Ruaha: Seasonal Elephant Dynamics
I always say: “The dry season is the best season for predator viewing, and the rainy season is the season for elephants!”
After the first heavy storms hit Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania, the exciting phase of dry season activity dominated by the constant battle between huge herds of buffalos and lions within the triangle made by Great Ruaha River and its attributes the Mwagusi and Mdonya rivers comes to an end, welcoming another similarly exciting phase of lush green transformation.
Compared to most other national parks in sub-Saharan Africa, Ruaha’s elephant population is fortunately still very strong and healthy – in fact, it contains the highest population in Tanzania.
The dry season
Throughout the year, elephants behave according to the availability of food and water that is accessible in the different seasons. During the dry season, elephants are mainly browsers; feeding on twigs, branches and leaves, pulling up palm blooms and stripping baobab bark for its pulpy fibres. Their social behaviour is also deeply influenced by this season’s conditions.
Elephants are in general to be found everywhere, however during the dry season they are mainly scattered into single herds of 8 to 12 individuals, moving to the rhythm decided by the matriarch and only rarely interacting with other herds. This behaviour is most likely due to the need of avoiding over-exploitation of certain areas, and as they can potentially find something to eat anywhere along the river valleys, over-crowding a single area is simply pointless to them.
The same reasons are involved in the quest for water that time of year. The Mwagusi as well as the Mdonya River are basically dry on the surface, though water constantly flows underneath the sand at an increasing depth the further we get into the dry season. The elephants dig for water anywhere in these river beds and although some spots seem more appealing than others, only rarely will you see more than 30-40 elephants in the same drinking spot at that time of the year.
Then comes the rain
When the rains set in, Ruaha is transformed. Dusty patches of soil become lush green lawns, “upside-down trees”, the baobabs, with their root-like branches become intense green canopies of life, and rusty brown landscapes characterized by yellow tongues of sand are now glorious green thickets intersected by flowing rivers.
The elephants’ behaviour changes accordingly. The elephants are attracted to the areas where the rains arrive first, where new nutritious green grasses grow. Suddenly, these gentle giants become more social, gathering in huge groups formed by many different breeding herds and bulls in search of females in oestrus. These groups can reach up to 200-300 individuals, all moving together, slowly and completely focused on grazing the new grass. They mainly move with the rain and the availability of large quantities of palatable grass species. Obviously, drinking spots become a big confluence in the stretches of rivers closest to where the feeding occurs.
In this green and lush time of year, it seems like the elephants have taken over and are now the owners of Ruaha.
However, as beautiful as this still is, the urgency of keeping constant attention to poaching is more important than ever in order not to have any interference and disturbance to these wonderful creatures’ way of behaviour. A behaviour that has been passed on from generation to generation, a behaviour that should not be destroyed by human activity.
By Lorenzo Rossi
Guide at Kwihala Camp
Edit: Since the publishing of this piece, Asilia Africa has opened another safari property in Ruaha National Park called Jabali Ridge.
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