Today I want to share a story of what was one of my most memorable wildlife sighting to date - the story of the blind elephant.
It was a warm afternoon in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa and our mission for the day was to find a female leopard and her one year old cub. There were reports that the two had been found in an open area to the north of the reserve that morning, so that’s where we were headed. About forty minutes into the drive, we made a left to to check a Marula tree that she likes to frequent, when we encountered a road block. Standing about ten meters down the road was a small herd of elephants clustered together. We decided to put off our search for the leopards for a bit to spend some time with this herd. We then pulled off the road ,which allowed the elephants to continue walking in their intended direction, bringing them right alongside us.
After spending about five minutes with the small herd, watching their behavior, we were able to determined the makeup of these four elephants. Based on their relatives sizes, it appeared that there was one large female who would have been the matriarch, one grown female (her eldest daughter), one teenager (the matriarch’s youngest daughter) and a small calf (who was likely the eldest daughter’s). But as we continued watching, we noticed that something was a bit off with the herd’s behavior. Throughout the entire time that we were with them, they remained extremely close to one another, while keeping a compact shape. Elephants will often do this when they are nervous, yet all other indicators lead us to believe the herd was comfortable with our presence; they continued feeding on the acacia bushes along the road and maintained a calm body language. Yet, the herd continued to move slowly in our direction.
It was only after looking at some of the pictures I had been taking that I truly realized the situation that was unfolding. As I inspected the images, I noticed something different about the largest female. Not only was she blind in one eye, but rather she was blind in both. Now it isn’t too unusual for animals in the bush to go blind in one eye - often you find a half blind leopard that may have received a claw to the eye in a fight with another leopard. But with nearly any other animal, total blindness would mean certain death. A lion would not be able to hunt, an impala would fall easy prey, and even a rhino would be at risk to the will of the bush.
Yet this female elephant was not only in fantastic health, she was still able to lead a herd! As soon as we realized this, the pieces began to fall into place. As we continued to watch the herd, we noticed that one-by-one, each elephant laid its trunk on the one in front of it. With the eldest daughter taking the lead, she could act as the eyes of the herd while the matriarch followed suit. And this behavior was not only unique to the blind elephant. Rather it had become clear that she passed this behavior of resting her trunk on the forward elephant down to her younger daughter and granddaughter. Thus the compact shape that the elephants had made wasn’t because they were nervous, but rather it was out of necessity.
All the more fascinating, the blind matriarch was still able to feed with relative ease. When the herd wasn’t moving, she had her trunk up in the air, smelling the surrounding area to gain a picture of where she was. She will have likely walked this pathway hundreds of times over her forty year lifetime and can paint an exact picture of her surroundings in her head. And at no point was she ever concerned with our presence. Though she would stop every few meters to smell the air around us, she at no point showed any aggression. Rather, we simply sat there in awe as the small herd of elephants continued on with their journey.
Now you may be wondering how the elephant became blind in the first place. Though we will likely never know the answer to that question, we can speculate what the possibilities were. One potential way she may have been blinded was by a Mozambican Spitting Cobra. It’s very possible that she confronted the snake in an effort to protect her calf, and when it wouldn’t leave, she stood her ground. Another alternative is that she simply contracted a disease that took away her sight. In the end we will never truly know what it was that caused that female elephant to become blind. Nonetheless, she serves as a testament to not only the intelligence of her species, but also a of what is possible in nature. Often we think of the animal kingdom in its most primal, eat or be eaten, form. But all around the world there are stories of emotion, determination, and defiance amongst wild beings. Proving that the animals around share more in common with mankind than we can ever truly imagine.