forgetting either! Seeing people cry with joy at the incredibility of the African bush is what this EcoTraining adventure is all about. Let’s hope we get to enjoy many more moments like this in the coming months!

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Annemi Zaaiman

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