I used to be terrified of elephants. And when I say scared, I mean the terrible, debilitating kind. Before I started guiding I felt like every time we saw elephants we would get charged and at the mere mention of their name I would drop to the floor of the car and find a safe space under the seat while every one else enjoyed the looming elephant. Seeing elephants was never an enjoyable experience and no matter what anyone said to me I just knew it was going to end badly because it pretty much did, every time. Having guided and been in control of the vehicle and the distance at which I can view elephants has completely transformed how I feel about them and they are now one of my absolute favourite animals to watch. Over the years, I’ve come to realise that elephants are totally honest with their body language and if you read these easy steps for how to understand them, you will be able to enjoy elephants both safely and without fear too.
Look out for the following body language when you next come across elephants:
Tails: Just like a dog, when an elephant’s tail is swishing from side to side swatting away flies, it is happy. As soon as the tail goes stiff, normally held out to one side, it means that the elephant is anxious. At this point it may even start to run from you, normally swivelling over its shoulder to keep an eye on you as it tries to get away.
Eyes: An elephant’s eyes can tell you an incredible amount. Just think of humans, when we are stressed, excited or scared our eyes open wider. This is part of the reaction to the release of adrenaline in our bodies and better enables us to handle the perceived threat. This is exactly the same for elephants. If an elephant approaches you with lazy, almost half closed eyes and its tailing swishing slowly from side to side, it is a good sign this animal is very relaxed.
Ears: I have also often experienced guests begin to stress as an elephant approaches us with its ears flapping. Please don’t stress. The elephant is merely cooling itself down. It has huge, fat veins that run beneath the thin skin of the ear and as they flap their ears against the wind, they cool the blood and therefore their overall body temperature. The time to be weary is when an elephant turns and faces you head on, with its ears extended and held out at its sides (normally with its head held high and trunk and tusks raised). The elephant is trying to make itself look bigger and intimidate you.
Trunk: I have also often heard the theory that if an elephant runs at you with its trunk out, it’s a ‘mock’ charge and if it tucks it in, then it means business. To be totally honest I have seen an elephant run at us trumpeting, with her trunk extended, for about a kilometre. That elephant meant business. I think the general rule should rather be that if an elephant is running at you, just back down and get away. They are bigger than you and its best to treat them with the respect they are asking for. Having said this, try not to race away from a juvenile elephant who is just showing off. This only teaches them bad manners and nasty habits for when they turn into big elephants.
Rumbling: This has to be one of my favourite noises in the bush. Most of the noises elephants emit are at frequencies we can’t even hear. However, this comforting, low rumbling sound we are lucky enough to hear is the elephants communicating with each other, so sit quietly and enjoy it.
Trumpet: This is generally not a good sign and usually signals distress. Even if it is just a youngster trumpeting, who doesn’t pose a threat to you, the trumpet will usually summon its mother in a matter of seconds who will more than likely blame you for its child’s temper tantrum.
Head shake: This is when an elephant picks its head up high and throws it back down in an arc, creating a big noise as its ears slap against its body and a billow of dust pours off its head. It is intimidating and that’s exactly why the elephant does it. If the elephants does this and moves off, then you are safe to continue watching the herd, however if it does this in conjunction with wide eyes, turns to approach you with ears extended, back arched and tusks held high then it is in your best interest to heed that elephant’s warning.
Temporal dribble: This is the dribble that you sometimes see on the temples of the elephant and many of the fallacies state that an elephant showing this is in musth, a heightened state of testosterone the males go into, which makes them unreasonable and highly aggressive. It is true that a male in musth exhibits this but so do other elephants, including little calves. People are unsure as to exactly why this sweating occurs but most say it’s due to stress or excitement.
Urine dribble: The really important sign to look out for with big males is a constant dribble of a foul smelling urine down the back of their legs. This is a sure sign that the elephant is in musth and should be treated with space and respect because during this time they can be highly aggressive and unreliable.
Watch your guide: Lastly watch your guide. At Londolozi, our guides are very well trained and have spent a lot of time with these animals. If they look totally relaxed and are enjoying the elephants, then this is a good sign that you should too. We are also very lucky at Londolozi in that the elephants we find here are also incredibly calm and relaxed around vehicles.
With all of this, as with anything in the wild, I think the most important thing to remember is respect. Respect that elephants are bigger than you, respect that they can change their minds and respect that they are wild animals. Remembering this I’m sure you will have no more problems with one of Africa’s greatest giants.
Written by: Amy Attenborough
What has been your most memorable encounter with elephants? Share this with us below!
Filed under Photography Wildlife
On one of our drives, we approached a lone elephant feasting on branches from the rear. He turned around and was annoyed that we surprised him….flapped his ears…threw his trunk into the air and came towards us. Our driver carefully turned the vehicle around and we departed….We got the message !
THANK YOU FOR A VERY INTERESTING AND WELL WRITTEN ARTICLE.
THE LAST PARAGRAPH, FOR ME, SUMS UP EVERYTHING. NO MATTER WHAT OR WHICH ANIMAL IS BEING VIEWED, TREAT THE SIGHTING WITH RESPECT. WE ARE AFTER ALL IN THEIR SPACE, SO LET US GIVE THEM THE SPACE THEY DESERVE. THANKS AGAIN FOR A VERY INTERESTING READ! KIND REGARDS, TED.
This was a very helpful, honest article. A charging elephant can seem very daunting. Its great to gain a little knowledge about these magnificent animals (and understand a few of the signs the rangers look for).
Thanks Amy-great article
Thank you Amy! I was terrified too then decided to take myself to the Elephant Sanctuary at Hartebeespoort Dam & what a difference it made. I have been into the bush since then & have a totally different feeling now, so much love & respect & fortunately the Guide was very sensible & just coasted to a stop & the ellies just carried on eating. Oh how happy I felt <3
Our most memorable was when we spotted two young adults…one of the ‘boys’ came right up to us with his trunk extended and literally touched us, waving his trunk, smelling us….so I imitated his movements with my arm and touched him…he was relaxed and content that we were not going to harm him and slowly backed away and continued with his pulling a huge bush apart!
Amy, such a well written and informative article.
Thank you for sharing !!
We had the privilege of running a small photographic safari camp in the Delta. In winter when there was little water and food, the elephants used to come into camp and feed on the trees that we had kept watered. I used to sit under my favourite tree middays and on a few occasions I had elephant feeding right above my head. They were very distinctive as a few in the herd had ‘broken’ ears – hanging onto their faces. My bucket list is now complete!!
What are your thoughts on the painting elephants?
On a boat trip on the Zambezi River, we noted a herd of elephants on the shore. I have a picture of two of the elephants with their ears almost pinned back with their trunks tucked in. As the herd departed the shoreline, two of the larger elephants stayed behind and with one leg made circular motions while kind of staring at us. Any significance to those actions?
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