Elephants. Wonderful creatures. Peaceful (most of the time), benevolent, the Om in motion, as they have been referred to…
Sometimes, however, even the most relaxed elephant can send your heart rate soaring and make your knees tremble, by doing nothing more than feeding.
Amy Attenborough wrote recently about how it’s sometimes better to not have a camera with you, as you can feel more in tune with what is unfolding in front of you by not looking through a lens and worrying about settings. I agree with her, but it does come down to a toss-up; do you want to make that connection to the sighting or to nail that award-winning shot? I guess that’s up to the individual, but the bottom line is the camera can form a buffer between you and the reality of the sighting. This can be an aid when witnessing something potentially distressing like lions taking down a buffalo, but recently it put my heart in my mouth as I had a far-too-close-encounter.
We were on foot in Mana Pools, a relatively remote National Park in Zimbabwe where one can walk on one’s own, and we were spending time with a lovely bull elephant, well known locally and recognised by the prominent notch in his left ear. During the dry season the elephants in Mana Pools feast on the pods of the Anna trees (Faidherbia albida) which abound there, and they move somnolently between them, picking up the pods off the ground with their trunks. The big bulls will occasionally shake the trees to bring down more pods.
The bull in question was feeding under one of the larger Anna trees around, gathering the pods delicately with the tip of his trunk and popping them into his mouth. I had positioned myself about 60m away from him, sitting on the ground next to another Anna tree, snapping off a few photos when the angle was right. After about twenty minutes, the bull began slowly feeding in my direction, taking a step, picking up a few pods, taking another few steps and so on. “This is great!”, I thought, as his ears were flapping in the rising heat of the morning, creating some lovely photo opportunities as he slowly moved closer.
This is where the looking-down-the-lens buffer reared its head, as I got so focused on taking the photographs that before I knew it the elephant was looming very large in my viewfinder, as he clearly had my tree as his next in line to feed under. Suddenly realising my predicament and how close he must be, I slowly lowered the camera, realising to my horror that he was no more than fifteen metres away! Thankfully he was anything but aggressive; all he wanted was the ready supply of Anna pods scattered liberally on the ground around me. Hardly daring to breathe, I had absolutely nowhere to go as he continued to make his approach. Twelve metres, ten metres…
By now I decided I had to move somewhere, so as quietly and slowly as I could I began shifting very slowly towards the tree on my backside. To my lasting relief the bull took no notice of me, but continued feeding. My issue was the isolation of the tree; there was no other cover for more than fifty metres in each direction, so as the elephant continued to feed, getting closer and closer to the tree trunk, I had to just shuffle my way around, trying to keep on the opposite side to him. Through the whole experience he barely looked at me, intent only on his food, but believe me when I say I didn’t dare take my eyes off him! Looking up from ground level at a behemoth of an animal that probably stands almost four metres tall at the shoulder is something you won’t forget in a hurry.
I wouldn’t use the word ordeal here, because as nerve-wracking as it was, with absolutely zero room for error should his mood have suddenly changed, it was a very emotionally charged and rewarding experience. To be that close to a massive pachyderm and to have him totally absorbed in his own mission, almost like I was wearing a cloak of invisibility, was pretty surreal!
Eventually after about ten minutes (which seemed more like sixty!) of him feeding near where I continued to shuffle back and forth around the trunk, he moved off to the next tree, and I was able to retreat in the opposite direction, my nerves frayed, but my mood jubilant at what I had just experienced.
Mana Pools takes a good two full days’ driving to get to, and that elephant encounter took place on only our first morning! If we had packed up and left straight after that experience, I would’ve counted the drive, and the drive back, completely worth it!
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell, Londolozi Ranger