Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Safari Adventures 2

Every time we’ve gone to Nazinga, the game park here in southern Burkina, we’ve been charged by elephants. When you’re not familiar with the nature and temperament of wild animals, any aggressive actions on their part can be mighty scary! And an elephant is not an animal to fool around with! Every year, people are killed by elephants in Burkina. They can be dangerous animals indeed.

Our first encounter was back in the late 90s when we travelled to the park with another couple. After our guide joined us in the truck we took off on a tour of the various roads and trails, looking for animals to see and photograph. At one point, we came upon a herd of elephants crossing the road ahead of us. We politely waited for them to finish crossing and took photos before continuing on. However, just as we passed the point where they had crossed, a big bull elephant turned and charged at us. He was some distance away at this point, so wasn’t particularly frightening. Nevertheless, the guide told us to stop the vehicle.

Why? Elephants have relatively bad eyesight. Movement attracts their attention. When being charged by an elephant, the required procedure is to keep perfectly still! Sure enough, the elephant stopped too. After a few moments, the guide told me to start moving again. Once again, the elephant charged forward. And once again, the guide told me to stop. This time we waited a little longer.

Then the guide told me to floor it. In the loose gravel and dirt of the road, it was hard to get good traction, but we began to pick up speed. But the elephant was faster! Within seconds, he was only several metres from the side of the truck and coming on like a freight train! The guide was screaming at me to stop and our kids were screaming with fear in the backseat. In fact, one of them was under the back seat!

Against all instinct, I slammed on the brakes and skidded to a stop. To our amazement and great relief, so did the elephant! Believe me when I tell you that this time, we waited a good long while before moving again, making sure the elephant had not only backed down, but had wandered off to rejoin the rest of the herd.

This past weekend, we were in the park’s observation post on the shore of a small man-made lake, watching a troupe of elephants frolicking in the water for their early morning bath. Suddenly someone came running in to announce that another troupe of elephants was making its way through the camp to come into the water from behind the observation post. We went out to see.

Sure enough, there they were, a couple of big males, but still some distance away. Kathy continued on towards the parking area, but I stayed on the path, trying to get a good close-up shot of the animals. Suddenly, one of them began running in my direction. He wasn’t charging, just hurrying to get to the water, but it was too late for me to run away without attracting his attention. I stood perfectly still, hoping he wouldn't notice me. But I realized too late that I was upwind from him. Elephants may have poor eyesight, but they have a superb sense of smell!

The elephant stopped not far from me, raised his trunk, and sampled the air. Distinct fingers of fear began crawling over my scalp and down my back. I didn’t move a muscle. Well, almost. My index finger moved slightly. I was taking pictures, consoled by the fact that if I died today, my wife would at least have some good close-up elephant shots! Strange how your mind works at times like these, eh?

After a few moments, the elephant moved on. But another arrived to take his place, and then another, and another… Each one stopped in front of me to sniff the air, trying to decide whether or not I was a threat. With the fear still crawling up and down my back, I just stood there. I considered turning sideways and sticking out my tongue so that I’d just look like a zipper, but didn’t know if the elephants would fall for that old trick.

In the end, the elephants went on their merry way to the water, and I came away with an adrenaline rush and some great photos. It was the only time we’ve been to Nazinga when the elephants didn’t charge. And I’m not complaining one bit!

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