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Beware of elephants in the wild

Avatar of inke inke 13. October 2017 - Environment, Discover Namibia, Tourism

The head is below the shoulder line, the eyes are directed downwards und the ears are flapping to provide cooling. Both of these large elephant bulls are calm and not bothered by the vehicle and the people in their vicinity.

Always remember that the gentle giants are wild animals! They cannot think as we do but their memory is legendary – an elephant never forgets, as the saying goes. Also remember that we are encroaching on their space, not the other way round. Elephants are seen as being good-natured, deliberate, calm and tame. But when we cross the invisible line between them and us they are dangerous, powerful, ruthless and unpredictable. 

This is something Gondwana learned when an Elephant cow in the Bwabwata National Park attacked a game viewing vehicle from Namushasha River Lodge, even though the guide behaved responsibly. All passengers escaped with only a shock to their systems. The incident, however, showed us that there is a need for clarification regarding the way wild animals should be handled, especially the grey giants. It is for this reason that Gondwana will offer a week long advanced training course to their guides from 18-24 November. The course is presented by renowned elephant expert, Tommy Hall. Furthermore, a brochure with guidelines on how to handle elephants will be published.

In Namibia elephants are found in national parks and in communal conservancies outside the conservation areas. Some live in the Namib Desert, in the arid Kunene Region in the north-western reaches of the country; and large numbers occur in the vast savannahs, the mopane forests and woodlands, and along the rivers of the northeast. Elephants do not know about the boundaries of parks or international borders but they are very well aware of the areas where conflicts with humans can arise. 

Man poses the biggest threat to elephants. Humans not only kill them for ivory but also cause increasing loss and fragmentation of their habitats, resulting in human-wildlife conflicts. Usually the animals come off second best. Tommy Hall, a former nature conservation official, professional hunter and safari guide with many years of experience, emphasises that elephants have a natural fear of people and stay clear of them. Some 150 years ago man and elephant still lived side by side, respected and avoided one another. These days elephants usually react nervously to people. According to Hall the reasons are poaching, which does not affect elephants only, as well as hunting for food. Trophy hunting and the conflict with crop farmers are also partly to blame for the distrust that elephants harbour against people. Everywhere in the bush they catch the scent of blood, not only that of their own kind, and they smell people. If they come too close to cultivated fields they are chased away with noise and shots and quite often get wounded in the process. Elephants do not forget that kind of experience, says Hall. He has lived with elephants and studied them for decades.

Tourists also play a big role in causing ‘problems’ and incidents with elephants. They drive up to the pachyderms too close because from what they have seen in movies and on TV they expect them to be peaceful and gentle. But suddenly they feel uneasy and start the car. This spooks the elephants, sometimes a car even bumps into one of them, and another negative encounter with man is memorized by the grey giant. Hall says that some elephant herds, e.g. in the northwest of the country, are harassed by tourists almost daily, irrespective of whether the animals are feeding, drinking or resting. 


How should visitors, tourist guides and locals conduct themselves in the presence of elephants? 

1. Keep a distance of at least 50 metres between your vehicle and the elephant.
2. Keep your voice down, do not shout or speak in a high-pitched tone. 
3. Exercise particular care if you encounter family groups with calves. Elephant cows will attempt to protect their young against any danger. 
4. Do not get between an elephant cow and her calf. 
5. Keep an eye on the rear mirror to make sure that elephants aren’t approaching from the back. 
6. Elephants cannot be driven away from a given spot. Usually they will return, which can result in confrontations. 
7. The characteristics of elephants in Etosha National Park differ from those in Mahango and Bwabwata national parks.
8. Do not try to feed elephants. This rule applies to all wild animals. 

Which are the warning signs – the elephant body language – to look out for?

1. If an elephant raises its head above its shoulders, extends its ears forward and the eyes can be seen clearly, it means that the animal is annoyed and feels threatened. 
2. An elephant is about to charge if he holds his tail in an L-shape out to one side. 
3. When an elephant lowers the head, ears extended forward and the trunk tucked in, it is in attack mode and won’t stop now. 
4. If a herd of elephants seems nervous and makes sounds, and if many of the animals move about with ears extended forward, it is time for you to retreat. 
5. If a herd is standing or busy feeding  and its members‘ ears are flapping backward and forward while heads remain below the shoulder line, it means that the animals are not nervous and do not feel cornered. 

How should tourists conduct themselves in the presence of elephants? 

1. Any visitor must retreat calmly and slowly as soon as the first warning signs appear.  
2. Everybody in the vehicle must remain calm and refrain from talking loudly. Do not rev the engine. 
3. It is important to start the engine in good time. Still better, do not turn off the ignition at all when you stop to watch elephants. Rather, keep the engine running while you consider the situation. If the herd seems nervous it is a good idea to drive on.  
4. When elephants suddenly appear very close to your vehicle it is important not to panic. They have picked up your scent and that of the vehicle long ago. Speak in a calm voice so that they can hear you, too. 
5. Don’t play any music and switch off the air conditioner. 

Elephants hear many sounds which we cannot hear or don’t notice, e.g. the sounds from a vehicle’s engine, the radio, air conditioning system, transmission, brakes or the differential. They feel irritated, troubled or annoyed by them. Since we don’t register most of those sounds we should pay attention to the behaviour of the pachyderms and act accordingly.   

In the event that nevertheless something does happen – i.e. the vehicle is charged – you are well advised to stay put, according to elephant expert Tommy Hall. Even more caution is necessary with open vehicles like the game viewers.  

How should you conduct yourself when elephants visit your camping site? 

1. Everybody needs to remain calm. Do not shout, do not hoot the car horn, do not flash torches and do not run around. 
2. If you are in your tent, keep quiet and do not switch on any lights. 
3. Never leave fruit, vegetables or bread lying in the open. Pack everything away before you turn in for the night. 
4. If possible, keep embers smouldering during the night because it makes elephants aware of the presence of people. 

Where should you set up camp? 

1. Never set up camp at waterholes. They attract animals, including elephants. The presence of campers prevents animals from quenching their thirst. 
2. Where possible, always camp at the foot of a mountain, next to boulders or at an embankment. That way you cannot be surprised from behind and you can seek shelter there, if necessary.  
3. Never set up camp on or near an elephant path.  

Dirk Heinrich

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