How to know if an elephant is about to charge

Wild India: Elephant Attack – How to know an elephant is going to charge

How to tell if an elephant is about to charge is the second part of the article in the Wild India: Elephant Attack series.

Human-elephant conflict is increasing due to ever increasing human-habitations encroaching on the forest lands, forest fires destroying habitats, invasives reducing the amount of food available for elephants, increased exploitation of forest produce (NTFP), cultivation of species preferred by elephants like paddy, banana close to the forests and elephant corridors etc.

A major part of the elephant habitat is outside our protected areas. The Government has not agreed to the recommendation of the Elephant Task Force to create a separate authority for elephants. In that Elephant Task Force report, there was a suggestion to buy back land and recreate the elephant corridors. Even that is not happening. So the conflict is going to continue. In this article I am going to show how to tell an elephant is going to charge and whether it is a mock charge or serious charge.

Speed of a Wild Elephant:

Usain Bolt ran the London 2012 100m Olympics final at 9.63 seconds, so his speed was 37.383kmph. An elephant can run at an estimated speed of between 35-40kmph speeds, crushing all the bushes on the way. So the only way one can evade an elephant attack in Wild India is if the person can read the intent of the elephant and starts running and creating a big enough distance between himself and the elephant before the elephant starts the charge.

How to tell an elephant will charge:

Iain Douglas-Hamilton as a 22 year old youngster had gone to Africa to do a study on Lions. When he saw that Dr. George Schallar was already doing study on Lions he did a study on Elephants. It was indeed a boon for all the elephant lovers, as his work in Manyara National Park, was the first to do systematic research on elephants in Africa. His pioneering effort resulted in the book Among the Elephants.

Wild Asiatic elephant ready to charge. It is still, only the raised foreleg indicating that it will charge

In the Page 68, 4thparagraph of the book Among the Elephants By Iain & Oria Douglas-Hamilton, he has given the signs to know if an elephant is going to charge:

Another distinct pattern of behaviour with practical as well as theoretical interest was the twiddling of the trunk, the swinging of one of the front legs to and fro, and rocking from side to side which I saw when an elephant appeared to be deciding between attack an retreat. These were typical displacement activities. In elephants they were a great help to me in predicting their behaviour. The more marked these activities the less likely the elephant was to charge. Very often the most impressive threat displays emanated from the most frightened elephants which were unlikely to make a serious attack.

Niko was particularly interested in the differences in character between individual elephants where this led to their behaviour becoming predictable. As we passed one matriarch named Inkosikaas, with an upswept tusk like a sabre, she shook her head in mild annoyance. I stopped the car and told him to watch these elephants, because within about five minutes they would charge. Inkosiakaas fiddled with her trunk, then turned to the other cows on either side of her and clashed tusks with them in turn, putting her trunk in their mouths one after the other. This seemed to reassure her and almost exactly five minutes later she delivered a beautifully impressive threat charge. This was her own predictable quirk, unique among the elephants of Manyara: the tendency for delayed action aggressive displays.

Unfortunately, this knowledge is not disseminated among people. I first read this from a book written by a hunter (Danta Hatira Pratihinsha by Gadadhar Ray). I read it in the late 70’s and saw the behaviour in 90’s. This hunter had experienced this behaviour in the 1930’s and 1940s. Unfortunately, not many people have read it since this book was written in a local language (Oriya). Douglas-Hamilton recorded this behaviour in African elephants in the late 1960’s and early 1970s. I hope to educate all the people in the human-elephant conflict areas, so that lives can be saved. You will also find this behavior in the short film A God in Distress.

Elephants can stand remarkably still and people often dont realize what is going to unfold. So they move closer with small zoom lenses hoping to get a closeup of a Wild elephant. And then the charge is unleashed. Because the realization dawns late, people lose precious seconds, which can be the difference between life and death.

There have been cases of journalists losing their life in South India while trying to photograph wild elephants in Indian jungles. A wildlife enthusiast working in IBM in Bangalore was reported to have died due to heart-attack when a wild elephant charged.

How to know it is a serious charge:

Wild elephants often mock charge. A lot of people mistake a serious charge of a wild elephant to be mock charge and either hold their ground or start running late. When the elephant has got serious intent, you can see that its trunk is coiled inwards and its ears are close to the head.If you are roaming around in Wild India in the elephant habitat, then you have to look for these signs.

Wild Indian elephant makes a determined charge

In 1963, A Border Roads Construction department truck was kicked down a cliff by an elephant and nine people had died. In South India, there have been many cases of elephants attacking vehicles. So when you know that it is a determined charge by a wild elephant, it is better to back off.

Wild India: Narrow escapes from Elephants:

If one is on foot in Wild India, there are theories that if you hide behind a bush, the elephant may not see you. In his book Elephant Gold by P. D. Stracey, he has mentioned a few such narrow escapes from a charging elephant. In Page 198, he writes Walsh, another tea-planter, described to me how he was following an elephant in thick bush when it suddenly whipped round and charged him; he tripped as he took a step backwards in the act of raising a rifle and sat down at the base of a tree and perhaps this may have made the elephant lose sight of him and charge on and past him.

  1. Elephants have very keen sense of smell and acute hearing. So if one can hide without making any sound and if the wind is blowing from the side of the elephant towards you, then perhaps you can survive.
  2. Throwing away any cap or part of clothing can also help in distracting the elephant before you make good your escape. In one case a person threw his white lungi and when the wild elephant got busy in shredding it into pieces, the person ran away to safety.
  3. One can also escape the wrath of an attacking elephant, by climbing a large tree and sitting on a branch beyond the reach of the elephants trunk. Not many city bred wildlife enthusiasts know how to climb a tree. So this is another reason to be cautious when you are on foot in Wild India.
  4. If there is a big enough ditch, then try to remember your school days when you were involved in long jump competitions and jump over. The elephant is most likely to stop. However, if the ditch is small enough, then the elephant is more likely to take a detour and try to reach you with its trunk.

Since prevention is better than cure, if you are trekking on foot, better to get a local trekker. Their senses would be much better than us. In one case my trekker could smell elephant, and I could smell it only after a further 15 feet or so. That could be the difference between life and death. Similarly, watching TV and exposed to loud sounds has got its impact on our hearing abilities. So a local tribal is likely to be of a lot of help and invaluable in saving you from elephant attacks in wild India.

If you have any questions about Wild India: Elephant Attacks or more specifically on How to know if an elephant is going to charge then you can ask in the comments section below.

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