vanishing elephant closeup
Iconic African elephant population on the brink
05:49 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: CNN’s David McKenzie and Ingrid Formanek have reported extensively from southern Africa. Most recently, they covered the Great Elephant Census, which found these animals declined 30% between 2007 and 2014. Some 144,000 elephants disappeared during that period. This story is part of CNN’s “Vanishing” series. Learn more about the sixth extinction and get involved.

Johannesburg, South Africa CNN  — 

The female elephant charges through shrub, ears pinned back, silent.

At least that’s how I remember it. I was 7.

I’m wedged between a cousin and my father, my grandmother perched behind. We are in the back of an open pickup near the banks of the Olifants River in South Africa.

“Drive!” we shout at my uncle in the cab, banging on the roof.

But banging on the roof is our signal to stop.

The truck stops and the elephant is right behind us. We can see the milk discharging from her teats. Her newborn is somewhere hidden in the bushes.

My dad pulls out an antique double-barreled shotgun. He loads it with birdshot to fire in the air.

“Don’t shoot the elephant,” my gran cries and smacks him.

It would be like shooting an elephant with a tic-tac.

I am crying, and so is my cousin. We smell the elephant musk; we can see the horizon through its legs.

My uncle sees the elephant looming in his rearview mirror. He hits the accelerator.

Outrunning the charging animal, we bounce along the dirt track. Shortly after, she turns back.

We are safe. Right around the corner, the truck’s axle breaks in an aardvark hole.

My family often recounts this story. And from that incident, I learned elephants had to be respected – even feared.

It means no worries

Imagine my alarm, then, nearly 30 years later, when I am assigned by CNN to a story in the Maasai Mara in Kenya.

The Great Elephant Census found 30% of African elephants disappeared over  seven years.

The guide drives right up to a breeding herd of elephants in the grasslands and promptly switches off the engine.

“Shouldn’t we keep it on,” I say, “and maybe not be so close.”

“The elephants here are relaxed,” he smiles, “Hakuna Matata.”

Meaning: “No worries.”

I can’t understand it. The elephants don’t charge. They do not seem agitated, as has been my experience. They completely ignore us.

To be sure, elephants can be dangerous – and sometimes deadly. But in this section of the Mara, there hasn’t been hunting for decades. They are used to the tourist vehicles.