Changing Planet

Time Passes at an Elephant’s Pace

Time passes at an elephant’s pace here at Mushara waterhole in the northeast corner of Etosha National Park, Namibia. The mornings are slow to materialize, a few solitary bulls drifting in like a lazy late morning gust from the northeast and then later from the southwest, each gliding through on non-overlapping paths. By early afternoon the more social bulls move in with purpose, a few and sometimes many at a time, eventually filling the waterhole body-to-body with their leathery tactile engagements that often take hours to complete.


Rodwell & Oconnell-M14_4352
Photograph courtesy of Caitlin E O’Connell


Late in the afternoon, if we’re lucky, a family group will amass at the edge of the clearing, all ruffled and frantic for a drink after a hot day of browse and travel.  Meanwhile, the pace quickens and we do our best to keep track of who’s who as the politics of family play out. As they charge in, we sometimes cringe at the trampling of dung samples we had so carefully mapped to collect when the bulls departed.

The Actors are often first on the scene, trying to squeeze in a good drink before getting displaced by the higher ranking Goddesses, led by Ursula and most recognized by Slit Ear’s characteristic ear. Then the Athletes barrel in, and yesterday, at dusk, we were treated with the arrival of one of the highest ranking families in the region on the heels of the others—the Warriors.

Photograph courtesy of Caitlin E O'Connell
Photograph courtesy of Caitlin E O’Connell


How age-old family rivalries began, we will never know, but one thing we are trying to discern is how the hierarchy between family groups is maintained and which individuals are doing the maintenance, while at the same time, delve into internal family politics to see where the root of rivalries might begin before an eventual separation of matrilineal groups as the families grow.

Tonight, after dark and well after the full moon mid-season, the tree line erupts with elephants and the wild parade continues en force with trumpeting, screaming, roaring, and rumbling, our vantage constrained by hoods and scarves and the grain of night-vision green on the watch deck, while the chef enjoys the Milky Way for culinary inspiration. And as the students count fecal parasite loads into the night, the families come and go, the young musth bull, Ozzie, serving as gatekeeper to this primal oasis in the night.


Photograph courtesy of Caitlin E O'Connell
Photograph courtesy of Caitlin E O’Connell
Rodwell & Oconnell-M14_4179
Photograph courtesy of Caitlin E O’Connell
Rodwell & Oconnell-M14_4181
Photograph courtesy of Caitlin E O’Connell


The pace slows to a halt well after midnight, the intermittent padding of a single bull serving as the heartbeat of Mushara until dawn when elephant time begins anew.

Dr. Caitlin O’Connell is a faculty member at Stanford University School of Medicine and a world-renowned expert on elephants.  Her twenty five years of research has resulted in numerous scientific publications and five popular books, including the internationally acclaimed The Elephant’s Secret Sense. The Elephant Scientist won five awards, including both the Sibert and Horn Book Honors. An Elephant’s Life and A Baby Elephant In The Wild depict the complex social lives of elephants through images. The Elephant Don comes out next spring along with her debut novel, Ivory Ghosts. ELEPHANT KING, a documentary about her research, won the CINE Best Environment & Nature Award. Caitlin's research into seismic transmission and detection of elephant vocalizations has been funded in part by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration. For more information, visit her nonprofit organization Utopia Scientific website ( and her author site at She and her husband, Tim Rodwell, write the tumblr blog Also follow her on twitter: Mushara Author photo credit: Max Salomon
  • Arlene Alvarado

    Hello Dr. O’Connell!!! Love your piece here and wish I could be looking for fecal parasites beside you. I miss the African night sounds and the soul of that amazing continent! Hope all is well with you and Tim. Love and hugs, Arlene

  • Arlene, how wonderful to hear from you! Yes, I too wish we were counting parasites together in this spectacular setting. Hope you are enjoying Butte!

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