Dealing with wild animals

2013-07-08 08:24

How not to treat an elephant

2013-05-29 12:47

Is our respect for wild animals at an all time low? Check out this video of yet another person aggravating an elephant. WATCH

Dealing with wild animals - whether in their natural environment or man-made settings - is always a risky business. No matter how sweet and tame they may look, the fact is that they're still completely wild and unpredictable.

In a recent incident at Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre near Hoedspruit in Limpopo, a young Canadian volunteer was caught completely off guard by a male lion who tried to drag her into his enclosure while feeding him. 

Lauren Fagen told Beeld that the attack came completely unexpectedly, as the big cat had been particularly friendly moments before - rubbing his head and body against the enclosure, as though he was begging to be petted. She was lucky to survive, as the big cat's razor sharp teeth just missed a main artery in her groin.

While it does not seem like Fagen crossed any boundaries with the animal, it does serve as a serious reminder about the respect with which wild animals should always be treated. Something more and more visitors to our national parks seem loath to remember.

Following a couple of incidents of humans provoking wild elephants caught on camera in the Kruger National Park, we decided to find out what kind of effect this sort of behaviour might have on the giant pachyderms.

A few of our readers pointed out that while in both the case of the off-duty ranger charging an elephant on foot and a man trying to push an elephant off the road with his large bakkie, the animals did nothing to retaliate their reaction may be delayed, potentially taking it out on innocent game viewers later on.

According to Dr. Ian McCallum, a medical doctor, psychiatrist, writer and a specialist wilderness guide with a special interest in elephants, where the incident of the pushy driver was concerned, he said it would be best for park authorities to keep a watchful eye on the animal from now on. "It is still young and learning. It will not forget. I hope I can say the same for the offending driver," he said.

Who is the boss?

He added that it is very clear that the driver of the vehicle entered into an adolescent and age-old brain stem game of ‘who is the boss?' with the elephant in full view of the other stationary vehicles. "It is very unlikely that he meant any harm, but that's the problem with the primal, exhibitionistic human brain stem. 

Common sense and social consequence is not a brain stem attribute. It would appear that this individual has had previous encounters with elephants (backing off and then advancing ... banging the side of the door), in which case he should have known better. Back off! In almost every instance the elephant will, in time, move off. If not and if it means harm, the chances are that someone else has done exactly what this driver has done."

Dr. Marion Garai, chairperson of the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group (ESAG), was of the same opinion, saying that it is very obvious that the fault lies totally with the driver not the elephant bull, who is incredibly good natured under the circumstances. "The driver did not respect the personal distance of the animal and was being ‘macho,' trying to show the elephant he is stronger. An incredibly stupid thing to do. It is amazing the elephant did not react more aggressively," she said. 

She added that it was clear from the video footage that the elephant was giving distinct warning signs - head shaking and ear spreading - and showing mild threat towards the driver, who should have immediately backed away. 

"This elephant will never forget that he was pushed off the road by a bakkie and may well sometime in future take revenge on another similar bakkie that gets too close," she said. 

So, how should you behave if encountering an elephant on a game drive?

According to Garai, elephants are highly intelligent, cognitive animals with a proverbial memory. They have a very similar brain structure to humans and share the same generalized "emotional brain" that includes the prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, amygdala, insula, hypothalamus, brainstem and associated physiological, psychophysiological and behavioural traits. 

Harassment through misbehaved drivers will irritate the elephant. This time (in the video) he let himself be pushed off the road, next time he may well retaliate. He will then try to ascertain his dominance over the vehicle and person inside. Such accidents are regularly reported in the media and stem from previous unruly drivers that did not respect the animal's space. 

Here are a few tips how to behave near elephants when in a Reserve:

1. Elephants are intelligent, have emotions and their main goal is to be left in peace.

2. At all times common sense and respect for the animal must prevail.

3. You are in their territory!

4. Elephants, like all animals including humans, have a personal space, which they do not like invaded.

5. 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.

6. Give them right of way and don't approach closer than 30-40 metres.

7. Don't allow them to approach closer to you either, retreat if they walk towards you.

8. 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)

9. At the first threat sign move back and give them space.

10. Always keep an eye on all elephants, one may come up from behind you.

11. Try and keep a flight route open for your vehicle.

12. Don't park other vehicles in.

13. 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.

14. Revving the engine or driving past full speed is NOT advised, it aggravates them and could induce a charge, rather back off slowly.

15. Only if the elephant is moving towards you fast, head down and ears spread in a charge or mock charge, drive away fast.

Have any scary wild animal encounters of your own to share with us? Tell us in the comment section below, Tweet us or send us your story to
Read more on:    animals  |  travel south africa

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