In order to give time for Animals Asia founder Jill Robinson & vet nurse extraordinaire Animals Asia Wendy Leadbeater to tell their respective partner/husband I have waited before writing about an extreme animal behaviour that could have resulted in a very unpleasant situation for Jill, Wendy, myself and two game scouts.
On Friday 28th October, their second day at Turgwe Hippo Trust, they joined me feeding all the other wildlife at the feeding stations. Then it came the turn of Tembia hippo and his family of 8 hippos. It is a drive where one has to engage low range to cross a dry riverbed and climb a very steep bank to follow a route for five kilometres that is real tough on a vehicle. The average speed can be no more than 20km per hour due to the narrowness of the route, and we are the only people ever driving up there. Jill & Wendy were in the front of the Land Cruiser with me. Chengetai and Peter, the two game scouts, in the back sitting on bales of hay. We were carrying 160kg of hay, 100kg of meal and 30kg of game cubes.
Chengetai (who is very nervous of elephants) suddenly tapped the roof and points down in the dry river bed; perhaps 20 meters away from us are a small family of elephants and with them looks like a new born, totally wobbly on his feet. I slowly keep driving past as I was level with them and thought it foolish to try and reverse. Then, from above the riverbed and on the opposite bank, from a distance of at least 150 meters comes a charging elephant. Sex unknown, for as she charged I put my foot down, taking off along the twisting route trying to avoid mopane trees which are close against the track. Jill was looking behind and telling me: “Karen, the elephant is getting closer!” Wendy was concentrating on the drive as we belted along for at over 100 meters with the elephant directly behind and catching up. As we reached the bend to turn down into the Chichindwi River, I had no option but to stop the vehicle, as you have to engage low range to get up the steep bank on the other side; a four wheel drive in high range won’t make it. As I ground to a halt the guys jumped from the back of the vehicle and ran around to the front, and Jill told me: “Karen the elephant is right at the back of the vehicle”. She had chased us for over 300 meters at full charge, the head had come down I was told later with trunk between her legs for a short moment. I fully expected at that second, as I struggled to get the gear engaged, for us to be hit by a four ton elephant.
I didn’t know how badly we would be hurt, as she could either tusk the vehicle or turn it over, but either way I expected the impact as I desperately fought to get the low range engaged. Fortunately at home I had changed the hubs on the wheels to 4 x 4 and did not, as I normally have to do, have to get out of the vehicle and turn the hubs before putting her into low range. Somebody was really looking after all of us because my foot slipped on the accelerator as this was all happening, and the vehicle made a loud revving sound.
According to the scouts, who were at the front hanging on to the bumper, they said this made the elephant stop in its tracks and turn to one side. As she did, I got into gear and shouted at the guys to hang on or jump in, and we tore down into the riverbed then up the other side and drove for at least five minutes before I stopped to take her out of low range. All of us were totally shaken up, hands shaking like mad in my case, adrenalin at peak performance, throat so dry one could hardly swallow, and basically in shock.
My biggest problem though was that I knew we had to return through the same route as there is no other way of driving back home. I had to get Jill and Wendy home safely, but how? I knew the elephants would probably remain in that area. We carried on up to Tembia’s hippo, put out his food and Wendy and Jill even managed to take photos of the hippos even though we were all still very shaken up. I was though absolutely impressed by the way both of them handled the whole experience. Not one of us had given anything but total respect to the elephants. No loud noise, sudden movement, nothing to attract a full blown charge. All I could think was that the new born was the reason for the other elephant to charge, thinking we were a threat. Perhaps she was the mother’s eldest daughter; we will never know.
Or worst case scenario that elephant has been hurt by man and hence has a dislike of vehicles. This is a possibility as well, as within the area the elephants move in, people do sport hunt elephants!!! Or even poachers could have caused a problem. In my thirty odd years of living with African wildlife I have had serious full blown elephant charges twice in my life, this was the second time. I now needed to get Jill and Wendy home.
We started the return trip, leaving food at 2 of the 4 feeding stations for the other animals, but I was concerned that if we had to walk we had to make it before dark. There was one other route we could drive, which had not been driven upon for 16 years, but it would not take us all the way home, so I would use it as a last resort. Half a kilometre from the elephant charge we again see an elephant to our left, this time running away but I believe part of that small family group. I immediately reversed up the very steep part of the route we were on, turned the vehicle and returned to the old road. We drove along until a tree blocked us in a small river crossing, and then we got out to walk.
I found out the next day that that specific spot was where the head of a woman from the illegal settlers was found last year, believed killed by elephants!!! I was hoping that no elephant would come along in the night and trash my vehicle as it’s the only one that is capable of feeding the hippos and other animals in that area. We then began the two kilometre walk home, arriving just at dusk. We walked through an area where we have a pride of 8 lions, but it was light enough not to worry on their behalf.
I believe we were looked after that day and since then I have had to return each day to feed the hippos and other animals up there. The following day Jean-Roger had to take Jill and Wendy back to catch a flight from Harare to South Africa, as they had come all the way to Zimbabwe just for 3 nights with us. This was a huge honour and apart from this very frightening event they had seen elephants at close quarters on arrival and many other animals in their short time with us. Also of course, the feeding of the hippos and seeing Kuchek’s family on land at dusk, which is a superb experience. This experience is something that will not only give the three of us memories for a lifetime, but on a positive note that elephant did not hit the car and did not kill us or hurt us, so….
What can I say apart from thank you elephant.
Having Jill and Wendy with us was simply fantastic and a great honour for me to show them the hippos and other wildlife.
Hopefully the next time they come along things will be a little bit less exciting.