Elephant ordeal for famous UK conservationist

What's it like to be charged by an elephant? Well, you discover they've got very hairy legs but surprisingly soft lips, says one man who knows.

Without warning, and from 150 metres away, the elephant charged. © Ian Redmond
Without warning, and from 150 metres away, the elephant charged. © Ian Redmond

This was – nearly – the last thing the renowned conservationist Ian Redmond ever saw.

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A large male elephant – charging.

Ian – who is famous for having taught the actor Sigourney Weaver to grunt like a gorilla for her role as the great ape conservationist Diane Fossey in the celebrated film Gorillas in the Mist – was in Western Kenya’s Mount Elgon National Park watching a large group of elephants.

He was with members of the Mount Elgon Elephant Monitoring (MEEM) team and rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

Suddenly, from 150 metres away and without warning, the male charged.

Incredibly, Ian continued to film despite the extreme danger he was in.

“As the elephant made contact, I have a vivid recollection of the feel on my hand of his tusk and the softness of his upper lip,” Ian said.

Ian found himself underneath the elephant, which he believes was trying to manoeuvre him into a position where he could either kneel on him or use his trunk.

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Ian suffered a dislocated shoulder and injuries to his neck and chest. © Ian Redmond

“My next clear memory was of my left hand on his right foreleg and my right hand, still clutching the camera, trying to steady myself,” he added.

“I could feel the soft, pliable skin and bristles against my palm – elephants do have hairy legs!”

At this point, the KWS rangers fired shots into the air, causing the elephant to retreat and possibly saving Ian’s life.

The elephants of Mount Elgon may be unique because they venture into caves deep underground to mine minerals with their tusks.

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The Mount Elgon elephants venture into caves to feed on minerals they ‘mine’ with their tusks. © Ian Redmond

They first came to public attention in the BBC series Life of Mammals, which aired in 2002.

Now the Born Free Foundation, which helps to fund the monitoring team, says more support is needed to protect this population from poachers and protect their habitat from illegal tree-felling and charcoal-burning.

Kitili Mbathi, director general of the KWS, said it was important to stop charcoal burning in the area. ‘What an incredible encounter,” he added. “I’m pleased that Ian survived to tell the story.”

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Read more wildlife news stories in BBC Wildlife Magazine