Stay passive and an elephant won't trample you; at least that's the theory...

A A A

I was making a documentary about reintroducing elephants to a game reserve in the north-east coast of Kwazulu-Natal; the new arrivals were put into a "boma" – a large enclosure in the bush, surrounded by electric fencing, where they can acclimatise.

On this particular day, Friday 28 September 2001, we were filming because the game warden was going to open the boma gates and let the four mothers and their offspring inside go out.

It was quite a significant day for me. The previous day, my uncle – my father's brother – had died suddenly in London. When I heard the news I arranged to fly back to Johannesburg to go to London with my dad.

I had gone to the gate of the boma to say goodbye to the crew early in the morning. We were on a small hill, about a kilometre from where I left my car. Normally in a wild- game reserve, the public has to stay in cars, but we were allowed out because we were filming. And the first rule was, " Don't do anything without the game warden's permission."

When it was time for me to leave, the warden told me to walk around the east side of the boma and to walk fast – contrary to what we'd been taught previously, which was to walk really slowly around the captive elephants.

We were feeling particularly tense because a female, one of the early arrivals, was heading towards us. If you're downwind of elephants, you're fine. If you're upwind, you are absolutely in their space. And walking east, I was going upwind.

I suppose I was in what we in South Africa call a "dwaal". I wasn't quite there; my uncle had died, my father was in a bad way. I was thinking about where I had to be, not where I was. The boma was set amid low sub-tropical bush, roughly forming a square, so when I turned the corner, I was out of sight of the crew and the warden. That was when I saw the female elephant. I had learned what to do: make yourself small and scurry away. Let her know you are getting out of her space. I did, but she just kept coming. I realised I had a choice. I could try to run, but I wasn't confident that I'd make it. I could try to climb a tree, but there were none nearby. Or I could just sit passively and make myself small, making her understand I was no threat.

I sat under a low tree in a foetal position and communicated passive, loving vibes. She charged, and then stopped so close that I could touch her. She was investigating me. I had learned never to meet their eye. If you do, it enrages them. For a minute I thought she was going to leave me alone.

Then she just ran into me, bellowing, and started beating me with her trunk and pounding me with her feet. It was a bit like being overwhelmed by a wave; you are out of control in the face of a force of nature.

I still didn't scream. I stayed passive, not fighting back. And after a few minutes, she retreated and stood, watching. I sat up. My feet were still working and I sensed she was inviting me to leave, but my options were to walk towards her, or go deeper into the bush into hip-high grass where I wouldn't be able to run.

I pulled out my phone to call the cameraman who was just around the corner. There was no signal, but the mere act of taking it out provoked her again. She charged. I got up and ran to the other side of the tree. There was another stand-off, which was quite extraordinary; she was really considering me. I remember sinking to my knees and saying, "Please don't hurt me."

Then she ran through the tree in a rage. Because of being relocated, she was a very disturbed animal. She started pounding me hard. It was horrifying and terrifying. It was an incredibly brutal kicking. I didn't lose consciousness but I did take leave of the present, of being there. That's when I started screaming. She was rolling me away from the tree and had got me to open up my body completely. Elephants have many ways of killing a person; one is to kneel on the chest.

The crew had heard my screaming. Jacques, the cameraman, was alert and quick, and the next thing I knew, I opened my eyes and she had retreated slightly, and two pick-up trucks had arrived.

I learned later that the rescue took ages. Slowly, slowly they moved forward and slowly, slowly she withdrew. As soon as I was conscious, my first thought was, "I've lost my rucksack and my passport is in my rucksack and I'm going to London." So I got up and started looking for it in the grass. I was thinking, "My God, I've survived. I'll never be scared of anything again."

The crew were screaming at me to stay down but I couldn't hear anything. She was behind me, walking towards me. Then Jacques bravely jumped out of the pick-up, ran over, scooped me up and carried me away.

Dave, the reserve's chief vet, who had twice had close calls with elephants, told me that if elephants attack, they kill. He felt my passivity had saved me.

My injuries were incredibly light: My clavicle was sticking out of my body at a right angle, I had a fractured skull, fractured ribs, what looked like a perfect elephant footprint bruise on my thigh, and hairline fractures on my upper back, but I was in hospital for only three days.

It was after a month, once the physical pain had gone, that I went into shock. It began when I touched the shirt that I'd been wearing on the day of the attack. I suddenly smelled the elephant and saw her tumbling me in the grass. That triggered a lot of deep and powerful flashbacks, which is no bad thing; if you fight them, or block them, you stop the healing. I have tried to let the experience shape me but not scar me.

I finished the film, but didn't work again for about nine months. I wasn't sure I could, and I had a few meltdowns in Johannesburg. I thought I'd study and came to London with that in mind. I have ended up working here in television again. I'm desperate now to make another documentary about elephants. *

As told to Peter Stanford

Killer animals: The 10 top threats

1. Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes kill up to three million people a year by spreading deadly diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and dengue fever.

2. Snakes

These cold-blooded customers cause up to 125,000 deaths a year.

3. Scorpions

Scorpions paralyse their prey by pumping venom through the stinger in their tails, causing 2,000 fatalities a year.

4. Big cats

The African lion is the biggest and most dangerous of the big cats, which are responsible for 800 deaths a year.

5. Crocodiles

These prehistoric creatures chase prey at alarming speed, clamp hold with their jaw and perform a disorienting death roll. They kill around 800 people a year.

6. Elephants

Weighing an average of six tonnes, this herbivore kills around 500 people a year.

7. Hippopotami

Hippos kill 100-150 people a year. They can outpace a human on land, but are also known to upturn boats and canoes.

8. Jellyfish

The box jellyfish's sting can kill a human within minutes. It causes an estimated 100 fatalities a year.

9. Sharks

Of the 360 species of shark, only four – tiger, great white, whitetip and bull – are killers. They cause around 100 deaths a year.

10. Bears

Bears cause 5-10 fatalities a year, but attacks are on the rise with the ongoing destruction of their natural habitat.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
film
Extras
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value
indybest

Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas