Elephant and Rhino Stand-off

The three bull elephants looking intimidatingly at the rhinos

The three bull elephants looking intimidatingly at the rhinos

The Okaukuejo waterhole in the Etosha National Park is a very interesting place to be during the dry season. During daytime, there are endless streams of kudu, springbok, zebra, giraffe and wildebeest that come to the waterhole. However, it is the nights when the park’s star attractions make their way to the water in bulk: lions, elephants and rhinos. Since the waterhole is right outside the largest camp and permanent settlement inside the park, there are always people crowded next to the waterhole. Floodlights light up the area and there is a never-ending buzz of people talking, laughing and little camera flashes going off all the time. It can be rather annoying for those who wish to watch animals in peace and quiet, but who can argue with people who are on holiday?

I’ve spent many nights looking at the animals at this waterhole and I’ve seen some rather interesting things. However, my personal favorite moments are when elephants and rhinos are at the waterhole at the same time. Call me stereotypical, but I can never have enough of watching elephants and rhinos. Now, Okaukuejo is an artificial waterhole and water gets pumped in from the camp side that is fenced. Presumably the water is fresher and better tasting there, and elephants only seem to drink from that corner. Some rhinos, especially the big males, seem to prefer to drink from there as well. However, since the fresh water is close to the fence, and hence has more noise, younger rhinos and those with calves seem to drink from the far side.

The big elephant bulls are the bosses of Etosha. During one of the weeks last November, three elephant bulls would come to water and stay put for hours. Any rhinos that came would have to drink on the far side and move on. On this particular night, the three bulls stood in their hierarchical positions with the most dominant one taking over the fresh water rights. Four other rhinos were already drinking on the far side when a fifth made an appearance. The newcomer was a big male and was perhaps used to drinking the freshest water. I’m not sure if he was threatening or didn’t notice that the prime location was occupied, but he just came a little too close to the elephant. The elephant let out a thundering grunt and stood its ground, while the rhino turned around and ran to give itself some breathing space. The rhino, not willing to give up so easily, stayed at a safe distance and snorted a few times, and this is when all three bulls turned to the direction of the rhinos that looked pretty darn intimidating. The bullies!

What followed was a fifteen minute stand-off where the rhino just stood and looked in the direction of the elephants, with the elephants just standing their ground and doing nothing – not even drinking or making any other sounds. Oh, how I wish I knew what was going through their minds! The rhino was the one to give up, as it went to the far side, drank and left rather quickly. The elephants then quietly moved away one by one, without bothering another drink. Strange, and interesting, is what I think it was, and I will never be able to really interpret what went on.