Renowned field biologist Ian Redmond was quietly filming a herd of elephants in western Kenya's Mount Elgon Forest Reserve when one of the giant animals became alarmed and started to threaten him. The big bull elephant turned toward Redmond and his group and flapped its ears in irritation. The scientist backed away.
The elephant, apparently still considering them a threat, charged. It knocked Redmond over, partially dislocating his shoulder and damaging the tissue in his neck and chest.
Redmond was consulting with wildlife charity Born Free International on the day of the attack, filming the herd so they could get an accurate count later. He was with the Mount Elgon Elephant Monitoring (MEEM) team, as well as Kenya Wildlife Service rangers. The MEEM team monitors this unique population of elephants, studies their behavior, and attempts to habituate them to human presence so that tourists can get closer to them.
This is the first time Redmond has seen an elephant go so far from his herd to attack a perceived threat—even though the group was about 500 feet (152meters) away. Typically elephants won’t charge at more than a hundred to 130 feet (30 or 40 meters).
Redmond has been working with the elephants of Mount Elgon for 36 years and says he has never seen such abnormal behavior.
“The books say that if an elephant’s ears are out and he’s trumpeting, then he’s displaying and telling you to back off,” says Redmond.
But this elephant, nicknamed Kali (meaning “fierce” in Swahili), wasn’t bluffing when it charged.
“It turns out that not every elephant has read these books,” Redmond adds.
So why did the elephant act this way? Redmond can’t say exactly what Kali was thinking, but there is some evidence that the herd was stressed. The day before, illegal charcoal making was allegedly happening in the area. That activity can stress out elephants, particularly if the workers chase the animals from their work sites.
Local farmers were also shouting to the MEEM team, trying to give them information about the herd. Between 2012 and 2014, at least eight elephants in Mount Elgon National Park were poached for ivory, and it’s likely that Kali was in a similar social group.
Redmond hopes that this story will bring attention to work to protect these elephants and the ongoing threats they face.
“On the face of it, it’s a dramatic encounter with a frightened elephant,” says Redmond. “But the bigger picture is protecting a critically important forest and a unique population of elephants.”
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