Shane Wolf anticipated that he might get to come close to some elephants during a recent safari trip in Zimbabwe to celebrate his and his father’s birthdays.
But Wolf, who grew up in San Luis Obispo, and his family did not expect an encounter that happened during brunch when a bull elephant crashed into Wolf and his brother-in-law, knocking them over with its head and tusks and causing the tables, glasses and dishes to smash into the ground.
“I was shocked when it threw its head and tusk at us mostly because it didn't give any warning,” Wolf recalled in an email this week. “It was moving slowly and did not trumpet or do anything aggressive.”
“Elephants have bad eyesight but great smell, so when it got close it was startled a bit, and the havoc ensued,” he added. “But in reality it wasn’t trying to hurt us, it was just eating and investigating and moving us to the side.”
A video of the encounter, shot Aug. 28 in Ruckomechi Camp in Zambezi Valley’s Mana Pools National Park, has been viewed more than 65,000 times on YouTube and shown on national television. The area is described on one website as “the elephants’ favourite camp.”
Wolf, who attended Cal Poly and lives in Long Beach, was on the trip to celebrate his father’s 65th birthday as well as his 30th birthday. Also on the trip were his wife; his parents, Marianne and Mitch Wolf, who live in San Luis Obispo and teach at Cal Poly; his sister, Shannon; and his brother-in-law, Stephen Montague.
Shane Wolf said that the camp staff briefed the group on safety issues, and they were expecting to see animals up close.
“This camp we were at in Mana Pools literally had elephants walking around camp at all times of the day,” he said. “They would usually just walk by and mind their own business. They would be standing outside the doors of our tents!”
Ten minutes before the incident, an elephant and its offspring walked up the same hill, stared at the group and moved on.
Shane Wolf wrote that no one was feeding the elephant involved in the incident. It was eating seed pods that fell from nearby trees.
In the video, Shane Wolf is wearing a green shirt and sitting next to Stephen Montague when the elephant started to approach their table.
Shane Wolf said he stayed still, as a guide had instructed to do, and looked at his wife.
“As I was looking at her I could see the reflection of the elephant in her sunglasses, and it started to get bigger as it approached,” he wrote. “Then when it got really close I realized something was about to happen.”
In the video, the elephant lunges first at his brother-in-law and then at Shane Wolf, knocking both to the ground while other family members jump out of the way or crouch down.
“Being around elephants and learning from the guides, I knew my life wasn’t in danger,” Shane Wolf wrote. “I also didn’t get up and run, because running from an elephant or wild animal is always the wrong thing to do. So I slowly got up and moved away. Afterwards it was more of a euphoric feeling and a bit of shock!”
Shane Wolf said the guides shooed the elephant away, and it hid behind a tree with its ears tucked back — like it knew it had done something wrong, he said.
“The tusk was extremely smooth!” he added. “And the skin was very leathery! No major smell I can recall.”
Shane Wolf added that the family had taken a photographic safari that supports African tourism and conservation.
“Elephants are in danger, and tourism is one of the way to help their survival in the wild, believe it or not,” he wrote.
Shane Wolf said he also visited a safari camp, Linkwasha, in Hwange National Park where Cecil the lion lived before it was lured away from the sanctuary July 1 and killed.
Wolf said he saw the lion’s pride, which is now split in two groups and lacks a dominant male.
“When a lion is poached like that it changes the lions’ ecosystem for a while as they figure out what are the next steps,” he said.