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."

"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.

We wound our way back through the forest. The stress of knowing that stealth elephants were all around was wearing on me. I heard distant trumpeting and mentally noted all potential elephant-protection trees. Uh-oh. We were coming to the river. No trees here; it's all sand and mud. No trees here. No....

Lost in my thoughts, I bumped smack into Rick. Up ahead, Julien and Modigbe had halted the procession and were motioning for us to wait.

Rick craned his neck to see and whispered the dreaded "E" word: "Elephants!"

I clung to his back.

"There are two bull elephants drinking at the river. This will be a really good opportunity for you to see that they're more afraid of us than we are of them. As soon as they catch our scent they'll take off. You'll see. Any second....

When they did not tremble and flee, Rick assured me that it was because we were downwind. They couldn't smell us.

"As soon as they know we're here, they'll take off. Any second now. Any second...."

Up ahead, Julien was clapping his hands and yelling "Allez! Allez!" as if he were shooing flies off potato salad rather than addressing four-ton mega-mammals.

"... Any second.... " Rick intoned.

The large ones were not impressed.

"... Aaaannny second...."

Several things happened at once: The ground shook, the air split with a terrible trumpeting, and 14 kids with eyes as big as Ferris wheels came streaking by me in a blur, bare feet kicking up mud as they stampeded by and disappeared into the forest. A mountainous gray mass was thundering toward us flapping its ears, waving its trunk, and making an alarming hullabaloo. A cold rush of adrenaline surged through me, and my legs took off in a spring, but it was like a bad dream. Rick had grabbed the collar of my shirt and was holding me back; I looked like a cartoon character starting to run - a lot of foot action but no speed.

SUDDENLY, everything was quiet. The bulls mumbled a few parting snorts and ambled off into the trees. Somewhere through the din in my eardrums I heard fragments of Rick's voice:

"... Told you ... more afraid of you ... proud of you ... didn't run...."

Didn't run? No thanks to you! I thought.

I watched the amazing vanishing boys rematerialize, the same kids who had lectured me on "our friends, the elephants." Straggling back from all directions, they chided their friends for being afraid, for making them run. By the time we started moving again, they were full of bravado, miming fantasies of the next encounter when they would stand their ground and intimidate the elephant to retreat.

Numbly I mucked through the swamp, waded across the river, and stumbled back through the last bit of forest. The boys were completely recovered, and even though I didn't understand their language, their swaggering steps and blustering tone spoke volumes.

On the way home, Rick allowed that it had been a vivid experience. But now when I tell about being charged by an elephant, he reminds me it was really only a bluff charge, and I would be exaggerating if I alleged anything else. Since I wasn't trampled, this will serve as my only disclaimer, should the Elephant Charge Certification Board ever decide to check out my story.

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