Dear reader, I know I promised you snakes in this particular post, but but before I get to the snakes, I have to make a digression to mention the elephants. The elephants in the Upper Semliki River Valley in the Eastern Congo at the time our expedition (late 1980s) are especially interesting because at the time it was believed that no elephants lived there. Yet, as part of my research, I discovered that this was inaccurate. A herd of invisible elephants roamed the park. I told almost no one at the time for fear that they would be poached. In fact, this is the first time I’ve mentioned it in a public forum.
This park had previously been known for its elephants. The southern end of the park, across the Big Lake, still had elephants at the time of this expedition (I’m sure they are all shot out by now). In fact, the southern parcel was the home of one of those rare and very famous elephants. This was a huge bull that liked to hang around with people, rescuing the children form danger, entertaining visitors, and so on. The elephants in the northern part of the park were less charismatic, but not without interest.
My colleague and friend, Jean de Heinzelin (deceased) used to tell a story of these elephants from his days working on the geology of the Western Rift (Count de Heinzelin, who joined the Semiliki expedition later on in the season, and about whom I’ve got a story or two, is the guy who figured out the details of the geology of African rifts). Jean tells of a year with reduced rainfall and some stress on the local grasses. In that year, the elephant herd that lived in the Upper Semliki paid a visit to Ishango, which at that time had several more mud-walled grass-roofed buildings, including one that stored quite a bit of food (mainly root crops and grains). (The park was generally more active in those days, so there was a bigger food supply.)
So the elephants showed up and ate all the roofs and the entire contents of the food storage building over a period of a few hours, and everyone watched (and took pictures, some of which I’ve seen) but could do nothing. It’s a park. The grass employed to make the roofs was the property of the elephants, and they were totally within their rights.
Now what you have to understand is that elephants in Africa have very large ranges, and some of those ranges transcend generational times. There are times and places where the herd will migrate quite far away and use the knowledge, it would seem, of a small handful of elders (or perhaps even a single individual) to make a successful long distance search for food or water. The nature of elephant ranges is an essential part of planning elephant conservation, and in fact, is the focus of some recent published research that I cite below.
One candidate for the job of world class long-distance migratory consultant was a female elephant that happened to be tagged by Iain Douglass Hamilton (famous elephant researcher) back in the 1970s in a park in Uganda, and who showed up in the Upper Semiliki, after a solitary walk that took only a couple of weeks, several hundred kilometers away!
Another thing that needs to be considered is that most elephant ranges overlap with both wild areas or parks where they are protected, and areas where they are (usually illegally) hunted. Again, this is the focus of much current research (see below). The photograph I show above is an elephant living in Pilanesberg, where there is no option of long distance ranging. These elephants are kept in place with an electrified elephant fence (by which I was once electrocuted. Well, nearly electrocuted.)
What this can mean is that the attitude and behavior of a given herd (and they do tend to meld personalities across the herd) may be integrated across a wide range of experiences. I have visited elephants in protected parts of Botswana where the herd spends some time in areas where they have been heavily poached. So, these are elephants who have poaching elsewhere in time and space as part of their overall cultural experience. When you encounter these elephants you are encountering elephants that do very seriously consider killing the humans to protect themselves and their young, even though they clearly recognize certain individuals as non-threatening. The land rovers in that part of Botswana are all banged up from close calls, and one close acquaintance of mine once ended up shooting one of these elephants. He was on foot, and she decided to kill him. In truth, his gun went off by accident when he fell to the ground trying to escape … he had no intention of shooting her, but that is how it worked out.
In Pilanesberg, which is a small national park in South Afirica surrounded by farmland, settlements, and not far from the famous Sin City (oops .. I meant to say Sun City), there is currently research going on to measure the effects of hunting elephants (in this case, to cull them) on the attitude of the herd . In this research (see below) stress levels of elephants are measured by analyzing the hormones in their feces, and their behavior is observed. The fear in is that the elephant herd will “go rogue” and start taking out people (tourists) or try to escape form the park if they are hunted on a regular basis.
The research done there to date suggests that this is not likely to happen if the hunting is done correctly. I do not buy this. This is not going to go well. While the kind of current research being reported now is relevant, it is also important to understand and reconcile the kinds of long term cultural evolution we know that elephant herds experience. This is well known from long term work such as that done by Cynthia Moss (see Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family), Elephants really do have significant long term memories. It would be a shame (and a little funny, for a while) if Pilanesberg has to be shut down as a park because it becomes a crater full (the park is inside a giant crater) of killer elephants.
So, what about my invisible elephants? This is a little like a reverse Horton Hears A Who!. My research involved traversing the savanna and recording animal sign including prints and other spoor, as well as trails. I’ll tell you why I was doing this some other time. The point is, it would have been impossible for me to miss the presence of elephants in my study area. And indeed, I did not. I discovered that a herd of about five or six elephants (including young) crossed from the other side of the Semliki river, during the night, and fed in tree stands on the eastern side of the river not too far from our camp (about two or three kilometers south), returning to the other side of the river the same night. Three times in two months.
Interestingly, the crossing point was a well known ‘drift’ (ford) where people can barely cross on foot depending on conditions. (Except they don’t … at that time few ventured into this part of the park.) At this spot, I was able to document an elephant trail that rose up out of the river but that had not been used much in decades. This was probably a traditional crossing point for thousands of years, used when elephants live here, disused at other times. These elephant trails can become very deeply entrenched, being 15 or 20 feet deep ruts in the landscape. This one was only about 6 to 8 feet deep. I had discovered the trail when it had no evidence of use, and then later on discovered it actually being used ty the elephants.
Which I never saw, of course. It turns out the way to make an elephant invisible is to make the elephant herd culturally averse to human contact. But if you are very observant, you will still know that they are there. …on the fifteenth of May in the Jungle of Nool.
(But the snakes, you say! What about the snakes! Enough already. The snakes are HERE. Be careful.)
This blog entry is part of a series known as the Congo Memoirs. To read the Congo Memoirs, start with the first one: The Zodiac. An archive of all of the Memoirs can be found here, and an explanation of what these are all about can be found here.
This post is also an entry in the Global PLoS ONE Synchroblogging Event. For details on that, go here.
Study on Pilanesberg Hunting:
Tarryne Burke, Bruce Page, Gus Van Dyk, Josh Millspaugh, Rob Slotow (2008). Risk and Ethical Concerns of Hunting Male Elephant: Behavioural and Physiological Assays of the Remaining Elephants PLoS ONE, 3 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002417
Studies on Elephant Ranging and Distribution:
Stephen Blake, Sharon L. Deem, Samantha Strindberg, Fiona Maisels, Ludovic Momont, Inogwabini-Bila Isia, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, William B. Karesh, Michael D. Kock (2008). Roadless Wilderness Area Determines Forest Elephant Movements in the Congo Basin PLoS ONE, 3 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003546
Bindi Thomas, John D. Holland, Edward O. Minot (2008). Elephant (Loxodonta africana) Home Ranges in Sabi Sand Reserve and Kruger National Park: A Five-Year Satellite Tracking Study PLoS ONE, 3 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003902
Fire in Pillanesberg:
Leigh-Ann Woolley, Joshua J. Millspaugh, Rami J. Woods, Samantha Janse van Rensburg, Robin L. Mackey, Bruce Page, Rob Slotow (2008). Population and Individual Elephant Response to a Catastrophic Fire in Pilanesberg National Park PLoS ONE, 3 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003233