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Elephant Warning Signs

January 28, 2014 By:

After the recent rolling of a tourist's car by a bull elephant in the Kruger National Park, which resulted in the elephant being shot and global news stories about the injuries sustained by the humans involved, it's important to draw attention to the fact that elephants are not safe and cuddly animals. If you're visiting a game reserve, hoping to see these magnificent wild animals, it's a good idea to get to know a little about them first.

First of all, game reserve rules are there, not to spoil your fun, but to keep you safe. When you're told not to get too close to the animals and not to get out of your vehicle, it's for the protection of both you and the animals.

This article is by Jonathan Pledger and originally appeared in the Addo National Elephant Park Facebook Group. Reproduced by their kind permission. 

 Warning Signs

  1. Foot rocking/swinging one foot up and down (often associated with kicking up dust). This is not a warning sign when the elephant is doing it to uproot vegetation, or feeding.
  2. Holding the ears out for a prolonged period of time i.e. for longer than the usual stead flapping of the ears, which is how elephants control their temperature. The elphant holds his ears out and still to warn you of its superior size.
  3. Shaking the head - normally just one or two shakes and then the elephant moves off.
  4. Tail held out stiffly at 90°.
  5. Trumpeting.

Many or even all of these signs may be shown by one elephant within a couple of minutes, sometimes followed by what is known as a mock charge (more about that at the end of the article).

Those are the basic signs to be aware of. This is simply his or her way of letting you know that they are uncomfortable. Sometimes it's because of an encounter with another elephant or a lion, or simply a ‘tiff’ with another ellie (most likely). The alternative is that your presence is causing it. Either way… if these signs are being shown, respect and awareness is important.

If these signs are shown by a    ………………  it is advised that the following is done:

Female elephant cow: If you have space to move back, do so quietly and calmly. Start your car, don’t rev it and panic, simply move SLOWLY backwards and out of the sighting, reposition if possible further away and enjoy the sighting. She just wants you to give her room or she feels you are to close to her young. NEVER get between a mother and a small calf. She will get upset!

Bull elephant: These are normally the big boys that move on their own, or in small bachelor herds. If they are just walking past or grazing or with a family for a visit, the same applies. If they are having a bit of a tussle with one another, rather stay a bit further away, just to be safe, but the same applies. Again, if they suddenly turn and move towards you, but show no signs of irritation or warning signs, stay where you are, they are coming into your comfort zone, not vice versa. Only if the signs are shown should you move. If they are walking down the road (any elephant), simply move to the side of the road and stop and turn off engine. If there is space for them, they will use it. Don’t block their path.

Bull elephant in musth: musth is a periodic condition in bull elephants, characterized by highly aggressive behavior, accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones – testosterone levels in an elephant in musth can be as much as 60 times greater than in the same elephant at other times. Rather keep your distance. If you cannot avoid a close encounter, give as much space as possible BEFORE he gets too close and turn off engine and sit still and enjoy the experience.

Young Bull elephants and young females:  (small enough to be teens but big enough to think they can take you on) These guys/girls are the most energetic and quizzy… Often the ones that ‘mock’ charge or go to the point of touching the vehicle. The same ‘rules’ apply, but standing your ground and just letting them do there thing is the best option here. If they very close and you feel uncomfortable, a loud clap, usually will put them off, don’t continue to clap just one or two should do… If not, start the engine and, without revving up and down, just slowly raise the revs, if he has stopped close, just wait till he moves off.

3 zones are taught in our courses: the fright (yellow), flight (orange), and fight (red) zone (this applies to most animals).

NEVER drive towards elephants, personal space is VERY important!  If they show no signs of being irritated and move towards you, that is fine… If they come right up to you, but still show none of the warning signs. Just enjoy the sighting

  1. If you approach an animal, and it continues to do what it was doing, you are merely a part of the surroundings…. Next you will enter the fright zone (yellow) – The animal now stops what it was doing and is affected in some way by your presence (you have its attention).
  2. If you continue your approach, you will enter the flight zone (orange) The animal in most scenarios will run away/flee/ take ‘FLIGHT’  - Ellies don’t normally do this, this is the stage/zone where you will get your warning signs.
  3. If you stupid enough to continue your approach or ignore the warnings, you will be in the animals FIGHT zone. Not a good place to be… RED ZONE!  Usually followed by a full charge and certain contact, injury or death.

Mock Charges & Real Charges

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.

Mock Charge

A situation may occur when one from the herd will be upset with you. In that case, it means 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 ellie 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.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 40kmph. In the bush, that’s pretty fast, even for your vehicle.

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/hooter, don’t rev up and down, but do steadily press your accelerator further down as the elephant gets closer.

Real Charge

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, tuck the trunk away under the chin (to avoid hurting itself when it makes contact and run full speed at your vehicle. They will generally be quiete too, no trumpeting! 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 its threat with your engine’s noise – but you'd better also put on those seat belts because your vehicle is in for a really rough collision.

This info was taken from my FGASA training books and some experience in the guiding industry, tried to explain as simply and clearly as possible - hope it helps. Happy snapping and enjoy these special animals. If there's one word to remember, it's respect.

A Quick Story of My Own

One day, I remember sitting and watching a small herd crossing a river at a private reserve I worked at. I had only been guiding for a year and was just getting relaxed around the family herd and had established a relationship with them over the year.

 The last female, who was helping her youngster (weeks old) cross the river, turned without warning, pinned her ears back, went dead quiet and ran/waded/swam back towards me. Knowing that she wasn't playing around (no warning signs, she was showing full charge signs), I put my camera down as fast as I could, reversed my Landy into the bushes behind me (stabbing a few guests at the back with acacia trees) and was just able to drive and turn (as it was a dead end/river crossing) and got away in time… The guests laughed and where excited as most never knew quite how serious it was.

What I did wrong:

  1. Went from the fright zone, into the fight zone (a protective mother and a river crossing with a stressed baby swimming/struggling to cross the river, maybe even for the first time).
  2. I did not have an escape route, where I could just drive away (first had to reverse and turn).
  3. BIGGEST MISTAKE: I didn’t show her respect! I wanted the shot (us photographers can learn from this).

I crapped myself! I vowed always to remain respectful. The photograph is not worth risking the safety of the animal or yourself.

I treasure the last shot I got before putting the camera down, not because it's a cool shot, but because of the reminder. (PHOTO: big female cow in the river coming towards me ears pinned back, neck extended, baby by her side).

I didn’t know it at the time, but an experienced ex ranger was one of the guests in my vehicle. He said nothing until his departure 2 days later, he pulled me aside just before he departed and calmly with a grin asked how many years I had been guiding, I told him a year or so… He said, “I was a ranger for many many years and im glad you where able to get away in time on that ellie sighting, that old girl wasn’t going to stop” and then he smiled and left… He said it in such a way, that I knew what he meant – You were lucky, that was serious and I hope you learnt from that experience… I SURE DID!

It also shows, sometimes they skip the warning part and it can turn ugly quickly. Wild animals are unpredictable and a force to be reckoned with.



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