One hot summer’s day, while making our way back to the lodge after a successful early morning safari, my guests and I witnessed a unique elephant gathering, certainly one of the best elephant sightings I have ever had.

After watching lions hunt some buffalo, we thought there was nothing else we would see that would top that. How wrong we were! We started to make our way back to camp. While driving, I noticed fresh tracks and dung on the road. I followed the tracks to a nearby water hole and there we found the elephants drinking. While watching, we noticed the younger elephants going further into the water. Soon they were practically swimming! All the youngsters joined in and started play-fighting in the water. The adults then joined in – the entire herd were swimming, mud bathing and playing. My guests and I could almost feel their excitement. This was a particularly beautiful and moving sighting because the elephants were joyfully splashing in the water as though celebrating life – which I am convinced they were.

South Africa has been in the grips of a severe drought. After some much needed recent rains, the dam once again had water. What made this sighting even more precious, was the presence of an albino elephant – a very rare type of elephant indeed. If you look at the photos, you can see one youngster, now about 5 years of age, with pink eyes and lashes – traits of an albino.

As per Dr Mike Chase, an ecologist with Elephants Without Borders – a conservation charity – he mentioned in a 2009 BBC News article by science reporter, Rebecca Morelle, that he had only come across three references to albino calves which were reported to have occurred in the Kruger National Park. An interesting reference, as the elephants on Kapama had originated from the Kruger National Park.

What sets an albino or white elephant apart, is that the skin is soft with a reddish-brown tinge which when wet may look a light pink shade – even the toenails and eyelashes are a pale pink colour. The survival rate for these elephants has not been determined. The harsh African sun could cause complications such as possible blindness and skin problems which could limit their lifespan. Certainly, they would need to stay under the shade of trees as much as possible. As per the experts, albinism is rare amongst African elephants, being more common in the smaller Asian elephants.

After about twenty minutes of being in the water most of the elephants came out and started throwing soil on their bodies, giving them an extra layer of protection against the sun’s rays. Soon it was time for them to move off and feed again. This was an encounter more extraordinary than a normal elephant sighting. To watch their joy and excitement at the simple pleasure of seeing water again is truly humbling. It is an elephant sighting we will never forget.

Gregory Heasman

Kapama Karula

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