Animal watching is a game, a game of chance. It needs extreme silence; a stillness both of the body and the mind. Keeping your eyes fixed to that water-pool, where the wild game is bound to converge to have a drink this dry season is the only way you’ll see what you’ve flown more than a thousand miles for.
Some of us are lucky, some not. I count myself one of the lucky ones, who managed to see a rare phenomenon in the wilderness of Africa. A happening that few are fortunate to witness even once in their entire lifetimes; the fight of the African Elephant.
It is just after dawn, the time when the waterhole is at its most silent. A silent fox dogs the edge of the water-pool, eyes intent on the two ducks swimming leisurely in the centre. A heron stares at us, as we have our cup of hot tea in the crisp coolness, getting ready to leave for the game drive. The owls are sleeping: one is just visible on the top branch of the tree; its head turned away, body facing us. We have seen three of the Big Five in the night; the lion, the buffalo and the elephant. We have yet to catch a glimpse of the leopard and the rhino. Our guide suddenly gestures, and everyone falls silent.
Out of the darkness, a small herd of elephants appears, and starts drinking from the water-pool, sucking water into their trunks with soft snorting sounds and spraying it into their mouths. This is the second herd we’ve seen, likely from the same clan as the first one spotted in the night. No one dares take a flash photograph, since sudden blinding light is known to scare the wild game away.
The biggest one stands in the middle of the line; the matriarch of the herd. Suddenly, she raises her head, as though sensing another presence and snorts softly. Thirst unquenched, she leaves the water-pool. With the smallest twitch of her tail, which seems to act as a signal, the others follow. We stare in disappointment. The excitement seems to be over, but our guide motions for everyone to be silent once more.
And then, a soft trumpet sounds, followed by another one. A huge elephant comes into view, lumbering gently to the water-pool. This is a bull elephant, as only bull elephants travel alone. Our guide takes us through the underground tunnel, which opens at the water-pool. From this vantage point, we’re hardly five meters away from the elephant. The sky has lightened. He comes closer, and closer to the tunnel opening, walking as gently as an animal its size can walk. We stare in awe. I have never seen an elephant this close, although I’ve been on numerous safaris.
And then, he snorts. Further away, another elephant comes into view. This one also looks to be a bull, due to its size and the fact that it walks alone. The two stay at opposite ends of the water-pool, taking in their fill of water. Our guide finds this strange. Generally, when two bull elephants meet, they tend to get along well, unless one is in musth, a state of increased aggressiveness and sexual awareness.
We sat still, waiting and watching. All the hallmarks of an elephant fight were now in evidence. Soft growling accompanied by soft snorting noises filled the air. The atmosphere was visibly tense, and the other animals had fled the scene. This proves that all wild animals are remarkably alert and react swiftly to signals given that can threaten their own survival.
Hence the quick exit by the other herd of elephants. In their bid to protect their calves from harm, they had left at the first scent of trouble. Although African elephants cannot see well, their sense of smell and sound are highly attuned to any signs of danger to their offspring. Not much threatens them, but the calls of a real elephant fight do; where their cubs risk coming underfoot. This was why our guide had taken us to the tunnel, where we would be in close proximity to the action, yet unthreatened because of our cover.
After what seemed like an hour, but was in fact, a few minutes, the two bulls start walking towards each other. As one advances, the other retreats. As the other advances, the first retreats. This cat and mouse game continues for only a few minutes, with the growling sounds increasing in volume. And then, the slightly bigger bull elephant began goading the other one, lifting its trunk, and swaying its head from side to side, encouraging the other to come closer.
It takes a few steps forward, then a few steps back. Then, it turns around, looking at the other one as though mocking him, turns his back and walks away. This withdrawal seems to anger his counterpart, who begins to trumpet at full volume. Apparently this acts as a signal, for the retreating one turns around. It stands, eerily silent, watching. With the red dust of the savanna coating its back, the enraged bull starts charging. The ground trembles, as the speed of the charging elephant increases. The dust flies, right into our eyes.
And then the other bull also begins running forward. Everyone stands frozen in place. This sight, this moment, seems to reach out of the hands of time to provide us with a glimpse of how animals at their best and worst can create a beauty worth all the treasures of the world. There is a magic in the air, a rawness in the atmosphere; that grows with every step of the charging elephants. The earth that seems to tremble, the dust that flies with every move, the utter stillness of the landscape in the lightening sky; all seems to lend an impression of majestic savagery to the brewing fight between these: the true kings of the African Savanna.
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