1. Rocking of the foot (swings one of the feet up and down) Often associated with kicking up dust. PS: Not when he’s doing it to re-root vegetation or feeding.
  2. HOLDS (prolonged) his/her ears out (remember elephants control their temperature by FLAPPING the ears. ) This is different, the animal holds them out longer than a flap… This is to show you how big he/she is… A warning of its size…
  3. Shacking of the head. Normally just one or two shakes and then moves off.
  4. Tail being held out at 90 % (stiff tail)
  5. Trumpeting


I’ll chat about that at the end.

Those are the basic signs to be aware of. This is simply his or her way of letting you know that they are uncomfortable. Sometimes its because of another elephant or a lion encounter or simply a ‘tiff’ with another elephant (most likely). The alternative is that your presence is causing it. Either way… if these signs are being shown, respect and awareness is important.

IF these signs are shown, it is advised that the following is done:

Female elephant cow:

If you have space to move back, do so quietly and calmly. Start your car, don’t rev it and panic, simple SLOWLY move backwards and out of the sighting, reposition if possible further away and enjoy the sighting . She just wants you to give her room or she feels you are to close to her young. NEVER get between a mother and a small calf. She will get upset!

Bull Elephant:

These are normally the big boys that move on there own or in small bachelor herds. If they are just walking past or grazing or with a family for a visit, the same applies. If they are having a bit of a tussle with one another, rather stay a bit further away, just to be safe, but same applies. Again, if they suddenly turn and move towards you, but show no signs of irritation or warning signs. Stay where you are, they are coming into your comfort zone, not Vice Versa. Only if the signs are shown should you move. If they are walking down the road (any elephant) Simple move to the side of the road and stop and turn off engine. If there is space for them, they will use it. Don’t block their path.

Bull elephant in musth:

Musth: is a periodic condition in bull elephants, characterized by highly aggressive behavior, accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones – testosterone levels in an elephant in musth can be as much as 60 times greater than in the same elephant at other times. Rather keep your distance, If you cannot avoid a close encounter. Give as much space as possible BEFORE he gets to close and turn off engine and sit still and enjoy the experience.

Young Bull elephants and young females (small enough to be teens but big enough to think they can take you on)

These guys/girls are the most energetic and quizzy… Often the ones that ‘mock’ charge or go to the point of touching the vehicle. The same ‘rules’ apply, but standing your ground and just letting them do there thing is the best option here. If they very close and you feel uncomfortable, a loud clap, usually will put them off, don’t continue to clap just one or two should do… If not Start the engine and without revving up and down, just slowly raise the revs, if he has stopped but close, just wait till he moves off.

3 zones are taught in our courses: the fright, flight, and fight zone (this applies to most animals)

NEVER ride towards elephants, personal space is VERY important! If they show no signs of being irritated and move towards you, that is fine… If they come right up to you, but still show none of the warning signs. Just enjoy the sighting

  1. If you approach an animal, and it continues to do what it was doing, you are merely a part of the surroundings…. Next you will enter the Fright Zone (yellow) – The animal now stops what it was doing and is affected in some way by your presence (you have its attention)
  2. If you continue your approach, you will enter the Flight zone (orange) The animal in most scenario’s will run away/ flee/ take ‘FLIGHT’ – Elephant don’t normally do this, this is the stage / zone you will get your warning signs…
  3. If you stupid enough to continue your approach or ignore the warnings.. You will be in the animals FIGHT zone. Not a good place to be… RED ZONE! Usually followed by a full charge and certain contact, injury or death…


If your vehicle is stationary and switched off, and you become unexpectedly surrounded by peaceful elephants, don’t panic. Don’t even start the engine, as that would startle them. Just sit there and enjoy it; there’s no real cause for concern. Only when they’ve passed and are a distance away should you start up. When you do start – never start and move off simultaneously, which will be interpreted as the vehicle being very aggressive. Instead start up quietly, wait a little, and then move.


More often a situation occurs when one from the herd will be upset with you. In that case you’ve approached too closely. Then an annoyed elephant will usually first mock charge. This usually first involves a lot of ear flapping, head shaking and loud trumpeting – mock charges are often preceded by ‘displacement activities’, and the animals often show uncertainty about charging. The elephant then runs towards you with ears spread out, head held high, and trumpeting loudly. This is terrifying, especially if you’re not used to it. But be impressed, not surprised. However terrifying, if you stand your ground then almost all such encounters will end with the elephant stopping in its tracks. It will then move away at an angle, with its head held high and turned, its back arched, its tail raised, and the occasional head-shake. Often you’ll find the ‘teenagers’ of the herd doing this – testing you and showing off a bit.

However, if you flee or back off rapidly during such a mock charge, the elephant will probably chase your vehicle, perhaps turning a mock charge into a full charge. An elephant can move at 40 kph. In the bush, that’s pretty fast, even for your vehicle.

As a fairly desperate measure, not normally needed, if the elephant is really getting too close, then increasing the revs of your engine – commensurate with the threat, will encourage the animal to stop and back down. Don’t beep your horn/hooter, don’t rev up and down, but do steadily press your accelerator further down as the elephant gets closer.


If you are really unfortunate, you could come across an upset or traumatized animal, or one that really perceives you as a threat and that makes a full charge. This is rare – expected only from injured elephants, cows protecting calves, males in musth and the like. Then the individual will fold its ears back, put its head down, tucks the trunk away under the chin (to avoid hurting itself when it makes contact!!!! and runs full speed at your vehicle. They will generally be quite too, not trumpeting! If this occurs, then your only option is to drive as fast as you can. This is why we noted earlier that when parking to observe, you should be prepared for a ‘one point turn’. If you can’t get away, simply put, you are in deep trouble. I guess the option is to try revving, as above, matching it’s threat with your engine’s noise – but you better also put on those seat belts because your vehicle is in for a really rough collision.

By Johnathan Pledger


About Author

People say that Africa has an effect on your soul and Mark Henson the ‘author’ of this site is no exception. He first travelled to South Africa and the province of KwaZulu-Natal in 1993 and has been coming and going every year since. Twice now most years!

1 Comment

Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.