How Old Is That Animal?

Bumbling down a dusty road in the comfort of a Land Cruiser in the wilderness of the central Timbavati and a herd of elephants appear through the mixed woodlands.  Not once in my guiding career has a guest ever exclaimed “what animal is that?” at the sight of the world’s largest land mammal popping into view.  However, almost without fail, one of the first questions that the guide will be asked will be “and how old is that one?”.  Being the consummate professional, I naturally answer with “if memory serves correct, she was born on the 14th June 1979” – or occasionally I confer with my tracker and make sure it wasn’t the 16th of June – and await a reaction.  More often than not, it doesn’t come, and I can only assume that my guests just think I really do know everything!  

It is something that has always fascinated me; why is the age of an animal one of the first things people are curious about?  I understand it with baby animals, as there is something magical about how small they are, and we need to know just how small they are; after all, we ask the same thing every time we come across a human baby or someone’s puppy!  But the question is asked irrespective of the animal’s size.  As guides it is our job to be able to provide some reasonable answer, but the truth is, barring a few resident animals, we were not around when most of these animals were born, and our answers are nothing more than calculated guestimates…and based on what I have overhead on some safaris, sometimes the answers are no more than mere shots in the dark!  One can listen to three or four different guides give three or four different answers as to the age of the same animal, and I can tell you, each guide will thing he or she is correct, and the others are all wrong!

As a student, I recall a lecturer telling us that he only ever answered the questions about the ages of animals in terms of ‘juvenile’, ‘sub-adult’ or ‘mature adult’…but where is the fun in that?  Some things I do always try and do when answering the question of age is to a) answer very broadly, b) change my answer a few times to cover an even wider age gap, and c) make sure that none of my guests are experts on the subject in question!  It is important though, no matter what approach you take, is to give the age in context of its longevity and life stages; telling a guest a giraffe is in it’s 20s makes much more impact when you explain that they only live to their mid-20s (well, 28 years if the books are to be believed…a rather specific number, and I often wonder if we only see lions eating giraffes when one turns 28, realises its time is up and walks straight into a hungry pride of lions?).  Typically giraffe males will become solitary males, get darker (and smellier) once they reach their early teens; they then go off chasing after estrus females and spend more time walking around looking for mating opportunities than younger males do.  Suddenly, give an age of “late teens” has far more context and meaning than merely a number.

Some animals are easier to age than others; kudu bulls with their impressively spiralled horns grow those horns through their life, and thus the longer and more twists in the horns they have, the older they are.  They are also a species with a seasonal calving season, so almost all kudus are born in January or February, and this allows one to age the younger kudus very accurately based on their rate of horn growth, and known month of birth.  Elephants grow throughout their life, and as a result, the bigger an elephant, the older it is.  Mature adult males (and here I said that term was borning!) also develop a distinctive hour-glass shape head in their mid-30s, and this can assist with aging the older individuals.  Tusk growth can help, but as their size is determined more by genetics than age, this is not a trusted method.  The most accurate way of aging an elephant is to look at its teeth, but whilst I like going the extra mile for our guests at Tanda Tula, shoving my head into an elephant’s mouth is a step I am unlikely to be taking to more accurately age an animal!  Elephant calves are also fairly easy to age (based on my erroneous belief that my answers are always the correct ones!); calves can typically fit under the mother’s belly until a year of age (although this ignores the fact that mothers come in different sizes!), and will start showing their tusks at between two and two and a half years old.

I can even age young giraffes – I have noticed that they like hanging onto their umbilical cords for around three months…but once they drop those, my guess is as good as yours!  As for adult female giraffes, I couldn’t confidently tell you if a female is 17 or 27 (although never more than 28!!); I do believe that giraffes get older with age, but how dark they get is affected by other factors and not a reliant aging tool.

The only animals we ever have a very good idea about – usually to within days or weeks of the day of birth – are the resident cats of the Timbavati; the lions and the leopards.  As we see these animals on a regular basis, we can see when the females are pregnant and close to giving birth, when their behaviour changes and they restrict their movements to the area around a chosen den site (and more obviously, show evident signs of suckle marks on their teats), we can get a very good approximation of the date of birth of the cubs; on occasion, we have been able to determine the exact day they have given birth based on their movements and sudden squealing of cubs emerging from a bush!

Fortunately for us guides, I have yet to see a single animal walking around with a birth certificate or ID document, so it will always be difficult for any guest (barring condition “c”, where you are an expert in the field) to say whether we are right or wrong!  It is almost like it is the best exam question in the world!  So, next time you are on safari and ask a guide how old an animal is – and please, do ask! – be sure to follow up whatever answer the guide gives with a “but how do you know?”, just to make sure we are not making anything up!  

Until next time.