Kruger elephant attack preventable - animal expert

NELSPRUIT - Two tourists could have avoided an attack by an elephant in the Kruger National Park if they had known how to read its body language, an animal behaviour expert has said.

Les Hes, a wildlife guide with 35 years' experience in reading animal behaviour, was speaking after watching video footage of the attack posted on the internet this week, a correspondent reported on Wednesday.

The tourists, Sarah Brooks and her South African-born fiance Jans de Klerk, who live in Spalding, in the UK, made headlines two weeks ago when the elephant attacked them near the N'waswitshaka waterhole, near Pretoriuskop, on December 30.

They were following the elephant along a dirt road when it turned around, flipped their car and pushed it several hundred metres into the bush.

Seconds before the attack, it briefly turned towards them, then carried on walking.

One of the elephant's tusks pierced the back of Brooks's thigh. She was airlifted to the Medi-Clinic hospital in Nelspruit, and was discharged on January 6.

The park decided to shoot the elephant, saying it had previously shown aggressive behaviour towards other elephants.

Hes believed the tourists had been driving too close to the bull elephant, but that they could still have escaped the dangerous situation.

"It is actually very tragic that they had to shoot this elephant because of some stupid tourists.... When watching the video, it's clear that this was definitely the fault of the tourists. These were probably people who had no knowledge of elephant behaviour, and driving right up the elephant's backside was an invasion of space," he said.

"When the elephant turns sideways, it's obvious that he is aggravated by the car and the tourists should have realised that they need to get out."

Hes said rising elephant populations in the Kruger National Park and an increased number of tourists visiting the park increased the likelihood of such attacks.

He advised people watching elephants to keep at least 15 metres away and to always have an escape route in mind.

"Read the animal's behaviour. There will always be a clear signal to let you know that he is aggressive," said Hes.

SA National Parks spokesman Ike Phaahla agreed that the couple had not kept a safe distance.

"Looking at the video, they followed the animal too closely, and when it turned, that's when they should have driven away."

He said it was difficult to reach a definitive conclusion without having been in the car with the couple.

Phaahla said that in the past, people had been banned from revisiting parks for reckless behaviour, but declined to say if this would apply to Brooks and De Klerk.

- Sapa

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