False sense of security

Elephants have long since been my favourite animal to view in the bush, but the past three months have been a great test of my admiration for them. Living in the bush is an honour but wherever people and animals coexist, there will always be conflict.

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Thanks to a very dry winter, water has become the most valuable commodity at Karongwe. It is an essential requirement for almost every organism on this planet, and when under water stress, their will to survive is strong. When the animal in question weighs over six tons, the outcome is inevitable …

For month after month, the local herd of elephants’ massive water requirements have wreaked havoc on our bush oasis. Elephants are fussy when it comes to water, and when faced with a stagnant pool of water versus the clean water in our tanks, there will only ever be one winner.

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I soon learned that trying to stop or outsmart them was futile and it pains me to say this, but I had given up trying. It had become routine to stockpile water in the evenings and then fix the pipes the next day. We all had no choice but to accept it.

Finally, however, the rains came last week. Thunder and lightning ravaged the skies and the first downpour of the season was relished by all. With water no longer in such short supply, the elephants abandoned their relentless raids on our tanks and seemed more content now that natural order had been restored.

We were lucky enough to bump into them the day after and they seemed filled with the joys of spring, as they frolicked in one of the dams close by. Despite my love for these gentle giants being tested to the limit over the past few months, nothing could contain my grin as we had a perfect view of the herd splashing about, one even deciding that the occasion was worth a swim!

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I am supposed to teach guides to interpret behaviour, but sometimes it needs no interpretation. Joy is a powerful emotion and it positively oozed from these most emotive of animals.

The elephants moved north, back to the area they tend to spend the summer, and we let our guard down. For days we enjoyed running water. Showers seemed sweeter than ever and the simple pleasure of water on demand become commonplace once more. We may have lost the battle but we had won the war. Battered and bruised, yes, but we had weathered the elephantine storm!

The bush, however, is not without its sense of irony, and while I secretly celebrated the end of a long and arduous campaign against an unstoppable enemy, I was in for a rude awakening.

I slept well that night under the soothing shroud of a false sense of security. As the morning light filtered through my tent I went to help myself to a refreshing cup of water but when I turned the tap, I was met by nothing but the sound of rushing air (although I swear there was a subtle hint of elephant mockery mixed in with it!)

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They had returned. Like silent assassins in the night they had travelled the length of the reserve and reminded me who, indeed, was the biggest fish in this newly stocked pond. Normal service had been resumed, and I was left in no doubt as to who had the upper hand in this long-running war!

Hopefully, the summer has begun and the pressure on the animals will recede as more rains fall. Either way, despite their destructive tendencies, they still remain my favourite animals. Coexistence with nature is whole point, and it is up to us to adapt and learn to live together in harmony.

One thing is for sure: whether they are causing mayhem at camp or delighting us with their aquatic antics at a more natural venue, the honour of living in the midst of giants is a true privilege.

Photos by Ben Coley