Recently while in Botswana on a Chobe River boat cruise we were lucky enough to witness a whole herd of elephants crossing this mighty river that forms the natural border between Botswana and Namibia. To see elephants in the water is always a special sight, never mind to see them actually swimming and using their trunks like snorkels. Despite their massive bulk and log-like legs, adult elephants are actually very good swimmers and are quite comfortable swimming distances of over a mile when there is good reason to such as better foraging or finding a potential mate.
It was quite clear that watching this spectacle of an elephant herd crossing the river was a highlight for many tourists and the guides driving the boats knew this. As they began to cross, all the boats came towards the elephants in order to afford their passengers the best view and photographic opportunities.
Now one thing you should know about elephants is that their primary sense is smell. They use this sense to navigate their way around their worlds: to better feeding, picking-up danger from a distance, communicating and following each other and finding previous pathways used by other elephants. It has been observed on the Chobe River that when elephants are crossing and are disturbed they seem to lose their way. This means they have to return to the river bank from where they had started and try again. Although frustrating for them, I’m sure this is no major problem for the adults because as said they are good swimmers and a little extra time spent treading water is not going to harm them.
On this occasion, it was a large family herd consisting of females, adolescents, a visiting male and babies. By the time they neared the middle of the river, also the deepest part, they had been nearly surrounded by boats of all sizes crammed with tourists, some boats even had the audacity to get in between the elephants and the river bank they were trying to reach. This forced the matriarch and thus the rest of the herd to stop and consider retreating rather than leading her family and babies closer to the one thing that elephants really should be afraid of, people.
As this was going on the herd became tightly packed together with the individuals at the back still pushing forwards. By this time the trunks of the babies could no longer be seen poking out the water and there was a real danger of them being crushed between two adults or being pushed down by others trying to keep their trunks above the water. I can only imagine the sense of fear experienced by the babies at that time. Thankfully the unethical boat guide that had got in their watery pathway moved on allowing them to continue to the other side where the shoulders of the biggest elephants started appearing as they were able to stand again. Only trunk tips remained to be seen of the little ones until they were only a metre from the bank and able to stand too.
The sense of joy and relief was clear to see when they were all reunited back on land again, amidst cheers and clapping from people who had watched the whole saga unfold from the boats that had kept a respectful distance.
It was a fantastic event to witness but nearly a disaster due to the ignorance or plain disregard for the welfare of these animals displayed by a few individuals. The point I am trying to make is that when people visit national parks and game reserves they need to remember that the welfare of the animals must come first. Humans have taken over nearly every corner of the planet forcing populations of wild animals into smaller and smaller pockets of safety, which are then subjected to high levels of tourism traffic. If wild animals are chased or have their “personal space” intruded upon, they develop a real fear of humans, meaning you will never get close to them and if you do, they will feel very threatened and could be potentially dangerous. If wild animals are given the respect they deserve they will often become habituated to the presence of humans and feel comfortable being close to vehicles, which is great because it means a fantastic, respectful sighting at close quarters for all to enjoy.