Elephants – Minimizing the chance of a charge .. and How To handle a charge

We certainly don’t want to say that Chobe National Park is just about elephants, but they will be one of your most common sightings.  If you look through the articles at ChobeSafari.com, you may have already guessed this.  When in the park, (or even on the roads around the park) you will see elephants at all times of the day.  Often you can get quite close to these elephants.  This may be great for photography and general viewing, but this also brings up an important issue – SAFETY.

A young, lone elephant can be an unpredictable elephant - don't block his path to the herd.

On my first self drive trip into the bush, my good friend and South African trip advisor, Paul, didn’t give me any tips on avoiding lions, Cape Buffalos or hippos, but he did take the time to emphasize awareness around elephants.  Discussions included watching one’s distance, watching animal posture/attitude and positioning of the vehicle for a quick turn around and exit when/if things get intense.  Elephants are the only animals that pose a real danger to vehicles.  If you treat an elephant wrong, there is a chance that you might have a problem … and when dealing with elephants, any problem is a BIG problem.

The Brandt Guide to Botswana suggests that “at the more popular areas of Chobe or Moremi, where the elephants are habituated to vehicles, you’d have to really annoy an already grumpy elephant for it to give you trouble.

That may be true, but the elephants are clearly not trained and there are 60,000 of them, so it’s reasonable to assume that every day at least one ellie is having a bad day.  To give specific advice is difficult, as every elephant is different. Each is an individual, with real moods and feelings – and there’s no substitute for years of experience to tell you what mood they’re in. The following are some advisory suggestions from my experiences:

  • Keep your eyes open:  Seems obvious, but the trails within the park wind through bushes that are so close, they sometimes touch the sides of your vehicle. Further, some of the roads wind back and forth.  While elephants are large, they hide amazingly well in the brush.  It will not be an unusual event for you to round a corner and suddenly there is an elephant in the middle of the road right in front of you.
  • Anticipate the comfort zone for the elephant:  Some experts talk of three concentric zones: the fright, flight, and fight zone – each with a smaller radius, and each more dangerous. If you actively approach then you breach that zone, and will upset it. So when viewing, don’t approach too closely: keep your distance.  How close depends entirely on the elephants and the area. More relaxed elephants having a good day will allow you to get within 25m of them. You can often approach more closely in open areas than in thick bush.  In addition, identify where the elephants are likely to exit back into the bush.  Elephant trails are pretty obvious, so spotting these does not take a guide.  Do not park your vehicles between the elephants and their exit point.  When parking to observe, position your vehicle for making a quick ‘one point turn’ (known to some as a “Y” turn).  The point is … position for the worst case – a charge where you need to get the heck out of there in a hurry!
  • Watch body language: The South African slang for an upset animal is ‘agro’, which is short for aggravated.  It is pretty easy to identify an agro elephant – the head will be turning back and forth, the ears will be out and maybe flapping and you may also hear bugling. If you spot these conditions, you may soon be in a problem situation.
  • Consider what you are viewing: Are you viewing a lone animal or a herd?  Lone animals tend to be more nervous.  Also lone bull elephants are a higher risk than cows.  Are there any males in ‘musth’ around? These are fairly easy to spot because of a heavy secretion from penis and temporal glands and a very musty smell. Generally these males will be on their own.  If you see this situation, make sure you keep an extra safe distance. If watching a herd, does the matriarch look agro or relaxed?  Also, does the herd have mid-sized juvenile males?  These little guys can get a little frisky, so make sure you watch them closely.

If you are charged …

If, after all of the previous advice fails you, or you failed to pay attention to the advice, and you do find yourself being charged by an elephant, there are a few things you can do. Most important, and maybe most difficult to do, is to keep your cool.  A few words here are inadequate – you need experience – but here is some information to help:

  • If your vehicle is stationary and switched off, and you become unexpectedly surrounded by peaceful elephants, don’t panic. Don’t even start the engine, as that would startle them. Just sit there and enjoy it; there’s no real cause for concern. Only when they’ve passed and are a distance away should you start up. When you do start – never start and move off simultaneously, which will be interpreted as the vehicle being very aggressive. Instead start up quietly, wait a little, and then move.
  • More often a situation occurs when one from the herd will be upset with you. In that case you’ve approached too closely. Then an annoyed elephant will usually first mock charge. This usually first involves a lot of ear flapping, head shaking and loud trumpeting – mock charges are often preceded by ‘displacement activities’, and the animals often show uncertainty about charging. The individual then runs towards you with ears spread out, head held high, and trumpeting loudly. This is terrifying, especially if you’re not used to it. But be impressed, not surprised; elephants weigh up to 6,000kg and have had several million years to refine this into a really frightening spectacle.However terrifying, if you stand your ground then almost all such encounters will end with the elephant stopping in its tracks. It will then move away at an angle, with its head held high and turned, its back arched, its tail raised, and the occasional head-shake. Often you’ll find the ‘teenagers’ of the herd doing this – testing you and showing off a bit.
    However, if you flee or back off rapidly during such a mock charge, the elephant will probably chase your vehicle, perhaps turning a mock charge into a full charge.  An elephant can move at 25mph (40 kph).  In the bush, that’s pretty fast – even for your vehicle, so, before you move, make very certain that you have a swift escape route, and that you can drive faster than the elephant can run. Chobe has pretty deep sand, so getting your vehicle to greater than 25 and not getting stuck is not an insignificant challenge.

As a fairly desperate measure, not normally needed, if the elephant is really getting too close, then increasing the revs of your engine – commensurate with the threat – will encourage the animal to stop and back down. Don’t beep your horn, don’t rev up and down, but do steadily press your accelerator further down as the elephant gets closer.

If you are really unfortunate, you could come across an upset or traumatized animal, or one that really perceives you as a threat and that makes a full charge. This is rare – expected only from injured elephants, cows protecting calves, males in musth and the like. Then the individual will fold its ears back, put its head down, and run full speed at your vehicle. If this occurs, then your only option is to drive as fast as you can.  This is why we noted earlier that when parking to observe, you should be prepared for a ‘one point turn’. If you can’t get away, simply put, you are in deep trouble.  I guess the option is to try revving, as above, matching it’s threat with your engine’s noise – but you better also put on those seat belts because your vehicle is in for a really rough collision!

The video below is a good capture of an elephant charge situation.  There are several things to note:

  • Note that initial revving of the engine causes the initial charge to be paused.
  • Note that when the drive begins to reverse, it actually ignites a more aggressive ‘chase’ charge by the elephant.
  • And finally, note that the elephant finally comes to a stop … when it encounters a stopped/stationary vehicle.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pek-2s7csP8[/youtube]

We are not saying this is the only behavior you might see, but we think it is a reasonable example of how an elephant can react to a few different evasive actions.

4 comments for “Elephants – Minimizing the chance of a charge .. and How To handle a charge

  1. Misty
    February 18, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    Aren’t the people in the video too CLOSE to the elephants? Both vehicles are just asking for trouble!

    When I hear about tourists being killed by elephants, I feel no sympathy. WE are intruding on the elephants, not the other way around. Any guides who take their passengers that close are irresponsible, plain and simple.

  2. P. B. Eleazer
    February 19, 2010 at 10:10 am

    Misty,
    I agree that the people seem to be close. Maybe too close. However, I have had occasion where I was rounded a bush and there, very close to me, were elephants. It happens. As noted in the article, if you are still and the herd is calm, things generally work out. … but it only takes one upset elephant to ruin your vehicle, so it’s great to know how to handle a charge.

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