Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Elephant Ambush! Chobe Game Viewing At Its Best.

 “Put the camera down, Jim! You’ll be OK but don’t move – no noise.” Clay quietly assures me, urgency in his voice, as several huge grey beasts led by a 12 feet high, 6 ton matriarch, walk silently down the riverbank directly towards us in our grounded boat! These large beasts are moving so quietly we did not realise they are so close until it was too late. Now we are in an elephant ambush! 
I hope these guys realise I donate to elephant orphan organisations!

Click on each picture to bring these up full size. Use your browser's back arrow to return to article.

 To allow us to get better pictures of sun baking hippos further along, Clay had beached our boat on the Chobe River shore, Chobe National Park, Botswana. Game viewing, whether by vehicle or by boat, can be dangerous with wild animals unexpectedly appearing out of the bush too close for comfort. To fumble a panicky motor start now we could provoke a charge with no time to get out of there. Best to sit tight, giving no movement they could interpret as threatening... and hope they are comfortable with us!

 I drop my camera to my lap, keeping it on silent mode, angling it up to capture the events unfolding around us. Laura is closest, sitting calmly in the bow a metre away from the inspecting trunks as they sample the scents we present them. It is said animals can smell fear, so I concentrate on filling my mind with positive and loving thoughts. Anxiety subsides, replaced with sheer appreciation of the drama. Second time in as many days I have been surrounded by wild elephants up so close I could reach out and touch them- an exhilarating, but humbling experience is now repeating itself. I'm going to enjoy every moment of this- it may be my last!

 There is no time for fear: every second is valuable, crying out to be sucked in and stored in the forefront of my mind to be treasured forever. When I accept our situation, this whole adventurous but dangerous moment becomes sheer pleasure. 
 We are checked out in turn by the herd's adult females. Hang on a minute, we are supposed to be checking the elephants out: we're the tourists, not them.

 Herd hierarchy is comprised of females, the older females acting as lieutenants responsible for all the calves and subordinate to a leader - the matriarch. Males are forced out around their 14-15th year. Males may then live solitary or form small groups, eventually finding mating opportunities from other herds. Interbreeding is thus eliminated.

 I have often observed herd behaviour and seen how a few of the prime females, usually those past breeding age or without calves of their own, will scout new territory ahead of the matriarch and the mothers with calves who will move in only after the area is found safe. I am seeing that behaviour here. Each female scouts us out and extends her trunk, taking in the scents of the boat and we humans, analysing these with olfactory cells in the nasal cavity, the trunk then going up into the mouth where smells can also be sensed in the upper palate. Elephants possess senses and intelligence we are only beginning to recognise and understand. elephants/senses.

 Finally the biggest, the matriarch leader of the herd, comes towards us and is a metre or so from the boat. I keep taking pictures, hoping I have her in frame by gently moving the camera on my lap. She seems content with us, to the point of drinking right beside us, so close every pore in her skin and every eyelash is in clear detail. We remain still and quiet...knowing she could squash us just as we humans would squash a cockroach without a thought or remorse!
Laura sits there so bravely.

 Then a curious thing happens. All the elephants turn their butts towards us! I guess after Big Mama gave us a sniff of approval  the other elephants then no longer care about us: we are considered no danger. They keep their attention on the bushline for any possible lion attack and not on us. Nature's largest land mammals - creatures capable of killing we three in seconds - are perfectly relaxed with us, accepting us as no threat to them, drinking right beside our boat!

This is game viewing in Chobe National Park, Botswana, at its best! 

 An incredible moment, a magical experience, yet tinged with a deep sadness for me - thousands of elephants are slaughtered annually to satisfy the Asian markets growing lust for ivory. Rising Chinese and Vietnamese affluence fuels demand for ivory, and poaching is escalating in all African countries where elephants are.

 Chobe's elephants relaxed attitudes to humans may not last long if poaching escalates in and around the park. The shooting of one may leave others traumatised, skittery or aggressive with humans.

It is a credit to all Park Management staff that elephants are relaxed around tourists.
 Chobe National Park is home to Africa's largest concentration of elephants- estimated as somewhere between 120 -150,000, increasing at around 5.2% annually. 
This document discusses many of the problems associated with Chobe's high elephant numbers -
Although today's numbers may be perceived as detrimentally high, the question needs to be addressed whether elephant numbers are merely returning to pre-hunting numbers of a century ago. Perhaps elephants today are just adapting the vegetation to what it may originally have been like. Whatever the true situation, it seems like a lot of research is still needed.

Chobe National Park needs sound procedures in place, and the funding to maintain effective anti-poaching patrols. It also needs a strong community based program operated by dedicated and skilled people to continue to educate townsfolk and bordering farm owners to see the value in elephants that attracts the tourists, and the opportunities that brings. 

Clay and Laura live in Kasane, Botswana. Read more about them here at Chobe Wildlife Rescue
EDIT: Clay and Laura have since returned to the USA.

Editor's note- We had lightly touched upon the shore to provide a still platform for filming hippos further along the bank. While our attention was on them, we did not see elephants coming from behind us. At no time did anyone leave the boat.
If you enjoyed this moment as much as I did, please share this using the Share/submit gadget just below!



Alfandi said... adventure that I would like to experience too. I thought the ivory trade had stopped years ago..and thanks for sharing.

Unknown said...

WOW! You have all the fun!! What an amazing adventure... Bet you didn't think you'd be that close to these ele's when you set out for your adventure that morning did you?

Thanks for Sharing Jim!!

John Smith said...

Jim, This is one of the best wildlife photo blog pieces I've read for a long time.Good stuff!

sheril benedict said...

Great adventure but be careful with elephants jim ..lots of people in south India died because of elephants ..they are very friendly but at some time they ll be too hard to handle . Have a safe trip Jim hereafter

Alpana Jaiswal said...

fascinating,first thing I saw this morning.It must have been some adventure...elephants on a riot..this is something very common here,we are in a tea garden belt,where wild elephants create havoc at times...great post Jim.

Manoj said...

Amazing! So nice photography..very nearer..very closer.

Elephants are very intelligent & beautiful animals but we are blindly killing them to decorate our home with their Ivory, we are destroying their own forest, e-legally we are capturing their own land. Elephants killing is going on ... hundreds of elephant killed in India by hunters every year.

lakwatsera de primera said...

It is such a wonderful experience to be this close to these elephants in the wild. I always look forward to your wildlife encounter Jim. Thank you for sharing your lovely images with us.

Techmaker said...

Nice elephant... I love elephants... but be careful those animals cannot predict... They can harm you at any time..

Anyway thanks for sharing some nice pics.


Caz Makepeace said...

How amazing Jim!! Africa at its best. i would have been terrified. i am so glad you were able to calm down and just enjoy the magic of the moment. It would be hard to beat that story!!

Tameka said...

Gorgeous photos! I adore elephants. They should be treated with love and respect. I look forward to future posts. Your writing is lovely! I learned a lot about one of my favorite animals!

AJ said...

Wow priceless experience, Jim! But I still wouldn't wanna be that close to a wild animal without any protective barrier. Glad you did though so I can vicariously experience it. The narrative provides the mild-looking elephants in the photo with an unseen undercurrent of suspense.

Jim said...

Hi Alfandi, sadly the ivory trade is very much alive! Chinese demand for ivory is excalating. Cars have been seen on display covered with intricately carved ivory. You can buy ivory cellphone holders! WTF!

Debbie, it became a pattern over a few days to be surrounded by elephants. I actually had 3 incidents with them within metres of me! Kinda cool experience.

Jim said...

Thanks John. I checked out your page and I am blown away that you could encourage me as you have. Thanks. Means a lot!

Yes Sheril, it's sad what is happening in some parts of India. But perhaps caused by human encroachment on their areas. Put elephants under pressure and sure enough they'll strike out. We are but cockroaches to them....with AK47's.
BTW read Manoj's comments above.
Perhaps elephants in India are feeling under threat, the very factor I discussed in my article.

Anonymous said...

I love elephants. I don't know if it's because they are so beautiful or if it's because the females rule lol but, I do love them. I love it how you tell us what you're thinking as they approach. Wonderful images.

Jim said...

You're so right Jen, it is a females rules world in elephantland!

Barbara Weibel said...

I've en to Chobe and it is indeed magical! You really captured the essence of it in t=your article.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Wow oh wow. Great photos. Glad I found your site.

Stephanie - The Travel Chica said...

It would be such an incredible experience to be this close to such a large animal in the wild. Love the photos!

Christina said...

Wow, what a story! It must have been so scary, sitting in that open boat, even scarier than your encounter in the jeep! Good on ya to take these pictures whilst being approached by 6-tonne elephants!

John in France said...

Well done Jim, I loved your article. Absolutely priceless!

Nomadic Samuel said...

Jim, what a story! Glad you were safe. You managed to still capture some great photos.

Tours of the Vatican said...

What beautiful pictures - I've never seen an elephant up close and personal, but with all I have been hearing and seeing about them lately it has been getting higher and higher on my to-do list. They are just such magical creatures!!


Jim said...

Exciting place for sure Barbara, can't wait to go back to Chobe. Are you heading back that way again?

Thanks for popping in Sharon. I'll get across and check out your blog also!

Stephanie, it was quite unexpected, but couldn't do anything about it when it happened. They just walked right up to us and one false move from us at it could have been all on. Then when it settled down it became a real magical and unforgettable moment!

Hi Christina, yes huge beasts. The matriarch is usually the oldest and largest, and then there will be several adult females who are like lieutenants to her. Then the cows with calves, and they could have an older one 5-12 years old and a new born.

Hi John, how's France?
Yes, a priceless moment!

Hi Samuel, Chobe elephants are reasionably cool around humans as used to tourists. And haven't exoerienced too many bad incidents with poachers. But it does happen. And rising Chinese affluence is driving poaching in many parts of Africa, so if same happens at Chobe then the eles aren't going to be this cool around humans!

Heidi, you are right- so magical. We have much to learn about them.

Mark Wiens said...

Jim, this was an incredible story! I really enjoyed reading this.

Growing up in Africa I've been able to see many elephants but getting really close and personal with an elephant would definitely freak me out. That's just amazing that you were in that situation and by keeping calm and collected the huge elephants did not harm you guys but were fine. Must have been a thrill like no other!

Jim said...

Hi Mark, what part of Africa?
Would you believe I was surrounded by elephants so close I could almost touch them on 3 separate occasions in 2 days? Each time, I just had to forget about being scared, and just enjoy it. Icredible moments.

Christy @ Technosyncratic said...

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful creatures! I'm just in awe of elephants.

Lovely photos and story, Jim.

jade said...

Wow, great story. There is an elephant farm in Tennessee that I really want to visit- the only way to go is to volunteer, but I can't wait to do it.

Sabrina - Country Skipper said...

How scary and amazing at the same time. Beautiful shots!

Henriette Roux said...

What a fantastic experience it must have been ! Incredible ! As always the most beautiful photographs Jim. Elephants are most awesome souls. They fascinate me. May the day arrive when our elephants will be able to walk free and safe where they belong. May that day arrive sooner as soon !