The Elephant Incident


by Bernard Lesowapir, Research assistant, Meru National Park

Date Published

We woke up early Wednesday morning as usual to prepare for our daily fieldwork. That particular day, we were planning on returning early.

We needed to buy some provisions for the next three days as we were planning to camp inside the park. We started our fieldwork along the fence towards the road number 101, a place we call the Kinna Triangle. By about 8:00am we returned to the main road, which we followed backwards until route 1. Along the way we encountered one bull called “Victor” who is a bull with one broken right tusk. After identifying him, we proceeded about 3 km where we found 3 other bulls; “Lomuigo”, “Abednego” and one new bull.

We remained there for a short while and then proceeded ahead and followed a small road that runs along the river. We came across a KWS lorry gathering stones. As soon as we passed the lorry, we found a group of elephants. It was a family of about 24 individuals with “Bull B3” in the group. At the sight of us, the family ran away into thick bush and crossed the river. We decided to follow them but unfortunately the bush was too thick. We were anxious to locate them again in order to identify all of the individuals so we decided to go back to headquarters and inquire about a KWS pilot.

The pilot was not there, as he had left that morning for Nairobi, We quickly returned to the family of elephants so not to loose their location. I was driving the car while my partner Patrick Ogola was spotting from the top. We followed the road until we saw the footprints of the same elephants. A few moments later I saw an elephant crossing the road. As soon as I saw the first elephant I realised that it was an individual from the same family. I slowed the car down, but the elephant ran away into the thick bush. It was very apparent just how nervous and anxious the elephants in Meru are due to the severe poaching that took place there some years back.

We decided to go off road to continue to track the family. About ½ km from the road we stopped and climbed onto the top of the car. The elephants were only about 50m away, but because of the thick bush, we were not able to see them properly. We stepped down from the car and Patrick and I separated and went in different directions. We both thought that the entire family was together in front of us. As I was slowly approaching the family, I suddenly heard a loud noise of branches breaking and realized that an elephant was running directly towards me.

I quickly turned, but I was unable to even take one step forward before the elephant had punched its tusk through my thigh! It held its head low while approaching and then quickly raised its head and threw me about 10m in the air. Just as I landed from this incredible toss, I saw that the elephant was not wasting any time. It was already directly in front of me and immediately kneeled down to hit me once again. Thankfully, its tusks were pointing behind me while I was lying down under its neck right next to its front legs. I remember that my knife and binoculars were still in my hands. The elephant was trying to pick me up from the ground using its tusks and trunk!

I struggled to hit its face but it would not leave me alone. Somehow I managed to crawl out from under its front legs, and by God’s luck, I succeeded to scramble out and escape in the other direction! From that spot I walked for about 2 ½kms to the KWS headquarters where I found the workshop manager. The manager looked terribly frightened when he saw my shredded trousers, which were hanging every which way. ” What is wrong?!” he asked. He was still in his house and could not see me properly. “Just come here” I responded. He walked out of his house and could now see me properly. He could only see blood all over me. I went into his house where he bandaged up my leg and called a car. After about 10 minutes, which seemed like an eternity, a car came to take me to headquarters.

The rangers started calling Patrick on the radio to tell him that I had already reached the camp. After a short while, Patrick arrived and the first thing I asked him was to bring my jacket, which I had left in the car. Miraculously, I seemed to be thinking straight, for as soon as he brought it, I took out my wallet and removed my flying doctors membership card and gave it to him. He went to the radio room and called them. They responded immediately and said that they were on their way. After the aeroplane arrived I was rushed to the airstrip and was given first aid before being flown to Wilson airport in Nairobi and on to Nairobi hospital.

Bernard suffered a severe wound in his left thigh that was operated on as soon as he arrived at the hospital that night. Amazingly, there were no other serious injuries or broken bones, just scratches and bruises. He was walking around only 5 days later and is in great spirits, impatient to get back to the bush and the elephants!! He has had positive spirits through all of this. We are all so relieved that he is doing well and are amazed by his courage. Bernard has an admirable understanding and respect for elephants. He believes that the elephant charged him only because she was startled by his presence. Sadly, the elephants of Meru were severely poached in 70’s, 80’s and even into the 90’s which has made them nervous and aggressive towards people. Meanwhile the Meru project continues and Lugard, one of our research assistants from Samburu, has one to join Patrick in the field for the next few weeks….