On the parched, white-sand expanses of Namibia's Etosha National Park, waterholes are often where the bulk of the action takes place. Water-dependent species like elephants and rhinos congregate around the life-giving pools sometimes jostling for prime position. All that activity can spark some unusual interactions. While on a recent safari, a group of tourists encountered something truly unexpected at one of the Etosha's waterholes: a lion/rhino/elephant showdown that raises more than a few questions.

The incident, which was filmed by Kim Hathaway and uploaded to the Latest Sightings YouTube channel last month, took place at the Aus waterhole in the southwest of the park. A lone lioness was the first to show up, followed shortly afterwards by the rest of the pride. If the cats had arrived any later, Hathaway and her group would likely have missed them; they were on the cusp of driving on, unconvinced that the waterhole would produce any wildlife sightings. Boy, were they wrong.

The lions made a beeline for the water, but after a few minutes were interrupted by a black rhino that galumphed onto the scene and plonked down in the muddy pool. Unperturbed by the predators – likely aware that lions would think twice before taking on an animal of its size and reputation – the rhino shuffled into the water to gain some relief from the relentless Namibian sun.

Intrigued by the horned visitor, the pride closed in and it quickly became clear that rhino was bogged down in the thick mud, unable to escape the looming feline threat. As the lions descended (somewhat cautiously) on the hapless rhino, the commotion attracted the attention of a passing elephant herd that moved in to investigate.

"When the herd approaches, you will notice they are very alert and fired up," Dr Lucy Bates, behavioural ecologist at the University of Portsmouth, explained to us via email. "They have three pretty small calves in the family and just before the video cuts away, you can see that many of the older females have bunched around those calves, so you can’t even see them in the midst anymore. This is classic defensive behaviour by elephant families, and a very typical reaction when they come across lions."

Even adult female elephants could be at risk from a particularly ambitious lion pride, so these behemoths are famously aggressive towards big cats. The herd rallied together and charged at the lions, sending the pride scuttling away from the waterhole and its mired rhino.

Although the elephants succeeded in chasing the lions off the ill-fated rhino, their antagonistic behaviour was all about protecting their own. Elephants are known for their strong family bonds and social cohesion. If a herd member loses its footing – a problem that usually befalls the youngsters in the herd – the rest of its extended family will rally together to lend a helping trunk. So all that huddling and trumpeting is pretty standard elephant stuff, really.

But that's when things took an interesting turn. Satisfied that the threat had been suitably deterred, most of the elephants shuffled away from the waterhole, but one youngster remained behind seemingly enthralled by the beached rhino.

Over the next few hours, Hathaway and her group watched while the elephant shoved the rhino with its tusks and trunk, at times straddling the stuck animal seemingly in an attempt to move it (although the motivation behind its behaviour remains a little uncertain).

Elephants usually take first pick of the best spots at a waterhole, a benefit owing to their size and stature (few animals are going to readily take on a multiple-ton giant unless their lives really depend on it). Back in 2015, a rhino in South Africa's Kruger National Park made the mistake of standing up to an elephant at a waterhole and was unceremoniously shoved aside. Lesson learned. But the interaction in Etosha doesn't smack of angry elephant.

Back in 2015, a rhino in South Africa's Kruger National Park made the mistake of standing up to an elephant at a waterhole and was unceremoniously shoved aside.

According to Dr Marion Garai, trustee and researcher for the Elephant Reintegration Trust, and Brett Mitchell founder and chairman of the trust, we might be a looking at a frustrated youngster. They identify the elephant as a bull of around 10-12 years* and suggest that his behaviour initially appears to show frustration with a hint of dominance engagement. He's trying to shove the rhino out of the way while also trying to flex his authority (possibly somewhat playfully given the bull's young age).

"Elephants chase anything away from water when they arrive, especially this age group," Dr Garai explained to us. "This bull was probably confident to approach and engage like he did." It's unlikely that a young bull like this would have taken his aggression to the point where the rhino was killed, she added.

Of course, if this elephant is in fact a female, it's possible that the behaviour may show some kind of misdirected altruism, like that seen in this buffalo herd that chased a pride of lions off an elephant calf as though it were one of their own:

Sadly, in this case the young elephant eventually gave up and the lions quickly swooped in to finish what they started. 

*It's worth noting that Dr Lucy Bates had this elephant pegged for a young female. At this age, it can be difficult to determine the sex of an elephant. Mitchell and Garai's conclusion that it's a male was based – at least partly – on behavioural indicators.

Top header image: Brittany H., Flickr