Someone staying here had the good fortune to see elk from the roadside, and afterwards said to me, ‘They’re ugly, aren’t they?’ I was a bit taken aback. I think elk are charming, characterful creatures, and I’m puzzled as to what constitutes ‘ugly’ when it comes to animals. It’s true, elk don’t look like babies or kittens. They’re a cross between a donkey, a horse, and ‘Bottom’ (a man with a donkey’s head on in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’). I feel like Titania and could fall in love with an elk, stroking his long silky nose and ruffling his ears.
Elk are large animals, and sometimes they’re hard to spot out in the forest or on the open landscape because they look like tree trunks. On the road at twilight they can cross suddenly so you don’t see them until they’re lying sprawled on your bonnet. It’s the most common road accident in Sweden and after such a collision your car will look at least as bad as the elk. As a motorist there are a few things that help – ‘Elk Warning’ signs for instance. Elk are obliging creatures and seem to stick to these limits when crossing the roads.
By the way, an elk here is what is known as a ‘moose’ in Canada, where an ‘elk’ is not a moose but is really a reindeer. Hope that’s clear now.
Once a year elk are hunted. There are strict quotas for killing elk, and you have to belong to recognised team of hunters who, as a team, have the right to kill a certain number of elk in a particular area. The hunting season is in September, and whereas the week before elk wander freely along the roadside, you won’t see one during the hunting season. They’re well tuned-in to the annual rhythm of slaughter, and know when to taunt hunters out of season, idling nearby without a care in the world.
An elk close up gives the impression of having a laughing face. Their nose has white marking on it like a smile, so it’s hard for me at least not to see them as very friendly animals. I was admiring a friendly elk head yesterday, after we had screeched to a halt at the roadside, when Rolf informed me that the nose is a Chinese culinary delicacy. Elk nose. It’s beyond me, but then I don’t eat meat so I couldn’t possibly understand the attraction.
I have long had the idea that some elk seen at a distance are really the man from the local tourist office in a zip-up costume. I’m convinced that elk used to be more shy than they are these days. I lived in Sweden for many years before I saw my first elk, whereas now I can direct people to a particular stretch of road and be almost sure they will see them.
This is very convenient for local tour companies who offer ‘wildlife safaris’. These involve driving down a particular road in the hope of seeing elk. If the tourists don’t see elk then they pay one fee, and if they do, they pay more – sort of ‘payment-by-results’ tourism. I wonder what constitutes a sighting? I mean, if your tour guide sees one but you don’t, do you have to pay more anyway? And what if you think it’s really a motionless tree trunk, but your tour guide assures you it’s really an elk, do you pay up?
It’s not just the tour companies that are getting clever about this. A few years ago a very young elk was found wandering at the side of the main road outside Vittangi, a small town an hour or so’s drive from here. There’s a Moose Park in Vittangi where tourists are able to come close to elk and learn about them and how they live. This young abandoned elk was welcomed into the bosom of the Moose Park family, duly christened ‘Mooses’, and has been the main attraction ever since. You can’t help wondering why its mother abandoned him, and why there in particular, in such a convenient spot for rescue and for a lifetime’s protection from the elk hunter. She probably thought it was the very best start in life any mother could give him.