Elephant Know-How by Terry Irwin

  • Thursday, 11 January 2018 09:27
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Elephant Know-How by Terry Irwin: A lifelong elephant hunter tells it as it is

As with most things, our knowledge and understanding of wildlife changes and increases as time goes by. Many long-held notions about elephants and elephant hunting lore have been proven wrong. As a brief field-guide for those who hunt elephant, I offer some observations and experiences after a lifelong career in this pursuit.

As a boy, I read many books by hunters of yester-year claiming that on approaching elephants, they heard the animals’ stomachs rumbling. I can understand how this notion took root, as the local tribesmen with whom I ­frequently hunted told me that the ­elephant’s stomach was rumbling – a common belief among them. What ­confused me was that elephants can abruptly cease this rumbling. Intestinal gaseous activity is involuntary and ­cannot be controlled at will. Close observation convinced me that this rumbling was a controlled sound used to communicate. In a herd, you can often hear an elephant make this sound, whereupon another member of the herd will answer it.

In 1963, I published my findings in African Wild Life, the official mouthpiece of The Wild Life and Conservation Society of South Africa. I stated that these noises were not produced by the stomach of the elephant but in the ­larynx (amplified in the pharynx) and were a form of communication. More recent studies have proved this to be true; moreover that elephant can ­produce these sounds in such low frequencies as to be inaudible to humans.

Without knowing, at the time, that elephants were capable of this, I witnessed such communication between them that was inaudible to me. I was training a novice game scout and the time had come for him to shoot an elephant. We were on a large open plain covered in long grass on which numerous elephant were feeding. The plain was divided by a long tall ridge. We decided to climb the ridge for a better view. From the top we could see groups of cow elephants interspersed with single bulls. There were elephants on both sides of the ridge feeding independently, many out of sight of each other.

A lone bull was feeding just below us, so I told my trainee to climb down and shoot it. He was making his final approach through the tall grass when the wind changed; the bull sensed him and immediately ran. I noticed that all the elephant on both sides of the ridge likewise took off in unison, running to the far end of the plain were they joined up and disappeared into the thicket. I could not understand how they all got the message at the same time, but with today’s knowledge it is obvious that their warning rumbles, inaudible to me, prompted the flight.

Read the full article in the February 2018 issue of Magnum.

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