Play Is Serious Business for Elephants

Young dogs, apes and other animals develop skills needed to survive and reproduce

It was late afternoon in the winter scrub desert within Namibia’s Etosha National Park when I spotted a family of elephants on the southern edge of the clearing. I was scanning the horizon from the observation tower where my colleagues and I conduct our research at Mushara water hole. Wind had deterred elephant families from visiting the water hole earlier—it interferes with their efforts to keep tabs on one another vocally—but with the air now still, our first customers of the day had finally appeared.

Judging from how many trunks were stretched high, sampling the air, the group was itching to break cover and run for the water. The young males were particularly anxious to get going. Not only were they thirsty, but they had a lot of sparring to catch up on. As winter wears on, the environment dries out, and elephants have to venture farther from water to find enough to eat. Several days may pass before they can return to the water hole for a drink and a reunion.

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