South Africa: Elephant handler trampled to death

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A handler at an elephant park in South Africa was trampled to death while taking elephants out for exercise, the park’s owner said Tuesday.

The accident happened at around 7 a.m. Monday at the Elephant Sanctuary near Hartbeespoort Dam, west of Pretoria. About half an hour earlier on the same day, an elephant injured two tourists when it overturned their vehicle in Kruger National Park in the northeastern part of South Africa, according to park authorities.

Craig Saunders, owner of the elephant sanctuary, said the handler, who had been working with African elephants for four years, slipped off the back of an elephant that was engaging in “boisterous behavior” with another elephant.

The handler ended up in the midst of the altercation, which happened during an exercise program for the elephants that is closed to guests, according to Saunders. Paramedics arrived within 10 to 15 minutes but they were unable to revive the handler.

“It was a pure chance accident,” Saunders said. “There was no maliciousness of any sort displayed by the elephants.”

The name of the handler was being withheld pending notification of his family.

The website of the sanctuary says it offers elephant back-riding to guests and notes the “special relationship” between handlers and the elephants.

Saunders said sitting on the back of an elephant is a “normal management tool” for handlers.

The two tourists whose car was attacked by an elephant are doing “fine” even though the man had suffered broken ribs and the woman had back pain, said William Mabasa, a spokesman for Kruger park. The two were being transferred for medical treatment in Johannesburg, he said. The male tourist told authorities he is from Poland and currently lecturing at a university in Hong Kong.

Mabasa recalled a number of cases in which elephants overturned vehicles in the park, and that people in the vehicles failed to take simple precautions “in all these situations.”

In Monday’s encounter, he said, the couple did not take basic steps to get to a safe place.

“They decided to switch off the engine even when the elephant was charging,” he said. “Why would you do that? Why don’t you drive away?”

Bull elephants can be aggressive during periods when they are sexually aroused, according to Mabasa.

“Always keep a good distance,” he advised. “That’s the safest way to deal with elephants.”

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