The African Elephant is an iconic symbol of the continent, deeply moving to all who have the wondrous experience of viewing the largest land animal in the wild. These wrinkly grey giants of the African landscape known for their immense size, intricate social structure, keen intelligence and memory, are endlessly fascinating and mysterious. The elephants roam the protected plains of Africa, with their seemingly voracious appetites, in herds of various sizes. In Hwange National Park, one of southern Africa’s greatest elephant sanctuaries, herds of up to 350 can be found. These massive, abnormally large herds are known as Superherds and are unique to the area.
Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe is home to one of the largest elephant populations in Africa. There are an estimated 44,000 pachyderms inhabiting the 14,651 km² park, which is practically half of Zimbabwe’s elephant population. The elephants are the most important animals in the park, making up 90 % of the biomass. The park is lacking in natural surface water so during the dry season the animals, including the elephants, rely on man-made pans of calcium rich water pumped from boreholes.
Observing a Superherd at the watering hole is a truly mesmerizing experience, guests at Elephant’s Eye, Hwange an eco-lodge on a borderless concession neighbouring the park, find themselves lost for hours in wonderment at the interaction and activity of the majestic creatures. Where else can you see literally hundreds of elephants splashing and spouting, using their dexterous trunks to take grateful gulps from the fresh water? The younger elephants especially are a delight to witness. The calves are playful and exploratory, mucking about and rolling around in the mud under the watchful eyes of the mature cows. The respected matriarch is alert and in control, she has led the herd to the waterhole and their safety is her main priority.
Elephant herds are matrilineal. The leader of the herd, the matriarch, is usually the oldest female elephant (not the largest or strongest). The rest of the herd consists of other cows (mothers, daughters, sisters, cousins and aunts) and their young. Bulls separate from the herd once they reach maturity and lead a solitary life, or in some cases form bachelor groups. The matriarch is responsible for the herd’s safety and is the chief decision maker. She ensures the herd’s thirst is quenched by relying on her elephantine memory of where the waterholes are located and which ones are safest or most favourable. In years of drought or when pumps are broken, she may need to dig deep into the recesses of her mind to remember an alternate location.
In larger herds, especially a Superherd, the matriarch needs assistance from the other mature cows. It is here where the elephants’ renowned complex social structure comes into play. The herd is in constant communication and can even transmit messages over great distances through low-frequency sounds and rumblings, creating vibrations in the ground that are felt by their feet. In all herds regardless of their size the elephants intimately know one another and have incredibly strong bonds, this is essential for their safety and provides a great deal of trust and a sanctuary within the herd. It is then all the more impressive that these Superherds of Hwange ranging from 150 to 350 strong are able to successfully maintain these close-knit relationships.
African elephant herds usually range in size from six to one hundred elephants, subject to environmental conditions and family size. Studies have shown that in families with older matriarchs, the females will reproduce at an accelerated rate, resulting in larger and more successful families. All the cows in the herd share in caretaking duties of the young so larger herds have “more hands” and the young are able to thrive. The pre-reproductive females take part in “calf-sitting” which is part of a phenomenon known as allomothering. This “it takes a village” style of childcare teaches the younger cows vital skills about child-rearing while the mothers are free to forage which in turn boosts their milk production. This may be one of the reasons that the herds of Hwange are so successful.
The specific conditions that cause these impressively large herds are not known but they certainly are favourable. It may be the boreholes that provide fresh water year round, it may be the vast area of Mopani woods and grasslands or something else entirely about Zimbabwe’s biggest National Park in the northwest corner of the country. Whatever it is, it is amazing to see elephants thrive and proliferate in numbers that echo an era when elephant populations were exponentially larger than what they are now. Sadly, elephants remain threatened throughout Africa due to habitat loss and poaching, even the elephants in Hwange National Park, though seemingly abundant, are under threat. Their best protection is to provide safe spaces in which they can flourish, these are the parks and reserves of Africa that are supported by tourism. A visit to Hwange National Park will not only provide you with a truly unique elephant experience but the revenue generated will indirectly ensure that these magnificent creatures have a home and a protected space to roam for future generations.