The Most Dangerous Animals in Africa
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Petrified Lightning

The Most Dangerous Animals in Africa

Among all wild herbivores (plant eaters), the African elephant is the animal most likely to regard humans only with curiosity unless it perceives them as a threat. So there is little doubt now that fear and hatred of the hunter can be passed on from generation to generation.

For centuries elephants were hunted with poisoned spears or were driven into traps where they were impaled on poisoned stakes. By the end of the 19th century, hunted seriously for their ivory, an estimated 100,000 elephants were killed annually. The noblest of land creatures was being massacred for cameos and figurines, billiard balls and piano keys.

During the first 10 years of their lives young elephants are relatively immature and continue to learn about the world and how to survive in it from their mothers. Normally the African elephant entertains an extraordinary horror of the human hunter. Even the awareness of a human child windward of them can put a herd of elephants to flight. That an elephant can trample a hunter has no value against human weaponry.

How rapidly these perceptive animals become aware of a hunter's presence also is not surprising. All the elephants in a district are alerted to a hunter within two or three days. The elephants' method of communication is not entirely understood, but animal behaviorists have some ideas. They have observed, for instance, that hunters approaching an elephant herd often see one of the elephants raise its trunk, emitting no audible sound. Yet the herd is instantly alerted as far as a mile away. Actually the elephant did emit a sound, one of such low frequency that humans cannot detect it. Elephants may use this undetectable sound to communicate a warning to each other that human hunters are approaching.

When an elephant has nowhere to flee, it may react quite differently from the cautious, furtive beast that avoids confrontation. A cornered animal may become a most dangerous beast of prey. In the region now preserved as the Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa is a large, dense forest. Years ago the elephant herd that lived on the outskirts of the forest took to foraging in adjacent farms and orchards. Desperate over the devastation of their crops, the farmers hired a professional hunter to eradicate the destructive creatures.

Beginning in 1919 and over a period of months the hunter picked off elephants whenever and wherever he could get a shot at them. Within a year the original population of 140 animals had been reduced to fewer than three dozen. The survivors were becoming increasingly difficult to find because they had retreated into the deep recesses of the forest. They were so wary of the hunter that they would emerge from the depths of the forest only at night. Then, every time the hunter could get close to them, one of the elephants would charge at him from dense cover. They appeared to wait in ambush for their avowed enemy. After several very narrow escapes the hunter gave up and resigned from his position as elephant eradicator.

Although the descendants of these elephants are now protected by strict game laws, the herds have not forgotten their former persecution. Unlike most African elephants they still come out from the protective cover of the forest to feed only after dark and will charge any human on sight. This small herd of elephants is currently considered, by authorities and poachers alike, to be the most dangerous group of wild animals in Africa.

The facts of life that the elephant child learns at its mother's knee are not forgotten.