Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve is renowned for its elephant, and decades of ground-breaking conservation work by the Douglas-Hamilton family has helped make them some of the most habituated in Africa. On our Kenya safari we spent three nights in the Samburu region, and what we saw on our second morning will rank as one of the most memorable elephant sightings of my life.
We’d been driving along the northern banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro – or Ngiro River – in northern Kenya looking for lion, and while our Samburu guides, Joseph and Emmanuelle, had seen tracks the cats remained elusive. To our north, though, we could see a cloud of dust rising from the scrub thickets and a quick scan through binoculars revealed a herd of elephant heading our way. Joseph thought they might be coming down to drink, so we decided to sit tight and wait for them to arrive.
An elephant herd is a family comprised of adult females and calves of both genders, led by a matriarch. Adult males tend to hang on the outskirts, mixing with the herd from time to time for as long as the matriarch allows. Occasionally large bulls in musth, grumpy and edgy from the large doses of testosterone flowing through their bodies, trail the herds on the hunt for receptive females.
The herd filed past no more than 20m from our vehicle, negotiating a gap in the steep riverbank and making its way to the water. We were about to settle in to watch the gentle creatures’ antics as they drank and socialised, but then we noticed there was still dust being kicked up in the distance. As more elephant emerged from the bush, from different directions, we realised that this wasn’t just one herd but several, all converging on the same gap in the steep riverbank.
Over the next hour we sat in awe as herd after herd made its way past us into the river, in the moments in between not quite sure whether to watch the elephant cavort in the river or to remain on the lookout for more advancing. At one point, being so focused on what was going on in front of us, we failed to notice a herd approaching us from behind. Suddenly we were surrounded by elephant almost within touching distance of our open-sided safari vehicle – thrilling to be sure!
On the riverbed, the elephant behaviour was mesmerising. Each took its time sucking up trunkfuls of water, squirting it into its raised and open mouth – an adult elephant can consume up to 200 liters of water per day!
The smallest calves, still without this dexterity, were alternating between kneeling on their front legs to suck up water with their mouths and playfully chasing each other between their mothers’ legs.
Watchful matriarchs kept an eye over the commotion, making sure to keep their herds together and youngsters close while sub-adult bulls tussled with each other on the riverbank, practicing for the day when they’d need to challenge each other for the affections of a lady.
Meanwhile, downstream, a large crocodile raised its head at the activity, then skulking low in the water it swam upstream towards the splashing. Directly translated from the local language, the accurately named Ewaso Ng’iro means ‘river of brown’, and this muddy water provides wonderful camouflage to the resident crocs; although they’re plentiful they aren’t as frequently seen as you’d expect. As such the reptile in question was provided cover the instant it slid its body a fraction below the waterline.
An adult elephant is too large, but an ambitious croc might try pull a sub-adult into the water, and a calf caught in a current is fair game. Fortunately, on this occasion, the water level was only waist high to the babes, and the hungry crocodile was out of luck.
Our attention then switched back to the bush as we saw, with nervous delight, a massive musth bull emerging, the glands on either side of his head streaming. The other bulls – both the younger ones and those not in musth – raised their trunks at his unmistakable scent, growing noticeably jittery as he approached the river.
The bull’s colossal size made it tricky for him to negotiate the bank and he was forced enter the water by sliding down on his belly, dragging his back legs. Despite this inelegant entrance, once in the water he regained his full composure, striding among the remaining elephant that were milling about and drinking, all of whom scattered to maintain a safe distance.
Once it was clear that the cantankerous male was just there to drink the rest of the elephant relaxed somewhat, but not completely – every time he moved those around him shuffled off. Another larger bull made the mistake of standing too close and was quickly rewarded with an aggressive rush from the musth male, causing him to turn tail and run.
As the last of the elephant drifted onto the southern bank in search of tall, lush trees to shade them from the coming heat, we decided to follow suit, making our way back to our lodge. Saruni Samburu is perched atop a large granite outcrop with endless views of the barren and beautiful wilderness of northern Kenya, and we could already taste the G&Ts we’d be having poolside.