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The Elephant is Watching You

Finding a herd of elephants

One day during my 35-day Practical Field Guide Course with EcoTraining, I and a small group of students went on a bushwalk with two of our instructors. The goal was to find a herd of elephants seen not far from our camp. We headed out, walking in single files, one behind the other, with the lead guide in the front and the backup in the back. There was no talking, and the mobile phones were turned off. All of us were watching left and right, hoping to spot something that resembled a big grey animal. After an hour or two of walking, tracking, and listening, the lead guide finally indicated that the herd was close to us. We were excited!

Signs of alertness

Before I started my field guide training, when I saw an elephant, I just saw an elephant. What it did, like feeding, drinking, or trumpeting. But little did I know about all the subtle signs that can be observed while we learned how to read the elephant’s behaviour. One part you should always look at is the trunk. When an elephant realizes your presence, you can see the tip of its trunk moving a little towards you, with the opening facing your direction to catch your scent. Sometimes, it is a very subtle movement, but it is easy to see once you pay attention. Another sign indicating that an elephant is aware of you is the tail. Generally, the elephant’s tail is dangling down in a relaxed animal. In moments of alertness, however, it gets slightly lifted and held almost horizontally in the proximal parts.

Displacement behaviour

As my group and I watched the elephants from a safe distance, I realized that it wasn’t only us watching the animals – it was also them watching us. When I looked closely, I could see that the animal closest to us picked up a branch with its trunk and brought it to its mouth, but instead of putting it into the mouth, it let the branch fall and pretended to chew. This behaviour, as I have learned, is called mock-feeding.

The elephant pretends to feed and not to see or mind us while observing. Only after a while, after we had stayed in the distance and silence, did it relax with us being there and begin feeding for real again. Behaviours like these, not only in elephants, are displacement behaviours.

Alarm signals

When someone does not respect the elephant’s boundaries, i.e., moves beyond their comfort zone, you may see their alarm signals. One is the elephant’s body position. It may move in a way that it stands at a 90-degree angle to you, showing its side. This is done to make it appear as big as possible and ensure you understand with whom you are dealing.  Additionally, the elephant could extend its ears towards both sides to appear even more significant and intimidate you or anyone disturbing. When all of this doesn’t help control the situation, the elephant might do something called a mock charge. In this instance, it will turn and run towards you but stop within a few metres. If this happens, you really should begin to retreat and give the animal some space if you do not want it to perform an actual charge on you.

Ethical guiding

As I was taught in my 35-day Practical Field Guide Course with EcoTraining, a good field guide or ranger should always behave ethically. When we approached animals like an elephant, either by foot or by car, we would keep a distance that respected the comfort zones of humans and animals. Learning about the bodily signs the animal shows, interpreting them correctly, and acting accordingly is what makes a truly memorable and enjoyable experience for everyone.

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Alarm signals

Today we join EcoTraining students Debbie, Maurice and Stephane at Pridelands. They started their journey with EcoTraining by enrolling and completing their Online Field Guide course and then decided to come and do their practical component. They came together at Pridelands, where they started their 35-day Field Guide Practical course—thrilled with the real-time experiences and incredible wildlife sightings one can only have when in the field.

About the Author:
Picture of Andrea Schmid

Andrea Schmid

Andrea started her field guide qualification with EcoTraining in the first ever online theory course due to the pandemic in 2020. After borders reopended in 2021, she gained practical skills and experience during the 35-day practical at Pridelands Conservancy. Several trips to southern africa followed, being enriched by the acquired knowledge. She is currently living in Germany working in the medical field, however, the deep love for the South African bush and its wildlife remained.

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