A Tourist From New Mexico Is Killed by an Elephant in Zambia

A tourist from New Mexico was killed in Zambia when an elephant charged her, according to the police commissioner who investigated the incident. She is the second tourist to be fatally attacked by an elephant in the southern African country this year.

The woman who was killed, Juliana G. Letourneau, 64, of Alburquerque, had just visited Victoria Falls, a 350-foot waterfall that straddles the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and was heading back to her hotel on Wednesday when the group that she was traveling with encountered a herd of elephants on the road.

She and others stepped out of their vehicle to observe the animals, said Auxensio Daka, the police commissioner for the southern province of Zambia, in a telephone interview on Saturday.

“They stopped to watch the elephants, and unfortunately one of them charged towards them as they were standing there watching,” Mr. Daka said.

Mr. Daka said that Ms. Letourneau was taken to a clinic in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park near Livingstone, Zambia, where she was declared dead on arrival. Her injuries included deep wounds on the right shoulder blade and forehead, a fractured left ankle and a slightly depressed chest, according to a police statement.

No other injuries were reported from the encounter with the elephant.

Ms. Letourneau’s brother said on Saturday that he had no details about the incident, and declined to be interviewed. Other relatives could not be reached.

This past March, a 79-year-old American woman was on safari at Kafue National Park, in a central region of western Zambia, when an elephant charged the tour group’s vehicle, according to media reports.

However, human deaths are rare in encounters with elephants, according to experts.

“This is really a freak accident,” Nikhil Advani, a senior director at the World Wildlife Fund, a nonprofit that works on environmental protection and conservation efforts, said of the two incidents happening so close together. “It’s probably just some sort of coming together of unfortunate circumstances that led to this.”

The U.S. State Department said in a statement on Friday that millions of Americans travel to areas where there is wildlife every year, and that it is uncommon for elephants and other wild animals to attack visitors in Zambia.

Ms. Letourneau’s death was first reported by the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation, a government-controlled news outlet, which said that human and wildlife encounters in Livingstone, the city where the incident occurred, were rising amid the country’s worst drought in four decades.

The climate conditions are worsening food insecurity in Zambia, which has one of the highest rates of malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa, and pushing wildlife into human habitats in search of food and water, according to the report.

Tourism to wildlife protected areas, which cover about a third of Zambia, and to the numerous lakes and rivers and lush valleys contributes an important share of the national economy.

Joyce Poole, a co-founder and co-director of ElephantVoices, a nonprofit that researches elephant behavior, said that keeping distance from elephants is the best way for tourists to stay safe. She added that there can sometimes be a “culture of aggression” stemming from a region’s history with elephants, as in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, which experienced decades of war and poaching in the 20th century.

“Elephants responded in a certain way toward vehicles,” Dr. Poole said of her research findings from Gorongosa. “This behavior was then observed by younger elephants, imitated by younger elephants and sort of passed down through families.” There have been multiple poaching crises in Zambia, she noted.

Dr. Poole said that finding “a reputable company and drivers who are not just racing around to get the best shot” is a good way for visitors to ensure safety.

Visitors to wilderness areas should also be wary and admire the animals from afar, experts say.

“As with all wildlife, like if you keep safe distance from them, they are not looking to disturb you or interact with you,” Dr. Advani said.

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