The Pace of an Elephant

Love is the bridge between you and everything.


I’m lying of the floor of the land cruiser, 2 cameras around my neck, the 100-400 lens in my hands, the wider zoom propped up on sandbags between my elbows.

The temperature is rising in the mid-morning heat of Amboseli Park near the Tanzanian border in southern Kenya. The dry, grey volcanic dust of Amboseli announces each family of elephants as they march in silence towards us. My guide, Julius Memusi, and I are quiet, our camera shutters whirr as the largest land mammals on earth parade in single file or wide horizontal lines across the savannah. I have never seen so many elephants in one place. I came to see the elephants of Amboseli, and they showed up.

As the dust settles and the savannah empties again, I notice that there is a large group of elephants huddled off to the left in the distance. They have been standing there in the hot sun for some time. Unlike the other groups they are not on the move.

“Julius, what’s going on with that group over there to the left?” I ask. “They are waiting,” he replies. There must be a young baby in the group. They are letting it rest under its mother or nannie. They will move on when the matriarch decides the baby has had enough nap time.”

The gestation period for an elephant is 22 months. A newborn calf weighs two hundred pounds and is three feet tall at birth. Like many four-legged mammals, a baby elephant walks shortly after it is born. Seeing an elephant calf struggle to stand minutes after it is born is so endearing. The baby has to stand—the milk station is above it head! Since elephants are migratory animals, an elephant calf may have to cover several kilometers within hours of its birth. In order to find enough food to satisfy their enormous appetites, elephants travel huge distances following the seasonal cycles of rain and growth.

The matriarch, typically the largest and oldest female in the family, sets the pace and the direction of the journey. She holds the knowledge of her ancestors in her memory. She juggles the needs of the group with the conditions of the environment. When the rains are kind and there is lots of food the pace can be slow. When there is drought and foraging is difficult, she will push her family on, to the next source of food and water, following a map in her memory. She can smell the scent of water over 12 miles away. When there are youngsters in the group the whole herd will slow to ensure the baby can keep up.

Another group of elephants appears on the horizon and I swing my attention from the resting family to a new group silently making their way across the savannah towards us. This family is followed by a huge bull.

I can tell by his scent he is in musth. His strong-smelling testosterone-enriched urine runs down his back legs, informing any male competition that he is looking for a mate. His massive trunk swings like a pendulum with each step. He is dogged in his pursuit of the approaching family. He has one thing on his mind—finding a female in estrus that he can mate with.

It is a thrill to be so close to these incredible animals and observe their behaviour.

As the sun rises higher in the sky, I look over at the resting group again. The elephants are beginning to stir. Nap time is over, it’s time to find water. Julius and I head back to the lodge for lunch, my belly is empty, but my heart is full.

Elephants have much to teach us about effective leadership. I witnessed the how the matriarch maintains a sense of peace and calm in the family. Individuals show respect for the elders and love and compassion for the young. The needs of the group are managed with patience and wisdom. There is room for playfulness and affection. This behaviour stands out compared to current leaders of our own species who seem focused on personal gain above the needs of the community and the environment.  Elephants have a lot to teach us about moral leadership.