Written by: Wayne Te Brake, Lowveld Trails Co.
The below incident occurred in July last year while Janet Kleyn and I were conducting an Mphongolo Backpack Trail in the northern section of Kruger National Park.
It was getting late, and with the sun nearing the horizon, we were making our way back to our campsite on the banks of the Phugwane River when we bumped into two elephant bulls. They were slowly walking away from us, in the direction of our campsite, so we quietly followed them, keeping a distance of about 80 metres, when one of the bulls somehow picked up on us.
He turned and started approaching us with his companion in tow, and because we were in an open area without much cover, we decided to stand our ground rather than retreat, as elephants often interpret backing away as weakness and then keep on pressing home their advantage.
As can be seen in the video, we had a standoff with the two bulls, whose activity attracted a third, as yet unnoticed, young bull who decided to come and join the party.
Encounters with bull elephants happen fairly frequently on this trail, which is not surprising considering the dense elephant population in the mopaneveld in the north of the park. This situation was, however, a bit different, as it is not common to have three bulls trying to intimidate you at the same time. It would have been a different story if the elephants had been cows, who are a lot more nervous and aggressive. Bulls on the other hand tend to be gentlemen, although the young adults, not yet full of confidence, often try and intimidate you by putting on a show to hide their nervousness before moving off.
It is imperative in these situations to not show weakness and back down. Elephants read your body language very easily and any submissive behaviour usually results in the animals trying to push home their superiority.
Different guides deal with these types of situations in different ways, and the rule of thumb is to do what works for you. We tried to diffuse the situation by talking in a calm and relaxed tone, as this usually sends the message that we are not scared or aggressive, but calm, and not too phased by the situation.
The guests must be commended for keeping their cool and listening to all instructions to the letter. If any of them had panicked and tried to run, the situation could have turned out very differently.
Thanks to Rudi Aucamp for the footage!