Out Of Africa: Elephants

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From time immemorial, the bushlands of Africa have been a place of wonder: Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and animal wonders - the exotic, the amusing, the strange and ugly, and, above all, the mighty.

CBS News Correspondent Allen Pizzey reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.

The deceptively gentle swish of elephants grazing: For humans, this is one of the most dangerous sounds in the African bush. The world's largest land mammals may appear passive, but their tolerance extends only so far. To approach African elephants in the wild is to risk being trampled to death, unless you happen to know them personally.

Africa Tagarira is one of a handful of Zimbabweans who have an intimate acquaintance with a small herd of elephant near Victoria Falls.

He first met them five years ago.

"It was quite scary to come across to them, even to touch them," recalls Tagarira. "I was quite afraid."

And now?

"Now I'm not even afraid," he says. "We are really good friends to each other, because we have been together for a long time. I like them. They like me."

For some elephants in Zimbabwe, humans have been their surrogate family. With more elephants than the land available can handle, Zimbabwe's wildlife managers have been forced to systematically kill a restricted number of elephants.

Some babies have been spared, raised on farms instead of being sent to zoos and circuses. When they grew too big to handle (and feed), they were trained to work for their supper. Now every morning and evening, they line up to take visitors on short safaris.

They also have been trained to perform little tricks, making a show designed to entertain and to reassure tourists that the elephants are under control.

But it is also part of their constant training, and another way of reinforcing the bond between human and giant beast. Elephants are highly intelligent. A trick like passing a stick or picking up a selected object (even a hair clip or sunglasses dropped by a tourist) can be mastered in a couple of days.

The training and bonding is the exact opposite of the techniques used in places like India, according to camp manager Jack Manning.

"Their methods are quite harsh," Manning says. "There they'll chain an elephant up for a month and just give it sufficient food and water to live on, where ours are trained with positive reinforcement. And it shows. The elephants are pretty relaxed."

The same can't be said for all the tourists who pay about $90 for an hour and a half 15 or so feet above the African bush: And it is a truly wonderful ride. The motion is a kind of side-to-side swaying, not up-and-down bouncing like on a horse. It's more like floating, once you relax.

Almost no terrain is too difficult for an elephant, for it is master of all it surveys - and this is just how it feels to be up on one.

The last time African elephants ere ridden like this was 200 years before the birth of Christ, when Hannibal crossed the Alps to attack the Romans.

Smaller Asian elephants, of course, have been used for centuries. But their much bigger African cousins were always considered too wild and dangerous to truly tame.

"There's never been a need to train elephants for work in Africa, although King Leopold of Belgium had a herd of about 100 or so in the former Belgian Congo, Zaire today. They were trained to haul wagons and plough fields," says Manning. "And I'm not sure that they were well trained either, because he lost about 50 handlers in the time that he was there."

And be in no doubt that this is not a zoo or a theme park. The rifle carried by chief guide Sipho Mpofu is a .458 caliber, capable of stopping a lion, a Cape buffalo or a wild elephant, all of which abound in the territory.

The safari elephants are attuned to gunfire and won't panic if Mpofu has to shoot.

Anyway, it would take more than a gunshot to interrupt feeding. A full-grown elephant needs up to 400 pounds of food a day, which means they eat for 18 hours out of 24. Snack time is any time. When they're not working, the safari elephants roam free and eat.

And there's nothing anyone can do if one decides to give up its day job and join a wild herd, which a female recently did.

"We thought she was gone for good," Manning recalls. "The next morning, we mounted a huge search up the valley, and while we were out, she walked back to the camp."

"And this told us a lot," he adds. "She was free, she was in an area where there was a lot of food and water, yet she chose to come home. And that's probably the greatest thing that's happened in the five years that we've had them."

What will happen five years from now is anyone's guess. The games these teen-age bulls play are really practice for the tests of strength and breeding dominance they will face when they reach sexual maturity at about age 24.

For now, they seem content to work for a living and, being as intelligent as they are, perhaps to have a quiet laugh at the expense of the clients.

You have to experience straddling a 5- to 6-ton beast to know what "saddle sore" really means.

Aches and pains notwithstanding, however, the tourists are expected to help reinforce the bonding process, giving the elephant that carried them pellets of molasses, corn and salt.

It's also a chance to learn something up close, like the length of an elephant's eyelashes, which keep flies out of its eyes.

This is not the only answer to conservation of the wonders of a chaotic continent, of course. But it is a thing of rare beauty nonetheless: Humans and dangerous animals at peace and in harmony with each other - proving once again that there is always something new out of Africa.