Elephant sightings rate among the top wildlife encounters. But due to their impressive size, elephants have to be treated with respect. By Roxanne Reid

Self-driving around our game reserves is a privilege that brings huge pleasure. But it comes with enormous responsibility too, particularly in reserves where there are potentially dangerous animals like elephants.

Here are six basic rules for watching elephants

  • Don’t drive off the road
  • Don’t follow the elephants if they’re walking along the road
  • Always give them right of way
  • Drive off slowly if they get too close
  • Don’t cut off their path, especially if there’s more than one vehicle at the sighting
  • Don’t rev your engine near elephants

In addition to these basic rules, having some knowledge of elephant behaviour can help to keep you safe. For instance, you should know that all elephants can become aggressive when injured or harassed. Knowing that a breeding herd can be twitchy because of the need to protect small calves, or that a solitary bull in musth can be aggressive also alerts you to potential problems. You’ll know a bull in musth by the small amounts of urine leaking down his back legs and the characteristic trail of urine when he walks in the road. His temporal glands will also secrete a dark liquid between the ear holes and eyes.

WatchingElephants2-Roxanne Reid-June 2014

It helps to know that elephants react to what they see as threats in different ways.

Here are some of the signs to watch out for

  • They ‘stand tall’, raising their head and tusks high.
  • They shake their head from side to side, making the ears slap against the face.
  • They throw dust, swing their front foot and engage in exaggerated feeding behaviour, like loudly breaking off branches or pulling up grass, when they’re nervous or indecisive.
  • They swish their trunk, first rolling it up and then abruptly unfurling it at the same time as trumpeting or blasting air.
  • They turn towards you and approach while nodding, with the ears half spread.
  • They mock charge – a charge that’s broken off before the elephant reaches its target.
  • They charge in earnest and can kill, gore or trample other animals or humans, as well as wreck cars. Don’t wait long enough to find out if the charge is a mock one – get out of there when you notice the first signs of nervousness or aggression.
  • When you understand that elephants can run at 40km/h (about as fast as a 50cc motorbike) and weigh around 6 tons (about the same as two minibuses fully loaded with people), you’ll know that getting up an elephant’s nose till he charges you isn’t something you ever want to do. Keep your distance and you’ll both stay safe and peaceful.

Roxanne Reid is a freelance writer and editor. Read more about African travel and wildlife on her blog.