Until the arrival of humans, Elephants - our planet's largest terrestrial mammals - were one of the world's most successful and widespread animals, actively evolving into new species and ecological niches. Amongst the resourceful of terrestrial mammals, they can survive in habitats ranging from the deserts of the Namib and Kalahari, through to the densest of rainforests where they socialize in forest clearings know as bais.
In Africa these animals are represented by both Forest and the larger Bush Elephants, which are more heavily built (males weigh up to 6 tons) and with more deeply curved backs. Many scientists have proposed that African Forest Elephants, smaller, with straighter tusks and flatter backs, are indeed an entirely distinct species from their Bush relatives, with ancestors from a lineage that goes back more than 2 million years.
Asian elephants are smaller, with smaller ears and a more prominent, rounded skull. Female Asian elephants rarely have obvious tusks, unlike their African cousins. Three subspecies of Asian elephant are officially recognized: the Sri Lankan, the Asian and the Sumatran elephant. A race of much smaller pygmy elephants also exists in Sabah, Northern Borneo.
Elephants not only adapt to their habitats, but they also sculpture their landscapes around them, more than any other mammal in the areas they inhabit. They are able in forest habitats to create trails through the densest foliage, turn thick woodlands into open savanna, and actively deepen cave systems in the search for vital minerals. Their excavations are particularly well documented in the cave systems of Kenya's Mount Elgon National Park.
Elephants have great intelligence and long memory. Herds are led by ancient matriarchs (females) up to 65 years old, who in times of hardship are relied upon on to remember scarce water sources and feeding areas. Herds have complex family bonds and relationships and many elephant herds retain loose associations or 'clans' even if they haven't met for years. The excitement and affection these long-lost family reunions create is clear to see.
One of the most emotional of animals, elephants quite obviously display joy. This is most clearly seen in the young and playful sub-adults, but they also very profoundly display sadness at the illness or death of colleagues. Elephants often spend much time touching the bones of dead herd members with their trunks, sometimes years after the death of that relative.
As a result of their social nature, elephants are incredibly communicative animals, 'talking' to each other through a mix of growls, rumbles, snorts, squeals and trumpets. Even in moments when you think they are silent, this may not be the case. These remarkable animals use infrasound, far below the range that we humans can hear, a sound that can travel many kilometres and hence allow elephants to 'speak' to each other even when widely dispersed through their habitat. This use of infrasound was only 'discovered' by scientists in 1987.
Botswana currently has Africa's greatest elephant population, concentrated in the north of the country, especially in the Chobe National Park. Aqua-Firma operates safaris in Chobe based either in a lodge there, or on overland day safaris, crossing the Zambezi River into Botswana from close to the Victoria Falls in Zambia. We often combine these locations with safari holidays into South Africa's Kruger National Park, where bull elephants can be famously agressive and territorial.
Tarangire National Park is a stronghold for these mighty herbivores in Tanzania - a place where Aqua-Firma operates private overland safaris and game drives. Whilst we often combine this park with our Great Migration Safaris to the Serengeti and Great Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tarangire also experiences a migration of wildlife coming into the area when times are dry.
The Selous Game Reserve, Ruaha National Park and the Katavi National Park in the south of Tanzania are other great places to see elephants, on our flying safaris from Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam.
In Asia, Sri Lanka is the best country to see these animals. Minneriya, Wasgomuma and Maduro Oya National Parks play host to congregations of up to 300 strong in season. Udawalawe National Park has the largest population of elephants in Sri Lanka, but the animals here are suffering from dwindling food due to invasive plant species. This is something which our Elephant Conservation & Sri Lanka Wildlife Safaris have been set up to help address; as well as introduce guests to issues surrounding elephant conflict with humans in the Sigiriya area, orphaned elephants and photographic identification of individuals in the Wilpattu National Park.