American mother, baby killed by elephant in Kenya

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Associated Press

Posted on January 8, 2010 at 12:07 AM

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Sharon Brown was hiking with family and her 1-year-old daughter in a Kenyan nature reserve when suddenly their unarmed guide froze in his tracks. Around a corner was an elephant.

The guide shouted to turn back, but it was too late. The elephant — which was protecting a calf nearby — gored the young American mother, tossed her in the air and dragged her body into the forest, a relative said. The baby, who was flung out of her carrier, also died.

"We watched helplessly," Brown's brother-in-law, Rick LeVert, said of the tragic end to what was supposed to have been a scenic nature walk in the forest surrounding the lodge where the family was staying near Mount Kenya National Park.

The 38-year-old New York native and her husband Jeff had decided to take the guided hike Monday with their baby, Margaux, after being told by the owner of the Castle Forest Lodge that it was safe for such a young child, said LeVert, who accompanied them with his wife Libby.

"We were told several times that the walk was suitable for a mother with a baby. At no time did someone say there was a risk of an elephant charging," LeVert said.

Melia van Laar of the Castle Forest Lodge said by e-mail Thursday that the hike is suitable for a mother and young child, and that "we always do" warn guests about dangers. She said a written warning was posted on an information board.

The group had been walking over flat terrain looking at mushrooms and ants, LeVert said, when it began to rain. They headed toward a more forested area where they hiked for about an hour before the guide hesitated at a blind corner.

"At that point he turned and yelled 'Go back!'" LeVert said. "Sharon, who was next to me, turned and slipped on wet ground and a branch. I helped her up, and ... 15 to 20 meters (yards) up the trail was the elephant."

"It was not a lone elephant. It was a mother with a calf. We turned and we began to run. It was clear to everyone if we stayed on the path we had no chance," LeVert said. "I yelled to Sharon to come with me. I went to the left side, she went to the right side."

The elephant charged to the right, ramming into Brown, then throwing her into the air and dragging her into the forest. Margaux was tossed from her baby carrier. She was barely alive, but the family immediately knew Brown had been killed.

The elephant, making growling noises, backed up about 50 yards, allowing family members to creep toward Brown's body, LeVert said. Because she could not be saved, the family decided to leave her body and make the trek back to the lodge to try to save Margaux; the baby died en route.

LeVert said the family blamed the lodge staff for not warning them about potential dangers and for failing to provide adequate emergency help after the tragedy.

"We're not stupid. We know we were in the wild and anything could happen. But the guide did not hesitate and said the walk was suitable. The owner did not hesitate and said the walk was suitable," he said.

However, because Castle Forest lies just outside the boundary of Mt. Kenya National Park, the family was with a hotel guide who was not allowed to carry a gun, said Kentice Tikolo, a spokeswoman for the Kenya Wildlife Service. Only park rangers can carry guns.

At the lodge, LeVert said the owner did not have any emergency contact numbers for medical authorities or the Kenya Wildlife Service. Van Laar said her lodge does have emergency contacts but they weren't programmed into her phone because she never had to call them. She added that she stayed with the family the whole time.

Tikolo, the spokeswoman for the Kenya Wildlife Service, said the elephant's aggression likely came from the fact that the calf was present.

Deaths caused by animals are common enough in Kenya that the government has a set rate to pay families in the case of such killings — about $2,600, a large sum for rural Kenyans. The government pays $660 for injuries caused by animals.

Monday's attack recalled a 2000 elephant attack on British tourist Wendy Smith while she was jogging inside the Il Ngwesi ranch, 60 miles north of the lodge. Smith, who survived with a crushed pelvis, had also been accompanied an unarmed guide.

She was awarded $1 million in compensation by a Kenyan court in a case that forced organizations dealing with wildlife tourism to review security measures.

"The incident taught us and the people who manage wildlife tourism a lesson," said Kenya Wildlife Service spokesman Paul Udoto. "If the people want to go to places where they are exposed to danger then we recommend armed escorts."

Brown and her husband worked at the International School of Kenya, where both were teachers and she was the librarian. Previously, she had served in the Peace Corps in Bangladesh and Uganda, her father John Laurie said.

"Sharon was a wonderful mother, wife, sister, daughter and friend. Margaux was a beautiful and vibrant child. They were both dearly loved, we will miss them terribly," said Brown's sister-in-law, Joellen Valentine.

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Associated Press writers Tom Odula in Nairobi and Michael Astor in New York contributed to this report.

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On the Net:

Mount Kenya National Park: http://www.kws.org/kws/parks/parks_reserves/MKNP.html

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