Oral Literature: Why Elephant Has A Trunk

In the beginning of time, the Creator brought forth all the animals of the bush and birds and insects of the air, from the roots of a huge baobab tree. Most of the creatures look the same as they did then, but some have changed in appearance since the time of Creation.

One such animal is Elephant, who originally did not possess a trunk but a pig-like snout instead. Feeding was a constant problem for such a large, thick-set animal and it seemed that Elephant had to eat non-stop morning, noon and night to satisfy the needs of his enormous body. Drinking was even more complicated, as Elephant had to kneel at the water hole and gulp down great mouthfuls of water to quench his thirst. Both eating and drinking were laborious and time-consuming.

One day, a group of elephants trekked a long way from their feeding grounds to a distant water hole – the long dry season had dried up most of the smaller pans and springs. This water hole was the home of a huge, old crocodile who had gone without food for a long time and was feeling particularly hungry on that day.

When Crocodile saw the herd approaching, he slipped quietly from the sandbank, where he had been sunning himself, into the murky water. Swimming slowly along, with just his eyes and nostrils showing above the surface, Crocodile cruised over to where he knew the elephants would drink, without making a ripple on the pool’s smooth surface. Not even the inquisitive velvet monkey, feeding high in the nearby trees, saw him swim to where he now lay in ambush.

The elephants made their way down the well trodden game trail to the sandy beach. There they laboriously sank to their knees and started to gulp down the refreshing water. Crocodile saw his opportunity, and with a huge splash he lunged with terrifying speed at the young bull elephant drinking closest to him.

The other elephants lumbered to their feet, squealing in fright, and turned to run away. All, that is, but the young bull, who had crocodile’s vice-like jaws clamped over his pig-like snout. A terrible tug-of-war then started. Try as they might, the other elephants could not get a decent hold on the young bull to help set him free. Crocodile used all his great strength and weight to try to pull the young bull elephant into the water. Elephant was also strong and heavy, and despite the pain in his snout, he used his great strength and weight to save himself.

For hours both these great creatures pulled and tugged in their desperate battle, and bit by bit the only thing that gave way was Elephant’s snout. With each pull and tug Elephant’s nose stretched a little. On and on went the battle and more and more was Elephant’s nose stretched until eventually Crocodile’s energy was spent. Exhausted after hours and hours of pulling and tugging, crocodile suddenly let go of Elephant’s nose and slid back into the quiet pool. So sudden was his release that Elephant sprawled back in the sand, surprised by Crocodile’s surrender.

The other elephants gathered round, relieved at the young bull’s escape. But when they realised that he was not badly hurt, they started to laugh at him. The young bull was mortified by this, especially as his poor, torn nose was very tender and painful. When he looked at his reflection in a shallow pool nearby, however, he had to admit he was the strangest looking elephant he had ever seen. Instead of a short snout he now had a long, rubbery trunk that stretched down to the ground. No matter what he did, he could not get it to shrink back to its normal size and he had to suffer further jeers and taunts from the other elephants.

As time went by the wounds healed and the pain subsided, but he was still left with an embarrassingly wobbly, useless trunk. He spent more and more time on his own, away from the herd. Eventually, he came to terms with the fact that he was stuck with his strange new appendage. Slowly, but surely, he learned how to control his trunk and to put it to use.

He learned how to use it to make feeding and drinking much quicker and easier, allowing him more time for relaxation. The trunk was most useful in enabling him to cross rivers that were deeper than head height, and to scent breezes to check for danger, or other elephants. He could now pull down the most succulent fruits and leaves from the highest branches, uproot the tenderest grasses, and pop them all in his mouth. He could even pick up sticks to use as back-scratchers, to relieve the most awkward of itches.

The other elephants soon stopped jeering at the young bull when they saw what an advantage a trunk was. Rather than admit that they had been wrong, one by one they would sneak off to the crocodile’s pool and present their snouts for extension. They all considered the danger and discomfort of the operation worth it to gain the advantages of a marvellous, flexible trunk. No one knows what Crocodile thought of all these exhausting bouts, but one thing is certain – he still went hungry.

The shangaan people from of the Transvaal, South Africa, to this day, will point out that all new born elephants take time to learn how to use their wobbly, hosepipe-like trunks. They suckle from their mothers and kneel to drink from pans with their mouths, just as their ancestors did before they learnt how to master the use of their versatile trunks.

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