One of the most serious challenges facing conservationists around the globe is human/wildlife conflict. As more and more people settle in wild areas, interaction with wildlife often puts people and their livelihoods at risk. In Zambia, crop raiding elephants are a particular problem. It’s all very well to say that the wildlife was there first, but it is impossible not to sympathise with a family who loses their entire year’s provisions in a single night to an elephant raiding party.
Some fantastic work is being done here in the South Luangwa to help minimise elephant/human conflict, and I’ll focus on this in another post. But in the meantime, here is a little personal experience of elephants in our pantry, which fortunately did no lasting damage. In fact it is a great over-dinner story; not many people are slimed by an elephant and live to tell the tale!
Last year, not long before the end of the dry season, I was soundly asleep in our small cottage when I was woken by a loud bumping and banging sound. I looked at my phone and saw that it was 2:30 am. This really surprised me, because in my sleepy state I had assumed the noise was the baboons who roost above our roof, but they normally only start their antics at dawn.
Very grumpily I climbed out of bed, thinking we would never get any sleep unless I went outside and chased the baboons away. I stumbled sleepily into the kitchen and stopped in total confusion. Was I dreaming, or just finally going mad? Between me and the front door, our fridge was dancing around the kitchen floor by the light of the moon streaming through the window! I jumped forward, grabbing it ineffectually with one hand and pointed my torch around it with the other. Suddenly I froze as the beam lit up an enormous grey head on the other side of the fridge. These were not baboons – our kitchen was being raided by a herd of elephants!
The leader of the elephant gang had smashed open the door and window, pushed her head into the kitchen, stuck her tusks into the side of the fridge and was attempting to open it like a can of beans! I spied a loaf of bread that we had baked that evening disappear out of the window into the elephant melee beyond. Meanwhile, the first elephant inspected me with the tip of her trunk with some surprise. I yelled and clapped, backing out through the door I had come in, and fortunately she backed off too. As the gang ran off into the moonlight, I turned on the lights and found the biggest mess I had ever seen in a kitchen. All of our mosquito gauze windows were ripped open and anything edible had been opened and scattered all over the floor.
I decided there was nothing to be done at this early hour and made a mental note to be up and on guard before our resident militia of yellow baboons awoke and found that they had free access to our kitchen. But just then I heard the same noise again! I rushed outside and realised that the elephants had now burgled our neighbours’ house and were inside happily munching their way through the fruit bowl. Our neighbours were away at the time, so I swung into action once more and managed to send the elephants on their way by lobbing rocks onto the metal roof.
They took no time at all in breaking into the next house along. The owners were also away, but here there were people house sitting, and because it was too dangerous to intervene any more, I trusted that the occupants would chase the elephants off and I headed home. It turns out the house sitters did no such thing, and sensibly locked themselves in their rooms while the elephants ran amok in the kitchen.
Anyway, it was high time for me to get back to bed, but there was just one small delay. As I walked back through the kitchen I felt that the floor was a little slippery. I looked down and realised that the elephant had done more than examine me with her trunk; she had snorted out the horrible human smell before running off and had covered me from head to toe in elephant snot! With all the excitement I had not realised that I had been running around covered in pachyderm nasal slime!
So in the end a long cool shower was needed before getting back into bed. As I climbed under the covers my wife rolled over and mumbled “What’s all the noise about?”.
“Elephants have broken into the kitchen, we’ve got no windows left, there’s food all over the floor, tusk holes in the fridge and I got covered in elephant snot!” I replied.
“Oh dear.” she sighed, rolled over and was asleep again within seconds!
As for me, I floated off to sleep to dream of four ton baboons and tree climbing elephants, wondering what we were going to put in the toaster for breakfast the next morning.