Sunday, September 16, 2007

Human - elephant conflicts grow as habitat shrinks

Elephant 'played soccer with me'

Reprinted from South Africa: News
By Elise Tempelhoff, Beeld, South Africa, Sept 11 2007

Vanderbijlpark - An elephant cow in the Pilanesberg nature reserve first chased a game warden for 100 metres, then tore his pants open with her tusk.Later she "played a bit of soccer with him".

When he landed on his back next to her she stared into his eyes for a few seconds, then shook her head and ambled off back to the matriarch, young cows and calves.

Eugene le Roux, 29, chief game warden at Bakubung Bush Lodge said while he was lying staring into the elephant's eyes, he hoped his death would be quick.

Sure he would die
"I just lay there. An unbelievable calm came over me while I stared into her eyes. I felt sure she was going to kill me. I wondered: Will it be quick? Will it be slow? Will it be painful?"
"Then she shook her head, turned around and walked off into the bush to join the rest of the breeding herd.
"I couldn't believe it. I got up, went to lean against a naboom and prayed."
All he could say was "thank you, God", a prayer that he has repeated every day since the incident.
He was lightly injured when the elephant stepped on his right hand and partly stepped on his left shoulder.
Le Roux said on Friday a week ago he and his colleague Sean van Graan took a group of five American tourists for an early morning walk in the veld.
The walks usually lasted about three hours.

Heard elephants coming
They were about a kilometre from the lodge when they climbed to the top of a koppie. They tried to see if they could spot any game in the veld below.
"We heard branches breaking. There was a sudden trumpeting. 'Those are elephants,' we told the tourists."
He and Van Graan saw the herd of about 40 elephants heading in the direction of the koppie while appearing not to know of the people there.

Charged them
"They were moving at great speed and we decided to move off in a northwesterly direction. The elephants swerved right, luckily east of the koppie, ran past us on a game path and disappeared into the bush."
"We waited for everything to quieten down and were just getting ready to resume our walk when Van Graan shouted that there were more elephants coming."
This group of elephants, about 30 of them, headed straight for the hikers, but once again they were moving with the wind and couldn't smell the hikers.

Tourists were frightened
"Sean and I decided the elephants should take precedence. We had to move out of their way, and fast. "The guests were getting a bit frightened at this stage, but we told them to move down the kopple, fast.
The group jogged down the koppie and fortunately a huge herd of buffalo ahead of them, moved off.
Then the wind changed and the matriarch picked up their scent.
The matriarch was at the top of the koppie at that stage. She stopped in her tracks, turned and charged at the hikers.

Shouted 'deep' Afrikaans words
"We shouted 'deep' Afrikaans words at her. Words I can't repeat, but we encouraged her to go away."
The matriarch stopped about two metres from Van Graan, turned around and walked off.
"We told the anxious tourists more about elephant behaviour and put them at ease by telling them that the matriarch was testing us. She did exactly what her herd expected of her. She was supposed to frighten us. In that way, the calves would remain safe."
"We were just getting ready to move off again when Sean screamed: There's an elephant cow behind you!"
Van Graan went to stand in front of the tourists. " I turned around and saw that the cow was enraged. Her trunk was folded in, her ears were flat, she held her head low - and she charged straight at one of the women in the group.
"I ran to the woman and pushed her into a thorn bush. When I turned around, the cow was practically on top of me. I hit her against the head with the butt of the hunting rifle and started running.
"She started pursuing me. First I threw off my backpack hoping it would draw her attention away from me. That didn't help, so I threw my hat down. That didn't work either.

'Not ready to die'
"At one stage I could feel her trunk in my side. I tried to smack it away while praying 'Lord, I'm not yet ready to go yet!'"
The next moment Le Roux felt the elephant's tusk against his right thigh.
"Then she started playing soccer with me. I rolled a number of times. I tried to curl up into a small ball while she rolled me from side to side. Then I landed on my back. That's when we stared into each other's eyes for several seconds. I thought I was near death, but she just shook her head, turned around and walked off."
Van Graan came to fetch Le Roux and phoned the Sun City paramedics. Both were treated for shock, and the American woman was treated for deep scratches to her leg.


Key words:: elephant habitat loss, human wildlife conflict, elephant human conflict, elephant charge, South Africa

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