Harry, the leopard and the elephants

Harry (in hat) with the Ray kids and a trainee ranger during a sundowner in the bush.

Crash…chew, chew… crash!! That is what I heard as I approached a male (bull) elephant eating on my second safari at Shamwari Wildlife Reserve. Shamwari is in the Eastern Cape of South Africa and is about nine hours away from Stellenbosch along the Garden Route. The Garden Route is a beautiful drive along the coast of the Indian Ocean. It has spectacular mountains, great forests with ancient trees and white sandy beaches.

When we arrived at Shamwari we had to drive down a bumpy dirt road to get to the gate of the reserve. I noticed right away it was different from Sanbona Wildlife Reserve because it wasn’t dry and it had a lot more green trees and plant life. But it still had bumpy roads and mountains.

Our ranger’s name was Harry. He is from the Eastern Cape in a city called Grahamstown. Harry speaks five languages! He speaks Xhosa, English, Afrikaans, Zulu and another African language I can’t remember. He taught us about his family’s Xhosa history. When a Xhosa person has a reason to celebrate a life event like getting married or having a baby, the person slaughters a cow and has a feast for his family, neighbors and friends. He says the Xhosa people used to have cattle so they had a cow to spare for these events. But now, people have other jobs and don’t have cows to slaughter. Many have to pay for them and it costs a lot of money so that tradition isn’t used as much anymore.

We spent two nights at Shamwari and went on four game drives. Harry showed us so many animals including a leopard, which is a really rare sighting. We went to the spot that it was seen last and sat and sat in the jeep quietly waiting to see if she would come out of the thickets on the mountainside. We heard her roar which sounded more like grunting. Harry was afraid that she might not be coming out so we decided to leave. As we were leaving, the leopard walked across the road and slowly walked right by the jeep, as if she were showing off how magnificent she was. Many South Africans have never seen a leopard, and Harry told us how lucky we were.

The elephants were my favorite sighting though. We saw them eating, swimming, and a herd walking down a road in a line. The first elephant we saw was the bull eating and tearing branches off trees with his trunk. Elephants eat grasses and tree leaves, and they don’t really care what kind of tree or grass it is. Adults can eat up to 300 pounds of food a day! Bulls live by themselves, not in herds like the females and kids. We got to get really close to this bull, and we could see his long eyelashes and his huge, white tusks really well. His eyelashes were so long and thick that you could barely see his eyes! I read later that the eyelashes protect their eyes from the dust. Harry explained that elephants rely on their sense of smell and hearing.

Next we saw a herd of elephants walking down a road. The herd was coming from a waterhole just off the road, so we went to check to see if any of the elephants were still drinking or swimming there. (Yes, swimming; elephants are actually great swimmers and they will swim to cool off on hot days. Crazy! Harry predicted we would find a herd swimming and drinking because it was such a hot day). When we arrived at the waterhole, we watched two young males still playing in the water. It was really cool!! They used their trunks to push and touch each other. They were splashing a lot too, and they looked like they were having a lot of fun.

We left the waterhole to follow the herd up the hill. The elephants on the road were getting angry because there were a couple of vehicles watching them too, and it was making them nervous. The leader of the herd (the most experienced female) even trumpeted several times because she was so upset. I felt bad for them because the elephants were so agitated, but it was pretty cool to hear one actually trumpet. There were a few calves with their mothers on the road too, and even they were big compared to us.  The older elephants blocked the road from the vehicles to protect the herd. So we turned around and left them alone.

It’s amazing how big elephants actually are! They are lucky because they don’t really have predators. Lions are considered a predator, but they don’t often prey on them because their size is so intimidating.

Harry told us that elephants have a special connection with each other. When one elephant dies, they will mourn for him or her. Elephants from other herds will also come to mourn for the elephant that died. They can be found carrying bones or smelling bones from carcasses. Researchers aren’t sure why they do this but believe that they might be reliving memories of that elephant or trying to figure out whose remains they may be. I think that it’s really interesting behavior, and I’m surprised how similar it is to how we behave when someone dies.

I had a really great time at Shamwari with our guide, Harry. We saw so many animals – all the Big 5 (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant) – and we learned so much from him. We think that even if we hadn’t seen any game on our drives we still would have learned so much from him! He told us so many stories and facts about the animals and his Xhosa history. I hope we get to go to Shamwari again and have Harry as our ranger.

Audrey Ray

Audrey Ray is a fifth-grader at Bay Middle School, currently living abroad in South Africa.

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Volume 5, Issue 6, Posted 10:53 AM, 03.19.2013