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Written by: AK on 8 November 2017

The sand-drinking elephants of Tarangire National Park

Tarangire Elephants

Tarangire National Park, about a two-hours’ drive from the safari-capital Arusha in northern Tanzania, is known for its large herds of elephants. Going on a game drive in Tarangire, even if it’s just for a quick day trip, you are bound to spot herds of the gentle giants roaming between iconic Baobab trees.

If you visit the park during dry season, between July and October, you can observe a seemingly odd commotion in the dried-out riverbed of Tarangire River, that may prompt the question: what on earth is happening there? Are these elephants drinking sand?

They are not! Mother nature has equipped elephants with astonishing skills to survive anything from a regular dry season to even long periods of drought. Their miraculous trunk saves the day: thanks to millions of receptor cells in the nasal cavity, an elephant can smell water from several kilometres away.

They use their 40,000-muscles-strong trunk to dig a well into the sandy riverbed, then extract between eight and ten litres of water in one go. You can watch even the youngest ones in the herd digging for water, learning the behaviour from their older relatives.

Tarangire River is perennial and carries water throughout the year. However, the water levels change dramatically with the seasons. During dry season long stretches of Tarangire River run dry. While elephants can survive up to four days without water, they normally drink up to 200 litres of water each day. At the end of dry season, when all life looks to the sky, awaiting the first drops of rain, elephants resort to the very clever strategy of extracting water from below surface. As an added benefit to the eco-system, other animals – who are not equipped with an innate excavator – use these small wells as water source for themselves, once the elephants have left.

As the lifeline for the Tarangire National Park and all its wildlife, a visit to the Tarangire River during dry season will be a hilight of your game drive. It may look dry, dusty and dull at first glance, but Tarangire’s animals have developed ingenious ways to extract life from this seemingly desolate place.

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