Tourist Martin Nyfeler of Kloten, Switzerland, captured pictures of the wild encounter during a visit to Zambia‘s South Luangwa National Park.
“We saw a mother elephant and baby at the water hole and said [to the guides], You know, what a cute picture, let’s stop here,” Nyfeler told National Geographic News.
“And suddenly the croc jumped out. The whole event took maybe 15 seconds.”
Although elephants are very unusual prey for Nile crocodiles, the 20-foot-long (6-meter-long) reptiles will occasionally ambush and take down large animalsâ€”including dozens of people annually, experts say.
“Even as [crocodiles] get bigger, most of their diet will be fish or smaller animals,” said Jason Bell, assistant curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Philadelphia Zoo.
“But they are also an opportunistic predator that will wait for something to come to the water’s edge and drink,” he said. “They’ve been known to take down young hippos or cape buffaloâ€”that’s a huge animal that they can pull into the water.”
During the attack, the elephants were able to move away from the water with the crocodile still hanging on to the adult (pictured). According to photographer Nyfeler, guides in the Zambian park had never before seen such an encounter.
Even for the formidable Nile crocodile, bringing down an elephant is no easy taskâ€”suggesting the ambush may have been an act of desperation or a simple mistake, according to Don Boyer, San Diego Zoo‘s curator of herpetology. (See alligator and crocodile pictures.)
“Predators can make mistakes,” Boyer said. “They can take on something and then say, Wow, hindsight is 20/20, and this was a big mistake.”
This particular clash of the titans had a happy endingâ€”except perhaps for the hungry crocodile.
“The elephant managed to turn, but the croc was still hanging on,” photographer Nyfeler said. “Then the little baby somehow stumbled over the croc, and the croc released the elephant.
“The croc went back into the water, and both elephants just ran away.”