These gentle giants possibly account for the largest number of human deaths in the wilderness. When instigated, they are devastating and even the relatively safer confines of a vehicle is no match for their brute force which is often lethal.

However, their size lessens the chance of a silent and sudden attack, while their warning signs, well -researched and documented, provide us vital clues of an impending lethal charge, and gives us precious time to get out of harm’s way. Elephants, unless in ‘Musth’(a cyclical state when the testosterone levels soar in bull elephants), seldom let loose a lethal attack, without the actual charge being preceded by warning rituals followed by a mock charge.

elephant at Kabini

A Mock Charge?

The tell-tale warning ritual/signs are:

– In a stationery position, they start rocking themselves either back and forth or to the sides
– One of the front legs is lifted and the portion below the knee begins swinging back & forth
– The ears begin to flap faster and during the charge, they are pressed to the head facing front

This is normally when the mock charge is unleashed with a bone chilling shriek, followed by a menacing run towards the enemy. The charge is abruptly stopped and the animal sizes up the situation after the charge. If it is still threatened, the real charge is let loose. The above traits in combination with the ones below are definite pointers for a serious attack.
-The trunk is nervously twitching and is curled inwards during the charge
-The tail is normally pointing to the air during a charge

Elephants are normally supposed to be most dangerous when they are alone. While this is true with most of the single males, especially in ‘Musth’, large herds with breeding mothers and young ones are more dangerous. Often we venture into a herd (they graze on both sides of a jungle road) involuntarily cutting them off when we get between them. This is a perfect recipe for trouble. So, the cardinal rule for us wildlife photographers is, the minute you spot an elephant or a herd on one side of the road, immediately look out on the other side for possible scattered ones of the same herd.


Beware of Herds!

It is also easy to identify a bull in ‘Musth’. He is normally alone, a wet patch starting on the side of its head, dripping a gooey liquid flowing all the way down the head, combined with an elongated penis dribbling constantly are definite signs of a dangerous and potentially lethal bull elephant.

An elephant tucking its trunk under its chin, its ears flat against its head, tusks lowered, charging forward at full speed is a terrifying sight to behold. If you are in a vehicle when it happens, put pedal to metal and get out as fast as possible. If you are on foot, dive into a ditch, climb a strong tree . . . . God save you.