I’m no Jeff Corwin, Nick Baker, or Jack Hanna, but twice in April 2010, I easily could have met as untimely an end as the famous Australian “Crocodile Hunter,” Steve Irwin. Cause of death would not have been stingray barb, but rather, clawed-paw, teeth, tusk, foot (large), and crushing body weight of either a mature male lion (450+lbs), or an “ele” (pronounced “eli”), of which the Kruger National Park describe the average weight as “two mini-buses full of people (6 tonnes).”
The incidents occurred at Klaserie, a 60,000 hectare, privately owned reserve, appended as it were to Kruger with unrestricted animal migration.
Thursday morning began with a visit from the game warden’s wife and daughter, who drove the few kilometers off the main road to our friends’ camp in order to fetch their daughter. The two girls were taking horseback riding lessons in Hoedspruit, the nearest town. Prior to leaving, she informed Jonathan of a sighting of two large male lions feeding on a fresh buffalo kill, just off the Reserve’s main road.
After they departed, Jonathan said to Iain (another long-time friend) and me, “Shall we?” This is man-talk for “Chaps, are you ready to walkabout and look for those lions?!”
Jonathan and I on one of our many walkabouts.
Over-enthusiastically we climbed into the Land Cruiser (LC), not pausing to consider any variety of “what if” scenarios.
We had one rifle between us, which Jonathan as resident owner at Klaserie took responsibility of, several pairs of cameras and binoculars, and a few pocket knives, which, I assume we somehow thought might be of use to clean any animal aggressor’s toe nails or teeth while it was busy inflicting bodily harm on us.
As to the lone rifle, I was sure of my own abilities – having successfully shot a 6′ reared up and ready to strike cobra in the head – but in all the years I’ve walked-about with Jonathan at Klaserie, I’ve simply trusted that his previous army experience made him a crack shot at any close in and charging animal.
Peter holding the cobra I shot at our home in Musoma, TZ
Based on the friend’s description, Jonathan knew exactly where to drive and park the LC so as to be downwind of the lions. We disembarked and began a slow, quiet, single-file walk through the thick bushveld in search of “our lions,” with Jonathan in front (of course), me in the middle and Iain bringing up the rear. As we painstakingly descended the knoll where the LC remained, we soon came across the buffalo victim’s detached tail – the first sign that we were on the right trail. A short while later we came on fresh lion scat – poop for you unfamiliar with the term.
What happened next is a jumbled blur of remembrances. I recall how quiet and still the surrounding bush had become. At this point we were almost creeping through the thick brush. I was looking down for telltale sign of lions when Jonathan whisper-shouted, “LION!!!”
Male lion feeding on a wildebeest in a dense bush similar to the one hiding the two Klaserie lions.
My head whipped up to see a flurry of lion motion beneath a large bush a mere 35 meters in front of us. Engrossed in their buffalo, we evidently startled them as much as they us. One lion bolted from the rear of the bush, but the other charged over the buffalo and towards us, his mane fanned back as if he had it sticking out the window of a car going 100 km/h, and I remember the eyes – eerily and menacingly yellow. After only a few forward strides, the lion fortunately did a sharp 90-degree turn to the right, kicking up early morning dust, disappearing into the bush and leaving us walkabouters with elevated testosterone and heart rate levels.
Charging lion, similar to the one that came toward us.
This lion encounter did little more than provide us with an exciting story to tell our families back at camp over a late breakfast, and then again in the evening while nursing drinks around the campfire. Little did I know that tomorrow’s (Friday) elephant encounter would put this in the small potatoes category.
Growing up my family always loved vacationing in East African national parks. Getting charged by elephants, rhinos or buffalos was always part of the “fun” – only because they were controlled provocations. On many occasions we were the hecklers and agitators, who would make respective animal sounds in an effort to get them to come for us. On these occasions we always had a clear and fast getaway, so barring colossal vehicle malfunction, there was little-to-no risk. Friday’s incident, however, induced restless sleep for weeks after the incident.
It was our last day at Klaserie, with a Saturday departure. Mid-afternoon my wife Ana, middle daughter Christina and I left camp in the LC. I drove and they sat on the cushioned benches in the open back. For more than an hour we inched through Klaserie’s bush only to see the “usual” – giraffe, impala, zebra, kudu, et cetera. As the afternoon sun reached its golden peak, we crossed the river and were heading back to camp from the backside, along a track where several days previously elephants had knocked several small trees down, forcing the track to detour.
Me clearing a Klaserie track
Cleaning up after Klaserie elephants.
As we came across fresh elephant spoor, including young ones, I recall we were growing hungry and ready for a hot shower. A few kilometers further on the track skirted a small and densely vegetated hill. I saw an ele feeding on the right side of the track about 100 meters ahead. I immediately stopped the LC. My attention was focused forward, when suddenly my wife leaned into the open driver’s side window, pounded on the roof of the LC with her hand, and shouted, “GO, GO, GO!!!!!” My head whipped from noon to almost 3-o’clock where she was frantically pointing. Silently but with great speed an ele was bearing down on us, pushing through brush with ease.
Frequently the LC’s side mirrors were folded in. For some unknown but grateful reason they had been repositioned that afternoon. I had a split second to decide what to do. Going forward was not an option due to elephants in the road. I couldn’t veer off left or right due to thick brush, plus many LC-disabling rocks. Reverse was my only option. I quickly shifted into reverse and off we shot with the ele in fast and persistent pursuit.
Somehow I managed to keep us and the LC on the narrow and winding bush track while reversing at a speed of near 70 km/h for upwards of 175 meters. The ele eventually came onto the track in her pursuit of us. I recall a moment frozen in time, where my head was fanning left to right for rearview mirror guidance, plus fleetingly glancing at center mirror to ensure my family were still in the back, and also glancing forward to our danger, thinking how IMMENSE and NEAR the ele looked as she bore down on us, and wondering HOW LONG and FAR are you going to pursue us?
Close encounter ele photo taken in Pilanesberg gives you some perspective to how BIG & threatening the charging ele was.
As I was reversing I remembered the downed trees and how impossible it would be to quickly maneuver them. Fortunately, just as we were approaching them, the ele pulled up and violently shook her head repeatedly as a sendoff. We did a quick about-turn and returned to camp the long way.
One of two Reserve vehicles destroyed by the ele. Note the tusk insertion on the driver’s side door.
We three got the prize for “first encounter” with this rogue ele. As Jonathan later told me, she went on to attack and destroy two camp vehicles, plus pinned a game garden to the ground during a morning walkabout with a group of tourists. She was subsequently destroyed. Christina remembers Ana telling her in that moment of initial charge, “Get down, get down!” And then while they were both huddling under the rear seat, Ana telling her, “I just want you to know that I love you!” That initial night and several subsequent ones I woke up perspiring, having relived through dreams our close call.
A commonality of dangerous animals and difficult people?
In 2011 a former colleague shared a Robert Sutton book with me, which at the time we both personally could commiserate with victims of the book’s main character type – the asshole (The No Asshole Rule: Building A Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t). Sutton is a professor at Sanford University, and “The No A**hole Rule” originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review. The book’s essence is that bullying and destructive characters damage fellow human beings and undermine organizational performance, and how to either restrict, reform, repel (or avoid) such individuals from organizations.
Unless we’re dishonest or blind to our own idiosyncrasies, each of us have at one time or another acted in a donkey-hole-kind-of-a-way toward another person(s). Regrettably too many people – mostly those with at least a modicum of positional or special skills power – have perfected this destructive “art” form. Such individuals are adept at creating an organizational culture of fear and of negatively affecting the motivation, energy, productivity and retention of employees.
Like our elephant, some individuals develop a propensity for bullying behavior, and this for no evident reason. They are “set-off” by the most random and insignificant of reasons. Yet once agitated they possess the requisite power to make life insufferable for you, your family, and/or colleagues. The individual likely has some invisible and precipitating pain source, but in the case of rogue animals, this isn’t discovered until after the animal is destroyed.
With “human aggressors,” males particularly, the precipitating pain could be something as “trivial” and personal as a struggling relationship, coupled with long periods of no sex (There’s nothing like protracted periods of no sex to make men irritable!). Or, donkey-hole behavior could be symptomatic of far greater, deep-seated traumas or psychosis.
When confronted by aggressive human behavior, the safest first response is retreat. This allows you to live and respond another day. From the relative safety of distance you then have the freedom of choice. You can choose to accept and live with the however-frequent blow-ups, or reframe hostile encounters with the truth that you’re not the problem or its cause – it’s him. Alternatively you might avoid all future encounters, waiting patiently instead until his destructive social behavior unseats him from power. Finally, you can simply pack your office and leave in search of a corporate climate like Google that has a hardwired philosophy of “Do no evil!”