Answer by Rory Young:
This picture (courtesy J. Levenderis) shows the legendary Zimbabwean game ranger, the late “Oom Willie De Beer” tangling with a wild elephant bull. His rifle can clearly be seen hanging of his arm and not pointed at the bull and he actually has his hands on the elephant’s tusks. This incredible man had an uncanny understanding of animal behaviour. You can also see the bull’s head is down but his ears are forward and his head is down. He is also leaning towards Oom Willie. He is having a tussle not trying to kill. If he were intending to kill his ears would be back and he would be flailing with his trunk, goring with his tusks and trampling with his feet. By the way, Oom Willie was in his seventies when this picture was taken!
There are two ways to approach any dangerous animal on foot.
I will useas examples in this reply but there are important differences between different animals and their behaviour that affects how you approach them; if you do so at all. Every species and every individual is different
I will also answer as a guide/ranger.
Before you decide to approach, you assess the animal or animals. You take into account the gender, the condition, the demeanor, the age and anything else that could affect it’s behaviour.
The first way of approaching wild animals is known as a “guiding approach” or “open approach”. You approach the animal openly, letting it know you.are there.
For dangerous game that is not shy, this is usually the best option because it allows you to gauge the animal’s response to you. For example, elephants use just as much body language as we do, if not more as they have a trunk and huge movable ears to throw into the mix.
The approach is nearly always best done diagonally, at an angle. Imagine a big dog that you didn’t know just walked straight up to you. That would feel intimidating wouldn’t it? That is how wild animals feel too about otherapproaching them. Bear in mind that we walk on our hind legs and we show more of the whites of our eyes than any other animal. Showing the whites of your eyes to most species means fear or aggression. We also smile, showing our teeth. Nearly all animals, except some apes (and my dumb but beloved dogs), see showing your teeth as a threat display (and damn rude). Don’t smile at wild animals!
Often, as you approach – which is best done diagonally to the animal and not directly – you will deliberately make some sort of subtle noise to let them know you are there, such as tapping your rifle stock quietly.
Once the animal knows you are approaching they will let you know how they feel about that. They may just carry on munching their food and gaze at you, which of course is a pretty good sign.
Let’s look at an older bull elephant first. Let’s say he is healthy, having a good day and is roughly 30 years old. The first sign that he elephant is aware of you is that he raises his ears upwards.This would be the equivalent of you tensing up when someone who really makes you nervous walks into the room.You might tense your shoulders, clench your fists or purse your lips (sorry here I think I’m a bit better with elephants than people).
Then he will turn and face you. They put their trunk into the air to catch your scent and put their ears forward to listen. Usually if he catches your scent he will shake his head and snort, with the ears making a slapping noise. This is basically telling you that you stink and should piss off.
At this stage I like to just wait. The elephant usually does the same and will often twirl a clump of grass(just like a person twirling a lock of their hair whilst thinking) and look a bit dumb. He may also raise his head and put forward his ears. Putting his head up is a sign of dominance and putting his ears forward is meant to intimidate and let you know how big he is as if somehow he wasn’t big enough. Bear in mind their language is that spoken between elephants so he will “speak” as one elephant does to another.
It is important at this stage to make clear that you are willing to move off but also that you won’t take any nonsense. Ideally you both walk off at an angle to each other. However, you could get a “mock charge”.
A mock charge is when a bull charges with the intention of scaring you. He will do so with his head up and ears forward and trumpet. If you don’t run and wait for just the right moment to shout, lift your hands or rifle in the air and even throw something at him, he will stop and reconsider (mock charges can develop into “full charges). He will very likely throw dust or sticks from the ground at you and kick dust at you.
With experience the behaviour and body language of elephants can be very well understood and professional guides and rangers even “tangle with them”, having a battle of wills for dominance where everything except touching is “allowed”.
The second way of approaching wild animals is known as a “hunting approach” or “concealed approach” whereby you stalk the animal as you would to hunt it, i.e. not letting it know that you are there. This can be very non-intrusive but also potentially dangerous. You have not had the benefit of the animals responses to an open approach and therefore don’t know how it is going to react if it suddenly notices you are there.
Now, that was an example of a laid back bull elephant. As mentioned, you first assess gender and other points. If it was a female, I would only look from a distance and wouldn’t let her know I was there.
With regards to condition, if the bull was in, for example, I wouldn’t go anywhere near it. I would also make sure he had no idea I was anywhere near. If he did there would be a big chance of a “full charge”.
A full charge is when an elephant puts his ears bag it’s head down and charges full speed at you. Bear in mind that an elephant has no idea who you are but will instinctively know from hundreds of thousands of years of evolving in the same environment and geographical location as us, that we are really bad news. Therefore a full charge for an elephant is the equivalent of a Kamikaze pilot taking the final suicide dive. It means the elephant has totally committed to a fight to the death and as a guide/ranger you have only one option left and that is to shoot.
This is why I am dead against walking guides/rangers going to close too often on foot. Eventually there will be a full charge and the elephant or the ranger or those accompanying him will end will end up dead. In Zimbabwe it will mean the elephant is dead as the guides are extremely well trained. In most other countries it will mean the guide and clients are dead.
With regards to age, older animals will tend to be less “spunky” and more inclined to a full charge when they do finally get annoyed. Young elephants are usually the opposite, just like human teenagers, full nonsense , lots of noise but run to Mommy as soon as the going gets tough! I openly admit to playing games with these types from time to time (the elephants that is not the teenagers).
As mentioned, females are dangerous. They are just like most working mothers; stressed, tired, in a hurry. You don’t want to mess with them and especially not with their kids!
Playing with dangerous game is a dangerous game! Respect them!