How to Watch Elephants

elephant watchingDerek Joubert, who with his wife Beverly run beautiful safari camps in Botswana, advises “Buy a good elephant book like Cynthia Moss’s Elephant Memories  Make a list of behavioral signals, i.e. When the whole herd suddenly stops, it may be an example of their infrasonic communication at work. Also watch for the order from the leader to move on, it’s usually silent (to us).”

“This way you get involved in the elephants’ lives and have a better sense of being a part of that world. You know when you go to Spain or France, if you know a few words of their language, their world opens up. Well it’s the same with the elephant world.”

To practice elephant lingo, you can enter a phrase at this website, then hear what an elephant would say.

Joubert adds, “Go to Wilderness camps or some private concession where there are not hordes of tourists. There is a problem in Chobe when tourists [vehicles] get in the way of elephants that need to get down to drink, preferably during the heat of the day, but have to wait until dark. It’s not the best for the elephants or the wildlife viewing experience. Go private. The elephants will be a little wilder and harder to approach, but it’s a better experience. But stay in the vehicle!”

The same is true of the elephants of Amboseli, where I once spent Christmas at Cynthia Moss’ research camp. We were sitting around opening our presents when a herd approached, and Cynthia advised us to slowly move to our tents.

The elephants came into our sitting area, and behind the safari chairs one of them found a carpet of grass that had been rolled up and tied with a bow as a present for Cynthia. Perhaps because it was organic, the elephant unfurled it and gave the open carpet close inspection with its trunk.

I didn’t capture a photo of this because I was still shaking after being charged by a young bull. It is said not to run, to stand your ground until the last minute, and then jump to one side or the other. I pivoted into a tent.  He was young and just showing off with a mock charge, but I trembled because the threat should never be underestimated.

My friend Lee Lyon was killed in Rwanda by a baby elephant that simply put its knee into her chest when she fell to the ground. A baby elephant can weigh a ton.

Lee Lyon had the courage to go to Africa before I did, and the misfortune to keep shooting film instead of focusing on her own safety. Ironically, Lee was the photography assistant to Dieter Plage for the filming of Oria & Iain Douglas Hamilton’s research on the elephant herds in Manyara. Working as a still photographer Lee captured a charging, ears out portrait of the magnificent adult known as Boadecia, plus an equally stunning photo of Oria, holding Saba within feet of an adult elephant. Lee Lyon, also a pilot, and a beautiful woman, was 29 when she died. The young elephant was traumatized by the translocation.

To see elephants in abundance, consider Amboseli National Park, Samburu, or lodges around Botswana’s Okavango Delta.  You can also visit the orphan calves at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust near Nairobi National Park, and see orphan elephants that have been returned to the wild in Tsavo. To organize a custom safari focusing on elephants, please contact Delta Willis.