Elephant Charge

[Note: Thanks for this story to Dr. Jim Foulkes, who served as a missionary doctor in Africa for four decades. This is my version of a story he told me, but you can read Dr. Jim’s own account in his wonderful book To Africa With Love: A Bush Doc’s Story. Furthermore, Dr. Jim is presently at work on a collection of 28 of his hunting tales. I can hardly wait!]


Many are aware that St. Francis preached to the birds, and St. Anthony to a congregation of fish. But let’s remember that before these saints ever preached to the animals, the animals first preached to them.

This is a true story of a sermon preached by a herd of elephants. The teller of this tale, Dr. Jim Foulkes, grew up in a small town in the midwest where he might easily have stayed all his life, farming or selling insurance, cannily tightening his grip on the ultimate American prize of an existence of complete complacency. Instead, he followed the call of God to go to Africa as a medical missionary, and in his eyes lives the burning light of a man who found the center of his passion and lived it to the full.

As he talked with me late one evening, I began to feel the civilized crust of my westernness cracking, heaved up by something older and wilder, as the very walls of my living room seemed to melt away into the wide open grassy savannah of the dark continent. I heard the pawing and snuffling of elephants, and saw their trunks moving like supple, intelligent trees, and their great parchmenty ears waving dreamily like leaves of an enormous holy book being turned upon a lectern of wind….

One morning, began Dr. Jim, I awoke after dreaming all night long of elephants. It takes a certain mood, an expansiveness of mind, to be able to dream of elephants. It’s not hard to dream of streets and buildings, rooms and stairways; that happens all the time. But to see elephants in the wild, so close that you feel them looming over you—for this, some secret door must open in the psyche, and a very large secret door at that. Just as a camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle, so it is difficult for the eye of civilized man, whether asleep or awake, to catch a glimpse of elephants as they really are, in their natural glory.

Well, I’d had other plans for the day, but the elephants would not leave me alone. As a hunter I’ve often noticed that before a man sets out to stalk game, the game seems first to stalk him, as if challenging him to come. I know it may sound crazy, but that’s how I felt. The Elephant was calling me. I could practically smell him. As a doc at a remote hospital, part of my unwritten job description was to provide meat for our 200 inpatients. But it was more than that that drew me. It was the pure hunting instinct.

So I got together a party of ten fellows, and we set off south on motorcycles in the direction of the Kafue Game Park. Often there are more elephants just outside a park than in it, and sure enough on this day, not far from the park boundary, we spied a large herd of twenty-six. We had plenty of time to observe them as they were right out in the open. It was an area known as Lusanga Swamp, which in the dry season is not a swamp at all but one of those vast open plains that are, to the animals of Africa, what the sky is to stars. To see the great swarming herds in such a setting is to be transported back a million years, or even to the beginning of time. Time doesn’t just stand still there, it’s as if it never existed. Something stirs the soul so deeply you can hardly stand it—the mysterious aching beauty of it all.

Unfortunately for the hunter, a place like this is entirely devoid of cover. There’s not a tree for miles, not even so much as an anthill. Nothing but bald savannah so flat that it renders the sky dome-like, as on the ocean. So we gazed across at those elephants, knowing there wasn’t any way to get near them. I never tire of looking at animals. If hunting had never been invented, I’d still go out just to see them. What especially held our attention this day was the one bull in the herd, a big jumbo with stunning tusks, his back a full two feet higher than the others. We couldn’t believe how big that ivory was, how long and how beautifully curved. How awesome to watch such a creature move in the sunlight, like a song that goes on and on in your mind and there’s one spot, one haunting chord or turn of notes, that slays you every time.

I should pause to say that this yarn dates from the 1960’s, by which I mean that it might as well have been a thousand years ago. What change the world has seen, especially Africa, in just a few decades! At the time I speak of, no one I knew would have thought for two seconds about banning the ivory trade. There were still jillions of elephants, jillions of everything. Herds of all kinds drifted free and unchanging as clouds up and down the continent. You’d shoot an elephant the same way you’d pick up a hunk of driftwood at the beach and take it home. Today, of course, that’s all over. Today the clouds themselves are changing, the very atmosphere is wearing out. Overnight, it seems, the earth has grown old and decrepit.

So as we stood on the Lusanga plain staring at that herd of twenty-six giants, we might as well have been on a different planet. I was younger then, too, and my thinking was young. Maybe that day it was the thinking of a kid. I was with a good friend, an African named Kalima, the pastor of our church. Of the others with us, he and I were especially close, and we kept passing the binoculars back and forth, admiring that song-like ivory on the big bull. How can I express the spell that white stuff cast over us? It’s like white gold—only instead of digging it out of a mine you have to get it from under the nose of the most tremendous animal on earth. The challenge of that, the thrill, is sensational. Before I was conscious of it, that thrill was coursing through my veins. And along with that, of course, was the lure of five tons of meat.

However, we didn’t begin by plotting how to hunt that bull down, not at all. In that situation, the hunting of elephants could not have been more unthinkable—not only, as I mentioned, because there wasn’t a scrap of cover, but because there were young in the herd. Mama elephants, and the aunties too, are madly protective; the faintest whiff of a human being can provoke a full scale charge. While elephants’ eyesight is poor, their sense of smell, especially when their trunks start waving in the air, is extremely precise. In long grass they can run a man down without even seeing him. I’ve watched it happen.

So I assure you, it was no small thing to consider hunting elephants under these conditions. We deliberated a long time, as all the while the urge was stirring our blood, until finally Kalima and I, with utmost tentativeness, decided to try our luck. The others would have none of it. I don’t think they would have gotten any closer for a year’s wages. But then, isn’t it true that what costs most in life, we do for free? It wasn’t really the meat or the ivory that drove us. For at the risk of ruining a good story, I’ll tell you right now that I never did bag that elephant. But what I did get that day, I wouldn’t trade for all the ivory in Africa.

Well, in the final analysis we had one crucial factor in our favor: the wind. The wind was for us. Kalima had a spent cartridge filled with flour, and every time he shook a pinch of it into the air, the grains drifted toward us. Seeing that was like having a beautiful girl smile at you. Some days it’s hard to get a reading on the wind; it can’t seem to make up its mind. But this day the direction was steady, constant, over a good period of time. As long as it stayed that way, we knew we’d be invisible to those elephants.

And so we set out, Kalima and I, first crawling on our knees, then on our elbows, wiggling through the dust like snakes. We had a good distance to cover, and on the way we had lots more time to reflect on what we were doing. At first, I think, we just meant to test the water, see how things went. Maybe we even kidded ourselves that this wasn’t really happening. But with every endeavor there comes a point of no return. Constantly we were checking the wind; every two minutes Kalima would shake out a few grains of flour, and they always drifted back to us. So with this sign of favor, we kept on going, until before we knew it we were well beyond the comfort zone. If at this point the grains had suddenly turned and drifted away from us—however lazily—we would have been done for. We would have just committed a rather extraordinary form of suicide.

But the wind held and all looked well. The herd was grazing contentedly, quite unawares, and we were closing on them. One thing about elephants: as you get nearer to them they start looking bigger and bigger—supernaturally huge—until eventually you begin to wonder what on earth you are doing out there on the edge of nowhere with a little popgun in your hand. I’ve heard it said that if you can get within a hundred yards of an elephant herd and still lick a postage stamp, you’re either blind or a fool. But the problem is, a hundred yards isn’t close enough to get a shot off. You have to squeeze in to fifty, and believe me, that last fifty is enough to turn you inside out. A hundred yards, by comparison, is like sitting on the beach in Hawaii. But fifty is the magic number, the distance at which you can be relatively certain of making a precise brain shot. An elephant’s head is so massive that anybody who can find the side of a barn can hit it. But the brain itself is only about twenty inches wide, and if you don’t hit the brain, you might as well just run up and tickle the fellow with a feather. So you have to have a pretty good feel for exactly where that little headquarters is, about a third of the way between the ear hole and the eye.

Well, we got up to a hundred yards, and Kalima wouldn’t go any further. The last fifty I did on my own, and by that point, I think, with every ten yards an elephant about doubles in size. But I covered the distance, and the wind was still right, and the herd was still feeding, contented and secure. Why shouldn’t they be secure? They had a country mile of open space in all directions. They were perfectly safe. Except for me and my little popgun.

I took a few moments to catch my breath and compose myself as much as possible. No easy task when you’re sitting practically on top of a live volcano, which at any moment might erupt and squash you into porridge. I think the beauty scares you as much as the size. You just can’t believe you’re really there, really doing this. The glorious, wild purity of it! You’re beyond even courage. No amount of mere courage could have brought you this far, to see what you are seeing, to do what you are about to do. No, it’s nothing to do with you anymore. You’re outside yourself. You’re in the most fantastic place in the universe.

But the really strange part is that once you’re there, in that tiny holy sanctuary of sheer naked reality, you do something that seems wholly irreverent. You shoulder your 458 magnum that packs a wallop harder than a sledgehammer, and you get the brain of that big gorgeous jumbo in the center of your sights, and letting out all your breath, you squeeze off a shot. Just one little finger movement, like scratching your nose. And then you watch that big bull drop right out of sight, and you feel the earth shake beneath your belly, and your whole being explodes into a shout of primeval triumph.

That’s exactly how it happened. That elephant was a goner, and I was ecstatic. I was praising the Lord! Sure, you might wonder how a guy can involve God in a thing like killing an innocent beast. What can I say? A moment like this is indescribable. Could it possibly taste so good, be so utterly ravishing, if the Lord of the universe weren’t in it? In any case, if only because of the extreme danger, it really is a matter of prayer. All the way out on my knees and belly I’d been praying. If a man doesn’t encounter his God at such a time, I don’t know when he does.

So the bull was down and I was rejoicing (silently of course), and meanwhile the rest of the herd looked simply bewildered. They’d seen their big daddy crumple like a house of cards. The noise of the shot had scared them, but they had no idea where it came from. It was like a lightning strike. They were mightily puzzled, stunned, but what could they do? The wind was still in my favor, so I was as safe, I figured, as I would have been in my own bed at home.

But then something utterly unexpected happened. It was like another lightning bolt, only this time in reverse and directed at me. About three minutes went by, and then there was a stirring, a rustling sound, and suddenly that big jumbo stood straight up on his feet! I think he got up even faster than he fell down. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I doubt if I’ll be any more startled on resurrection day. In one split second all my joy clotted into cold terror. Instantly I knew that my bullet had missed the brain—though it must have come pretty close or it never could have knocked him out.

So the bull was on his feet and looking even more enormous than before. And was he furious! You don’t know what anger is until you’ve seen an incensed bull elephant. He was hurt, he was mad, he was screaming, and in seconds he had enraged the entire herd. It was quite a performance. All their trunks were up and they were stamping their feet, even the little tots. Dust swirled thirty feet in the air. And the noise! When those critters screech, it’s like the blast of the last trumpet. And all this commotion had but one motive, one great and simple thrust: Find the intruder and trample him. When elephants get mad there’s no chance of them running away. They’re afraid of nothing. Their sole thought is to locate and destroy the enemy.

Well, Kalima and I were shaking in our boots. It was like being tied to a railroad track when the train comes steaming round the bend. There was nothing we could do. The one thing on our side, all along, was the wind. The good old wind was still away from us, and it was obvious those elephants had no clue which way to turn. They could fume and trumpet all they liked, but it wouldn’t change the wind. So we were still invisible.

But then, wouldn’t you know it, something happened that made the wind factor irrelevant. Life is full of surprises, isn’t it? You see, if Kalima and I had been alone, we might have been okay. But we had eight others with us, eight guys who liked the idea of an elephant hunt so long as they didn’t have to get too close to any elephants. I don’t mean to slight them—but hunting is a risky business. There are ways of reducing the risk, but never completely. And the more risk you eliminate, the more pleasure you lose. I’m talking of deep pleasure, the kind that doesn’t come cheap. You can say the two of us were nuts for being out there at all, on our bellies in the middle of nothing with no cover. But I’ll tell you something: There came a period later in my life when I stopped taking risks, and I never want to be like that again. A man is built to live on the edge, and when he stops living out there he begins, little by little, to die.

What happened was this: When our eight friends saw those twenty-six elephants start into their war dance, they did the first thing that came into their heads. If only they’d stood their ground we would all have been safe (if you ask me). But there was a grove of trees within sight, close enough to be tempting, and they made for it like jackrabbits. And the movement of so many bodies, even at that distance, caught the elephants’ eye. It was all the tip-off they needed. Immediately they swung round and gave chase. And all at once we had a full-scale elephant charge on our hands.

Elephants do not gallop. If an elephant wished to catch an express train, he could not gallop, but he could catch the train. I wish I’d been up in a helicopter to watch that charge. It would have been something to see. As it was, Kalima and I bounced straight up in the air just like that bull had done, and we took off like the blazes. If someone had had a stopwatch on us, I think we would have set a world’s record. Not that there was any point in running. An elephant runs so much faster than a man that there’s no contest. Neither was there any possibility of an end-run around one of the flanks, for by then the elephants were using their eyesight, and they were coming like a solid wall. So our situation was plainly and simply hopeless. Still, rather than get trampled lying down, you might as well hoof it and extend your life a few extra seconds.

Kalima had a head start, but being ten years younger I soon passed him. The first time I looked over my shoulder the herd had halved the distance between us. The ground rumbled and the screams were deafening. Ever try to run when you’re trembling like a leaf? You sort of bounce along like a bag of rubber bands. But we kept on pumping our little arms and legs, and the next time I glanced behind I hardly had to turn at all. Those mammoths were nearly on top of us, mountainous as a tidal wave. Right then and there I gave up the ghost. With the whole world shaking to bits, and that terrible noise like the din of judgment day, what could I do but look into my heart and cry out, ‘Lord, here I come!’ It was all I could think of to say. My final prayer.

And just at that moment, just when we were all but feeling hot elephant breath on our necks—just then, what do you think happened? The entire herd, as precisely and gracefully as a school of fish, turned on a dime and veered sharply to the right. Yes! Without slackening their pace one iota, as a single animal they bent into the turn like palm trees in a hurricane and thundered off at a ninety-degree angle. It was totally astounding. One second they were hot on our tails, and the next they were showing us their own tails. As for us, we didn’t stop to wave goodbye. We just kept on pumping like crazy till we made it to the trees. And then we ran some more, until finally we collapsed and lay gasping our guts out in that cool, green, wonderful forest. Our lungs like burst balloons, our brains mush—but alive, and muttering incredulous thanks to our God.

As soon as I got back a rag of breath, I looked at Kalima, who knew elephants much better than I did, and croaked, “What on earth …? Why did that herd turn like that?” For there was no explaining it. Those elephants had us squarely in their sights and were bent on running us down. What could possibly have changed their course?

Kalima peered back at me out of the shadowy woods, out of his dark face with its big startled eyes, and he gave me what I still think is a very wise answer. In fact it’s the only conceivable answer. What he said was, “Man disobeys God, but animals never do. When God speaks, they listen. The Lord must have told those elephants to turn, and they obeyed.”

Over the years I’ve thought often of that day, and of Kalima’s explanation. As naive as it sounds, I believe it implicitly. And believing it has given me tremendous comfort, confidence, and even a kind of invulnerability. To me it means that until the Lord Himself says the word, nothing can touch me. Not even a raging herd of elephants. Until my work is done, I’m immortal.

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