Elephants… Don’t you just love them? What’s not to love? They are beautiful, majestic, intelligent, awe inspiring. They are a lot of people’s favourite animals. We want to get to know them better, get up close and personal with them. In the company of these magnificent creatures, we have an urge to touch them, photograph them, ride them and have a special animal bond with them. 

However much like any human and any animal, what they don’t like is people getting up in their faces, crowding them, invading their personal space, and ignoring their wishes when they’ve clearly projected that they are uncomfortable.

The sighting of elephants

Relaxed elis cooling off in the water

Relaxed elis cooling off in the water

On a recent trip to East Africa, my travel companions and I had a debate about photographing local people. We agreed that it was bad form and disrespectful. Photographing a crowd as part of the local scenery seemed to be OK as we weren’t focused on any one individual. If we wanted to take people’s photo specifically we would ask them. One day as we drove in a land cruiser slowly through the traffic and markets of Kampala one young man became very agitated and aggressive when he mistakenly thought one of our group ‘stole’ a photo of him.

Why do we think we have that perfect right to do to animals what we accept is disrespectful to people? Is it because we see it as we’ve paid to see animals in the zoo or in the wild and therefore it’s all acceptable? Is it because we apparently see all animals as pets whether living in our house or in our wild back garden world?

I don’t believe animals care about their photo being taken – it’s nothing to them. Although, when the chase for a good snap becomes a seeming threat, it is when animals lash out. How many stories have we heard of elephants attacking jeeps or chasing people down? As far as I am aware of, the majority are cases where the observer got too close, didn’t heed warning signals, was between them and their route or got between a mother and her young.

The wildlife tourist in action

As part of our East African adventure,  we went on a boat trip in Queen Elizabeth National Park that the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) handles. UWA is a great organization that manages 10 National Parks, 12 Wildlife Reserves, and 14 Wildlife Sanctuaries.

As close as it looks...

As close as it looks…

Tourism, much like any other conservation arena, has become an effective way to help fund their management and protection efforts. With this comes the conflict between meeting the needs of the wildlife and creating a magical experience for paying guests. It is clear, from the different treks and safaris we were on, that UWA has a well-organized outfit and that their efforts and focus are laudable. Nonetheless, I observed a theme in the way they tried to give tourists what they wanted over what could be deemed as being right for the wildlife.

A short way into the boat trip, I had already expressed my thoughts on occasions over how close we were to the shoreline, or more specifically how close the boat took us to a resting school of hippos. Since hippos walk rather than swim, there was no guarantee that the boat was not directly over any that had decided to sink underwater on this hot day. No sooner had I expressed this thought that we saw a plume of water and heard a snort from immediately next to the boat.

Further into the trip, we saw a herd of elephants from afar relaxing and cooling off on the shores of the riverbank. What a beautiful sighting of this family! But, the nearer we got to the herd, the closer we got to the shoreline. At first, it was a reasonable distance. Everyone on the boat was excited and clickety-clicked. Lots of photos were being taken. The closer we got, more people headed to the front of the boat chattering and laughing with excitement. Tied in with the noise from people, the petrol fumes and smoke from the boat’s engines added to the invasive quality of wildlife viewing. In order to get us closer to the herd, the boat reversed back and then pointed straight towards the elephants to move in closer. It was this action which put them on alert. The boat then maneuvered with loud engine noises backward and forward, churning up the water to get us back alongside the elephants.

1st signs of agitation as we get closer

1st signs of agitation as we get closer

This happened several times and the herd was becoming agitated. The younger of the elephants started heading back on shore behind their dams. One particular elephant stood and stared at us for the whole time, minuscule changes of stance so that we were always head-on in its sights. To me, he was clearly watching us as a potential threat. The boat driver kept on maneuvering the boat to stop us from drifting and for about 10 minutes we were really in their space –backwards and forwards– turning the boat around to give people the best views and churning up the waters.

It became distressing, not just for the elephants but for myself, and when I expressed my concerns, others around me put down their cameras to see what I was seeing and agreed that this wasn’t right. I wanted to say something to stop this invasion of their private space.  Just at the time when I thought we were thankfully moving on, the boat driver reversed back yet again and pointed straight at the animals. And there we went for another round…

It was then that one of the bulls shook its head, flapped his ears and trumpeted at us. To my amazement, the UWA guide told the tourists at the front that the elephant was warning another elephant and that it was not a problem. The bull had looked at us coming again, trumpeted and turned away. There was no indication that he was having an issue with a fellow herd member.

In the meantime, the one elephant on the left who was staring hard at us, had not moved, had not taken his eyes off us and the two next to him had turned their backs, not to ignore us but kept their stance rigid, not doing a single thing. It looked like, should danger arise, they would be ready to turn at a moment’s notice. Almost bristling I would say.

Deciding whether to say something

I could not sit still. I was angry. I had let the anger and distress build up. I walked up to the UWA guide and told him vocally and forcefully that we needed to move on from the area as the herd was clearly agitated. What we were doing and the way the boat was churning the waters at their feet was not right. I pointed out the examples of the elephant trumpeting in warning and the 3 on the left. The guide told me it was fine, that they didn’t mind. They are not territorial, he added. I re-stated my objections; stated that we had been here long enough and there was no need to be this close. I must admit that I don’t fully remember all that I had said. I was angry.

Although the majority of the tourists were still taking pictures, few at the front turned around. One lady agreed and said that it felt dangerous. She was worried about what the elephants would do. The guide maintained the elephants were ok and that they were not territorial. The trumpeting was not at us. I answered that if they were ok with us, then why had they moved back from the waters during the time we were there when they had been peaceful before. We need to respect them and respect their space. They had given us a warning and we were ignoring it. We needed to move on. Finally, thankfully we did…

The right way to say it

All 3 on alert

All 3 on alert

I am glad I did say something. I had checked my observations with fellow travelers and they agreed with what I had observed prior to addressing the guide. My vocalization led us to leave the site sooner than I believe we would have done had I stayed silent. Did I do in the right way? No, I don’t believe I did.

I had not realized that other fellow travelers were at the front and heard all this.  After the boat trip they agreed that I was right to say something and that we were extremely close (whilst also gently mocking me on my righteous anger –which I gracefully accept). I had let my anger build up and spoke out emotionally. This was not the most respectful for the guide, therefore, it probably did not get my points across in the best way, especially so in East Africa, that is a male orientated society. In short, I pretty much laid into him in public.

I corrected the relationship later on when we came across another herd on the way back. We kept a respectful distance. I observed, I was calmer and I went to speak to the guide and apologized in the way that I addressed the situation the first time. I had explained my concerns and I thanked him that we had maintained a good distance from the second herd. This distance was fine for great photographs without impacting on their natural behaviors. We parted amicably and shook hands.

The wildlife tourist conflict

Seeing elephants or any other animals in the wild is the best way to see them. So why not take the time to observe their behaviors from afar and take great natural photos of their interactions? Understanding their behavior for me is far more rewarding than having a selfie with them.

We can believe in a sense of invulnerability when we are observing from a vehicle, whether a car, jeep or boat than we would have if we were on foot. As a consequence, we can be oblivious to the impact we have on our environment as when we are too noisy or when we get too close. We should be mindful and take this into account when we are observing wildlife, whether we seem to have the sanction of the guides or not.

Standing guard

Standing guard

I agree, there is that excitement when we see them. Myself I want to capture those moments as much as possible. But I take advantage of the zoom lens which these days is amazing on most cameras. A reasonable distance can differ in many different circumstances. However when the wildlife starts looking watchfully; when their behavior becomes unnatural; when elephants stop and look intently at the observer; when they vocalize that watchfulness and give us a warning alert, then that is when we should recognize that we are impacting on them and their space and should respectfully back away. We normally can easily recognize signs of aggression in other humans. It’s not fair or safe when we ignore those same signs in wildlife.

Here is the dichotomy of observing wildlife and the guides. The guides are our experts, the organizations are responsible for the welfare of the land and ecology. Yet they don’t know it all and they operate with the knowledge that the tourist trade provides much-needed income to help them in doing their jobs. As such, I believe there is sometimes a conflict between what is right for the wildlife and what the tourists demands. I was told that a lot of people at the front were requesting the boat driver and the guide to get closer to the elephants, even when we were past the point of comfort. To them, it was sparked by excitement, without prioritizing the needs of the elephants we were observing. This is where I feel the guide should have better managed this. What is right for tourism is seldom what is right for the animals. Was the guide simply allowing a situation because these were paying guests asking and demanding for an experience which they could tell others about later? ‘Look how close we got, we could almost touch them!’…

Our behavior was the trigger for the elephants to decamp

The reason why they decamped? Us…

By being more aware ourselves, we can and we should take the responsibility to speak out and help others understand that whilst it is our experience, we are guests only and it is the experience of the wildlife as well. It is also important to do this in the right way. A way that enhances awareness and understanding, and anger seldom is the most effective way although it does get across the extent of emotions.

Get a good photo if you wish, use your zoom. But remember putting away that camera and observe what is going on around you. Looking through a frame is constraining and make you miss a lot of the experience.

I want to emphasize once more that I believe that the Uganda Wildlife Authority does a great work in managing their parks, including the gorilla and chimp trekking tours. They want to share their knowledge and inroads they have made in protecting their wildlife. Myself I plan to volunteer with them in the future. My takeaway from this experience is that we should all take part in recognizing that there could be a conflict –no matter how good the organisation– between wildlife and tourism, irrespective of whether we are volunteering or being a wildlife tourist for the day. 

What to do when observing elephants

Earthwise Aware’s Get your Bear’ings & Keep your Distance article talks about not feeding the bears. This is true for all wildlife. Keep food wrapped, hidden or not even there at all when you are out observing. Taking citrus fruit is an especial no-no for some national parks in Africa including Mana Pools, Addo Elephant Park

Here are few rules worth listing (non-exhaustive list):

  • Keep food wrapped, hidden or not even there at all when you are out observing. Taking citrus fruit is an especial no-no for some national parks in Africa including Mana Pools, Addo Elephant Park
  • In a boat? I hope the above helps understand what would be deemed as respectful when observing elephants from a boat.
  • If in a vehicle on the road and you see a herd about to cross or in the process of crossing, check all around you and make sure that you are not in the herd’s way. If you are in the way, turn off engines, keep quiet and stay until you are sure that they have all passed. Sometimes one or two elephants linger behind to browse before catching up with the rest.
  • Never get close to young elephants as you be sure the mother(s) are around ready to defend and protect their young ones. Back away slowly and calmly, again making sure that there are no others behind you. The mother will generally shake her head, flap her ears and trumpet as a warning if she feels you could be too close.
  • Staying calm and quiet is always the way. Animals see the overall vehicle as 1 entity rather than several individuals, and it’s important not for any individuals not to stand out. So if someone is on the roof in these instances, they need to come down slowly.
  • On walkabouts in national parks, it’s always best to have a trusted and trained guide who knows the area and whose eyes have been honed to see the signs of recent wildlife presence.
  • Always take heed when an elephant gives you their sign that you are not welcome – the head wag, waving ears and trumpet, or even just a watchful ongoing stare.
  • Don’t agitate them to make them react – the boat ‘behaviour’ was a prime example of what not to do.
  • And just observe… if they don’t feel you are a danger, they will happily let you stay at a distance and cohabit the space.

If you cannot find much online about what to do or not do when observing elephants, do ask the guides before you leave for the field. It helps to keep you and the animals safe and can make for a much more rewarding viewing experience. My knowledge is from local good guides and good volunteering outfits. However, there are plenty of youtube clips and blogs about wild encounters where you can glean common sense and also accept that like any wild species (including humans!) they can be unpredictable.

Further reading

  • Uganda Wildlife Authority – whose mission is to “conserve, economically develop and sustainably manage the wildlife and protected areas of Uganda in partnership with neighboring communities and other stakeholders for the benefit of the people of Uganda and the global community.”
  • Elephant Voices – which goals are to advance the study of elephant cognition, communication, and social behavior, and to promote the scientifically sound and ethical management and care of elephants. They accomplish these through research, conservation, advocacy and the sharing of knowledge.
  • Elephant Warning Signs –  a short account of few distress and warning signs to be able to identify…
  • 10 Easy Steps to Understanding Elephant Body Language – another good short safari guide’s list of elephant body signs to understand before getting into the field with them.  

Light Sharan with big iconMay 3rd 2016 | by Sharan Bahra

Special thanks to Lorraine Roberts for allowing the use of some of her photos and post-encounter discussions.

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