It takes more than an hotel ...

... to keep an elephant from its mangoes.

Mfuwe Lodge, in Zambia's magnificent Luangwa Valley National Park, is a popular tourist attraction. It was built next to a grove of wild mangoes that one family of elephants have always visited when the fruit ripens. The regular visits of the elephants during November's mango season thrilled the guests.

But the lodge management didn't realise just how set in their ways the elephant family were. One year, when the management decided to extend their accommodation facilities, they unwittingly built the new lodge right across the herd's path to their beloved trees.

So, when the elephants, led by their matriarch nicknamed 'Wonky Tusk', returned for their annual feast they found a building in their way. What did they do? No problem. They walked straight through it:

And, over the years, the hotel staff, visitors and elephants have grown used to each other. The family group stays some four to six weeks and they gorge on the mangoes up to four times a day.

Andy Hogg, the lodge director, has lived in South Luangwa National Park since 1982. But in all his years  there he has never seen such intimate interaction between humans and wild animals. "This is the only place in the world where elephants freely get so close to humans," he says.

According to Andy the elephants are not aggressive if they're just left to stroll through the lobby. "It's their choice to be here," he says. "There are other wild mango trees around, but they prefer ours. The lodge was unwittingly built in their path. It wasn't a design error, we just didn't know. They get reasonably close to the staff, as you can see in the pictures," Andy explains. "But we do not allow the guests to get that close. Guests can stand in the lounge but only as long as there is a barrier between them and the elephants. These are still wild and dangerous animals, so there must be enough time for people to get away."

A rare and magnificent sight, and an authentic one too, too. This is not faked. I visited and worked in the Luangwa Valley over a period of 20 years from 1970 to 1990. On a number of occasions, when sleeping in a thatched hut, I have woken in the middle of the night to the sound of a rustling-ripping coming from above. Peering out of the window revealed a pair of gigantic kneecaps, mere centimetres from my nose. An elephant was calmly eating the thatch.

Technical note:
If you ever meet an elephant, walking through your hotel lobby, it can be a tricky photographic subject. The difference between the bright outside light and the dim interior is huge. If you're not careful your camera will meter from the bright light and the elephant will come out as black mass. Not what you want. So use fill-in flash to give detail in the beast, as the photographer of these images has done. Most wild animals are not too bothered by camera flash. It is brief, soundless and scentless and I guess that they just take it as a flash of sunlight through the trees.

Oh ... and this advice also applies to situations that don't involve elephants. Use fill in flash whenever photographing situations where there is a huge difference between the light and dark parts of the scene, your subject is in the dark part and you want to bring out some detail.


Mighty Mom said...

Loved this post! I love the fact that the elephants blaze on through the hotel. I wish the deer on this side of the pond could be so lucky on our roads!

beth pulsipher said...

What a great post! Made my day to see the elephant at the registration desk . . .

Alistair Scott said...

Thanks guys. It's just the sort of thing that can happen in Zambia - an extraordinary country. I lived and worked there for 20 years, including a time at a lodge called Chinzombo,not far from Mfuwe, and still miss the place like crazy.

If you're ever thinking of undertaking an African Safari, put Zambia and the Luangwa Valley at the top of your list. You won't be disappointed.