Of all the animals in the National Park, this is the one I fear the most. Hippos kill more Africans, but they are mainly active at night. Big cats are dangerous, but rarely seen. Elephants are much more numerous, I see them every day. When South Luangwa National Park was created, there were 100,000 elephants. They were managed by culling (“Cropping”) to stop the environment being ruined for other animals. There are still desolate areas of the Park, dotted with dead mopani trees, whose bark was stripped off by elephants. Then poaching became rife and the elephant population has fallen to about 10,000.
Elephants like to meander through the Park, chomping on their favourite trees and bushes. If there are some tasty fruits high in the tree, the elephant will rear up on its hind legs and stretch out its trunk to pluck them. A big bull can measure 8 metres from tip of trunk to back feet when elongated in this way. I have just witnessed one elephant on tippy-toe with one foot raised in the air.
The elephants follow familiar trails through the mopani forest to get to the Luangwa River. They will regularly cross the river in the evening to raid the farmers’ fields in the Game Management Zone (GMZ). Villagers used to store their pumpkins inside their houses, but the elephants can sniff them out and will demolish a house to get at the food. People have been killed as a result.
South Luangwa Conservation Society advises the locals how to keep elephants away using “chilli bombs”, but the elephants keep on raiding at night. I have treated several local people who sustained injuries chasing elephants away with torches and beating drums.
While out driving today, I was threatened twice by elephants. The first episode was when I was driving along a narrow track, bordered by dense bush on both sides. I rounded a bend and saw a family group about twenty metres ahead. I slammed on the anchors, but kept the engine running. A female came out of the bush ten metres ahead and displayed at me. She spread out her ears and threw dust up into the air with her trunk. I stayed completely still and she walked across the road into the trees. It was only at this point that I noticed a junior female placidly munching leaves about three metres to my right.
I was driving home at sunset across some open ground. A solitary bull elephant ran across the track in front of me, then turned to see what I was going to do. I slowed down, but did not stop as he was about 25 metres ahead. Bad move. He became angry, stomped his feet, flapped his ears and trumpeted loudly. I stopped. We observed each other for half a minute then he turned and wrecked a small bush. It was totally devastated. “Sh*t rolls downhill,” I thought to myself.
I accelerated, hoping he would be too preoccupied with his display of wanton destruction that he would ignore my passing. Wrong again. This time, his trumpeting was much louder and it looked like he might try to follow me. I escaped in a cloud of dust.
The locals say that the elephants in the National Park are smaller and more docile than the elephants in the Kruger and Chobe National Parks. They still frighten me. The experienced safari guides are very cautious, especially when they are carrying tourists in the vehicle. Recently, an angry elephant attacked a new Toyota Landcruiser, ramming its tusks into the radiator. It only gave up when one of the tusks snapped off.
About 8% of the elephants in the Park have no tusks. I have heard people say that this makes them less prone to poaching, so they live longer and pass on their tusklessness to their offspring. But an elephant isn’t as impressive without tusks.
I am learning some basic bushcraft about elephant dung. It is about the size and shape of a 1kg bag of sugar. Occasionally I see fresh dung on the track to work. It hadn’t been there the last time I passed, so it must be recent. It changes over time, gets recycled by dung beetles and eventually disappears. Elephants eat a huge amount of vegetation each day, and unsurprisingly, they deposit a lot, too. I smile when I see a line of dung balls spaced out a couple of metres apart, laid down in the road by an elephant on the move. Elephants are “regular”, too.