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Elephant rule the road in South Africa’s Kruger


We trundled down a dusty track in South Africa’s Kruger Park, drifting past small herds of zebra and wildebeest still hanging out in the late-afternoon shade of umbrella-thorn trees. The road was just wide enough for the truck, and our guide steered it carefully around a series of bends, commenting occasionally on an animal or tree.

Then, a hundred yards ahead, the edge of an impenetrable thicket suddenly swayed wildly as an enormous bull elephant emerged from the shadows and onto the road, ambling slowly toward us. There shouldn’t have been anything to worry about … mature bulls are mostly calm, patient creatures that consider situations carefully, and respond in a measured way to what they find.

Tales from the CrossBut today’s fellow was very different … urine trickling down his rear legs, copious streaky discharge from the temporal glands in front of his ears, and trunk draped irritably over a tusk signalled only one possibility – a must, that periodic interval when bull elephants become awash with testosterone, and all bets are off. Bad tempered, frustrated, and capable of inflicting capricious damage on anything, elephants in must are best kept at a distance. Right?

Except that here we were, stopped on our narrow track with no way to turn, and five-plus-tons of bad-hair day coming inexorably at us, straight down the middle. I leaned forward to the guide in front and just below me, and posed the truly rhetorical question.

“He’s in must, isn’t he?” (My voice was surprisingly steady, all things considered.)

“Yes, that’s right,” the guide responded.

“So what do we do?”

He glanced back at me and smiled. “We show some respect,” he said, then leaned forward and started the engine. But he didn’t move the truck.

The elephant drew ever closer, a wall of grey now almost swathing us in its shadow, huge tusks leading the way. When it had closed the distance to around fifteen metres, the guide backed the truck around the same distance again, stopped, and switched off the engine.

“Er … don’t we want to keep going?” I suggested helpfully.

“No,” replied the guide. “This is usually enough.”

Wild speculation about the implications of “usually” swirled through my head. The colossus loomed up again. But three metres from the truck he stopped, and for a moment silently considered the obstacle in his path. Most of the truck’s payload – equally silently – contemplated its mortality. Then, with a slight toss of his head, the elephant stepped off the road, moved around the truck, re-joined the track behind us, and continued almost soundlessly along his path.

Elephant pictureI never forgot that lesson, and in countless self-driven journeys to southern African wildlife parks have applied it time and again. Show animals respect and consideration, receive quiet acceptance in return.

So it was truly saddening to see the recent U-Tube video of two obviously unknowing Kruger Park visitors, closely following a bull elephant in must down a dirt road, just a metre or two from its hind legs. The huge creature constantly stopped and looked back at them, even leaving the road briefly to let them pass. But they wouldn’t. So the bull spread his ears, raised his trunk, snorted loudly, and mock-charged the car. A two-year-old would have gotten the message, but this pair didn’t. They stayed put.

Testosterone being what it is, the elephant eventually flipped the car, seriously injuring one of its occupants. Word got around, and media hysteria took over. The bull quickly found itself reclassified as a “rogue”, and was shot by the park’s authorities. Public opinion was assuaged, the park was now safe again, and bookings stayed buoyant.

The Kruger Park’s motto is “Custos Naturae”, literally “Guardian of Nature”. Tell that to the elephant …

Much more by this author in his very excellent blog – and with the chance to buy his book.

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