Close Encounters of an Elephant Kind

Thanks to Joy Adamson I have been in love with Lions since I was a child.  Seeing my first Lion in Kruger National Park ranks as one of the highlights of my life so far. However, after 15 … oh, all right, 28 years of Lions dominating my affections, could Elephants be taking over? It all started in 2006 whilst on a Naturetrek tour to the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia – surely one of the best, if not the best, parks in Africa for viewing wildlife. I was staying at Kafunta, a charming lodge in the buffer zone and had already been lucky enough to see many different animals, the highlight of which has to be the hour or so I spent watching African Wild Dogs resting before heading off for their evening hunt. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought I would ever be lucky enough to see these majestic, but highly endangered creatures. That story is for another time, though; this is about Elephants and their attempt to hijack my affections from the Lions. They started their assault during several visits into the park. On one such trip there were 70 of them around the vehicle; I fail to find the words to describe how that felt.

The major attempt though came on day six of my trip. It was another balmy hot afternoon, with the temperature again somewhere between 35 and 40 degrees. I was sitting on the balcony of my hut enjoying a cold beer and the scene in front of me. The baboons were doing what baboons seem to do everywhere: feeding, fighting and mating. Life simply does not get any better than that, or so I thought.

I noticed four Elephants in the distance, gradually coming towards the lodge, and could see they were heading for their afternoon visit to the local village to eat, which usually took them through the grounds of the lodge.

It soon became obvious that that afternoon they were going to make their entry right by my hut. I immediately went inside for my camera, leaving my door open in case I needed to make a hasty retreat. This I did with some reluctance having earlier in the week had a visit from a bat which was very unwilling to leave the hut. As I waited, one female approached and then stopped with her back to me to eat from an Acacia tree;

she was just a few feet from my door. At this point I was torn between my heart telling me to stay, watch, maybe take a few pictures, and my brain screaming at me to retreat to the doorway. Everything I have ever read about African Elephants stated that you do not get too close, especially whilst on foot, as they have a tendency to charge.

This internal debate soon became irrelevant as the Elephant turned to face me directly and started to munch on the acacia. At this point I could see directly into her mouth – tongue, teeth and all. I still had my camera in hand but did not take any pictures as I was absolutely mesmerised by the scene. A lump soon formed in my throat, followed by an avalanche of tears rolling down my cheeks. When I came to my senses I realised that I was a mirror of the elephant, as my mouth was also wide open, although I do not believe that she was in any way as impressed with me. With her long trunk and large tusks she could easily have wiped me out in a second. South Luangwa Elephants seem to be different though; the guide on my trip

told me that this is due to the fact that poaching is pretty much under control now in the area and the Elephants are not as scared of humans as they once were. If this is the case then long may it continue. Soon my time with this remarkable creature was up; she had eaten her fill of the acacia and quietly moved off. It never ceases to amaze me how something so large can move with such elegance and in absolute silence. This incredible incident probably only lasted two minutes but to me it really did feel like a lifetime.

So, after this experience, do Elephants now dominate my affections? In truth I cherish all my encounters with wildlife and feel extremely blessed to have seen the animals that I have. However, thanks to Mrs Adamson, Lions will always have a special place in my affections; but I will never forget the time I spent looking down the throat of the largest land mammal on our planet.

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