Water For Elephants

The New Year signifies the height of summer and with it, a bounty of resources for the inhabitants of South Africa’s biological wonderland.  Myriads of animals gorge themselves on the nutritious, lush vegetation spawned by the life giving rains that falls regularly during this period, and revel in the swelling seasonal water holes.  All creatures need water to survive but there is one land animal above all that relishes these moist oases that pepper the African savanna: the mighty elephant.

Elephants love water.  Not only do they need up to 150 liters per day to survive but they spend many hours a day indulging in mud baths that not only help to cool the skin, but also act as protection against the relentless African sun. Even though the elephant comes complete with its own air conditioning unit in the form of massive veins under the surface of its paper-thin ears, it still struggles with the conditions.  Elephants don’t sweat like we do and they don’t pant like dogs, so they are wholly reliant upon their ability to control their internal temperature by any means necessary.  What better way to do this than by indulging in a cooling swim.

Elephant Swim-3

When nature has equipped you with a permanent snorkel, why not use it to its full?! Elephants are no happier than when faced with water.  Herds and individuals alike will often break into a run at the sight of water and the younger members of the herd trumpet with delight at the prospect of nature’s cooling elixir.  It’s reminiscent of a party of children squealing with delight as they arrive at the local water park.  Not only is the water refreshing, and a welcome relief to sapping ambient temperatures, but it is also fun!  For the smaller individuals, the fear of what may lurk beneath the shadowy waters is often enough to quell their enthusiasm, but bull elephants will throw caution to the wind and stride into the depths, enveloping their massive bulk, sometimes even submerging completely and rolling around in delight.

Elephant Swim 1-3

Elephants are such great entertainment to watch at the best of times, but the sight of one of nature’s titans frolicking in the water is enough to put a smile on even the most experienced safari goer.  Even though we will never completely understand what goes on in the brains of these gentle giants, their reaction to water is a manifestation of pure delight that even we, humble visitors to their life, can interpret.  Regardless of the size of the watery expanse however, elephants can become very protective over their water.  They do not like to share their playtime with others, even those that reside in the cooling refuge throughout the day.

Elephant Spray

Hippos are often seen as a comical animal.  Their short stumpy legs make them seem ungainly and disproportionate on land but their command of aquatic life is highly specialized.  Few animals will argue with a 2 ton hippo whether on land or in water but the elephant is more than happy to antagonize these often feared individuals.  In fact, they almost seem to enjoy this game as they regularly chase the innocent residents from their domain.  It’s nice being the biggest fish in the pond!

Elephant Chase Hippo-2


We often equate elephant behaviour with those of our own and an elephant enjoying a swim is a perfect example of this. On a hot day we like nothing more than a refreshing dip in cooling waters and age goes out of the window as adults and children alike frolic in the revitalizing relief. Even the most mature and reserved of us suddenly find great enjoyment in the simplicity of throwing a frisbee or ball once in the water, and elephants are no different. A simple branch can be the cause of a great game that seems to bring huge joy to these intelligent aquaphiles.

Elephant Swim-2

Elephant Swim 1-2-2

This time of indulgence and relish will not last forever however and soon, the life giving rains of summer will give way to the dry winter months and all animals will once again be cast into an annual struggle to find enough food and water.  For the time being though, we will continue to delight in the antics of this complicated and fascinating animal.


Blog and Photos by Ben Coley, Safari Manager

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