Wednesday, March 10, 2021

I Shot Elephants in South Africa (with a camera)

Elephant in Kruger National Park.  Southern African elephants are the largest land animals, and thought to be among the most intelligent animals, on Earth.  They face serious ongoing threats to their continued existence.  From us, naturally.

Before the Covid came, Thee Optimist was a bit of a world traveler.  He had gone many, many places, and enjoyed many strange and terrifying adventures.  

Unfortunately, now he is reduced to traveling through the blasted hellscape that is the inside of his mind.  But he can remember previous times...

In late 2019, he went on "safari" in Kruger National Park in South Africa.  We say "safari" with little crow's feet around it because a modern safari is tourists riding around in jeeps, looking at the animals in their natural habitat, not an Ernest Hemingway type shooting animals with large guns while local natives jerk him off with wet sponges.

Well, generally speaking, but not always.

But we were talking about elephants.

Above is a video I shot of a herd of female elephants and their young.  It's not a great video.  What I like about it is how, at one point (roughly 1:28 for you cheaters), the group gets spooked by one of the jeeps, and they immediately circle their wagons around the young one.  

Elephant society is female dominated, and each group is run by a matriarch.  Protecting the children is at all times of paramount importance.  Adult males, who are enormous  (once more, with feeling), and can be aggressive, obey the matriarch and only return to the group to mate.

Here's a better video below, which I didn't shoot, but which also takes place in Kruger.  In this one, a herd of females go stampeding through the savannah to scare out some lions (who prey on the young elephants).  A group of tourists gets caught up in the fun. 

The Intelligence of Elephants

A lot has been said about how smart elephants are, but maybe not enough. 

Elephants have a large and complex neocortex, similar to humans and other apes, dolphins and whales.  The neocortex is the area of the brain associated with sensory perception, cognition ("thinking," in layman's terms), spatial reasoning, and language. 

Elephants have advanced problem solving abilities, are altruistic (they often protect injured humans in the wild from other animals), cooperate with one another and organize activities, can paint, make music, and understand nonverbal gestures like pointing.

Individual elephants have passed the mirror test, suggesting they are self-aware.  

Elephants have the largest hippocampus of any animal, by far, and the largest as a percentage of brain size.  The hippocampus is the area of the brain in mammals that rules over long- and short-term memory, navigation, and also emotion.

This large hippocampus may be one reason why elephants have such strong family ties, are known to experience grief, have rituals around death, and can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (often after witnessing the murder of family members).

Artist's rendering of the Battle of Zama, 202 BC.  Elephants were well known to the ancient world.  Alexander the Great first encountered war elephants in battle while invading Persia in 331 BC, and was so impressed by them, he absorbed them into his own army.

Threats to Elephants

It is thought that 100 years ago, there were as many as 10 million elephants alive in sub-Saharan Africa.  In 2016, a census of elephants was carried out, finding just 352,271 individuals across the continent.  Recent estimates suggest there may actually be as many as 440,000 left.

Either way, this suggests that African elephants have lost more than 95% of their population in the past century.


Much of this staggering decimation is the result of the (now illegal) ivory trade (warning: do not, under any circumstances, click on that link), in which ivory from the tusks of murdered African elephants finds its way to Asia, mostly China.

Indeed, park rangers across Africa do battle (and sometimes cooperate with) the poaching industry.  In Kruger, the park uses drones, helicopters, night vision, and a host of other technologies to combat poachers.  In many places, they go old school, hunt them down and shoot them

But nowadays the major threat to elephants in Africa is more prosaic, and harder to combat.  It's simple habitat loss.  The human population in Africa has more than doubled (from 500 million to more than 1 billion) since 1982.  

In one sense, this is a good thing.  It suggests that African nations are becoming more stable, people are better-fed, live longer, and there is lower childhood mortality.  

But all those people need somewhere to live.  They need farmland to feed them.  They build towns, and they extend cities into previously uninhabited areas.  As mentioned earlier, elephants are very large, and when the two groups meet, bad things happen.

As a result, elephants are being crowded into smaller and smaller areas.  About 30% of their range is now protected lands, like Kruger National Park.  But that means 70% of their range is unprotected.  

And even in places like Kruger, there is an ongoing debate about culling the elephants.  This is because in enclosed places where elephants thrive, their population density becomes too high, and they overgraze the land, impacting other species of animals that are also being protected. 

But given the high intelligence of elephants, culling them is probably immoral, and leads to longer-term problems.  Not that humans have an issue with immoral activities and long-term problems.  It's practically our middle name.  

And yes, I could of course make links to the "immoral activities" and "long-term problems" of humanity, just to refresh our memories, but frankly, I can't be bothered.  There are just too many options to choose from.

Instead, I'll just share this video of a young male elephant displaying humor, intelligence, and an understanding of "sleight-of-hand" similar to what human magicians use.


  1. Wow. Sounds there should be more elephants and less humans. Come to think of it, most problems would be reduced if there were less humans (that means making fewer babies, people!) and by blocking attempts by certain people to violate the rights of others (people AND animals), to take more than their fair share, and other nasty human behaviors.

    Oh, and I did mention it would be helpful if people chose to bring fewer babies into this mess?

    1. It's a hard conversation to have. Many people I meet are math-challenged. It took all of human history until 1800 (hundreds of thousands of years) to get to one billion human population. Then all the wonderful things that could be done with fossil fuels were discovered, and the human population has gone up by about 8X since then. It's an unsustainable population explosion, but few people see it that way. They see it like this: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Bad early advice from the invisible friend. Genesis 1:28.

    2. The Bible orders us to have an unsustainable population explosion, "subdue" the planet and "have dominion" over all other creatures on the planet? Well, if it's in the Bible, that's like God talking or sumpthin'. I guess it HAS to be true and we should all live our lives that way. Gosh. I thought maybe we were instead supposed to use the brains that God/The Universe gave us and make better decisions--but what the heck do I know?

    3. We dream up a God, and then we imagine Him telling us to do the things we were going to do anyway.

      I have people close to me who believe that Jesus doesn't like gay people. At one time, Thee Optimist studied the Gospels rather thoroughly. The Gospels are the life and the words of Jesus Christ. At no time does he mention gay people. The only time he talks about sex at all, is when they bring the female adulterer before him (normally she would be stoned to death), and he says, "He among you who is without sin, cast the first stone."

      So where do people get the idea that Jesus doesn't like gay people? Easy. They make it up. THEY don't like gay people, so therefore Jesus doesn't like gay people.

      Jesus, to whatever extent he exists or existed, likes gay people just fine.