Many of us will have fond memories of the Walt Disney character “Dumbo,” who was always friendly and kind. But, back in Africa, we find that the largest land mammal doesn’t always put out the welcome mat.
Like most wild animals, elephants avoid confrontation with humans; however, burgeoning human populations and shrinking protected areas are creating many human/elephant conflicts.
When working as a wilderness-trails ranger in the Kruger National Park, I had many close encounters with elephants, and learnt very quickly to be careful when dealing with them. And learnt also that there are three ways of meeting them: in a vehicle, on foot, or having them visit your campsite.
In the Tuli Block in Botswana, during my years as a student, I was sleeping in a tent when I was woken by the sound of a vehicle approaching. I looked at my watch and realised that my afternoon nap had lasted longer than I’d thought, as it was pitch dark outside. The nearby lodge had sent an open Cruiser to come and pick me up for supper with my friends, who had been out for a game drive.
There was lots of banter as they called out from the vehicle, parked about 50 metres away. I left the tent and sat on the root of the tree to pull on my boots, which I had conscientiously shaken out to make sure there were no scorpions inside. As the noise from the Land Cruiser had stopped completely by then, I assumed that they were getting impatient, waiting for me. I collected my towel that had been drying, threw it inside the low tent, and then reached for the torch lying next to my pillow.
Only once I had zipped up the tent flap, and started walking towards the vehicle, did I switch on my torch. I was about 20 metres from the tent when the Land Cruiser exploded in sound, with everyone screaming at me to run – which I did, at speed. Once at the vehicle, I could see a forest of arms pointing in the direction I had just come from; I turned to see a large bull elephant standing over my small tent, with his head in the Nyala Tree above. The elephant had obviously been there for a while, and when the Land Cruiser had entered the clearing he’d stopped feeding and frozen in this position. When I’d climbed out of the tent, literally under his raised head, he hadn’t budged. He hadn’t moved even when I sat on the root to put my boots on, and had remained motionless even when I’d zipped up the tent.
Everyone on the Land Cruiser had seen the elephant but had been reluctant to tell me, in case I panicked at being in such close quarters; and this wild elephant had tolerated my being there. As we watched, he turned to face the source of the bright spotlight now trained fully on him, and then, almost like a grey ghost, slipped behind the curtain of Mopani trees and was gone.
I had smelt what I thought was elephant dung when I had been sitting on the log, pulling on my boots, but I now realised I had been literally underneath the elephant bull, smelling him. I started smelling another strong dung smell in the Land Cruiser, but I do not think it was the elephant.
However, elephants are not predictable, and even with no provocation one can be faced with a very dangerous situation. When I was the first General Manager and Head Ranger of the Jock Safari Lodge (the first concession to be awarded in the Kruger National Park under a Public Private Partnership agreement) a new network of low-impact two-track roads needed to be put in, for the exclusive use of the lodge guests. The successful bidders for the new concession were at the building site, and the Project Manager and his wife and two small daughters asked to go with me to inspect a potential road that I had cleared with my labourer team the previous day. We drove out in an open Land Rover V8 with safari seats.
The future road had been marked with danger tape on trees so that one could track where the route was, and at one point I got out to move a large branch, with danger tape attached, that elephants had thrown onto the track. The elephants had obviously smelt the human smell and broken the branch.
While holding the danger tape in my hand (ironically), I saw a movement about 200 metres away. It was a large elephant cow, running with murderous intent straight at us. I jumped into the idling Land Rover and slammed the door, hoping the loud noise might stop her, but all it did was infuriate her. She changed course slightly to head us off as we moved forward.
To read this article in full, buy this issue from selected stores or you can also subscribe here.