We sometimes forget how fortunate we are to be able to watch peaceful, calm, habituated elephants in Udawalawe. It’s easy to take for granted when they stand there, threshing their grass en masse, as though it were the most natural thing in the world to have a horde of humans gawking at them from a few meters away. This post may seem self-evident to a younger generation of wildlife watchers, who have grown up in a world packed to the breaking point with human beings and who realize that wilderness is an increasingly rare and precious thing. But it may challenge the thinking of some, particularly those of an older generation, for whom wilderness was a vast and ominous space teeming with dangerous things. For the latter, seeing wildlife might satisfy the need for a thrill in the same way as watching a frightening movie or visiting an amusement park – especially if that wildlife acts fierce and ferocious, such as charging elephant might do. This view still prevails among more than a handful of people today, who might think that seeing the “tame” elephants of some national parks is not as much fun as getting a much more “wild” experience in more secluded areas where the animals elicit more mutual terror.
If this is you, or someone you know, then read on and share. This post is for you.
First of all when you are confronted with an aggressive, flighty, upset elephant, you are seeing only a narrow spectrum of their wild behavior. Namely, you are seeing their annoyed response to you, who are a potential threat to them and their young. Irritating a protective mother, or for that matter grandmother is not really a decent thing to do whether it happens to be human or animal.
Second, we would argue that catching a glimpse of elephants as they turn tail and run away or spin around for a few seconds before running away is not as much fun as seeing them go about their normal business. It is not as much fun as watching the new baby play between its mothers legs, nurse from her, and roll around with its playmates. It’s not as much fun as watching calves sleep, in a heap on the ground with trunks curled and ears flapping gently as adults gingerly avoid stepping on them – and knowing that they trust you not to hurt them. It’s not as much fun as watching them tumble around gleefully in the water like glistening black beach balls, splashing their trunks about just for the pure pleasure of making a splash. It’s not as much fun as watching them pig out in the mud, wiggling and squeaking with joy, rubbing each other and piling up in an elephantine mound. It’s not as fun as watching young bulls test their strength with each other, wrestling their trunks about, chasing and parrying blows. And it’s not nearly as thrilling as watching two musth bulls face off, ignoring you as though you were an insignificant fly.
So the next time you want to see “wild” elephant behavior, remember that seeing wild elephants as they truly are is a privilege few get to experience. (And p.s. – even the relatively “tame” elephants of Udawalawe can be plenty threatening when they feel like it).