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Elephant bulls are one of the most iconic symbols of the natural world, so it is ironic that it is an older female, smaller in size but not in stature, who leads the herd. It is this female whose day-to-day decisions forge the destiny, success or failure of the obedient members of her herd. Herd matriarchs face huge challenges on a daily basis: where to find food and water; how to avoid areas of danger and over competing with other herds, and how to manage politics with the herd. Their decisions forge the destiny, success or failure of the herd. It requires bravery, sound instincts and a lifetime’s experience to keep family members alive.
Matriarch and breeding herds are often stressed, nervousand are highly protective of their young. As such, these herds are the most dangerous to approach. Unlike the generally docile heavily tusked bulls who have calmed down over the years as their testosterone levels have waned, the matriarchs never relinquish their responsibility.
In most large areas in Africa where large herds of elephants still roam, breeding herds are given a wide berth, as their unpredictability in defence of their kind makes getting close to them a dangerous risk. Yet in Ambroseli, a Kenyan national park lying in the foothills of Kilimanjaro, matriarchs and their herds have a distinctly more relaxed disposition, having spent years of relatively peaceful co-existence with humans and daily interaction with tourist vehicles.
Once in a while, you get a female who is not only the queen of her kind but also adorned with magnificent ivory more commonly sported by her mature male counterparts.
I had watched this truly magnificent female foraging with her herd for a long time, and in doing so had allowed her to get used to my presence. There are few like her, and I knew how special it was to have a chance to photograph her.
When she was still some 40-50 metres away, I slipped quietly out of our vehicle and, staying in its shadow, took a very low position to allow for a dramatic photographic angle, then waited for her approach. She knew I was there but because of my slow and unthreatening movements, she led her herd right past me, just 2 metres away, keeping herself between me and those who trusted her for protection.
I crouched on the ground, looking straight up at her beautiful, almost symmetrical rapier-like ivory extending almost to the ground in front of me. Almost apologetically, I tripped the camera’s shutter, which she acknowledged with a baleful glare down at me, but she did not alter her posture or her path.
I was shaking with excitement, not just at being so close to her and also poignant reflection on how trusting these animals can become if we treat them with respect.
Matriarch is as much about the majesty of a magnificent female leader as it is about the giant stature of a creature who is all too familiar with the afflictions that humans have brought to bear on her kind, yet still willing to engage in the hope for change.