Dominique Gonçalves looks for elephants from behind the wheel.

Interesting Encounters

Gonçalves tracks the elephants’ movements, but she also spends a lot of time in the field observing them. She takes photographs to create a visual profile of each animal. Some have distinguishing marksa wrinkled ear or missing tusk. Some have also been marked by wara bullet hole through an ear or a missing tail. 

She records their behavior and interactions. She pays attention to how they are grouped and how they spend their time.

Given the nature of the Gorgongosa elephants, not every field experience is peaceful, though. One day, Gonçalves was traveling with a student who had an interest in elephants. The team had not seen an elephant in three days. She and her student went out looking for them.

After a long drive, they found some elephants. Gonçalves did not know this group, but the matriarch was grazing and seemed calm. Gonçalves stopped her vehicle to watch them and to take pictures. She noticed, out of the corner of her eye, one female elephant hiding behind a tree. Better keep my eye on that one, she thought to herself.

Gonçalves began taking pictures and writing notes about the elephants’ behavior. When she looked again, she noticed that the female elephant had moved closer and was now hiding behind another, closer tree. Gonçalves turned her head back to the group.

That was a mistake. The female elephant came forward in a mock charge. She stopped abruptly. Then she charged again, getting closer to the vehicle. If she charges one more time, Gonçalves thought, we’re done for.

She did.

Gonçalves observes the behavior of elephants at a water hole.

The female elephant charges. This photo was taken moments before she hit Gonçalves’ vehicle.

Elephant Intervention

The elephant bolted forward, striking the front of the vehicle on the metal grate with all her strength. She stepped back and charged again, shearing off the grate. Much to their panic, the elephant then started pushing against the vehicle with her head. As it happened, a massive termite mound lay on the other side. The vehicle slammed against it and came to a stop.

Shoving her way forward, the elephant tried to reach the passenger’s side where Gonçalves’ student sat. For Gonçalves, everything was happening in slow motion. The elephant hit the window on the student’s side, shattering the glass and sending it in all directions. Her student ducked.

elephants in Gorongosa

When the elephant hit the car again, they began yelling and banging on the doors with their fists, desperately trying to make enough noise to send the elephant away. The elephant charged a third time, trying to flip the car over.

At this moment, the matriarch, who had been peacefully grazing, started to move. Gonçalves said she could not hear anything above the sound of her own yelling, but the matriarch may have made a low rumble.

That rumble would have stopped the attack. Whatever signal was given, the attacking elephant stopped immediately and ran back to join the others.

The vehicle was badly damaged and now leaking fluids. Starting it and driving away was not an option. They were stranded. With her heart beating wildly, Gonçalves radioed for help. When help arrived in another vehicle, she and her student jumped aboard and sped off with their rescuers. Gonçalves did not know what caused the attack, but the encounter left her badly shaken.

Lasting Impression

There is still a lot to learn about the elephants in Gorongosa. Gonçalves has many questions she’d like to answer. Despite the trauma of the war, Gonçalves knows that Gorongosa is a magical place and that she has more to learn from these elephants.

She remembers one of her first elephant encounters with a group of young bulls. One bull approached the door of her vehicle. He came so close to her, she could see her own reflection in his large, amber eye. She caught her breath and held perfectly still. He studied her, as if trying to decide what should be done about her. “It may have lasted 15 seconds,” Gonçalves said, “but for me, it was an eternity.”

After staring at her those long moments, the bull moved gently away from the vehicle. He obviously did not perceive her as a threat. The encounter was over. He and the other bulls went back to grazing, as if nothing happened. But Gonçalves felt that her life changed forever in that moment.

Protect the Natural World

Protecting the planet is vital! The National Geographic Society has set a goal to help improve the status of 100 species or populations by 2030.