elephants

Hear the Kruger Call

Hear the Kruger Call

Hear the Kruger call: the shrill cry of a fish eagle gliding over the floodplains; the rumbling sound of a lion as dusk settles in; the thundering hooves of a buffalo herd fleeing into the undergrowth from a predator. These are all nature’s melodies. These are all sounds that resonate in our souls, and that which we know to be synonymous with an authentic bushveld experience. But, there is so much more to the songs and calls of the wild than this. From communication to foraging, wildlife have evolved their own languages into a range of patterns and frequencies across the spectrum of species (many of which humans do not yet fully understand).

Ngwenya delves into the intricacies of wildlife communication:

Hyena

Hyenas are highly intellectual creatures that operate in large clans. These clans have social structure and a range of rules regarding their territory, hierarchy, the hunt and protection. Naturally, this means they require complex communication to uphold their system; one of the widest ranges in communication found in mammals, as a matter-of-fact. The most well-known of the hyena’s sounds is probably the hoot-laugh and giggling, which has dubbed the species with the name “laughing hyena”. While humans associate loud laughter with joy and relaxation, to hyena’s it actually signals distress and tension. The other most prominent call is the whoop which is a loud call that ranges in pitch. The whoop is used to communicate when out of visual range and can actually distinguish hyenas from one another. It is believed that these calls can signal the sex, age and status of the hyena to others. Scientists continue to study the vocalisations of hyenas, with growling being the most obscure. Hyenas are believed to use growling and body language in different combinations to communicate different meaning, the intricacies of which are still being uncovered.

Coucal

The coucal is one of 27 species of the genus Centropus, though you may be more familiar with the term cuckoo. Many of these medium-to-large birds are named for the sounds they make, or the birdsong they imitate. The two species most prominently found in the Kruger National Park are the Burchell’s Coucal and the Black Coucal. Coucal’s are widely known for the gurgling sound that accompanies their song, which many associate with a babbling brook. In fact, their local name in Kenya translates to “The Water Bottle Bird”. Their birdsong not only imitates water but has been closely studied and revealed to be linked to periods of downpour. Coucal’s will often sing before or after rain, when humidity is at an all-time high. Coucals, and birds in general, are able to produce their melodies due to an organ that only they possess: the syrinx. This vocal organ is found at the base of the trachea and produces sound when air is forced through it. The membranes of the syrinx walls vibrate when this happens; causing an oscillating effect that produces intricate birdsong.

Elephant

Elephants are known to have some of the most complex language systems amongst all wildlife. They are able to produce a range of idiosyncratic sounds, ranging from vibrations and rumbling to barks and snorts. Elephants mostly communicate using a low rumble which is produced at such a low frequency that it is seldom heard by human ears. The low rumble can be heard or felt as vibrations, by other elephants, up-to 10km away! This form of communication travels as vibrations with sound pressures reaching 117 decibels. The receptors of an elephants’ feet, known as Pacinian corpuscles, are highly sensitive and share a direct link to the somatosensory cortex of the brain, which is responsible for processing touch. The PC receptors are localised around the edges of the foot; elephants have been documented pressing their feet more firmly onto the ground to enlarge the surface area of contact so that they can hear better!

While this explains how elephants can hear one another, how exactly do they vocalise? Until recent studies conducted by the University of Vienna, scientists weren’t sure if elephant’s communicated through electrical impulses, known as AMC or active muscular contraction, or by the MEAD or myoelastic-aerodynamic method. Domestic cats use AMC to purr, while humans communicate via the MEAD method. While it is difficult to test for AMC, as it requires muscle contractions produced by brain signals, Christian Herbst at UV was able to test MEAD. His team obtained a deceased elephant’s larynx, which they connected to an airflow system. In this way, they could move air over the vocal cords of the larynx, which in turn mimicked the low rumblings and thus put the debate to rest on how elephants vocalise.

This is just three species’ ways of communicating and vocalising, but every wild animal has its own language to communicate with one another, ward off danger or to simply add a sweet song to the chorus of the bush. Wildlife also make use of a number of tools to effectively communicate that surpass sound, and these intricacies will continue to interest scholars and enthusiasts alike. All we have to do is pause and listen to the sounds of the Kruger.

Posted by WSC_Dev in Kruger National Park, Ngwenya Lodge, Ngwenya Sightings, Wildlife
Project Ivory

Project Ivory

While sitting comfortably on a bench in the Lions Corner game-viewing hide, hot coffee and rusks setting the tone for a relaxed early morning, we notice a herd of elephants meandering along the riverbank, just below. Their incredible presence leaves many of us mouths agape, silent ‘wow’s balancing on our lips. It doesn’t take long for hushed whispers to break into a conversation on these sentient beings and quickly a lesson on Project Ivory commences.

Elephants have long been under threat of poaching for their ivory tusks. In fact, according to Ivory’s Ghosts by John Frederick Walker, excavations revealed artistic ivory carvings from around the sixth millennium BCE. Traditionally, elephant ivory has been revered for its unique properties which make it easy to carve and sculpt. In many instances, sculptures and artwork are thought of, but many varying products have been unearthed by archaeologists: buttons, chopsticks, spear and bow tips and, an item made of ivory until recently, piano keys. In Asian culture elephant ivory has always held value and been seen as a statement of wealth; at its peak, in the year 2014, the price for ivory was around $2100 per kilo, but by 2017, its value had decreased to $730 for the same quantity.

Kruger National Park: Rangers pull over to show tourists an African Bush Elephant bull

While the decrease in value holds hope for the African Bush Elephant, poaching in the Kruger National Park has seen an increase in recent years. In 2014, two elephants were poached in the Kruger, but this number has multiplied to 71 in 2018; a growth of 3 550%. While this increase is drastic, Chief Ranger, Nicholas Funda, referring to the Kruger National Park, currently home to 19 000 elephants which have an annual growth of 4% (or 760 new additions), said that, while SANParks aims to be proactive in curbing all forms of poaching, their concern is not that elephant poaching will increase uncontrollably, but rather the element of criminality. In an interview in January 2019, Funda said: “What we are concerned with is criminality; we cannot allow criminals to harvest or to steal from the public. That’s our mandate; we are mandated to protect that. I think elephant poaching is going to be ugly. Elephants are easy to see. If poaching gets out of hand, it will be very difficult to curb. Therefore to be pro-active is critical for us.”

Two Rangers walk through the Park on patrol

It was during this interview that Project Ivory was announced to the public. With its main base of operations in Phalaborwa, Limpopo, (where the highest concentration of elephants can be found) Project Ivory aims to prevent poachers from entering the Park at all. In support of these efforts, the Honourary Rangers donated a group of tracker dogs for the northern section of the Park, as well as agreed to sponsor the first horse unit. The seven horses provide a better means of transport for the rangers who have to track wildlife and poachers across the uneven terrain; the horses move quietly, provide a height advantage and are able to move closer to game than a ranger can on foot. In addition, the Honourary Rangers donated the infrastructure required as a Cessna plane will be moved from Skukuza to offer air support. “It becomes very much important for us to become part of this project. We need to mobilise our communities in support of these initiatives.” – Seaparo Sekoati, MEC for the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism, stated.

A large African Bush Elephant

The efforts of the Project Ivory Team and SANParks Rangers will undoubtedly provide valuable support to South Africa’s elephant population within the Kruger National Park. It is imperative for us all to work towards providing protected safe havens for our country’s wildlife and to see groups making progress in the fight against poaching activity is incredible. Read up on the Honourary Rangers and get involved in their projects here.

If you enjoyed this blog, you might like to find out more on the K9 Units which operate within the Kruger National Park. Read our blog, ‘The Game Changers’. Find out more on the fascinating biology of these humble giants in our blog, ‘A Tribute to Elephants’.

Posted by Ngwenya Marketing in Environmental Conservation, Kruger National Park
A Tribute to Elephants

A Tribute to Elephants

If you have ever found yourself seated on the Restaurant Deck, on a private patio or at one of the game-viewing hides along the Crocodile River at Ngwenya Lodge, then you know that this is elephant country. Herds can often be seen grazing along the river bank and sometimes wander so close to our hides that you can see the colour of their eyes. So how then, could we possibly resist this tribute to elephants? Elephants are such magnificent creatures and Ngwenya visitors are often awe-struck by their incredibly humble presence; Ngwenya takes a closer look with a few unexpected and interesting facts about Loxodonta africana:

  • Anatomy

Loxodonta Africana, more commonly known as the African Bush Elephant, is recognised as the largest land animal in the world. When a bull wanders close to the Lodge, crossing the River and heading up the embankments, guests come up-close-and-personal with these sentient beings and start to notice a number of fascinating attributes. For one, elephants most distinguishing feature: their trunks, are made up of over 40 000 larger muscles, all working together to provide the elephant with a flexible, multi-purpose appendage. These muscles can then be broken down into 150 000 fascicles; tiny internal muscles which could be likened with spokes or villi. To put this into perspective, humans have approximately 750 muscles in their entire bodies.

The trunk consists of muscle groups, nerves, and connective tissue but no bone. The elephant’s skeleton starts at the tail and ends with the skull. It is most fascinating to discover, and no real surprise, that an elephant’s leg bones consist of mostly bone; the bone marrow is subsequently replaced with a spongy, denser bone material. This allows the skeletal structure of the elephant to carry the heavy weight of its muscular structure; bone marrow is lighter and would not provide the necessary support for the animal. An elephant’s red blood cell production thus occurs, not in its bone marrow as with humans, but predominantly in the pelvis.

  • Talents

An elephant’s anatomy lends itself to a range of “talents”. For example, elephants have been recorded using their trunks for a number of incredible tasks; elephants most commonly make use of the proboscides, small finger-like extensions on the tip of the trunk, to grip and snatch foliage, much like a human would use their fingers to pick objects up. The trunk is not only used for feeding, or drinking water, but has an innate ability to smell. An elephant’s olfactory system works through the millions of receptor cells found inside the trunk; the message is relayed to the olfactory cortex found in the ventral lateral brain. This ability means the elephant is even better than a bloodhound and can smell water kilometres away!

Further use of the trunk has been documented as elephants “snorkel” across rivers or bodies of water; the animal will hold its trunk above the water level and wade along the river bottom so that it may continue to breathe.

The trunk is not the only interesting talent an elephant possesses. An elephant’s tusks are incisor teeth which protrude from the skull and grow to lengths of 2 metres. Fun fact: elephants are known to favour one tusk over another, similarly to that of humans being left- or right-hand dominant. Tusks are used for a number of tasks including; stripping bark off trees as a food source for fibre and defending themselves against predators or competition

  • Epidermis

The average elephant’s total skin mass is 900 kilogrammes and can be an inch thick in certain areas. The upper dermis of an elephant is supple and not rough as it may seem; it folds and creases across the mammals body, retaining moisture and keeping the elephant cool. This wrinkling is no accident; researchers at the University of Geneva and Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics presented new findings which suggest that the creases in an elephant’s skin are purposefully created. The tiny crevices and cracks are interconnected and offer higher water retention for evaporative cooling, and can hold more mud, in an effort to dissuade insects from biting and irritating these incredible creatures, than non-wrinkly skin. It has also recently been uncovered that elephant skin is not the same density or thickness across the board, but rather thins out in certain areas or “hotspots” such as the inner leg or over their ears. These locations are used to assist in cooling their blood; elephants are believed to have a certain degree of control over pumping their blood throughout their body and will push blood through the blood vessels near the surface of these “hotspots” to cool down.

  • Extremities

One such “hotspot” is an elephant’s ear; the skin over their ears is approximately a 10th of an inch. But this isn’t the only incredible feature of their ears; elephants have extraordinary hearing, too! The average elephant’s hearing range is between 12 hertz (hz) and 12 000 hz, nearly double the range of a human. In conjunction with their hearing, elephants also make use of their feet to receive communications from elephants further away. Through various studies, scientists have found that elephants communicate at a low-frequency level, much lower than the human ear can pick up, and that their communication pathways can be received and sent to elephants in an area as large as 100 square kilometres.

A large part of this evolutionary advantage can be attributed to an elephant’s feet and trunk. An infrasonic message will be sent through a series of low rumbles and vibrations from one elephant to another. The message travels through the ground and is picked up by the receiving elephant’s feet and trunk tip. Scientists discovered that a combination of bone condition, nerve endings and sensory receptors convey the message from their feet to the ossicles in an elephant’s ear. Elephants use this mean of communication to convey messages of: stress, mating calls and as a “tracker” when herds are spread far apart while searching for food and water during a drought.

  • Dynasty

During such times as drought, when families of elephants are scattered across the landscape finding food and water sources, the Matriarch will lead her herd to locations she has previously visited as a young elephant, or calf, where she remembers there being water or ample vegetation. This is just one of the incredible ways elephants display their connection to one another, and to their lineage. Usually an elephant herd consists of the Matriarch, her daughters and their offspring. At a certain age, the males will leave the group and form a loosely knitted bachelor group of their own. Interestingly, it has been documented that these elephant herds will continue to communicate with one another and stay connected across various families. Elephants display a level of empathy and connection between one another which is rarely observed in the animal kingdom; caring for each other’s offspring, sharing special bonds transcending distance and herds, and mourning for elephant members which have passed on.

Elephants
are incredible and magnificent creatures and are “awe-inspiring” to behold. 
Posted by Ngwenya Marketing in Wildlife, 1 comment