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The Peeking Pachyderm!

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Yesterday, I was just about ready to head out the door for breakfast when I heard a soft rustling in the leaves outside.  I thought, “Maybe it’s just a skink,” and started to open the door.  Just then a tusk followed by a very large grey head appeared at the side window.  You might expect that by now I could hear the difference between a lizard and an elephant, but, I guess I’m still a freshman at the University of Bushcraft.  As I reached for my camera, Gilbert – Flatdogs’ resident big bull recognizable by his tolerant nature and missing tail – heard me and lumbered right up to the window to have a peek.  We had a wonderful eye-to-eye moment before he decided my skin wasn’t grey and rough enough to warrant his attention and wandered off.  I am forever grateful to that section of the Law of the Jungle that requires all large and dangerous animals to regard my rusted window screens as an impenetrable barrier.

Elephants are daily visitors here though they number only around 10,000 after ivory poachers killed them down from 100,000 in the 1980s.  For such big creatures, they can be disturbingly quiet, especially when they are snacking on pods from winter thorn trees like the huge one that towers over my little house.  Last week, I came home from dinner to be surprised by two huge bull elephants happily munching away on these elephant bon bons right in my parking place.  I didn’t have much choice but to turn off the engine and wait.  Even sitting safely in the car, I felt a thrill when one of the gentlemen came right up to the car, towering over me.  After half an hour, they moved off past the far side of the house.  I strained my ears for a long time but couldn’t hear them.  So, thinking the savannah was clear, I cautiously drove my car up, got out and peered around the front of the house.  Just as I was making a break for my front door, a pair of tusks followed by a swinging trunk poked out along the opposite side of the house.  Just in time, I beat a hasty retreat to the safety of the car.

Rush hour traffic.  Bumper to ...

As you may surmise, I have gained a healthy respect for the power of these seemingly gentle creatures, but I’m afraid many of our tourist visitors did not watch enough Discovery Channel Wild and Dangerous Animals shows in their youths.  Just last week, I found a French couple happily ambling down the road towards the “tree house” where they were staying.  They seemed completely oblivious to the elephants browsing on bushes on both sides of the road.  I stopped and insisted that they ride with me to their place.  As I gently scolded them with my now well-rehearsed little speech about the dangers of getting too close to 8000-pound wild animals with big tusks, they acknowledged they’d been warned about elephants when they arrived but said, “They look so gentle, just like the cows in France.”  When asked, they couldn’t actually recall the last time a French cow had stomped someone to death, and they vowed to be more careful.  Sometimes I resort to the selfish reminder that if they are stomped upon or tusked by an ellie that I will be the one who has to try to keep them alive.  When I describe the potential injuries in enough gory detail that tack is usually convincing!

The French horn in front of my house

Sadly these intelligent creatures with life spans close to humans do kill people occasionally.  Last week an older man from the village was out collecting firewood in the forest with two friends.  They startled an ellie in the thick brush.  The old man couldn’t get away and was killed.  In the “life for a life” form of justice that sometimes prevails here, the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) shot some poor elephant at random to satisfy the grieving family and prove that justice was done – as if the entire species of Loxodonta africana was somehow to blame for a human’s mistake of blundering into their space.  Justice?  It is imperfect here at best.

The end!

Fortunately, most elephant encounters end more happily for all concerned.  The ellie, like the one I surprised ten paces from my front door as I rounded the corner of the house, usually just gives a shake of its massive head and perhaps a loud trumpet to let one know who’s bigger (and repeats it a bit louder just in case you’re French).  More often, all the tasty treats in the garden across the road tempt their interest.  Donald, the intrepid gardener, protects his cherry tomatoes, cauliflower, lettuce and herbs with a six-foot high three-layer brick wall, an electrified wire around it all and heavy gauge wire over the top.  Alas, my little front door patch of “flowers” is unprotected from the elephants’ hippo friend who manages to daintily nibble off just the budding flowers every few nights.  The challenges of keeping out the deer and bunnies at home pale in comparison.

With all the bother of living with elephants, sometimes even I have moments of feeling impatient with them.  When a group of eight ellies were feasting on the Combretum and wild jasmine bushes outside my house one night just as I started to leave for dinner, I felt quite annoyed – for a moment.  Then I stopped and thought, “Here I am surrounded by elephants only a few feet away.  How amazing!”  Since then I’ve savored every elephant encumbered moment realizing how lucky I am to be near enough to such marvelous creatures, to hear their low rumbling chats and to watch their delicately dexterous trunks choose their food.  Besides, “I was caught in traffic” can never stand up to “I was surrounded by elephants” as an excuse for being late.  So when I send out my elephant dung paper Christmas cards this year, just think what a wonderful animal it’s passed through.


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This page was last updated 08/18/07