On the Trail of Giants – Life and Death in Botswana by Kaitlin Flood

It was during my first experience of solo travel that my life changed forever. The word ‘favourite’ in itself is incredibly subjective; many have expressed their surprise that this tale is my ‘favourite wildlife encounter’ when it resulted in so much chaos.

But for everybody involved, our view of the world changed. We knew we had experienced something truly unforgettable.


The Tuli Block in Eastern Botswana is a narrow fringe of land flanked by Zimbabwe to the north, and South Africa to the south. It’s Martian landscape of red and orange sands and rocky ‘kopjes’ (hills) suggest a barren, lifeless environment; yet look closer and spectacular vegetation creates an ecosystem where wildlife flourishes. Over 350 recorded bird species make it a haven for ornithologists.

However, it was not birds that brought us to Tuli. We were searching for giants.

There were ten of us in the open top safari truck that afternoon, 9 eco tourists from around the globe and our guide Jon-Jon. I was living a dream that I had finally made a reality. I was in Africa studying elephants.

Over a few days, we had been taught to track and identify elephant herds, collected data for population surveys, and been lucky enough to witness some astonishing displays of behaviour. We had learned that many of the the female elephants in Tuli possess a genetic abnormality- they are without tusks. This physical manifestation of natural selection is a cruel result of poaching, but also an unbeatable defence mechanism enabling herd survival. But it was the perceived presence of these poachers which inevitably led to the events of that July afternoon.

We had spotted our third herd of the day. Our car was parked a fair distance from the group, the sound of the engine softly humming second only to that of strong grey trunks tearing leaves from mopane trees. Watching these majestic creatures simply going about their lives gave me a glimpse into a world that before, I had only imagined. It was magical. But we were 15 minutes into our observations when the first elephant cow became restless.

Immediately, it was obvious that this female was different to the rest of her herd. She had tusks.

Her ears, which usually flapped to keep her cool in the dry heat of the savannah, were suddenly alert and held to the side. Her foot rocked to and fro over the dry ground, throwing up clouds of red sand. After two loud trumpets, she tucked her trunk under those rare ivory tusks.

And she charged.

Time stood still. Jon-Jon fired a warning shot into the air, we shouted, we made ourselves as large as possible to try and halt her attack. But it was too late.

The collision was unlike anything I have ever felt, ivory tearing through the fuel tank only a metre away from me, the sound of ripping metal ringing through my ears. Jon-Jon’s attempts to steer the car away were no match for her strength. In her panic to free herself from the mangled metal of our vehicle she tossed her head to and fro, and I was thrown into the air.

Sky.

Hard, red sand.

A mattress of mopane leaves.

I was alive.

My ears still ringing, it took a few seconds to realise where I had landed. From the shelter of the mopane tree that had softened my landing, I peered out onto what felt like a battlefield. I saw my friends scrambling to find cover. I saw Penny collapsed near where our car had come to rest. I heard Jon Jon shouting, keeping the trumpeting elephant at bay. The smell of diesel from our ruptured fuel tank burned my nose and throat. And we waited in the shelter of that mopane tree until all ten of us were transported to safety.


Six years on, this day is still a pivotal moment in my life.

For the ten of us in that car, the physical and mental scars are healing; a mere shadow of what they used to be. And I’m sure I can speak for us all when I say, our reverence and respect for elephants? Stronger than it has ever been.

My favourite wildlife encounter was never something I intended to experience. However, for that fateful hour, I felt like I understood the true plight of Botswana’s elephants; the terror, the fear, the pain.

What was a terrifying experience for our team is an everyday occurrence for the giants of Tuli. While we had the same human faces as the poachers these elephants feared, ours came with different names. We came under the banner of conservation. And faces like ours will continue to protect these magnificent creatures from those who wish to turn their savannahs into battlefields.

And we will never stop.

About the Entry

  • Blogger name | Kaitlin Flood
  • Site name | On The Wild Side
  • Site URLwww.onthewildsidemedia.weebly.com/blog
  • Why should someone visit your site? On The Wild Side began as a student project, and now covers all aspects of wildlife media from photography, filmmaking, podcasts, and blog posts!
  • Entry Number | 12

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