We were on a small boat cruising Africa’s Chobe River. Usually you see the wild elephants on dry land, or at watering holes…but not with their 12,000 pound bodies half-submerged in a river. The guide said they were agitated.
It was the dry season, a time when elephants are especially abundant here. When their usual drinking spots are dried up, herds are known to travel 200 miles to this river.
There were three bull elephants having a territorial argument. A male elephant is known to drink 60 gallons of water a day, and as much as 26 gallons of water at a time. With that kind of thirsty water intake, you can imagine the territoriality that these massive beasts, the largest land animals on earth, must possess. The three bulls were in single file crossing the river, and the Lead Bull didn’t like it. He wanted the other bulls to bug off. Our boat idled on the outskirts, waiting to see what would happen.
Over a period of a half hour the Lead Bull left the shore and got deeper and deeper into the water. Then Bull #2 and Bull #3 followed. The Lead Bull turned around and shook his head and raised his trunk, i.e., he told the other two to scram. Sparring elephants on land confront each other by raising their heads as high as possible; they also swat and spar one another with their tusks or trunks. Usually the taller one dominates, especially if his tusks are bigger. We didn’t know what to expect with the bulls so deeply submerged.
The Lead Bull turned around several times, to scare them off, but the other two did not relent. Then he turned and lumbered toward them. After a few more minutes the Lead Bull didn’t back down and went directly to the closest bull. They pressed their heads together, twisted their trunks a few times, and splashed about.
Eventually Bull #2 and then Bull #3 retreated and the dominant one proceeded. He jubilantly crossed the river on his own, leaving the other two behind. This argument had been settled.
Meanwhile the zebra continued to graze on the shoreline, the strong wind blew our boat back a bit, the wading birds fluttered along the river’s edge. Our guide started up the motor and off we went.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander