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At the National Elephant Park (South Africa Journey, Part 4)

Posted by John Dear

From King William’s Town we drove along the beautiful countryside of the Eastern Cape, pass Grahamstown and Paterson into Addo National Elephant Park. Created in 1931 after elephants were nearly hunted to extinction, the park grew to nine square miles in the early 1960s. Today it has over 1,127 square miles with over 450 “African” elephants.

A series of dirt roads lets you explore nearly the entire terrain. It’s the only park in the world that hosts the Big Seven: lions, elephants, Cape buffaloes, black rhinos, leopards, and down to the sea, in the marine section—whales and Great White Sharks. Along the way, you can see warthogs, kudu, elands, hartebeests, bushbacks, monkeys, eagles, blue heron, ostriches, and if you’re careful—the rare, exotic, nearly extinct flightless dung beetle. It’s one of the most remarkable park lands in the world.

A ranger told us to head out to one of the Western watering holes where several herd of elephants were gathered on this hot summer day. After a thirty minute drive through the lush bushland, we came upon the large watering hole.

I couldn’t believe my eyes—some one hundred elephants of every size and shape, from newborn babies to full scale male bulls with white tusks. Hovering nearby, dozens of zebras stood and watched. Running around the entire area were several families of warthogs, with both mother and father leading the way followed by a trail of three or four little warthogs. In the center of the watering hole, right next to the mammoth elephants, stood several dozen stately white heron, enjoying the water.

It was a magnificent sight to behold. The circle of life in all its glory!

We sat in our car for hours studying them, marveling at them, giving thanks for them. Several elephants rolled around in the large water hole full of brown, muddy water. They were clearly enjoying themselves. Others stood around a smaller watering hole, drinking the clear water and spraying water over their bodies to keep cool. Others used their trunks, tusks and even feet to gather vegetation from the thorny bushes and shrubs.

They are, of course, vegetarians.

Male bulls leave the family circle when they are young. From then on, they live on their own. Elephants live in a matriarchal society. So it was exciting to see the male and female elephants, each fulfilling their societal roles.

At one point, two huge male bull elephants began to walk toward each other, on the outskirts of the watering hole. They made loud noises and seemed to threaten one another, ready for a fight over their territory. We were a little frightened, as they were only a football field away, but then one of the bulls started walking backwards. After about twenty minutes, he backed off completely, and the tension decreased. So it goes.

We were close enough to see their unusual trunks, ears, tusks, feet and even their eyes. They were massive. But more than that, they were clearly intelligent, loving, caring, dare I say—soulful?

Of course, the elephant is one of the most intelligent beings on earth. They can live up to seventy years ago, and have a sophisticated communication system and emotional life. They clearly show empathy for one another, and even appear to weep over loss and grieve another’s death.

A few months ago, while in London, I read an astonishing newspaper account of a young baby elephant who was attacked suddenly by its unstable mother. Its keepers had to remove the mother, or the baby would have been killed. The baby elephant wept for over twenty four hours. I will never forget the touching picture of the weeping baby elephant, with tears streaming down its face.

Elephants continue to be killed for their tusks for the ivory trade. They are all on the endangered list. Indeed, they may be gone from the planet in a few decades. This violence, to my mind, is a mortal sin, and needs to be stopped immediately.

The number of elephants in Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, for example, Africa’s second largest elephant population, has fallen approximately 88 percent over the last four decades, according to “Save the Elephants,” an international organization (

Of course, it’s not just African elephants that face extinction—all our animals do, from the polar bears to the bees. A recent book, “The Sixth Extinction,” claims that forty percent of all creatures face extinction within the next few decades. That is an utterly shocking fact.

The creatures under greatest threat in South Africa are the black rhinos. One weekend during our trip, South African authorities shot and killed eleven men who were trying to capture and kill the rare black rhinos in the massive Kruger National Park, east of Johannesburg. Rhino poaching, like elephant killing, is rampant, and a deadly game involving many nations.

The measure of our humanity is how we treat our animals, Gandhi once remarked. I hope and pray that humanity will wake up to the wonder and sacred gift of all animals—including elephants, rhinos, polar bears, and bees—and stop the killing and learn to let God’s creatures live in peace. We need them all.

After our epiphany at the elephant watering hole, we drove for several more hours through the park. Then, late in the afternoon, at one point, along a field of grass, we saw in the distance two lionesses eating the carcass of a warthog. It was shocking and amazing, a sight to behold.

That evening, we made our way to beautiful Port Elizabeth, where Fr. Ray and I enjoyed a swim in the Indian Ocean, before dinner.

South Africa reminds one of the simple beauties of life, of the many gifts that God gives us. May we all learn to treasure and appreciate—and defend them!

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