There’s a rule of the wild, often fatal if broken, that you don’t get in the way of a wild elephant. You give it all the space it needs. And if the tusker is a matriarch in charge of a breeding herd, you keep well away. These warnings were flashing code red as I stared up at the huge grey creature only metres away which had impaled me with her stare.
The situation could have been avoided if I’d checked the stairs into the hide before the game-drive vehicle moved off. But now it was too late.
What happened next requires a context. Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe is an extraordinarily beautiful wilderness area, but because of the political and financial situation in the country, visitor numbers are not high. This gives it a feeling of uncluttered freedom – kilometres of woodlands, wetlands and sandveld simmering with wild creatures and devoid of humans.
Just recently, though, that isolation had been used to devastating effect by poachers who’d poisoned salt licks and waterholes with cyanide. A rough count turned up around 100 dead elephants with their tusks removed as well as other predators and raptors poisoned through feeding on them. I’d been asked by an environmental trust to see what was going on in the park and, as one does, I checked into a lodge because, well, why not have a bit of luxury in Paradise?
The routine from the lodge stoop seemed to be baboons at dawn, zebras and antelope during the morning, elephants in the midday heat and buffalos plus more elephants each evening. As the night deepened – and with a good torch – the eyes of prowling cats would reflect back yellow points of trouble.
This is the area from where Cecil the lion was lured by a hunter and an American dentist, Walter Palmer, and shot with a bow, causing worldwide outrage. There’s poaching and ration hunting in the park, and elephants deemed ‘problem animals’ are shot for foreign revenue. In such circumstances you cannot bank on a friendly reception from a herd.
The plan had been to head slowly for a distant waterhole in the afternoon and have sundowners at a ground-level hide. With any luck there’d be a few elephants.
My guide dropped me off at the hide and headed off to not disturb wildlife that might arrive. It looked like a pile of logs but had an opening that led down into a chamber a few metres below ground. From inside, if an elephant walked close by, all you’d see would be its toenails.
I stuck my head through the doorway and discovered the wooden stairs had collapsed. Perhaps I could jump down, but it would be a hell of a job to get out again. So I leaned up against one of the logs facing the waterhole and hoped for the best. As the sun dipped westwards, elephants began arriving across the water. Slowly the full moon rose like a huge golden coin, silhouetting pachyderms in its rippling reflection.
I was transfixed but, as it turned out, a little too transfixed to notice a breeding herd led by a huge matriarch coming up behind me. They were so silent on their spongy feet that I could hear the whip poor will call of a distant fiery-necked nightjar and the soft thump of the water pump 100 metres away. But not them.
There was nowhere to hide and running would have been suicide, so I made myself as small as possible and, I think, stopped breathing. The matriarch led her herd to the water’s edge and the soft twilight was filled with the sound of slurping, sighing and the happy squeals of youngsters.
I fervently hoped she hadn’t seen my crouching form but, it turned out, for the moment she was ignoring me. When the drinking was done she turned towards me, raised trunk and sniffed. With her ears flared in warning she seemed to fill the sky.
We looked at each other for an uncomfortably long time. Then something extremely strange happened. I generally avoid attaching human intentions to animal actions, but she did something so human I couldn’t help it: she lowered her trunk and nodded. As she did I felt an inexplicable wave of acceptance wash over me. I relaxed and smiled at her.
Then she put her ears back in their at-ease place, stepped forward in a trajectory that would take her only a few metres from where I was sitting and led her family past me. I could hear their stomachs rumbling. With two steps to one side she could have caught me with her trunk, dashed me to the ground and stomped me flat. But, despite the hunting, poisoning and cruel mistreatment of her kind by my species, she continued to beam calming assurance. I kept grinning like a kid with a new friend.
Later that evening I tried to figure out the nature of the inter-species communication that had taken place in that magic moment, but gave up. We humans simply cannot yet comprehend the astounding capability of these extraordinary creatures. I hoped we’d learn to do that before we turned all their tusks into Chinese trinkets.
Dr Don Pinnock is an investigative journalist with Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet team and is a former editor of Getaway magazine. He has been a lecturer in journalism and criminology, a professional yachtsman, explorer, travel and environmental writer, photographer and a cable-car operator on the Rock of Gibraltar. His present passion is the conservation of Africa’s wildernesses.
Elephant photo by Pieter Jacobus Ras