Skip to main content

Times of the Islands Magazine

Beating about the Bush: A South African Haven for Elephants

Jul 14, 2021 12:10PM ● By TANYA HOCHSCHILD

Imagine you are in the African bush. The dawn begins in silence. A melodic bird call summons the sun, which rises from behind a distant hill, washing the slopes in a rosy pink. A lone, wrinkled, battle-scarred elephant wanders in from history, memories of the ages reflected in his clouded eyes. His trunk glides upward toward a leaf, which he plucks with finesse and guides into his mouth. His eyes close, as if in ecstasy, and like a gourmet he savors this succulent choice. He is in no hurry. He has no option but to spend his remaining days in this way. Foraging for food is both pleasure and necessity. 

We had flown to South Africa to look for elephants and found them at Addo Elephant National Park, in conservation land of thicket, savannah, forest and grassland. A proposed expansion will sweep down to the Indian Ocean and include a marine preserve. Visitors will have an opportunity to sight not only the “Big Five”—elephants, buffalos, rhinoceros, lions and leopards—but also whales and dolphins.  

The elephants of Addo now roam free, a life never experienced by their ancestors, who were slaughtered by the thousands for their ivory. The docks in Deep River, Connecticut, on the banks of the Connecticut River in the U.S., were the destination for hundreds of tons of ivory, shipped from the late 19th century well into the 20th century. Piano playing was popular in most middle-class homes, and piano keys, made from ivory, were manufactured in the piano factories of nearby Ivoryton, Connecticut. The last shipment of ivory was made to Ivoryton in 1954. After that plastic keys became the norm. 

There is a constant ebb and flow between compassion for and cruelty toward the animals of Africa. 

The Eastern Cape, where Addo is situated, teemed with game before the white settlers arrived and the ivory trade began, before hunters and wagon routes linked the hinterland to the coast. Dazzles of zebras, prides of lion, towers of giraffe and herds of buffalo and blesbok galloped free—and elephants galore. 

By the late 1800s there remained only a few hundred elephants, all retreated into the deep thorn and nearly impenetrable thickets. There they found shelter, but, unfortunately, in their constant quest for food and water, they trampled farmers’ fences and destroyed crops. By the 1920s the farmers’ running battle with elephants resulted in the administrator of the Cape Province commissioning Major Pretorius, a hunter and soldier, to rid the farming community of this “menace;” 120 dropped to his rifle.  

A national outcry demanded protection for the remaining elephants. In 1931 the surviving population of 11 were herded into the newly proclaimed Addo Park. In an effort to dissuade the elephants leaving this sanctuary, boreholes to provide water were sunk.  

Today there are more than 600 elephants, all descended from the original 11. Because of inbreeding and the proportion of tuskless females in the original population, most of the females are now tuskless. The males retain their tusks. 

At water holes parades of elephants enjoy a highly social time. We watched as a family group of 25 sashayed single file toward a water hole for afternoon tea. Ungainly youngsters slid down muddy banks, sometimes coaxed by their mothers’ trunks to approach the water. One comical baby preferred to insert her trunk into a hole in a rock and seemed to drink minerals and salty water. Older siblings gently pushed her away, but she returned again and again, like a kid to a soda fountain. Teenagers twined trunks and swayed, looking for all the world like kids skipping rope. Older members drank copiously, then sucked up water and mud and sprayed jets over their backs. The mud acts as a sunblock.  

One old gent stood a little away from the group—perhaps he was the guard—and alternately crossed and uncrossed his front and back legs in postures of utter patience. 

Once they had quenched their thirst and cooled off, they stood side by side touching one another, while the babies waited in their shade. Occasionally a trunk would be lifted to sniff along a neighbor’s back. Clearly the elephants were communicating with one another.  

All was peaceful, and they were in no hurry to leave, even though they must have been aware of us, as well as the warthogs waiting their turn at the waterhole, and three enormous tortoises, whose slow progress we had watched.  

Eventually, the matriarch turned to amble off, and one by one, the others took their places behind her. The herd lumbered into the bush. We last glimpsed them moving slowly, framed by an orange setting sun.  

At dinner that evening, under stars sparkling from the vault of the southern summer sky, we spoke of our day with the elephants. They had led us into a realm, an undisturbed haven, beyond politics, beyond injustices, beyond human strutting and fretting. They reconnected us to our sense of place in the eternal world of nature. 

Tanya Hochschild has been a freelance writer in South Africa, where she grew up, and in the U.S., her home since 1981. She is the author of a historical novel, a memoir, an anthology of poetry, and biographies of nonagenarian residents of Fort Myers-based Shell Point Retirement Community.