In South Africa between 1967 and 1999, 14,629 elephants in Kruger National Park were culled, to keep the population at the park’s perceived carrying capacity of 7,000. Dr. Markus Hofmeyr, head of Kruger’s veterinary wildlife services, wrote the standard operating procedure for culling: you start with a brain shot from a helicopter with a high-caliber weapon, not less than a .375. “The spasmodic jerking of one or more legs is frequently indicative of a good brain shot.” Once the animal has collapsed, you fire a second “insurance” shot to make sure it is dead. Your first target should be the matriarch, “which anchors and confuses the rest of the group, [so they can be] quickly dispatched, as they mill around.” After some orphan bulls who had watched their mothers killed grew up into psychotic teenagers who raped rhinos and attacked tourists in Pilanes National Park, this procedure was modified. Now if you’re going to do it, the most “ethical” thing is to kill them all, to gun down the whole family. South Africa is keeping open the resumption of “lethal management” as an option.
Central African Republic
I catch a plane to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, a country of four and a half million that used to be part of French Equatorial Africa. This is deep, dark Africa, pulsating with insect din and birdsong and joyous music that people burst into at the drop of a hat. It is nothing like East Africa, a white man’s playground, or South Africa, which is like an outpost of Europe.
It’s a grueling, 12-hour, 300-mile drive to Bayanga, at the southern tip of the country, the knifepoint dividing Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo (Little Congo, not to be confused with Big Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire), where the tri-national park I’m visiting is. In the 1970s there were some 50,000 forest elephants in the Central African Republic. Now there are maybe 3,000. Big Congo, once the stronghold of the forest elephants—Douglas-Hamilton estimated there were 300,000-plus in 1979—has around 20,000 left. Loggers and miners from Cameroon—said to be in cahoots with local government officials—are wiping out adjacent Gabon’s approximately 60,000 forest elephants at the rate of a few thousand a year. Central Africa is getting hammered.
My destination is Dzanga Bai, a 550-by-275-yard clearing in the forest which everyone has been telling me is the last Eden for the forest elephants. Since 1990 an American woman, Andrea Turkalo, has been studying and keeping a watchful eye on the elephants who frequent the bai, or clearing.
After several hours of driving we enter towering virgin tropical forest. The trees’ naked columns shoot 120 to 150 feet up before putting out crowns and look like (as Tim Cahill has described the Amazon rain forest) monstrous stalks of broccoli. I begin to see pygmies, small forest people as gentle and innocent as the elephants, bathing in little brown streams in blizzards of butterflies. These are the Bayaka. There are 100,000 pygmies in the C.A.R., neighboring Cameroon, and Little Congo. Many of the mammals in the forests of central Africa—elephants, giraffes, buffalo—are smaller in size, the better to move around in the dense vegetation. Forest elephants ( Loxodonta cyclotis ) generally have smaller ears and shorter, harder, straighter, more orange tusks than the savanna or bush elephants ( L. africana ), and a different number of toenails. DNA analysis, resolving a long-standing debate, has just established that they are separate species, with no more overlap than the Indian elephant and the extinct woolly mammoth from which it evolved.
I don’t pull into the Doli Lodge, in Bayanga, till 11 P.M. The Doli is on a big river, the Sangha, gliding through the forest. In the morning I meet Andrea. She is 59, dressed in field khaki, with Moroccan silver bracelets. She has high Ukrainian cheekbones from her father, who was a prison guard in Taunton, Massachusetts.
As we drive to her camp, 15 miles into the glorious green forest, I ask Andrea how she happened to wind up here, devoting her life to elephants. She tells me that she was in the Peace Corps in northern C.A.R. in the early 80s, at the height of the previous poaching epidemic. “I didn’t know a thing about elephants, and suddenly I was seeing seven carcasses a day,” she says. “They were being killed by horsemen from Sudan. We never saw them.” Andrea was married to Michael Fay, another major hero in the battle for the elephants. Fay persuaded Gabon to create 13 national parks to protect its large forest population, after walking across central Africa for 455 days to find out where they were. After she and Michael split up in 2003, Andrea stayed on at the bai.
Something hidden in the vegetation only 50 feet from us barks menacingly. “It’s a gorilla,” Andrea says—one of the 5,000 or so in the vicinity.
The bai is a 45-minute walk along a little river, then into magical forest. We head down to the river with Azobe, one of the four Babenzele pygmies who help Andrea take care of the camp. The Babenzele, a local group of Bayaka, are generally taller and darker-skinned than the pygmies of the Ituri Forest I hung out with in Big Congo 30 years ago. Azobe is barefoot and wears only shorts, but his neck and wrists are decorated with intricate glass-and-seed beadwork. A big bull is standing in the water—Luther, whom Andrea hadn’t seen in three years and who suddenly reappeared a few days ago. Ears flaring, Luther raises his trunk and gives us the sniff-over. Azobe, slapping the water with his machete, shoos him back behind the bend.
The riverbank is littered with elephant dung. Andrea kicks apart one of the boluses, and it is full of big, hard-shelled seeds— Pandanus, Drypetes, and Gambeya. A new study has found that forest elephants are essential to central Africa’s forests for tree-seed dispersal. They can carry heavy seeds like these (which wouldn’t get very far on their own) in their gut for 50 miles before voiding them. Another study measures the rapid, prodigious growth of the forest trees and concludes that central Africa is the second-most-important equatorial sink for atmospheric carbon after the Amazon, so elephants are important for controlling global warming, on top of everything else.
As we near the bai, we hear trumpeting and sounds of boisterous, gregarious agitation. We tiptoe up the stairs to the Mirador, as Andrea calls her platform, and there they all are. Dozens of elephants are milling around in clusters that are constantly forming and breaking apart. A perfect illustration of elephants’ “fission-fusion” society, as one scientist describes it. Half of them are peach-colored from rolling around in the mud. Three big bulls have their trunks stuck deep into holes in the bare clay of the clearing and are sucking up its minerals, which help them digest the alkaloids and other nasty compounds in the leaves they eat. Every few minutes one of them pulls out his clay-stuffed trunk and aspirates it into his mouth. This is the elephants’ primary reason for being here, and there’s a pecking order for who gets to suck at the holes. The big bulls, of course, have the honors. As the dry season progresses, there are fewer fruits, and the elephants have to eat more foliage, so the visits to the bai become more frequent and prolonged. This is also when the males usually come into musth, so there is a lot of sexual activity. The bai is a social arena with all kinds of interactions constantly going on, a nonstop soap opera, a parallel universe, that never ceases to amaze and amuse Andrea.
“There are at least 50 other bais in central Africa, but Dzanga is the jewel. I like to call it the spiritual center of the forest elephants,” she whispers. Scanning the scene with binoculars, she spots, way up at the top of the bai, 500 yards away, a tiny baby. It couldn’t be more than a week old. “Births are rare in the bai, ” she tells me. “The females prefer to have their babies in the privacy of the forest, because here all the elephants come and hassle them.”
Deaths in the bai are also rare. Footage from here in 2000 shows a procession of clearly distressed elephants, 127 of them over the course of two days, paying their last respects to a dead baby lying on one of the paths to the bai, caressing it with their trunks, trying to prod it back to life, placing their feet over its heart to see if it is still beating. One young male tried to lift it 57 times.