“Fresh elephant dung!” cries our guide, Formen, gesturing triumphantly at a perfectly-formed cake of compacted excrement. The engine of our truck slows to a purr as we peer through the undergrowth on the side of the dirt road. Then, suddenly it’s right in front of us – a giant mass of leathery wrinkles.
Twisting branches off a tree with his trunk, the African bush elephant dusts the flies off his head with a flap of his ears. He strides within metres of our truck, circles us curiously then disappears into the vegetation of the Timbavati Nature Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger National Park, in South Africa.
It’s an exhilarating encounter, but the young bull’s presence is incredible for another reason.
In 1902, there were no elephants in the area, which would later become the Kruger National Park. The grey beasts were wiped out by overhunting for sport and their prized tusks. Starting in 1904 the animals were gradually reintroduced to the area from neighbouring Mozambique. Now, the 19,000 square-kilometre reserve holds an elephant population of approximately 12,000.
Later that day we come across the same elephant, but this time he spots us from the distance and is unimpressed. He faces us head on, ears defiantly erect and trunk raised. He bellows a warning. We take the hint. Our guide puts his foot to the floor, zig-zagging us away through the foliage.
Through the cloud of terracotta dust behind us, we see the grey giant in determined hot pursuit, trampling shrubs and saplings until he runs headfirst into a tree. The tree topples to the ground, but at least it slowed his chase.
Something must have happened since this morning to upset him, explains Formen at the lodge.
Abuse at the hands of humans over the years has made many of the elephants in Africa wary, he explains. But charges like the one we witnessed, combined with the fact that elephant herds can damage habitats and vegetation, have resulted in calls for the growing population to be controlled.
It’s been an exhausting day of wildlife-spotting. We’ve seen all of the famed Big Five – leopard, rhino, buffalo, lion and elephant – but it’s the trunked creatures that dominate conversation back at the lodge that evening.
“Are the stories of the elephant’s graveyard true?” asks a fellow guest, referring to the legend that old elephants wander off to die near the remains of their ancestors. In a way, explains one of the rangers.
While they don’t specifically go astray to die, ageing elephants are drawn to areas with softer plants as the last of their six sets of teeth is ground away. Eventually, they die of starvation, which in some cases, is close to where their ancestors did the same.