During a recent trip to Kruger National Park with students, we came across a small breeding herd of elephants on the N’wanwitsontso Loop close to the main road between Satara and Tshokwane. One of the adult cows in the herd appeared to have sustained an injury to her trunk and her trunk’s entire length was probably only a third of what it should have been. Her appearance was immediately intriguing to me and I wondered how she managed and survived with such a prominent disability.
An elephant’s trunk is its most versatile appendage. Containing over 40,000 muscles, it is a complexly engineered piece of apparatus. The entire human body contains only 639 muscles. A pachyderm uses its proboscis to breathe, drink, eat, smell, snorkel, communicate, as well as to touch, feel, grasp and grip. How was she managing to get by in life seemingly so disadvantaged?
How she came to have such a disability we will never know. Perhaps it was a deformity from birth. Perhaps her most valuable appendage was caught in a poacher’s snare. Perhaps she had a run-in with a crocodile whilst drinking from the water’s edge.
The herd walked with purpose in a South Easterly direction. Barely stopping to feed, it was evident that they were heading for water. We decided to drive ahead of them and waited patiently at the nearest dam, hoping that they would carry on their path towards us. The herd approached. The rest of the group moved towards the furthest side of the water and began drinking, normally, with the use of their trunks.
The handicapped female broke away from the group and approached the dam from the closest side to us. She advanced to the water’s edge and slowly entered the murky abyss. She seemed unperturbed by the presence of hippos within metres of her. She continued walking into the water until its depths reached half way up her legs. She then leant forward, front legs bent; bottom arched in the air and began drinking with the use of only her mouth. She looked incredibly awkward but her method was fruitful and her thirst quenched.
Acquiring water is only one on a long list of struggles that she faces on a day-to-day basis but clearly she manages and survives. Nature is wonderfully resilient and utterly brilliant.