'I Had a Near Miss With a Charging Wild Elephant'

Two massive bull elephants came barreling toward me, kicking up sand as the one charged the other and pummelled him in the vulnerable flank with his sharp tusk. The other retreated, heading straight at me at close range—and there was no telling if he'd stop when he got to me. I had miscalculated. There was no margin of error. I had nowhere to go.

Normally, I am in my research tower observing elephants from afar, at my field site in the northeast corner of Etosha National Park, Namibia. Or, if up close, I'm sitting on top of my research bunker twenty meters from the waterhole. My feet would be poised on the subterranean ladder rungs—thighs taut, ready to scramble down to safety if need be, while taking ID photos of individual elephants.

But here I was, perched on a heavy metal bar mounted in the place of the passenger door of a Toyota Landcruiser, like John Wayne rustling up wildlife in the film, Hatari. How did I find myself in such a precarious position?

I had been narrating the blow by blow of a group of male elephants for a documentary. I was sitting where the camera is usually mounted, because it gave us a commanding view of the elephants over my shoulder. Over time, the bulls had slowly gotten closer and closer to me, while I was preoccupied with a piece-to-camera about bonding behaviors within this particularly bonded group of males. It was really just one elephant, named Tim, that was particularly close. The others were scattered around the waterhole, paying us no attention. They were all much more concerned about the elephant named Charles. And Tim happened to be the focus of his ire that day.

Bull elephants confront the vehicle of Dr. Caitlin O'Connell, Etosha National Park, Namibia. Courtesy

I knew Tim quite well—he had the reputation of taking lone youngsters under his wing—but he was also the punching bag for bruisers like Charles. And for whatever reason, Charles had an elephantine bone to pick with Tim that day. Perhaps it was because an elephant named Beckham had shown up with swords blazing, setting the bad-tempered Charles in an even fouler mood.

As I was narrating to the director, who was sitting in the driver's seat, the cameraman was crouched underneath me. His large film camera was rolling on this amazing scene of over a dozen male elephants looming large in the foreground.

Then it suddenly was just like trouble flowing downriver during a brawl in a bar, where a displaced individual tends to beat on any subordinate that happened to be in the way—and I was in the position of subordinate. By all outward appearance, Tim was fixin' to crush me between metal bar and metal cruiser. And the cameraman was about to get crushed under his stomped-on camera, which itself weighed fifty pounds or more.

Fortunately, Tim made a course correction, and veered off at the last second, practically brushing his thick leathery skin against my knee as he fled. We all breathed deeply from lungs still very much intact, when suddenly we were confronted with a very different kind of challenge. This time from Beckham. Beckham spends much of his time trying to figure out what we do in our enclosed camp, and now was his chance to get up in our grill to see if we would flinch. This was much more exciting to him than to confront Charles.

Beckham sauntered up to the front of the truck as if inviting us to a duel. In my mind I could hear his spurs rattling and clanking like chains as he strutted over in the sand. With me still sitting on the bar, there was a mountain of elephant towering over me.

I moved as slowly as I possibly could and got myself into the front seat—a little more protected than being outside of the metal box. I stopped the director from trying to start the engine. I knew this would agitate this bull. Even though he looked like he was about to squash us, I also knew that people who ran from vehicles were the ones that got killed in the end.

Beckham proceeded to do something that I had never seen before or since. From the front of the truck, he lay down most of the entire length of his trunk across the hood of the truck. His eye was now right above mine some fifteen feet above me. I could see him twirling the very tip of his trunk as the rest of it lay flaccid and heavy like the limb of the giant squid monster in Reap The Wild Wind—another John Wayne flick.

He was toying with us, ol' Beckham, just like he'd do when he'd come up to our electric fence and place the two lips of the tip of his trunk around one of the wires to see if the fence was in fact turned on. That's the kind of guy he was—a trickster. When he was finished with us, Beckham sashayed off, with a little extra pep in his stride. As luck would have it, we would live another day, John Wayne's style.

Dr. Caitlin O'Connell is a behavioral ecologist, world-renowned elephant scientist, and author of Wild Rituals. She has spent 30 years studying animals in expeditions across the Pacific, the Caribbean, and the African savanna.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.