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  • Louise Pavid

Ethics and ethology: let’s talk about elephants

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

In this photo blog, Bushwise Videographer and Photographer Louise Pavid discusses animal behaviour and guiding ethics.

One of the most important tools in any field guide’s arsenal is a good grounding in the discipline of ethology – the study of animal behaviour.

Bushwise students observing animal behaviour in an elephant

While nature enthusiasts enjoy beautiful imagery of animals going about their daily business in peace, most of us will have all seen photos or videos depicting animals doing things that might scare us (like damaging property or charging a vehicle). But what if I told you that many of these incidents could have been avoided?

An elephant shaking its head

This is where having an understanding of animal behaviour comes into play. When an elephant holds its head up high with its ears stiff and held out, when it shows rigidness in its body language and has an erect, straightened tail with secretions coming from the temporal glands on either side of its face – that’s a pretty good indication that that particular elephant is stressed and probably not in the mood to deal with you.

Crowding this elephant or infringing on its comfort zone could likely lead to an unpleasant encounter. Be this in the form of a warning charge, or worse. I don’t like the use of the term “mock charge” because believe me, the animal is not mocking you, it is being serious, it’s warning you to stay away.

This type of animal behaviour combined with vocalisations – such as trumpeting – is a definite red flag and you should not enter into a sighting. Rather offer the elephant the space it needs to move away, leaving both of you unscathed. This is what we call ethical guiding on the basis of understanding animal behaviour.

Animal behaviour is shown in each move an animal makes

But why are ethics important when dealing with wild animals, aside from the obvious safety implications for you and your guests? Well, it’s about the animal’s safety and well-being as much as it is about our own. Working in and visiting these landscapes constitutes a step out of the modernised human realm and back into the home of Earth’s wild creatures.

It’s fair to say they were here first and we need to respect that, despite having evolved with the animals over millions of years within these landscapes. But, in the past 10,000 years or so we have slowly begun to migrate away from this primitive, instinct-driven lifestyle as our brains have developed to the point of creating complex tools, building permanent shelters and developing more advanced social structures.

An elephant looks towards the camera calmly

Essentially, the modern human brain is forgetting our ancestral beginnings. Perhaps this is why many people today will tell you that an elephant flapping its ears is a sign of aggression, when in actual fact it is a method of thermoregulation (a means to keep a consistent and favourable internal body temperature). This is where navigating animal behaviour while upholding ethical guiding practices is crucial.

By observing we can better understand animal behaviour

Elephants provide a great example to understand animal behaviour. There are several reasons for this. Elephants are often the most feared animal on safari by virtue of being the Earth’s largest terrestrial mammal. Understanding their patterns of behaviour is imperative to peaceful and positive encounters.

Elephants are sensitive and have similar emotional development and intelligence to our own. I think that’s why so many people are so drawn to them. But just like us, elephants are capable of having bad moods, becoming aggravated from stress in their environment, or stressed due to other herd members’ poor behaviour or rambunctious bulls in musth.

An elephant with visible post-orbital gland secretion

By understanding their behaviour and practising good ethics while on safari (be it a guided or self-drive experience) it’s not too difficult to observe, analyse, and understand the behaviour of an elephant. Once you get the basics of the body language down you can effectively and ethically avoid negative interactions simply by respecting the animal’s space.

We can all stand to learn something from elephants and animal behaviour

Ultimately it comes down to experience in the bush. The more time you spend with these animals in the wild the more familiar you become with their behaviour, and likewise, the more familiar they become with your human behaviour.

That being said, even if you are not a fully-fledged field guide, simply reading up on animal behaviour before entering a wild landscape can reduce the risk of negative encounters and provide you with an overall better experience in nature.

Learn more about animal behaviour and ethical guiding. Apply today and join the next Bushwise Professional Field Guide course.

Did this blog speak to you? Have you always wanted to work with animals – but aren’t sure how?

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