How to Behave near Elephants

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Dr Marion Garai, chairperson of the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group (ESAG), shared the following tips on how to behave around what she describes is a highly intelligent, cognitive animal, with a proverbial memory and a very similar brain structure to humans.

Tips on how to behave near elephants when in a Reserve:

  • Elephants are intelligent, have emotions and their main goal is to be left in peace.
  • At all times common sense and respect for the animal must prevail -  You are in their territory!
  • Elephants, like all animals including humans, have a personal space, which they do not like invaded.
  • Always respect their flight distance and allow a flight route (so they don't feel cornered). Do not cut off their way in which they are walking.
  • Give them right of way and don't approach closer than 30-40 metres and don't allow them to get close to you either - retreat if they walk towards you.
  • Learn to recognise their threat signs. (e.g. ears spread; head shaking, nodding, jerking; trunk swishing; slapping ears against their body; throwing grass, stones or twigs)
  • At the first threat sign move back and give them space.
  • Always keep an eye on all elephants, one may come up from behind you.
  • Try and keep a flight route open for your vehicle.
  • Don't park other vehicles in.
  • Mothers with calves will get very upset if you are between them, so always watch out for small calves and allow them and the mother to get together.
  • Revving the engine or driving past full speed is NOT advised, it aggravates them and could induce a charge, rather back off slowly.
  • Only if the elephant is moving towards you fast, head down and ears spread in a charge or mock charge, drive away fast.

Determining if it's a mock or real charge

  • most charges are "mock" (threat) charges,  the elephant is pretending to charge but is actually testing you out to see if you're aggressive or a non-threat.
  • Watch the elephant's ears. If an elephant's ears are relaxed, he is probably making a mock charge. Ears that are fanned out are indicative of a mock charge.
  • If the elephant's ears are pinned back flat, it is likely that the charge is real. This will often be accompanied by a trunk that is curled inward.
  • Listen for warnings. You're likely to hear trumpeting of a warning from the elephant.
  • Look for displacement activities. There are some other indicators of an elephant working out whether to charge or retreat. These include a twitching trunk and swinging one leg to and fro. The biologist responsible for discovering this, Dr  George Schallar, realized that the more pronounced these "displacement activities", the more likely the elephant was making a threatening show out of fear and had no intention to really charge.

Getting away

  • Stay downwind of the elephant at all times. This way, the elephant will find it difficult to smell you and seek you out (elephants have a keen sense of smell). If you can hide downwind, you might be able to avoid any further encounter. If you do run, stay downwind to make following you more difficult.
  • If the elephant appears to be making a mock charge, you have the option of standing absolutely still. The problem with this is that it is very hard to do when an elephant is bearing down on you. It does show the elephant that you're non-threatening and it removes the desire to chase you. However, you'll need to judge the suitability of this move by the size and aggressiveness of the elephant before you.
  • Be noisy. It might be possible to shoo off the elephant by making loud noise if there is some distance between you and the charging elephant. Some think that this a very good option if you're inside a vehicle.  On the other hand, if you're on foot trying to dodge the elephant when it's very close to you, others think that staying quiet is probably a much better option.
  • You can also shake trees, rattle bags, make noise using whatever objects are to hand. A loudly and repetitively shouted "No" is good if you can't think of anything else.
  • Do not show your back to the elephant. Do not turn or run! Running encourages chasing.
  • Look for something to keep between you and the charging elephant. Do a quick look around you to see if you can duck behind something larger than you or something that can act as a shield.
  • If there is a vehicle and you can maneuver it quickly enough, drive off. Be warned though, if the elephant is already close to the vehicle, it may charge the vehicle and you risk being tipped over and pounded.
  • If you must run, try to do it in a way that deceives the elephant. A charging elephant can run much faster than you but if you zig-zag, you might be able to confuse it. Elephants find it difficult to change directions due to their bulky size. And, of course, run as fast as you can––your life depends on it.
  • If you do run, the intent should be to place as much distance between yourself and the elephant. Elephants that are scared, upset or angered can run up to 35-40 kph
  • Climb. Elephants can't climb, obviously. And provided you find a sturdy enough tree of good height, it might be enough to put space between you and the marauding elephant.
  • Keep in mind that the elephant might rip the tree down, so be on the lookout for signs that it might try this next.
  • Be warned! It might not be wise to jump into water. Apart from the fact that the water might harbor other non-friendly wildlife, elephants are surprisingly good swimmers and it may decide to simply follow you.
  • Hop into a ditch. In some cases, people have evaded a charging elephant by dropping into a large ditch and staying low. Be warned that if the ditch isn't wide or deep enough, the elephant may find its way around and start going for you with its trunk.

Sources: SANParksWikihow, News24