When elephants turn into murderers

Life: What a journeyCHARLES CHISALA
ZAMBIA’S tourist capital, Livingstone, is still in a state of mourning. In a space of two weeks free-roaming wild elephants killed three people.

The victims met their fate in two separate incidents.
The attacks have brought back memories of my one-year tour of duty in the tourist capital between 2012 and 2013.
To you the unschooled, half of Livingstone is part of the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, which is named after one of the Seven Wonders of the World and Zambia’s premier tourist attraction, the mighty Victoria Falls, the “smoke that thunders”.
In the first attack the victim, a security guard, had just knocked off at Air Charters after sunset as it was getting dark.
Air Charters provides aerial viewing of the falls and the gorge as well as chartered flights from Livingstone to other tourist attractions such as the globally famous South Luangwa National Park.
According to eyewitness accounts the man was riding home on his bicycle on the access road, probably heading to Mosi-oa-tunya road.
He was not aware that a herd of elephants was in the area, on both sides of the bush track.
Despite their size these animals are so stealthy that it is almost impossible for you to detect their presence and movement if they don’t make noise such as tearing a branch off a tree.
They do not snort, grunt or sneeze like hippos, bush hogs and buffalos.
That is why the victim was not aware that he was cycling in the middle of a herd.
His workmates saw the animals and tried to warn their friend, but he couldn’t hear their frantic gestures, shouts and whistles.
Eyewitness accounts indicate that he might have surprised and therefore startled one of the jumbos, which charged at him without warning.
As the elephant ran towards the unsuspecting biker his workmates increased the gestures, shouting and whistling to alert him of the approaching death, but their well-intentioned efforts were in vain.
But even if they had succeeded in making him aware of the danger the victim wouldn’t have stood a chance.
Once an agitated elephant is in a full charge like that it never backs off unless its target outpaces it and escapes.
Workmates watched in horror as the towering elephant, most likely a young bull, caught up with the man and knocked him off the bicycle with a vicious swipe of its muscle-packed trunk.
They just heard him scream once.
Before the victim knew what was happening the heavy beast was performing its deathly dance over him, trampling him and goring him with its deadly tusks until it was sure he was dead.
The monster swaggered back to the herd while hooting with its trunk triumphantly.
Police and officers from the Department of Wildlife and Game Parks later picked up the dismembered remains of the victim and advised people not to cycle or walk in the park, especially when there was poor visibility, because it was dangerous.
In the second attack two European tourists could not believe their luck when a herd of wild elephants walked into the premises of the lodge where they were staying while on vacation.
It was a chance of a lifetime to see wild elephants at such close range, and a rare opportunity for selfies to share with friends, relatives, workmates back home and the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, it’s like they were on their own without a local citizen or lodge worker to warn them not to go too near the harmless-looking animals.
Eyewitness accounts indicate that they went so close to the animals that one of them got agitated.
The victims were unable to read the warning signs.
In such situations the elephant does not charge without warning.
It will show signs of displeasure and try to warn off the intruder by flapping its big ears, swinging its trunk, making sudden turns and performing short mock charges.
The tourists might not have understood the meaning of such behaviour and continued moving closer and closer to the beasts until one of them charged at them.
Since they had not expected the attack, it caught them off guard with little or no reaction time.
The furious beast killed both of them. The incidents were very unfortunate.
As I have said I spent one year in Livingstone between 2012 and 2013 and I must confess that I was always fascinated at the sight of elephants.
I acquired some knowledge on the behaviour and feeding patterns of these wonderful but dangerous creatures.
This time of the year when there is less food in the forests they increase in numbers around Livingstone.
The elephants cross the Zambezi River near the David Livingstone Island and roam far and wide in search of food – leaves, fruits, small twigs and tree bark – as most of the natural vegetation is dry.
The well-tended trees, shrubs and bushes at the hotels and lodges dotted around the game park become irresistible attractions.
During my time in the tourist capital the animals would cross from Zim either as one large herd of up to 200 or in small sub-herds.
They have a favourite ‘rest station’ where they make stop-overs between Vuma filling station and the Maramba Bridge where they spend hours, sometimes half the day, milling around the giant trees.
Sometimes I would notice that they were waiting for a smaller or bigger group to join the herd before proceeding to the falls or Linda township.
There were always between two and four adventurous young bulls which would be constantly fooling around and performing comic dances, probably to impress the impassive girls.
But such delinquent behaviour often attracted censure from the older bulls, including temporary banishment from the herd, so that the youngsters could reflect on their conduct and show some manners.
The delinquents were angered by the suspension from the herd and would not hesitate to vent their frustrations on the hapless humans.
Sometimes they would unnecessary attack out of adventurism to win the acceptance and respect of the big guys and the girls.
A lactating mother is likely to attack without warning to protect its calf; so is a wounded elephant out to seek revenge for the injury.
I would have told you more about these marvellous creatures but my space is limited.

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