While searching the vacinity of Brandberg Mountain for elephants, we had found elephant tracks and encountered unfamiliar people who were also searching the riverbed for elephants…
Austin guided the Mazda out of the riverbed and drove us through the bush surrounding the main Brandberg campsite. There we found the tracks of a small herd with at least one young member, which revealed that the elephants had wandered all over feeding on camelthorn trees.
We followed the tracks back up the riverbed to the area we explored when we had first arrived the day before. Fresh tracks crossed the riverbed in front of a large rocky outcrop and disappeared into the trees. We saw the Landcruiser with the WWF sticker we had encountered earlier parked at the base of the rocks, and the two indigenous African men and the Caucasian man and woman had climbed the rocks and were pointing at trees further up the riverbed. We looked in that direction and saw the herd on the move – three adults, one sub-adult and one tiny calf that could not have been more than two weeks old. Austin drove towards the herd and as we rounded the rocky outcrop, we saw another adult cow elephant on our side of the riverbed eating from a camelthorn tree. I immediately wondered if this herd of four adults and one adolescent was the same group that trapped us in the riverbed the last time we found elephants there. We had thought then that one of the cow elephants might be pregnant, and there was now a young calf with this herd. With the lone cow elephant on the left and the rest of the herd in the trees on the right, we had elephants on all sides, and Austin told me to keep watch and warn him if a dangerous situation began to unfold. He then opened his car door, stood just inside it, and began photographing the cow elephant as she pulled enormous branches from the tree and shoved them into her open mouth with her trunk. We were close enough to see the green vegetation stains around her mouth. She was in a playful mood and she fanned her ears leisurely while she ate, toying with the food before consuming it. After a while of repeatedly checking the rear-view mirror, I saw some of the other adult elephants suddenly emerge from the trees, and I warned Austin that with the cow elephant in front and the herd coming up fast behind us, it was time for him to get back in the car and shut the door.
Once Austin was safely back inside our vehicle, we turned our attention to the rest of the herd, and noticed that every single adult elephant was secreting fluid from the temporal glands behind their eyes. This normally occurred in bull elephants, heralding a surge in testosterone resulting in a period of heightened sexual activity and aggression known as ‘musth,’ but cow elephants also exhibit temporal secretion when stressed. At that moment, the mother and calf walked ahead of the rest of the herd, and we saw the tiny calf was battling to keep up with its mother. The calf was limping, and its left front leg was extremely swollen.
‘Could that have been caused by snakebite?’ I asked Austin.
‘It’s possible,’ Austin replied, ‘but the calf isn’t acting as though it’s otherwise feeling unwell. You know what it could be? That calf might have a poacher’s wire snare caught around its foot.’
‘Oh, no, that would be a disaster!’ I said as I raised the binoculars to my eyes. ‘We’re just not close enough to tell for sure. The adults are shielding the calf all the time. I can’t get a clear view.’
We had found snares in the riverbed before and disposed of them, but if that was the cause of the calf’s problem there was nothing we could do. The calf would need to be isolated from the rest of the herd in order for it to be examined, which would involve subduing the calf’s mother and the other members of the herd who would defend the calf against our intrusion. This was something that could not easily be accomplished in a free-range area such as this where nature was left to take its course. Austin watched the elephants closely, taking in each individual’s behaviour.
‘The herd is continuing on its current direction on the right,’ Austin informed me, ‘but the cow elephant still eating on our left won’t want to be away from her family for long. She will eventually cross the riverbed to re-join the herd, and we’ll need to be able to give her some room when she does. I’m going to move us to a better position.’
Austin drove past the cow elephant, turned around, and parked ten metres from her. In this position, we would be able to reverse safely back down the riverbed when the elephant chose to cross it. She reached high into the tree with her trunk to find the branches she wanted, and tore them down with her immense strength. She had beautifully symmetrical tusks and was approximately three and a half metres tall. Her relaxed behavioural signals indicated that she was not concerned about our presence, so Austin turned off the engine to still the car so he could photograph her again from inside our vehicle, and also get some shots of the herd approaching us on the other side. The three men and the woman on the rocks must have noticed how close we were able to get to the elephants, for they climbed back into the Landcruiser with the WWF sticker on it and followed us. They gave the cow a wide berth but then they parked in the riverbed directly behind us and turned off their engine! People accustomed to observing big game know that being able to back away from a wild animal if a situation becomes dangerous is of the utmost importance, and these people had just parked us in! We could not get out and ask the driver to move his car due to the proximity of the elephants, as any movement outside the vehicles at such close range would have attracted their attention. A minute later, the herd came up on our left, and the huge cow elephant on our right decided it was time to cross the riverbed and re-join the herd, exactly as Austin had predicted. Elephants like to have a lot of space around them when they move. With the cow elephant coming towards us, we were now too close, which would not have been a problem if only we didn’t have a car parked behind us, preventing us from giving the elephant more room! When we did not retreat, the cow elephant turned to face us, fanned her ears out, and tossed her head. This behaviour was a stern warning, and because we were unable to immediately back off, the elephant charged. Austin turned on the engine and put the Mazda in reverse, but a quick glance in the wing mirrors told us the driver behind us had not done the same and wasn’t going to move! I gripped the car seat with my hands as the elephant closed in, bracing for the impact of her tusks and the possible overturning of our vehicle. It was incredible to experience the full magnificence of a five-tonne charging African elephant for the second time in my life, but it did occur to me that this time, it might be the last thing I would ever see. I had no illusions as to the likely outcome of this scenario, and I actually thought to myself that as last sights go, this was definitely one of the better ones. The cow elephant covered the ground between us very quickly but to me, staring at the charging elephant and powerless to stop her, she seemed to be moving in slow motion. My adrenaline rush was replaced by a fatalistic feeling of acceptance. Whatever was going to happen would happen, and there was nothing we could do to stop it. I readied myself for the collision, but just as the elephant reached a couple of metres from our car’s brush bar, our tyres found purchase in the deep sand as Austin skilfully swerved backwards in an arc, barely missing the parked car and narrowly avoiding the camel thorn trees beside it. It was a daring move that required exceptional off-road driving skills, but the effect was immediate. The surprised elephant skidded to a stop. Happy that we had finally respected her wishes, she turned and walked towards her herd.
Austin and I were fuming with anger, and my heart was still racing when Austin shouted to the occupants of the other car, ‘Don’t park behind me!’ Hearing this, one of the indigenous African men opened his door, left the safety of his vehicle and marched across the sand towards us in an idiotic display of bravado. He yelled in Afrikaans, ‘Don’t tell us what to do!,’ and Austin replied in Afrikaans, ‘You don’t park behind someone in the presence of an elephant!’ Hearing that Austin was an Afrikaans-speaking local and therefore unlikely to be intimidated, the man backed off. The vehicle with the WWF sticker drove away, and we stayed with the elephants and took some more pictures before they melted into the bushes.
I sorely wished I had a video camera to hold when the elephant charged. It would have been a perfect, once-in-a-lifetime film scene that’s impossible to get under normal circumstances, and impossible to repeat without getting killed!
To be continued in Chapter 35, when an obsessed fan arrives in town and presents problems of a different kind…
Do you have a blog or social media page of your own? If so, I would like to encourage you to publish a post about the conservation of wildlife. A staggering number of species are in decline across the world, and the online environment can be an effective place in which to raise awareness of their plight. If we all work together, we can make a difference.