Evil and Elegant: The Misunderstanding of Elephants

February 27, 2015 • Africa, Chuck Travellers • Views: 1438

Words and Pictures by: Katie Stacey


The human-wildlife conflict is ongoing and extends across the continent of Africa, but more specifically the human-elephant conflict was the one I experienced most noticeably last summer, when I was running a bushcamp in the Luangwa Valley, Zambia.

One hour’s flight from Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, in the middle of the vast expanse of the African savannah, sits a tiny little concrete hut – the airport of Mfuwe. Past villages of mudhuts, over a bridge that crosses the Luangwa River, which forms one of the parks natural boundaries, you enter through the gates of the Luangwa National Park.

After an hour’s drive is Mfuwe Lodge, a luxury camp sleeping up to fifty guests. Drive three hours deeper into the 9,050 km² bush (which is home to more than 420 species of birds and upwards of 60 species of mammals) and you will find one of the area’s six bushcamps.

My bushcamp was named Bilimungwe. Like its namesake (‘chameleon’ in the local language of Kunda) it lay camouflaged on approach. Four heavy-set wooden chalets flanked three luscious watering holes, with each chalet shadowed by the crowns of ancient Musikizi and Winterthorn trees.

It was idyllic.

To sit on the camp’s main deck or the chalet’s balconies, and watch the birds and animals in abundance coming to drink from the water was a magical experience.

But one animal for me became more of a hindrance than a pleasure, and I am the first to admit that it was I encroaching on it’s turf and not the other way around.

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In the beginning I had been surprised by my local worker’s vehement reactions to the elephants. To them wildlife was seen either as edible or dangerous – sometimes both. They would use the local word ‘nyama’ (which meant ‘meat’) to address all animals that passed through camp.

But more specifically to the elephants for which Bilimungwe was famous, they were named ‘evil’.

It was this vast difference in attitude that highlighted for me the ever widening gulf in understanding that had formed between those who actually lived in the wilds, and those who wanted to assure wildlife’s survival.

In the eyes of visitors, elephants are perhaps the most loved, but to many of Africa’s rural communities it was obvious they were the most hated. I was aware, but at this point I did not understand.

And then one close encounter left my feelings torn towards them.

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My Guest Movement Sheet from the lodge was two days’ late, and in my haste to update myself on receiving it, I broke the golden rule at Bilimungwe: ‘always be looking’.

A panicked voice from the dining room was my only warning “care madam, care”.

As I looked up from my paperwork the female elephant, two and a half metres tall, four tonnes, was already in full charge. Her solid frame soundless, not a whisper in her approach.

Instinct made me jump behind a nearby juvenile Mopani tree, throwing her off for a second. She was close enough that I could see her red eyes blazed with fury. Her hesitation short-lived, she began to search for me, pheromones streaming from her dark wet temples, fine ivory splayed wide, their dagger points approaching my pitiful hiding place.

Two options flashed before me: to make a break for Chalet Three which stood metres from me, but she was closer, or my second option, which I executed before it was fully formed as she once more had me in her sights.

Elephant attack

My heart exploding, I ran at her shouting, arms wide and flailing. The sudden movement and noise caught her by surprise and she turned and ran. An audience of the workers had gathered behind the thatched wall that hid the kitchen.

The look on their faces as I approached told me it was a close call.

Back in the kitchen the guys tried to rally me “stay strong madam. This is the bush.” “Madam, you were so lucky. God is great, he has spared you. My mother she was not so lucky. She ran and the elephant tusked her straight through the back.”

The stories of more unfortunate encounters were endless.

“The elephant is evil” one local added.

It was not the last encounter I would have during my time running the camp, but it was the closest.

I struggled to process the unprovoked attack with the image of a noble beast, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘gentlemen’.

A guide recognised my inner conflict and recommended a book to me – ‘Save me from the Lion’s Mouth – Exposing the Human-Wildlife Conflict in Africa’ by James Clarke. Through it I began to understand the conflict, and come to terms with the reality of the situation.

The book explores much more than the human-elephant conflict, but for my own experience it was his explanations on these creatures that were my focus. Clarke identified that, globally, aggression in elephants towards humans has heightened, and diagnosed the situation as a result of chronic stress.

Elephant with her calfs

This stress he put down to the ongoing habitat reduction, never-ending poaching, culling, and mass translocations of the elephants. Dr Gay Bradshaw, in an article in 2005 titled ‘Elephant Breakdown’, wrote that this stress was so destructive it was leading to ‘a precipitous collapse of elephant culture’. It is no wonder they are now responding with hostility and violence.

I became obsessed; I wanted to understand what drove them. I read ‘Silent Thunder’ by Katy Payne, which explored the relationships of elephants in a herd. There has been a lot of research on the familial bonds in elephants. There is no doubt they are highly intelligent, sociable creatures, but the research suggests that elephants may have an even higher level of emotional intelligence than humans.

We have all heard stories of elephants mourning the loss of close relations, and in later years returning to the burial sites of deceased family members.

My own experiences supported these theories and explained local attitudes, long ignored by foreign aid.

On a broader scale, 80% of Africa’s wildlife lives outside game reserves, which means that wildlife and humans are competing for the same habitat.

In Africa wildlife is a key source of revenue (through tourism and trophy hunting) and so the government controls it, while those who live among wild animals have almost no influence over the decisions made.

After millennia of having the right to hunt bushmeat (for many the only source of meat they have access too) in almost everywhere, it is now illegal. To them it seems their way of life has been altered as the game reserves now become exclusively for the entertainment of rich outsiders.

Elephant tree

The government is doing nothing to alter this image, which has led to guerrilla war with locals resorting to illegally taking back what they see as rightfully theirs. And from across the waters we dub them poachers.

Whilst conservationists are constantly raising the profile of protecting ‘our wildlife heritage’, little is being done to win over the local residents. And so much of that hinges on safety, ensuring they receive compensation for the loss of livestock and crops, and their own lives, to the wild animals they were previously allowed to control.

Efforts need to be increased to put these wild animals in a positive light, whereby the locals benefit from living side by side with them. And ironically it is the conservationists from Europe and North America who give so generously, who have so much influence on the wildlife policies.

Elephants sleeping

From the safety of our sofas at home, we have no concept of what it is like to be kept awake at night whilst elephants raid our cassava and maize crops, leaving us starving and helpless in the knowledge that the likelihood of compensation is zero, and yet knowing of wealthy tourists in the next village, paying hundreds of dollars to hunt and photograph the animal that threatens their own existence.

From my time living in the bush I have learnt to be incredibly respectful of all wild animals, and to live by the motto ‘The only predictable thing about a wild animal is that it is unpredictable’.

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