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Close Encounters of the Big Gray Kind

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The only time I ever was charged by an elephant, my husband told me it didn't really count. "It was only a bluff charge."

"A bluff charge?" I was indignant. "He came running at us with his tusks bared!"

"Yes," Rick admitted, "but he stopped."

"Oh, so it doesn't really count unless he actually tramples you, is that it?"

I'd followed Rick to Central Africa where he was doing field research. The best place to see elephants was a jarring 10-minute drive along washed-out dirt roads and then a half-hour trek through the rain forest. Elephants gathered in a large clearing where the ground was full of minerals. They would drill with their trunks, plumbing the mud for salts. We would observe them from a platform 30 feet up a tree. One evening I counted more than 100 elephants.

Getting to the clearing was an adventure in itself. We'd leave the truck where the road ended and slip into the forest. Tall trees disappeared overhead in the canopy, vines straggled down, mosses and mushrooms clung to the ground. Monkeys and birds screeched warnings. Except for a sandy clearing where a wide river edged out trees and other plant life, it was thick, lush, humid, and green.

Wading across the river, sloshing through the mud, and following meandering elephant trails, we stayed close behind our machete-wielding Pygmy tracker, Modigbe. We walked these trails often. That, I was sure, increased the odds of our encountering an elephant face to trunk; after all, we were walking on elephant trails. Surprising an elephant in close quarters might make it feel cornered and threatened, so I always tried to make a lot of noise.

'NEVER, never run. Get behind the nearest tree." Rick's experienced response to my growing concern sounded a tad counterintuitive. "You'll only encourage it to chase you."

"What if there aren't any trees?"

"Then stand your ground, wave your arms. Try to look bigger than he is - outbluff him if you can. But don't even think about outrunning him."

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