Elephants are by far the most charismatic gentle giants you will ever come across in our unique African wilderness areas, their size alone makes them extraordinary, but their complex family life and structure, intelligence and their individual personalities set them apart too. As more and more tourists visit these conservation areas and are more exposed to elephants, it is likely that the number of human-elephant encounters will definitely increase correspondingly.

Elephant viewing just like any other wildlife there are some ground rules that I believe through my experience as a park warden are not necessarily ignored but are often not understood by our park visitors, visiting the wildlife conservation areas is always a thrilling adventure be it with family or friends you awaken your connection with nature and get a unique excitement watching wild animals up close in the comfort of your vehicle but most often we find ourselves being carried away and end risking our lives.

We don’t always have the privilege to have a “professional guide” with us while on the game drives and often are time you find yourself in a situation you have no idea what to do next when we enter into their territory  is essential to keep this three maxims in mind

  1. You are in their home area – At all times, elephants must be given right of way at all times
  2. Elephants have a “Personal space” which do not like to be invaded, it’s always wise to keep a 50 M distance
  3. Elephants are intelligent animals, have emotions and mainly want to be left in peace. while viewing wildlife its wise to keep any noise to the minimal, radios or music from the vehicle should be off, no hooting or banging the sides of the vehicle

         How to approach  Elephants   

Elephants in most conservation areas are used to vehicles and humans will go about their daily business and ignore any human observer. Relaxed and friendly elephant behaviour is ordinarily characterised by; eyes casting down, tail generally swaying from side to side while the elephant is feeding or even entwining trunks or placing the trunk tip into other elephants mouth (reassuring gestures used for greeting and in-play mode)

You will often observe elephants freezing from time to time and stretching out their trumpet towards you or by twisting their trunk tip towards your direction, it’s their way of sniffing and assessing if you’re a potential threat

Do not go closer than 50m to the animals and switch off the engine. If the elephants are comfortable, you can sit quietly and enjoy the experience, never allow the elephants especially solitary male to get too close to your vehicle, do not to let the elephants approach to within 20m of your vehicle and never allow them to touch it. If the elephants approach within this zone, switch the engine on, wait a few seconds and slowly back away.

Always assess the elephants’ direction of movement. Do not block them, cut off their escape route, or come between a mother and calf. Allow them a clear path away from the area.

Never drive into a heard or separate a mother and her calf

If switching the engine on appears to aggravate the elephant, switch it off immediately, wait a few minutes and then try to retreat again. Retreat slowly if the elephants are showing any signs of unease or mild threat

If you are in an open safari vehicle, do not stand up or make sudden movements on the vehicle. This may frighten the elephant and cause a threatening or aggressive response.

The following are some of the most obvious threatening behaviours displayed by elephants:

An elephant will always warn you to show aggression when you’re too close or when it feels intimidated by your presence it wants you to retreat. It is essential to be able to read the early signs and slowly back off, the initial signs include; Trunk up in the air sniffing, throwing around twigs, front foot lift, trunk twisting, displacement feeding (plucking at vegetation but not feeding on it but slapping it against the body, pretending to be feeding but it’s fixated at watching you) Make no sudden movements. If you do not heed to the initial warning signs the elephant may resort to more aggressive threat display behaviour or even launch a charge be it a mock charge which is quite common or otherwise without other warnings.

At any of the advanced threatening behaviours highlighted below remember never to compromise your safety and slowly retreat and leave the area because you must be infringing into their space thus making them very uncomfortable.

Spreading the ears

The elephant faces an opponent head-on with ears fully spread (at 90 degrees from the body), presumably for the purpose of appearing larger.

Shaking head

The shake usually starts with the head twisted to one side and is then rapidly rotated from side to side. The ears slap against the side of the face or neck making a loud smacking sound. Followed by throwing grass.

Trumpeting or air blast

Trumpeting is a sign of annoyance, the trunk can also be used to blow air out with a loud popping sound

Ear slapping against the body

Ear slapping is a definite sign displayed, an ear slapped against the side of the body as it shakes the head often done towards people or cars.

Tusking the ground

Bends down or kneels both tusks on the ground, pushing their trunk along the ground or uprooting vegetation uplifts vegetation as a demonstration of “look what I will do with you if you don’t back off”. It is mostly done by musth males ( musth is a periodic condition in bull elephants characterized by highly aggressive behaviour and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones)

Rushing forward

Typical mock charge, two or three times charges towards you with the ears spread out after a loud trumpet and makes a sudden stopping, kicking up dust with the forefoot and swinging its trunk towards you.

Real charge

Rushes towards the vehicle, ears spread, head held low, trunk tightly curved, tusks directed towards your direction, and this time no trumpeting. So pay attention to the early warning signs.