Anyone who has spent some time with elephants knows they are thinking, feeling and deeply emotional animals. They have the same emotions as humans: grief, anger, embarrassment, fear and joy.
Wikus Potgieter, an experienced ranger at Tintswalo Safari Lodge, understands this better than most people.
To call Wikus “obsessed with elephants’ would be an understatement, having self-studied the animals over a number of years. At one point in his life, he would try to spend over 8 hours a day with elephants, observing and writing down his ideas.
Wikus is not a scientist, or an ecologist, he is just totally passionate about understanding these gentle giants, and he’s dedicated years of his life to making this happen.
As time wore on, Wikus’ observations became more intricate, and he would note down various communication tools that elephants used to convey their feelings and moods.
He learned to understand these emotions and behaviors through various movements and postures. He found that their communication techniques turned out to be much more complicated than simply observing one or two movements; whether it be the flap of an ear or the twitch of a trunk.
Wikus learned that elephant communicated their feelings in clusters of behaviours.
Over the years, he noted over 80 postures that the elephants would make. Through various combinations of these postures, Wikus would be able to predict their behaviour, or understand what they were telling him.
It was, in essence, a way to communicate with the animal.
While the communication is rudimentary, these skills and observations had one very important application; safety and understanding while guiding. Through his understanding with elephants, Wikus is able to give guests a better and safer experience with elephants while in the vehicle.
One important application for this was in the context of guiding. In order for guests to enjoy the best and safest sighting of an elephant, it’s important to know how the animal thinks. Wikus realised that elephants were most comfortable around people if they, the elephant, made the decision to come closer.
If you drive straight up to an elephant without warning, the chances are that you will upset him and the sighting will not be enjoyable for the guests, the guide, or the elephant.
“But”, says Wikus, “If you approach the elephants in a non-threatening way. They are more inclined to accept you in their presence and will even come closer to investigate.”
“It’s very important to not be overly submissive,” says Wikus. “This can result in the opposite reaction, so the key is to make sure you are non-threatening. If you are on foot, this entails making yourself smaller that you are. This gives the elephant the feeling that you are not trying to present your full size. You are telling him ‘listen, you are more than welcome to approach me, on my terms.’ “
If the elephant feels he wants to give you a warning and comes forward, this is the time to make your presence felt. You can move forward or put your hand up, but there is no need to scream and shout. This tells the elephant that you mean business.
“He might test you,” says Wikus. Or he might kick the ground a little. But he will know that you are the boss of the situation.”
For Wikus, understanding the elephants is not just about being a better guide. He truly finds these gentle giants fascinating. And every moment he spends with them is an opportunity to better understand how they think, and to show that it is possible to break down the human/animal barrier, and connect on a deeper and more respectful level.