Close Encounters of the Big Gray Kind
The only time I ever was charged by an elephant, my husband told me it didn't really count. "It was only a bluff charge."Skip to next paragraph
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"A bluff charge?" I was indignant. "He came running at us with his tusks bared!"
"Yes," Rick admitted, "but he stopped."
"Oh, so it doesn't really count unless he actually tramples you, is that it?"
I'd followed Rick to Central Africa where he was doing field research. The best place to see elephants was a jarring 10-minute drive along washed-out dirt roads and then a half-hour trek through the rain forest. Elephants gathered in a large clearing where the ground was full of minerals. They would drill with their trunks, plumbing the mud for salts. We would observe them from a platform 30 feet up a tree. One evening I counted more than 100 elephants.
Getting to the clearing was an adventure in itself. We'd leave the truck where the road ended and slip into the forest. Tall trees disappeared overhead in the canopy, vines straggled down, mosses and mushrooms clung to the ground. Monkeys and birds screeched warnings. Except for a sandy clearing where a wide river edged out trees and other plant life, it was thick, lush, humid, and green.
Wading across the river, sloshing through the mud, and following meandering elephant trails, we stayed close behind our machete-wielding Pygmy tracker, Modigbe. We walked these trails often. That, I was sure, increased the odds of our encountering an elephant face to trunk; after all, we were walking on elephant trails. Surprising an elephant in close quarters might make it feel cornered and threatened, so I always tried to make a lot of noise.
'NEVER, never run. Get behind the nearest tree." Rick's experienced response to my growing concern sounded a tad counterintuitive. "You'll only encourage it to chase you."
"What if there aren't any trees?"
"Then stand your ground, wave your arms. Try to look bigger than he is - outbluff him if you can. But don't even think about outrunning him."
These thoughts weighed heavily on me the day we accompanied one of the local nature clubs to observe the elephants. Mallory, a Peace Corps volunteer; Julien, a local extension worker; 14 village kids; Modigbe, Rick, and I set out on the half-hour walk through the forest. After a few minutes we came to a sandy clearing where the river ran slowly across our path. We sloshed across the river and through a marshy area that tried to suck my boots off. (Barefooted Modigbe trotted ahead, unencumbered by the ooze.)
We reentered the forest. The elephant trails twisted through the undergrowth.
"Pssst, Mallory!" I whispered to the volunteer. "Aren't these kids afraid of running into an elephant?"
She translated the question for the kids, who all smiled benignly at me.
"Oh no, you must not be afraid of elephants!"
"They are more afraid of you than you are of them!"
"You must never run away from an elephant!"
Sounded like the party line to me.
After reaching the clearing, we climbed to the observation platform and spent several fascinating hours. The bulls staked out territory; the cows moved in groups with their young; and the babies frolicked, splashed, and tripped over their rubbery trunks. When it was time to go, I purposefully brought up the rear. Eighteen people between me and any elephant.