Dominique Gonçalves looks for elephants from behind the wheel.

Interesting Encounters

Gonçalves tracks the elephants’ movements. She also spends a lot of time in the field observing them. She takes photographs of each animal. Some have distinguishing marks, like a missing tusk. Others have been marked by war with a bullet hole through the ear or a missing tail.

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

One day, Gonçalves was traveling with a student who had an interest in elephants. The team had not seen an elephant in three days. They went out looking for them.

After a long drive, they found some elephants. 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. When she looked again, the female elephant had moved closer. It was now hiding behind a 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 vehicle on the metal grate with all her strength. She stepped back and charged again, shearing off the grate. The elephant then started pushing against the vehicle with her head.

Next, the elephant tried to reach the passenger’s side where Gonçalves’ student sat. She hit the window on the student’s side, shattering the glass and sending it in all directions. Gonçalves’ student ducked.

elephants in Gorongosa

When the elephant hit the car again, they began yelling and banging on the doors. They tried to make enough noise to send the elephant away. But the elephant charged a third time.

Just then, the matriarch, who had been peacefully grazing, started to move. Gonçalves thinks that the matriarch may have made a low rumble.

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

The vehicle was badly damaged. 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, badly shaken, sped off with their rescuers.

Lasting Impression

There is still a lot to learn about the elephants in Gorongosa. Despite the trauma of the war, Gonçalves knows that Gorongosa is a magical place.

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. He studied her, as if trying to decide what should be done about her.

After staring, the bull moved gently away. He did not perceive her as a threat. He and the other bulls went back to grazing, as if nothing had 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.