Elephant bull warning charge on the Makalali Nature Reserve.
The morning was cold and the air was crisp, without a cloud in the sky. It was a typical South African winters morning as I prepared to drive to our Endangered Species Camp to take a foot patrol to locate a pair of our rhino to check on their health and report to our K9 anti-poaching team.
On reaching the camp I gathered my group of volunteer field rangers together and we discussed the objectives and went over the walking protocol, which is vital for keeping ourselves and the animals safe if we encounter each other. The two most important rules were expressed clearly, "Stay as a group" and "Do not run". These things we repeat before every walk, but rarely do we have to put them into practice.
After walking less than 1 km from our camp, I had a message on the radio that Splay the elephant was heading North East and was ahead of us, and he was in musth to complicate the situation.
As he was also heading towards the dam where I was hoping to find the tracks for our rhino, I decided the best course of action would be to locate his tracks or him, rather than to accidentally bump into him. Surprising an elephant is not always a good option.
Proceeding with caution looking out for his tracks in the hope of being able to follow them, we heard the telltale sound of a branch breaking. An elephant was ahead of us feeding, the wind was not in our favour and our scent was being pushed towards his location. We moved a few meters and got a visual of a lone bull 100 meters from us among the trees, he was also at this time standing still smelling and listening for us. I scanned the area we were in and then pointed out a large Marula Tree and said to the team "if he approaches us we move there". He lifted his head and moved towards us. We proceeded to our point of safety.
Usually, bull elephants may approach to see the disturbance in their vicinity and once satisfied move off. However, as he approached it was clear he was in musth. Musth is a state of increased testosterone in bull elephants which can lead them to be more pushy and aggressive. So he walks straight towards us, I presented myself to him and stood in front of the Marula tree, while the team was behind it and given the instruction to keep the tree between him and themselves at all times, I spoke to him to let him know I saw him and all was fine. His reaction was to storm towards me and drop his head then raise it high to intimidate me, it worked I was intimidated. I also stood my ground and shouted at him to calm down, asserting myself. We exchanged words (me) and posture (him) he then moved to my left, pushing over a Red Bush-willow as a sign of his prowess. He began to circle around us and the tree. I was expecting him to then move away and leave us. He had other plans after a 180-degree loop he dropped his head and charged over another tree towards us, he got another ear full from me and he stopped then took a few steps back and sideways and began to dust bath. This behaviour by him, was him acting nonchalant and also to show he was not intimidated by me either. After this display, he turned and walked away.
Was I scared? Yes! Who would not be if a 5 ton, 3.5 meters at the shoulder, 30-year-old bull elephant bears down on you while you are on foot? This is the normal response. Understandably, my group was also flustered and shaken. We spent 10 minutes debriefing and discussing the situation, the elephant's, our response to him and why I did what I did and also why the elephant did what he did. The debrief is vital to decompress and learn from the experience.
Warning charges are expected from time to time by guides and field rangers while on foot in a Big 5 dangerous game area. The big take away from this experience for me and how I debriefed my team, is simple, stay calm, accept the animals are also scared of us but as long as the 2 important rules of, "stay as a group and do not run", are adhered to most situations can be defused safely. And also before the situation gets serious, make all the best efforts to be at your "point of safety" you have identified early, as this gives the animal and you a barrier or a figurative line in the sand as it were, that should not be crossed.
The rest of the patrol went with only a little more excitement when we crossed paths with Splay again at the dam, but we steered clear of each other and did not exchange any more "words".