In 2011, my friend and I went on a 4×4 trip through Botswana. We had just arrived at Savuti camp in the Chobe National Park after a long drive and after lunch we set up our tent and settled in for an afternoon nap. My sleep was interrupted by a swooshing noise which struck me as odd. I stuck my head out of the tent and looked up at my old Pajero 4×4, and there, looming over it was the biggest elephant I had ever seen. When he spread his ears his head alone dwarfed my relatively large vehicle, and I realised with a start that his trunk was inside the back of my car. Luckily the car stood between us, but I grew very concerned when I realised that he was trying to get into our boxes which contained all of our food supplies for the next week. In a moment of foolish bravado, I started shouting and clapping to try to scare him away but this clearly wasn’t his first raid, and he couldn’t have cared less about me.
Not finding any luck through the back door, he then lifted his head and rested it on top of the car, buckling the roof in the process, and stuck his trunk over the top to try get in through the passenger door. His trunk at this point was only a meter and a half away from me, and I couldn’t believe just how thick and muscular it was (it was thicker than my entire body), but at the same time how dexterously it probed the inside of my car searching for an opening in the boxes. Eventually he pulled the trunk out of the door and I slammed it shut, causing him to recoil.
He returned to trying to get into our boxes from the back door, and while he was doing that, my friend and I grabbed our essentials and jumped into the car with the intention of driving to safety. As we did this, the big guy managed to pull a box out of the car and it crashed open on the floor. I’m sure he was hoping to find some nice fresh vegetables, but it just so happened that this box contained all our booze for the next week. To our surprise though, he then picked up a six pack of beer bottles and put the whole thing in his mouth. He then used his mouth to deftly pull off the plastic before he dropping them all to the floor once more.
At that point we thought we had realised that he had hit a dead end in his search for something edible, but he then did something that took us completely by surprise. He proceeded to pick up two of the beer bottles in his trunk, and pop them into his mouth. To our astonishment he then crushed them in his powerful jaws, beer spraying out of his mouth with an audible pop. While he was pillaging our alcohol supply, we drove to safety. Whether or not the glass caused him any damage I couldn’t tell you, but elephants have phenomenally strong mouths and stomachs, and the confidence with which he put those bottles in his mouth made me think that those weren’t the first beer bottles he’d sipped on, so I doubt if it caused any major discomfort.
It turns out that this was an old bull that regularly raided the Savuti campsite. The reason for this is actually quite sad, and has to do with his teeth. An elephant’s chewing teeth are thick and ridged for chewing on tough plant material, and at any given time they have two on top and two below. These teeth get worn down though, due to the elephants diet of tough wood and bark, and so, the jaw acts as a conveyor belt of teeth, with the front most teeth popping out when they are worn down to nothing, and being replaced by fresh ones from the back. The elephant has six sets of these teeth throughout its life, but around the age of 40 years the elephant grows its last set, which must last it for the rest of its life. By about 60 years of age though, that last set has been worn down to almost nothing. At this stage, it becomes extremely painful for the elephant to feed, as it is basically chewing jawbone to jawbone, and it therefore seeks out soft vegetation to feed on.
Our friend in the campsite was extremely old, and had clearly reached the point where he could barely chew any more. In his wisdom he had worked out that there were plenty of soft treats to be found in the cooler boxes of the unsuspecting campers.
These meagre picking were clearly not enough however. Two years later I returned to Savuti hoping to be reunited with my old friend, but I was informed by the camp manager that he had died just a few month later of starvation.