Mongabay had a story a few months back about what to do when elephants attack.
"...in a true charge, there are a few options. Climbing a sizable tree—one the elephant cannot knock over—is a possibility for the nimble. So is throwing a decoy, like a hat or shirt, which the elephant can "kill" while you run to safety. Local Gabonese hunters have their own technique for escaping elephants—hiding between the stilt roots of swamp trees. Used to support trees in sandy, nutrient poor soils, these roots act as a protective barrier against elephants. Standing still can also help but is tough to recommend in the face of several tons of mammal bearing down on you."
I have had some experience with African elephants on their native turf, and reading this story brought to mind my closest encounter with an elephant and what I learned from the experience. I share it now in hopes that it may prevent some reader from falling into tragic error whilst walking blissfully across the Savannah, as I did one hot day in Namibia nearly a decade ago.
We lived at a discontinued Ministry of Agriculture breeding station where persistent elephants routinely smashed through 10 foot high fences and torn up water pipes. This may have been because the station was located along an elephant highway, the dry riverbed of the Kakatswa (charmingly translated as the "anus droppings river"). It was actually a starkly beautiful spot, there below the flat mesa of the Grootberg amid the mopani trees and bottelboom. I often walked up this dry watercourse, watching birds and exploring the landscape, and never went armed because I never expected to get into a situation where I might need to be.
You may think that foolish, given that there were leopards and hyena in the area, as well as scores of venomous snakes, but I knew enough about these to know that a leopard has never killed a human being in southern Africa since recorded history began, that the few strand wolves were furtive and avoided human contact, and that the best thing to do with snakes was avoid stepping on them.
So on this particular day I decided to walk several miles upriver and out to a grassy abandoned airstrip where I had seen a breeding herd of elephant - 40 strong - two days previously. I wanted to experience what the ground looked like after being worked over by so many huge creatures, and thought myself quite safe because the herd had moved on and was reported to be over 60 km away.
As you might expect a foraging herd of pachyderms tears the hell out of the vegetation, particularly in semi-desert conditions. They had left great red smears of dust against the tree trunks where they had scratched, and twisted and broken limbs hung from the acacias. After satisfying my curiosity, I decided to take a different path home, following a smaller dry stream back to the main stem of the Kakatswa.
As I walked, I noticed the fresh footprints of an adult elephant. I considered that the matriarch of a breeding herd will drive off the adolescent bulls when they reach about 15 years, and they remain apart from the herd in small bachelor groups or as solitary males until they enter musth, a sexually aggressive period when they can be quite dangerous. It could have been that these tracks belonged to one such male, but in that case I figured it had followed the herd, looking to mate, and was by now long gone.
So when I rounded a corner of this narrow riverbed, hemmed in by acacia thorn and mopani veld, my eyes jerked upward when I heard a great, ponderous exhalation of breath nearby. Discerning nothing, I caught a motion on the ground, perhaps 20 feet away, and something long and snakelike rustling in the leaves. Slowing it dawned on me that it was an elephant's trunk, and that lying before me was an adult elephant that I would have walked right passed had it not snored.
At least, I thought it was a snore. But I could neither recall reading about nor hearing anyone talk about elephants lying down to sleep, and I wondered whether this animal was ill or had been injured. Perhaps it had been wounded by a poacher and had run until collapsing. In any event, I was far too close to it and it to me, and the last thing I wanted to do was startle it. So I asked it if it were okay.
I'm not sure what response my unconscious mind was expecting, but that elephant was on its feet and fully upright in a terrifying instant. I turned and started moving very swiftly away from the elephant, looking over my shoulder and expecting pursuit. Much to my relief, it was of the same fearful mind and started moving very quickly in the opposite direction, looking back at me in alarm as it vanished into the trees. Within a few seconds I could no longer hear the elephant and I was once again alone in the bush.
I believe I sang the first song that popped into my head - "Waltzing Matilda" - as loudly as possible for the remainder of my swift return to camp. Viv looked at me as if I had lost my senses and decided that I certainly had gotten too cocky about my command of bush lore to let myself get surprised in that way. In my defense, that elephant's behavior was quite unusual. Friends at the Ministry of Environment and Tourism later said that elephants only rest lying down when they feel very, very secure in their surroundings, and that this one would likely never do so again.
Morale: Best let a sleeping elephant lie.