Photograph by Bob SMith, National Geographic Creative
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A herd of elephants approaches a water hole in Zimbabwe in a file photo. Last week, an elephant herd near the country's Hwange National Park was involved in a fatal incident with trophy hunters.

Photograph by Bob SMith, National Geographic Creative

Wounded Elephant Crushes, Kills Trophy Hunter

The deadly incident highlights how dangerous elephants can be when threatened and casts further scrutiny on the practice of trophy hunting.

An elephant cow crushed and killed a South African big-game hunter in Zimbabwe last week, falling on him after she was shot.

On May 19, Theunis Botha was leading a group in a hunt at Good Luck Farm near Hwange National Park when they stumbled upon a herd of breeding elephants, according to a report in the U.K. newspaper the Telegraph. Three elephants charged directly at the hunters, but a fourth elephant caught them by surprise as she charged them from the side.

That elephant picked up Botha with her trunk, and one of the hunters shot her, causing her to collapse on top of Botha. The elephant and Botha were both killed.

Elephants have been known to express emotions such as empathy, and some have even shown signs of grief over dead elephants. They have established societies within their herds and are capable of communicating with each other through subtle signs and gestures.

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Two young African elephants interact at a water hole in Zimbabwe in a file photo.

While some people may consider elephants to be docile creatures, they can become very dangerous and charge when they perceive a threat, as the elephants in Zimbabwe did during the recent event. This aggression can be deadly for humans, who are far outmatched by an elephant’s size and height in a confrontation.

However, elephants often fare much worse in their interactions with humans; some 33,000 are killed each year by poachers for their ivory.

Zimbabwe is one of a only a handful of African countries considered to have relatively stable savannah elephant populations, according to the Great Elephant Census. Since 2005, elephants in the country have declined by about 11 percent, much less than the 30 percent drop seen in Africa overall. Nonetheless, economic instability, decreased tourism, and drought have decreased Zimbabwe's ability to manage its elephant populations, according to the Great Elephant Census's Elephant Atlas.

Proponents argue that some of the money trophy hunting groups make from wealthy foreigners goes toward local communities and elephant conservation.

But the benefits that trickle down to communities are often small: The industry doesn’t employ many people, government corruption affects available trophy hunting land, and the practice of trophy hunting isn’t stopping poachers. Poaching for ivory is the biggest threat to elephants in southern Africa.

This isn't the first time trophy hunts in this part of Zimbabwe have caught international attention. In 2015, Cecil the lion was killed by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer, a trophy hunter, outside of the same national park, sparking international outrage and greater scrutiny of trophy hunting. Charges against the local professional who guided Palmer in the hunt have since been dropped.