Dominique Gonçalves looks for elephants from behind the wheel.
Gonçalves tracks the elephants’ movements. She also watches them in the field. She takes photographs of each animal. Some have marks that help tell them apart, like a wrinkled ear. Others have been marked by war. One example may be a missing tail.
Gonçalves records their behavior. She notices how they are grouped. She watches how they spend their time.
One day, Gonçalves was traveling with a student. They went out looking for elephants. After a long drive, they found a herd. Gonçalves stopped her vehicle to watch and take pictures. She noticed one female elephant hiding behind a tree.
Gonçalves began taking pictures. When she looked again, the female elephant had moved closer. She was hiding behind another tree.
Gonçalves turned her head back to the group. That was a mistake. The female elephant came forward as if to charge. She stopped. Then she charged again. Gonçalves thought they were done for.
Gonçalves observes the behavior of elephants at a water hole.
The female elephant charges. This photo was taken moments before she hit Gonçalves’ vehicle.
The elephant bolted forward. She struck the vehicle on the metal grate with all her strength. She stepped back. Then she charged again. She pushed against it with her head.
Next, the elephant tried to reach the passenger’s side. She hit the window, shattering the glass. Goncalves’ student ducked.
The elephant hit the car again. They began yelling and banging on the doors. It charged again.
Just then, the matriarch started to move. Gonçalves thinks that she may have made a low rumble.
That rumble would have stopped the attack. Whatever signal was given, the attacking elephant stopped.
The vehicle was badly damaged. So, driving away was not possible. With her heart beating wildly, Gonçalves radioed for help. Finally, help arrived. Gonçalves and her student sped off in another vehicle with their rescuers.
There is still a lot to learn about the elephants in Gorongosa. Gonçalves remembers one of her first elephant encounters. She was watching a group of young bulls. One bull approached the door of her vehicle. He came so close, she could see her own reflection in his eye. He studied her as if to decide what should be done about her.
After staring, the bull moved gently away. He did not see her as a threat. He went back to grazing, as if nothing happened. But Gonçalves felt that her life changed forever in that moment.
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