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Viewing Animals in the Wild: Lessons Learned and Never Forgotten

Whether traveling in Yellowstone Park or Africa, getting up-close-and-personal with animals can be fun and rewarding, but it comes with responsibility

Up-close-and-personal with elephant in Zambia. (Photo: Mike Lepetit)

I had never seen an African elephant in the wild like this. He was not put here for a show and I was not protected by a safari truck. The grass through which he walked was the same grass I felt on my calves. The bugs the bird ate off his back were the same as the ones flying about my head. For such a large creature, he was silent, except for the sound the reeds made as he snapped them with his trunk.

He was nervous, almost panicking.  I was too, but for a different reason.  My guide, Cathberth, or CB for short, was scrounging for his knife.  He had left it here on his last guided tour, over a month or so ago.  We had pulled over to a seemingly nondescript island in the middle of the Zambezi river.  We were either in Zimbabwe or Zambia, or both, or maybe neither.  Borders were blurry on this trip in Africa.  To CB, though, this island was as recognizable as 42nd street and Park Ave.  He pulled over deliberately to find this knife: his favorite, his multipurpose tool, and as I would find out three days later, his lifesaver.

As for myself, I was nervous because only twenty yards away was a large African elephant.  Wild and free, this enormous creature looked at us with as much curiosity as I looked at him.  The little white bird on his head continued grazing off of him without pause.  CB let out a sigh of relief.  He had found his knife.  Then he looked up at the elephant in front of us, almost as if he hadn’t even noticed it earlier.  “Oh,” he said, “look.”  He motioned for us to lower our bodies slightly.  He then waved us on to move in for a closer look.

“Aren’t we too close?” I whispered.

“No, it’s okay.  Just…” he motioned for us to stay down.

African Delta. Photo: Mike Lepetit

It seemed to me that we were not hiding from the elephant so much as communicating something to him.  Our diminutive posture let him know that we were not a threat.  After a minute of communicating this, the elephant continued eating, snapping tall reeds and stripping them of their leaves and popping them into his mouth.  It was a sublime moment.  In the cool breeze of the African evening, we stood in the shadow of an animal I had never seen in the wild like this.  He was not put here for a show and I was not in a safari truck.  The grass through which he walked was the same grass I felt on my calves.  The bugs the bird ate off his back were the same as the ones flying about my head.  For such a large creature, he was silent, except for the sound the reeds made as he snapped them with his trunk.

But just as interesting as watching the elephant was watching CB.  The rapport he had with the elephant was like the silent communication between a sheepdog and a sheep.  He communicated things through his body to the elephant and he listened to what the elephant had to say to him through its own enormous body.  Eventually CB told us to slowly and quietly move backwards toward our canoe, and I and the three others on this canoe trip continued down the river toward the island on which we would make our camp.

Viewing animals in nature is a beautiful and awe-inspiring experience.  To connect with nature, both locally and abroad, is something that we all too often lose in our daily lives. Experiencing species like the threatened African elephant in the wild will only raise people’s appreciation and care for them.  But it is imperative that intrepid travelers learn that there are rules to doing so, that these animals may resemble the ones in our zoos, but they do not come with cages and zoo keepers.

This is a lesson that people frequently forget. Recently they were shocked to see a bison in Yellowstone National Park throw a nine year old girl feet into the air when she got too close. I myself was at  but having been at Yellowstone at the time of this attack, and based on the things that I saw people do, that incident doesn’t come as much of a surprise.  Despite countless written and oral warnings to keep back at least twenty-five yards from bison, and to view them from a vehicle when possible, people repeatedly walked out of their cars to get close pictures of them, often breaching the twenty-five-yard recommendation.

Bison in Yellowstone Park. Photo: Mike Lepetit

Bison don’t seem very threatening; they lumber about like fluffy cows and they seem too big to be very fast.  Most of the time they just sit and cool off in dirt or munch on grass.  Often, it isn’t the people who wander too close to the bison, but vice versa.  On my first morning camping in Yellowstone, I emerged from the bathroom only to find the largest bison I would ever see standing between me and my tent.  Naturally, I took my phone out to film him, but as he turned his head to stare me down, I took small steps backwards.  I realized that the idea of getting any closer to this animal was clearly foolish.

I recalled that when I visited Glacier National Park, black bears as well as grizzlies haunted every hiking trail.  Hikers were strongly encouraged to bring bear spray, and notices about what to do in the case of a bear attack were posted everywhere.  Each time I saw one I was amazed at how docile they looked.  They frolicked in fields of wildflowers like gigantic playful squirrels, digging for bulbs and gripping berries with their tongues.  They hardly seemed like notorious hiker-hunters preying on tourists, which must be why so many people got out of their cars when they spotted them along the road.  What people forget is that when they get out of their cars or move towards an animal, they communicate that they want something from the animal.  Even if that something is just a picture, the animal is ready to ensure its own safety, either by running away or attacking.  Humans become a threat that animals must protect against.

Our last night on the Zambezi our guide, CB, explained to us that during one trip, similar to ours, he had cruised in his canoe with his elbows hanging out over the water.  A crocodile leaped up and pulled him under, and he used that knife, the one we had to stop and look for, to stab the crocodile and swim to safety, his arm broken in several places.  He knew all too well the dangers of being at the mercy of nature.  “I should never have had my elbows out like that,” he remarked.  It was something he warned us against during the entire trip; with good reason.

The next morning, we set out on a short canoe ride.  We pulled over at another island to watch a large lone elephant enjoy breakfast.  We were far enough away that the elephant barely paid us any attention, but close enough to hear him eat, to know it was just us and him.  He was an animal untamed, wild and in his element, and had he been so inclined, he could have trampled us; but with a safe distance between us, he was able to enjoy that calm and peaceful moment, and so were we.

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