Elephant attacks are becoming more common, experts say

Elephant attacks are becoming more common, experts say

An African elephant killed a 64-year-old tourist in Zambia on Wednesday, the second fatal attack in the country this year.

A parked tourist vehicle was observing a herd by the Maramba Cultural Bridge in the city of Livingstone when one of the elephants ambushed the car. According to the Associated Press, Juliana Gle Tourneau, a visitor from New Mexico, was thrown out and trampled to death.

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On March 30, a bull elephant charged and flipped a game-drive vehicle in Zambia’s Kafue National Park. The male animal injured five passengers and killed Gail Mattson, a 79-year-old from Minnesota.

Wildlife experts say elephants have been exhibiting more aggressive behavior toward people because of growing pressure on their habitats and herds. According to the World Wildlife Fund, elephants have killed more than 200 people in Kenya over the last seven years. In India, several hundred people perish each year because of ill-fated elephant encounters, said Joshua Plotnik, an elephant behavior and cognition researcher at Hunter College in New York City.

“As human development expands and natural elephant habitat decreases, the frequency of interactions has inevitably increased,” Plotnik said. “This leads to more elephant and human deaths, unfortunately.”

Chase LaDue, a conservation scientist at the Oklahoma City Zoo, said the position and timing of safari vehicles can contribute to an attack. And “just like people,” he said, “elephants can get frustrated and act out after they’ve just gone through a stressful experience.”

When you drive upon an elephant herd, you don’t know what happened 30 minutes ago,” LaDue said. “They may have just gotten out of a stressful situation and thought they were in the clear, and you caught them at the wrong moment.”

In the March incident, LaDue noted “the vehicle was in a bad spot with vegetation that made it difficult to give the elephant the space that it needed.”

Not all interactions end tragically. In March, a male elephant used its trunk like a crane to repeatedly lift and drop a wildlife-viewing truck in South Africa’s Pilanesberg National Park. The guide scared off the elephant with loud noises, such as shouting, revving the engine and slamming the doors. No one was injured.

Wildlife experts say African elephants, which are the world’s largest land mammal, need a prodigious amount of space and resources to survive. However, human development has been nibbling away at their habitat. Tourists on safari are also encroaching on their diminishing space. In these situations, a human-elephant conflict, or HEC, can transpire.

“Instances of these HECs are increasing as elephants seek out high-quality food resources by crossing from national park or protected habitats and enter crop fields and farm lands,” Plotnik said.

Elephants are also more prone to aggression during certain phases of their life cycle. For example, males can turn dangerous when they are broadcasting their availability to potential mates.

During musth, their testosterone is surging, and they will secrete a chemical that leaves wet streaks on the side of their face. LaDue said uninformed visitors might misinterpret the drippings as tears or crying, but experienced safari guides should know better.

“Certainly any guide would recognize those [signs] and give male elephants wide berth,” he said.

Females, which can give birth any time of year, are very protective of their young. LaDue said the youngsters can be playful and mischievous, and may wander off. If a safari vehicle or caravan wedges itself between the baby and the mom or herd, a perilous situation could arise.

“Females have a vested interest in protecting those calves at all costs possible,” he said. “You can unknowingly get yourself in the danger zone where you’re splitting a calf from the rest of the herd. Or maybe you didn’t realize the mother was on one side and the calf is on the other. These sort of conflicts are relatively common in Africa.”

LaDue acknowledges that wildlife activities involve risk. To ensure a safer experience, he recommends travelers ask the safari company about what kind of training their guides undergo. At the very least, they should be experienced in first aid and medical emergency care. Some countries also have accreditation programs, he added.

If you come upon an elephant in a community or city, Plotkin said to avoid it. National parks, game reserves and protected areas, where elephants roam free, will limit the number of daily visitors or vehicles to reduce the stress on the colossal animals.

“As natural habitats with high-quality food continue to disappear, we are going to not only see more and more HEC, but the need to come up with more effective solutions will become even more important,” Plotkin said. “Human-elephant coexistence is the goal and requires coordinated efforts by governments, tourism agencies, local communities and conservationists to help humans and elephants.”

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