One evening as we were relaxing at the camp, Mzee, the master story teller that he is, was telling us stories about the bush and he casually mentioned to me, "You know, Bwana Jai, you always have some chance of survival in the event an animal decides to attack you". After a deliberate pause, he continued, "Except when the animal in question is an elephant. If an elephant decides that he doesn't like you, you are most likely done for. You can't run because it will outrun you. You can't climb a tree because it will topple it. The only tree where you some chance of being safe is a Baobab tree but then the trunk of a Baobab is so wide and high that you can't climb it in the first place." So what I gathered from his little monologue about elephants was to stay clear of them.
My first run-in with an African wild elephant was in Ruaha National Park. My wife and I were standing in the back of the truck. Mzee and DE were inside. As we had finished our game-drive, DE was driving around the park just for fun and we were enjoying watching the animals like regular tourists. We came across this solitary bull elephant and DE stopped the car. The elephant was on the right-hand side of the vehicle, maybe 40-50 metres away. He looked at us and stared. Of course, we stared back, snapping away with our cameras. And all of a sudden, he started shaking his head and we realised that it did not like us standing there and staring. Had no one told us, staring was impolite? It did a little trumpet as if to shoo us away and DE drove away a little just to allay its fears and then stopped. All this time, I was asking my wife to get a good picture of me with the elephant in the background. I asked DE to stop and my wife was taking a few photos of me, when the elephant decided he had had enough and he kind of mock-charged us. He was not serious about it, but it was enough to terrify me. Being in the back of the truck, you feel completely exposed. Not that it would have made much of a difference if I had been inside the truck. But being in the back made mee feel so vulnerable. One swipe of the trunk and we would be history. All that time I was saying "DE, stop, stop." And then when the elephant started his mock-charge, all I could frantically say was 'DE, go, go go". We got away and the elephant barely ran a few steps towards us trumpeting loudly. I think it was playing with us, showing us who was boss. I, of course, had absolutely no doubts right from the beginning, as to who the boss was.
The next day, we had just come back from a round of sample collection in Ruaha and we were resting at the camp before we started processing the samples. My wife and I were sitting on the ground under a tree. Mzee was sitting on his makeshift inverted-bucket seat trying to put some tobacco in his pipe, when all of a sudden, an elephant walked up from the banks of the Ruaha river. It seemed startled to see us and so were we. It was hardly 15 metres away from us. We stayed as still as possible trying to convey that we were not at all a danger to it. It stared at us for a while trying to figure out if we were in any way a threat. The status quo continued for a couple of minutes and finally thankfully, it decided that we were harmless. It then started to rub its whole body against a thorny acacia tree and it was really amusing see it rub its body all over the tree. It was enjoying it a lot. I managed to captured that in video on our crappy camera.
The other elephant incident that comes to mind occurred in Kinyengesi. We were doing our walking transects and that involved walking 9 kms in a triangular transect, recording vegetation, animals and animal tracks. One of the transects passed through really thick foliage. Just as we were about to enter the thick foliage, Mzee called us all together and said, "This is elephant habitat. You can't see them from a distance because the foliage is so thick and they might very well be around a corner. Remember, elephants unlike other animals will not make noise or run away when they hear you. So we have to be as noiseless as possible as we move through this area. I will go ahead and when I raise my hand you stop wherever you are and if I gesture you to sit, you sit or crouch down as low as possible. They have a keen sense of smell, but their eyesight is not very strong. So if we come across an elephant, we will just have to move in a direction such that our smells are not driven to it by the wind. Just follow my movements, in case we come across one." Now I had never seen Mzee like that during my entire stay there. So pretty much, my level of comfort and ease in the bush has mirrored his demeanour. So when you see that Mzee is tense and cautious about something, you automatically take notice. I then turned around to see how MM and SM (our game scout) were reacting to the whole thing and that is when I noticed that SM had 2 explosive flares in his hand. I had never seen him like that before. Not in any of the other sites. I had no idea that he even had flares with him. Even my wife, who has gone out to these sites far longer than I have, had never seen both of them like this. This really made me realize the gravity of the situation as if Mzee's talk was not enough.
For the next 20-25 minutes, we moved as cautiously as possible. I winced at the snap of every twig I broke while moving through the foliage. But we were more or less noiseless. We stopped whenever we saw Mzee's raised hand. But his hand was mostly raised in caution than an actual elephant sighting. Those were one of the most thrilling 25 minutes of my life. I loved it. Soon we cleared the foliage without incident and we were out in a relatively open vegetation. Normalcy was restored and we started talking again. As we were walking with our heads down looking at animal tracks, my wife and I were debating over some animal tracks. MM joined us and Mzee was just about to give his verdict on the tracks, when suddenly SM shouted 'Tembo'. Tembo is Elephant in Swahili. We looked up and about 50 meters away, there was a large bull elephant standing under the shade of a tree. After coming out in the open vegetation we had dropped our guard and had been so engrossed in looking for tracks that we would have actually walked right into that elephant. Thankfully, SM, our expert game scout, who sees things that no one else usually sees , saw it this time as well otherwise we would have literally walked into quite a mess. We traced our steps backwards and stayed behind some bushes for a while. Soon the elephant walked away and we skirted its path, taking a larger detour keeping as far away as possible from it.
Elephants, like most animals, are most dangerous when they have babies with them. We came across quite a few of them driving in Ruaha as well as Serengeti. But thankfully, nothing untoward happened. They say, if you come across one on the road, you are supposed to put your gear in neutral and gun the accelerator a few times to scare them away with the noise. We did that a couple of times, but it did nothing. Finally we gave up and just drove as fast as possible besides them. Thankfully we were not chased.
Elephants are also responsible for knocking down most of trees in the parks. As Mzee says, 'that is the best way for them to get access to every part of the tree from the bottom to the top.' But for some reason, as I noticed, they seemed to be choosing to knocking down trees only near the roads thereby blocking them. One day my wife and I were driving in Ruaha as tourists and we came across 3 blocked roads because of elephants knocking down trees. We had to change our route 3 times. I was quite annoyed that the elephants did not have the decency to knock trees away from the roads. Maybe someone should take that up as a research project - elephants behaving badly.
I was really lucky that I got to see the African elephant in the wild. I have been around Asian elephants in India. But, of course, they were domesticated temple elephants. As a child, I have touched these temple elephants and even remember feeding one of them bananas once. After seeing the majestic African elephant, these gentle fearsome giants in the wild, I have promised myself that I definitely have to see an Asian one in the wild. And someday, I don't know when, I will.