The Silence of Elephants

November 7, 2011

Elephant disturbing safari campsite, Kidepo Valley National Park, UgandaIt’s hard to imagine how quiet Elephants can be until one sneaks up on you. Their enormous padded feet softly sink into the ground with each step, and you don’t hear them coming until they are almost on top of you.

I was bush camping in Kidepo Valley National Park in the far North East of Uganda, a remote park with open savannah and river valleys ringed by rugged mountains, with the biggest skies you’ll see anywhere in Africa. We had been on an early morning game drive to see Ostrich and had returned to camp to make lunch – baked potatoes cooked in the embers of last night’s still glowing campfire.

A Side-striped Jackal slunk into the long grass about thirty metres away, a small group of Patas Monkeys lollopped across the open campsite, and a herd of Giraffe moved slowly across the plains below us. We were surrounded by wildlife, but it normally kept its distance.

The rest of the group was preparing lunch while I sorted through a bag of local mangoes that we’d bought on the roadside a day or so before. They were sticky and glistening with juice. A few had split, so I threw them away, taking care to tie up the rubbish bag and put them back in the vehicle to stop animals from being drawn to the camp by the smell.

I was about to return the mangoes to the large metal box we were using to keep the food safe, when something made me look to my right. About 15 metres away, and approaching calmly but with a look of determination on his face, was a large Bull Elephant. In shock, I must have released my grip on the bag. It dropped to my feet and a mango slowly rolled out onto the grass.

“Uhhh….Guys! Elephant approaching!”, I spluttered, casting around for what to rescue from our campsite in my escape.

No one seemed to react straight away. The old Bull was still plodding towards us, trunk swinging from side to side. He didn’t seem aggressive, but he was an awful lot bigger up close. Not to mention an awful lot closer than I was comfortable with.

“Guys! Get your cameras and head for the vehicle. NOW!”

Suddenly we all sprang into action. Expensive cameras, binoculars and lenses were airlifted to safety, along with their owners, as we all bundled into our safari vehicle. Our driver, Clever (yes, this really was his name) jumped in and started the engine. We backed off and watched the scene unfold through our pop-up roof.

The Elephant was now right in the heart of our bush campsite, at the table which was laden with pans and camping plates. His trunk delicately investigated the tabletop, perhaps hoping for a treat but only finding some very unappetising camping cookware. He paused slightly, his large head turning slightly. I could have sworn he was sniffing the breeze like a very over-sized Bisto kid.

Extending his trunk to the floor, the Elephant gently picked up the single mango and deposited it in his mouth. He then reached down for the bag, curled it up towards his mouth and tipped the bag into his mouth like we might eat a handful of peanuts. The empty plastic bag fluttered to the ground.

By now, our situation had come to a Park Ranger’s attention and he had radioed for back-up. The Uganda Wildlife Authority flatbed truck arrived – the largest vehicle in Kidepo Valley National Park and therefore probably the only that can command any real respect from a large Bull Elephant with an appetite for mangoes.

The truck carefully executed ‘mock charges’, the truck managed to get this particular mango thief to back off and lose interest in our campsite. With a shake of his large ears and one last indignant trumpet, the old Elephant trotted off to find something else to do with the rest of his day.

After waiting to check that he wasn’t simply going to turn around and come back, we reclaimed our camp, full of excited talk of what just happened. Various theories were bandied about as to how the Elephant’s digestive system might be coping with having just scoffed about ten mangoes. Too much fruit can be hard on the stomach, after all…

We needn’t have worried. Later that day, our guide informed us that an African Elephant will eat up to 300kgs of food a day. A mere 10kg of mango fruit was nothing, in this case. Sure enough, the next morning on a game drive, we saw the same Elephant. Standing in the soft early morning light, he tossed his head briefly at our vehicle, before returning to pulling trunk-fulls of leaves from the trees surrounding him.

We watched him for a while, then somebody’s stomach rumbled. It was time to return to camp for breakfast.

Posted by Anne-Marie Weeden

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