Why did the elephant cross the road?

Perhaps more importantly, what should I do when the elephant crosses the road (close to me)?

When going on an unguided game drive on your own, do learn a little bit about animal behaviour before you go, so that if you have a close encounter, you don’t panic.

Elephants, the largest of all land mammals, have a fascination to us and the babies are SO very cute and if we are out on a game drive, elephant sightings can be the highlight of the day.

I always wondered how elephants move through the bush, with their bulk and weight, so very, very quietly. Well, on a trip to the Elephant Sanctuary in North West Province, I saw a drawing of the foot bone formation – and it is constructed in such a way that the elephant is physically walking on tip-toe! They have a tough, thick, fatty pad forming the sole and heel of the foot. So they really do tip toe very quietly as they move.

Here’s some more information you might find interesting

  1. Elephants tusks are overgrown incisors protruding from the upper jaw. They grow at a rate of 15–18cm a year, depending on their diet.  They only grow one set.
  2. The skeletal frame of an elephant allows the animal to stand upright on its hind legs.
  3. Elephants wear down 6 sets of molars in a lifetime.
  4. Elephant herds consist of females, who are usually related, calves and young bull calves. The eldest female, called the Matriarch, most often leads the herd.
  5. Bull calves get kicked out of the herd when they reach about 12 years of age to join the bull “bachelor” herds or to become a solitary bull. Bull herds will only join a female herd when it is mating season, or at a waterhole.
  6. The average speed for charging elephants is about 35–40km per hour.
  7. A calf will only learn how to use its trunk properly at about six months of age.
  8. Elephants are known to display a deep sensitivity and awareness of death and will return repeatedly to carcasses and skeletons of deceased herd members, running their trunks gently over their remains as though paying their respects.
  9. Elephants spend as many as 18–20 hours a day feeding and drinking.
  10. An elephant generally sleeps for only three or four hours a day. Very occasionally they may lie down for an hour or so, but mostly they take short, cumulative naps, usually standing upright or leaning against a tree or termite mound.
  11. A fully grown adult bull’s tusks can extend to 3m and weigh as much as 100kg each. The heaviest recorded tusk weighed 102.7kg.
  12. Like man, elephants are usually left or right “handed” and will use one tusk almost exclusively.
  13. Elephants have a highly developed social structure, with family bonds, love, loyalty and intelligence.
  14. African elephants have four hoof nails on their front feet and three nails on the hind leg.
  15. The elephant brain can weigh up to 4,8kg depending on the age of the elephant. This is encased in a skull so large, that were it solid bone, the elephant would not be able to lift its head. So the skull is formed with hollow cavities in it – a bit like an Aero bar.
  16. The small intestine is 82 feet long; the large intestine is 21 feet, and the rectum is a further 13 feet. That makes a total of 116 feet of intestine that the food has to pass through. Digestion of food can take 22-46 hours.
  17. An elephant’s jaws can crack open the thickest and hardest shells of fruits, releasing the seed kernels inside.
  18. Elephants use a wide range of sounds to express their moods and feelings and can communicate with each other over many kilometres through their low frequency “rumbles”.
  19. The gestation period in female elephants is 22 months. When the calf is born it can weigh 100kg-120kg and stands about 85cm tall.
  20. Another adaptation that the elephant has is its appendix. This organ is 5 feet long and its role is to process and break down proteins, starches and the simple and complex sugars that are found in its food. Larger than the stomach, this organ is where the majority of the intestinal bacteria are located that are required to digest the vegetable materials.
  21. The bone structure of an elephant is similar to that of human beings, for example they too have a wrist joint in the front legs as well as knee caps and ankles in the back legs. Even the shoulder blades are positioned in the same place as in humans.
  22. When standing on hind legs, the kidneys are in the same position as that of a human being.
  23. The elephant’s memory surpasses that of humans.
  24. Elephants live up to around 70 years, with females mostly fertile between 25 and 45. Males need to reach 20 years of age in order to successfully compete for mating.
  25. African elephants mainly eat leaves and branches of bushes and trees, but also eat grasses, fruit, and bark.
  26. Sadly, poaching of elephants is such that they may be extinct within 15 years if measures are not taken to protect them and to re-educate people who want to buy ivory trinkets. (Some think these big tusks fall out and a new set grows but this is not so!)
  27. Elephants get so traumatised by poaching and loss within the herd, it can take 20 years for them to recover.


Now back to our first question – why did the elephant cross the road? Because he wanted to (and he rules, so he can!) and this may be a well-remembered route to food and water. So if you are in the bush when that elephant walks onto the road close to your vehicle, try to assess whether the elephant is relaxed or agitated. Waving ears and trumpeting are sure signs you have an upset animal in your sights, so move away from the elephant slowly and do not hoot your horn! Don’t panic, don’t rev your engine. (Only if you are charged, get away as fast as possible!)  If you are stationery with your engine off, stay still, stay quiet and stay put. (You might feel like you will have heart failure, but BREATHE). Hopefully, with no provocation, the elephant will walk by. Never try to overtake or drive past. Give elephants their space and let them move along the roadways without any harassment. They have the right of way!

Please support all efforts to protect this wonderful animal and I suggest looking at and supporting the work of the WWF

Now, how about booking a trip to Royal Jozini in Swaziland, chartering a boat and going out on Lake Jozini to see if you can see elephant from the water? Email Lynda today for rates and availability!

With thanks, Elephant Sanctuary, Wikipedia, WWF.