Stay passive and an elephant won't trample you; at least that's the theory...
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Sunday 21 October 2007
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
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