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The Wild Guide: Elephant


Having been privileged enough to spend time with these majestic animals, I can certainly concur with Mitch Reardon’s view that there is indeed something extraordinary about elephants.

It is difficult to pinpoint, but perhaps their clear family bonds, the way in which they look after their young and infirm, and the complexity of their communication may go some way to explaining it. Elephant behaviour is multi-faceted, comprising greeting and courtship ceremonies, mother-calf interactions, play, predator response and aggression acts, and dominance and submission displays. Each of these behaviours has its own unique set of actions and vocalisations, the knowledge of which is passed down the generations from mother to calf and from matriarch to matriarch.

Understanding the body language of elephants can enhance your viewing experience, while also ensuring the comfort and wellbeing of the animal. Elephants give clear signs about their mood, and woe betide anyone – or anything – that ignores these signals! In this article, I will explore some of the cues that elephants present us with and the ways in which, having ‘got the message’ we can safely enjoy interactions with them.

Perhaps it is important to first understand that, just like us, animals have zones in which the presence of others is either deemed acceptable or not. In humans, we refer to this as personal space, the physical space surrounding us that encompasses the area we feel safe within; any threat to that space would make us feel uncomfortable. Intrusion into our personal space will elicit some form of response in which we will notify the interloper of our discomfort and displeasure. The extent of the intrusion usually determines the extent of the response.

Elephants are no different. When they are happy and relaxed, they will simply go about their daily activities, paying little attention to those viewing them. However, venture just a little bit closer, and the perceptive observer will notice subtle changes in their behaviour. They may start to touch their faces (mouth, ear, eye, tusk, temporal gland) with their trunks, intermittently swing a fore or hind leg, or pluck at the vegetation as if foraging but never actually placing any of the material in their mouths (mock or displacement feeding). These behaviours show that you have moved from the animal’s comfort zone into its alert zone; it is now acutely aware of you and somewhat apprehensive.

The ethical thing to do in this situation is to back-off to a distance at which the elephant resumes its normal, unconcerned behaviour. Should you fail to read the cues and approach even closer, the animal will either move off in a hurry, or progress to displaying threat behaviour. Head-shaking, ear-spreading, bush-bashing, forward-trunk-swinging and standing-tall are all ways of demonstrating their increasing displeasure. If this is still ignored, the elephant may then rush towards the intruder, stopping abruptly in a cloud of dust with accompanying ear-spreading and a shrill trumpet. This is a warning charge, and your final chance to extract yourself safely – albeit a little shaken – from the situation. Failure to do so may result in a full charge, in which the elephant, with trunk curled tightly under – so the tusks hit the offender first – rushes silently forward, head slightly raised and ears spread, intent on finishing what it started: the removal of the problem.

The best way to ensure safe, comfortable and enjoyable elephant sightings – for both human and animal – is to respect their personal space. They should never be put into a position where they feel threatened. Audrey Delsink, a professional ecologist who spent many years studying elephants, says that the closest distance that one should approach elephants is 50 metres. Once in a sighting, turn the engine off; and, if the elephants are comfortable, they may choose to approach closer. Twenty metres is considered an acceptable proximity; you should never let them get close enough to touch the vehicle. If, at any point, they begin to exhibit apprehensive behaviour, slowly back out.

It is important never to make any sudden movements around elephants, as this may well evoke a threating or aggressive response. If you find yourself in a position where an elephant is displaying threat behaviour, switch the engine on (except in the case of musth bulls − engine noise makes them even more bad-tempered) and slowly back away, giving the elephant space. If switching on the engine appears to aggravate the elephant even more, switch off immediately, and wait a few minutes before trying again to retreat. Teenage bulls are notorious for giving a head-shake and a forward-trunk-swing: in the manner of all teenagers, they are pushing the boundaries! In these situations, it is best not to back away immediately, as they take this as a sign of submission and then have great fun seeing how far down the road they can make you drive! Only if their behaviour becomes more aggressive do you then slowly move away.

I wish you many wonderful encounters with these remarkable animals, which are indeed so worthy of our deepest respect.