Documentaries allow humans to view these spectacularly massive mammals up close in their natural environment. But as this crew learned, sometimes it’s better to observe at a distance.

After being hunted by a pride of lions, a herd of 40 elephants stampeded through the bush towards the tourists. This guide kept his group safe by letting the herd pass through without panicking and holding their ground.

But if an elephant charges at you, should you play dead? How aggressive is the herd? Can an elephant smell fear?


Powerful and majestic, elephants aren’t the harmless animal that kids cartoons would have you believe. With less than half a million elephants left on Earth, this endangered species kills 500 people a year.

Coveted for their tusks, if an elephant survives a traumatic encounter with poachers, don’t expect them to greet you with a friendly trunk. While elephants may not forget their experiences, if you follow these steps you might live to remember this moment too.

Step One. Seek Shelter

Weighing up to 8,000 kg (17,600 lb) and standing 3 to 4 meters (10 to 13 ft), the African bush elephant is the largest land animal alive on Earth. So if this beast charges at you, don’t expect it to get out of your way.

Find something sturdy to hide in, like a cave, or climb a tree. And if you can’t climb a tree, hide behind its trunk, and wait for the stampede to pass through. If you can’t find shelter, lie on the ground. The elephants won’t trample you if they don’t consider you a threat.

Step Two. Throw a Decoy.

If this herd does consider you a threat though, all bets are off. Clocking in at speeds up to 40 km/h (25 mph), and with the ability to take sharp turns, this animal isn’t a lumbering oaf.

As you’re running, take an article of clothing or another object and throw it away from you. Let the elephant trample your backpack instead of your spine.

Step Three. Show No Fear.

Before the stampede begins, an elephant could pretend to charge so it can asess your threat level. If the trunk hangs loosely, and it’s swinging one leg back-and-forth, the animal is preparing to mock charge you.

When they do, hold your ground, and don’t turn your back. As one survivor said, “Show the illusion of strength.” The elephant will flap its ears aggressively, and toot it’s trunk.

Take a cue from the elephant, and make a commotion, but don’t run away. If the animal sees you run, this act of submission could give them a reason to chase you down.


Step Four. Run Downwind

If you’re able to walk away before a stampede starts, keep downwind. If an elephant picks up your scent, it could consider you a threat, depending on its last interaction with humans. Elephants have a keen sense of smell, so try to to stay at least 50 m (164 ft) away, and never get closer than 20 m (65 ft).

Step Five. Don’t Move

Even if the herd passes by, the elephants may not be done with you. If you had to lie on the ground, stay there, and don’t make any sudden movements. The elephants may think you’re dead, and try to bury you body in leave and branches.

If you found shelter, keep safe until the herd is out of sight. While you personally may not pose any danger to an elephant, humans’ violent obsession with this powerful beast may taint their views toward you.

You can’t outrun an elephant, but if you treat these animals with respect, maybe you’ll be the human they want to remember. So the herd has passed, and the danger is gone. But these poachers aren’t satisfied, and they decide maybe you’re worth more than a tusk.


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