The bai continues to attract high numbers of elephants, mostly adult females and their young with only a few sizeable bulls. A few days ago we encountered a big bull in the river below camp upon our return after the daily observations. He calmly backed off and awaited our passage. I could clearly see that both ears were distinctly marked, the right ear with a big circular notch and the left ear with a noticeable hole. He was stocky in stature and with massive tusks which pointed straight with little curve. Small round ears whose lobes didn’t reach beyond his jaw. I kept this mental picture in my head not knowing if I had seen him before. Returning home I composed a line drawing and then made a search for a matching identity card. There he was, “Miura,” named by some Spanish tourists who told me that his name signified a race of bulls of the bovine type.
Miura was first identified in August 2007 when he was seen in musth and observed for a series of days between the 7 – 14th of August in the clearing. He wasn’t successful at finding a female but spent most of those days in the clearing. Since 2007 he hasn’t been observed so we wonder where he has been spending his time.
Miura, April 2011
Yesterday he entered the bai from the direction of the river where we had identified him. He spent a few hours in the bai and then headed back to the river where we again encountered him and two other younger bulls. They all walked up river in front of us clearing the way for us to return home.
Miura, August 2007
There have been reports of Sudanese poachers north of the area of the Dzanga Clearing. Reports coming in are mostly second and third hand and resemble the information that we received during the dry season in 2010 when there is movement of different groups in the northern part of the Central African Republic. In years past the dry season was the time when banditry escalated on the roads, especially in the northern savannah but for two consecutive years there have been additional reports of Sudanese caravans which consist of horsemen and camels making there way south where there are still healthy populations of elephant.
The last report was a couple of days ago when there was a purported confrontation between the Sudanese and Central African military. Deaths were reported but getting credible information is difficult especially specific details about the exact location of these groups.
Besides this alarming situation and the possible threat to this area which is one of the last strongholds of elephants in the Central African Republic our daily observations have shown elevated numbers of elephants and other species of forest mammals. For the past couple of days there have been well over 100 elephants a day with the appearance of elephant individuals we haven’t seen in months. Family group members have been coming together in the clearing in happy reunions with lots of vocalizations and tactile encounters.
The other news is that bongo have been consistently been in the clearing for the last two weeks with groups varying from 18 to well over 40 individuals. Yesterday there were four adult males in the group which confirms that this must be a mating season. During the last two years we have been observing elevated numbers of bongo in the clearing and they stay in the area with weeks of their presence in the bai.
The rains are starting and there is a different atmosphere at the Dzanga Clearing. Humidity is high with an occasional rainstorm. This has resulted in fewer large males observed in the clearing. However during the last ten days we have observed three musth males, two of which we have seen in musth in previous years. Freddy is the largest male presently in musth. He was first identified in 1991 and observed four times during nineteen years of the Dzanga Study. The last time he had been observed in musth was in 2007 so we were encouraged to see him again after a four year gap. During the last ten days he has been observed five times and yesterday during the midafternoon he appeared out of the forest following Backwards, a female we have know for twenty one years. Backwards, so named because of her tusks which turn backwards was her daughter, Kadi, on of our favorite calves. Kadi is her last calf and was born in March of 2004.
Backwards was rebuffing Freddy’s courtship and kept circulating in the clearing but Freddy followed her. At one point Backwards entered the forest behind the observation platform followed by Freddy only to re enter the clearing. Freddy kept following her and displaced a young bull from the favorite mineral hole which was then available to Backwards and Kadi. They entered the hole and after a few minutes resumed their waltz with Freddy around the clearing. Yesterday we were hoping to see the courting couple again but there was no sign of them all afternoon.
Backwards and Kadi
Another male we observed in musth is Sharif whom we observed only once last week. He is a small, younger bull whom we have observed only once in musth in 2008. He was first identified in 1994 and we have never seen him successfully guard any females. He is low on the hierarchy but has many years ahead of him. A couple of years ago he appeared in the bai with a tumor like growth on his left flank behind his front leg. On a subsequent day we again observed him and he had rubbed the growth off and there was a open wound. This healed and there is now a small scar which is barely visible.
Sharif, April 2011
The last bull to be observed in musth is Shaf, a younger bull. He has only been observed twice in the clearing and was first identified in February of 2008 and observed a couple of times thereafter. This is the first time he has been observed in musth. He spent most of the afternoon following Malcolm, another sizeable bull. Shaf was clearly discouraging Malcolm’s presence from the bai in order to eliminate any mating competition if any available females appeared.
Malcolm and Shaf
The other news is that there is a female forest buffalo in the vicinity of camp. She has a wound on her left rear leg and is not part of the buffalo group observed at Dzanga. We encounter her in the river below camp and she poses no threat. As we approach her she runs away. She has also been visiting camp during the night because in the morning we find her tracks where she has circulated in camp. What may attract her is the grassy lawn we have planted to prevent soil erosion in camp.
Dry season as usual is the period of elevated activity in the clearing. The long dry season takes place during the months of December through March and this year it has been unusually busy. This year we have witnessed more matings and musth guards than in past years. We have also observed fights between musth bulls which have been rare in the past. When we have observed musth male encounters in the past, one of two things has happened, either there is a physical encounter that lasts less than a minute or one of the bulls flees realizing that he is outmatched.
In both of the fights we observed this dry season one male, Habib, was a participant. He is a well known make whom we first identified in Septermber of 1995 and didn’t see again until December 2004. Since then he has been a regular visitor to the bai during the long dry season, his musth period. Habib’s first fight this dry season was with Gibor, a well known male, who we observed guarding a female in the clearing in December. The fight lasted a full five minutes, long for fights we have observed, the two bulls being evenly matched. Eventually Gibor succumbed running as he was pursued by Habib.
Habib and Gibor Fight
Gibor Flees Habib
The reaction of elephants in the clearing was excitement and heightened tension. The level of vocalizations increased to a crescendo which included roars, rumbles and screams were made in reaction to the fight and in the excitement a group of elephants which included females and their young ran out of the clearing to the safety of the forest. Later they returned to the clearing after Habib and Gibor left for the surrounding forest. We witness a similar kind of frenzy during matings in the bai when elephants vocalize in a similar fashion.
Prolonged fights are rare in the clearing but their presence is evident. Musth males often are observed in the clearing with scarring and wounds of encounters with other males during their rut period.
We witnessed an incredible sight four days ago when a group of 46 bongo made an appearance in the bai. They stayed the entire afternoon and were still present when we left in the early evening. Two days later tourists observed the same group in the morning hours before they left for the forest. With the group were four adult male bongo, evidently it is the mating season !
Apologies for not blogging for almost a year and keeping the situation at Dzanga updated.
The work at Dzanga continues on a regular basis and we are happy to report that since last January there have been no poaching incidences in or near the clearing. However outside the protected areas we know that elephants and other wildlife are always under threat due to uncontrolled hunting in areas where there is little or no surveillance. The main problem in this part of the world is commercial logging which attract people into areas which were formerly uninhabited. With people come arms and poaching.
The best news was our confirmation of twins which we had first observed in August of 2009. On December 2 of this year while at the clearing in the afternoon we witnessed the entrance of the mother, Habiba and her twin calves which we estimated to be about 18 months old. They had not been observed since their first sighting in August of 2009. With the second sighting of this group we have now confirmed the first observation of twins in a forest elephant population. Below is a photo of the entire group which includes Habiba in the front with the twins and her sisiter Juvena in the rear with her calf. This group is not seen very often in the clearing but have very distinct ear markings making them unmistakable when they are observed in the clearing.
The twins, a female and male, are doing well and their tusks have just erupted. The entire group of Habiba and Juvena now numbers seven individuals and are seen once or twice in the clearing per year.
Habiba and twins, Juvena and calf
Habiba and the Twins
The other news is that the Dzanga Clearing will be featured in an article in the magazine “Vanity Fair,” as part of an extensive article on elephants covering not only elephants in the wild and from several sites in Africa and Asia but also will feature information on the ivory trade. The article is planned for the April issue.
At present the dry season is here so the normal movement of big bulls into the bai is now underway. Several bulls have been observed in musth including Gibor who is one of the December-January musth bulls. He was guarding a female named Gryta during some evening observations but became distracted by someone vocalizing in the neighboring forest. He wandered off in search of this individual and during his absence two other adult bulls mated with the estrous female. Gibor returned to the clearing after about forty minutes looking for his female and found here at the other clearing with the second bull who mated her. He cleared out and Gibor resumed his guard. The next day in the first daylight hours Gibor and Gryta were still in the clearing when the photo below was taken.
Dzanga in the early morning: Gibor (musth) & Gryta and her calf
Again apologies for the lack of blogs. Since the last post in late 2009 I visited Gabon with a film crew and experienced a much different environment for forest elephants. The Gabonese elephants appeared to be smaller in stature and a more cyclotis or forest form of elephants. Compared to the Dzanga elephants they were more uniform in morphology or shape. The highlight of the trip was watching several sizable bulls cross rivers by snorkling across. They would approach the river bank, plop themselves in the river and then snorkle across doing an elephant dog paddle. We anticipated their crossing and were able to witness them close by in a boat while filming. At one point all we could see was a portion of the trunk as the elephant swam effortlessly to the other side of the river. This was all beautifully captured in the BBC film “Rumble in the Jungle.”
Back at Dzanga there was another poaching incident at the beginning of February. As usual we heard the shot at 18:30 just after nightfall. There was some moon so the poachers were taking advantage of the ambient night light. The local guard patrol ran to my camp and we then used the HF radio to contact the park headquarters 12 kilometers away to call in reinforcements. The guard patrol then headed off to the clearing, a brave feat considering the high numbers of elephants between the camp and Dzanga. Thirty minutes later there was a lot of gun fire with reports of a high caliber rifle belonging to the poachers and AK 47s belonging to the guards. All I could think of were possible casualties.
The reinforcements arrived in record time, about 40 minutes after the radio call. Another group of guards arrived and also headed off to the clearing after I explained what had happened. They then headed off into the dark and again we heard gunshots, again an interchange. Then the first guard patrol returned to camp, they had run out of ammunition and said that as they were approaching the clearing they could hear the poachers chopping out the tusks of the elephant. We awaited the return of the second guard group who returned about an hour later. Despite the effort the tusks were efficiently chopped out by the poachers who fled into the darkness.
We are certain of the identity of the perps, a well organized group with a ringleader well known to all of us. He is Central African but has taken up residence down river in a town in Cameroon from where he is well protected and observed often.
The next day I went to the clearing to inspect the carcass and to see if I could identify the victim. As I walked through the forest my mind was racing about possible casualties, individuals I had observed during the week. A few of the bigger tuskers like Pom and Menelaus came to mind. I was anticipating the worst. Once we arrived the carcass was clearly in sight situated directly across from the observation platform planted in the favorite mineral hole this dry season. No other elephants were presence due to all the nocturnal commotion. We crossed to the far side of the bai to look at the dead elephant. The front of the face had been chopped out in order to quickly pull out the tusks. So with nothing of the face left there was nothing to identify. With all the time I have observed elephants many of them I can identify just by looking at their faces but no in this case. He was lying on his left side so only his right ear was visible and this we inspected for signs by which we could identify him but there were only two very small holes and this also didn’t lead to identification.
After barely two weeks there was nothing left of the carcass except the bones and crumpled skin. We saw little interaction between the elephants and their fallen brethern. The giant forest hogs fed on the carcass until there was nothing left. Now the bones are being scattered around with a visible part of the vertebrae being the farthest removed.
Poached Elephant Head
Poaching here is on the increase with at least six carcasses being reported during January In the Ndoki Dzanga National Park and the neighboring Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in Congo. The news from elsewhere isn’t any better with elephants under siege in many other sites in the Central African region.
Guards and Elephant Carcass
Apologies to everyone for the lack of news for the last months. Finding the time and the means to past recent happenings is not always easy. Accessibility to an internet connection is not always easy and sometimes is a matter of driving into the night to the nearby village when there are fewer people on line making it easier to post.
The bai continues to amaze and consume my life with the comings and goings of well known individuals.
Last week one of the trackers, Banda, told me he had come across an elephant placenta in an area adjacent to the path to the clearing where an elephant had given birth which by his estimations was probably the night before. In the afternoon when we went to the clearing together we the spot was easily identifiable. The elephants had literally flattened the area leaving little ground vegetation. My best guess was this was caused by the excitement of the elephants about the birth and this resulted in trampling the area as they closed in on the newborn and mother. The placenta was gone from where Banda had found it , probably eaten by elephants or other species such as giant forest hogs.
When we got to the clearing I looked the length of the clearing to see if there were any female elephants with newborns. In the southern part of the clearing there was a well known female, Theda with a tiny baby and when I looked closer with the spotting scope I detected a part of the umbilical cord still attached. Theda had been in the clearing on the previous day without a newborn so the spot in the forest was probably where she had given birth. The next couple of days Theda was still in the clearing and the calf appeared to be in good health.
Another well known female whom I call Miss L, also has a new calf. The L in her name being for Lonelyhearts because she was first identified alone and always has shown a bizarre interest in people especially ones that are on the ground. When she is observed in the clearing she will inevitably approach the observation platform to see if there is anyone there. On several occasions she has tried to steal objects. This was the case when a CNN reporter came to do a piece about 10 years ago and Miss L stole a boot. She headed off towards the southern end of the clearing dropping the boot after she had tried to chew on it. The boot was later recovered showing distinct molar prints.
Miss L was observed last week with a very new calf still very pink in color which is typical for very new babies. This is her second calf, her first calf disappeared shortly after birth probably because of Miss L’s poor mothering skills. She shows little interest in her calves who put a lot of energy into keeping up with her. Newborn number 2 howev
er is keeping up and suckling without too much reluctance.
Miss L other weird proclivity is her fascination with elephant carcasses. On two separate occasions she has been observed pulling on carcass limbs and moving the carcasses. I suspect she may have been orphaned as a young calf and perhaps is reenacting what happened to her earlier in life which might explain why she lacks mothering skills. Too many mysteries in elephants lives and I can only surmise why some of the individuals I observe exhibit abnormal behavior. Trauma surely plays a part of forming their character.
I’m away from Dzanga for a few days visiting the capital city of Bangui for a few errands. The trip is difficult, a long bumpy 500 kilometer stretch through bush with no ammenities. Most of the road is unpaved and with the rains and lack of maintenance the trip is an ordeal. This time I travelled to Bangui two days ago and will return tomorrow, a record trip since I usually spend at least five days in Bangui before the return to the bush.
Along the way there are a few stops to stretch and search for the basic food which some of the small towns offer. This time during one of the stops this child approached and was wearing this t-shirt which I explained to a group of children. On the t- shirt was a short poem extolling the virtues of the elephant in English. Its owner probably had bought it in the used clothing market. During this encounter I had a captive audience in a place where schools barely function and a foreigner speaking their language is somewhat of a novelty.
None of these local children had ever seen an elephant in the wild and when I asked about them they told me how elephants were dangerous. I explained that this wasn’t ususally true and how the Central African Republic once had thousands of elephants but because of poaching their numbers had been severely reduced. How sad I thought that these children would probably never see an elephant in the wild even though their country had both savannah and forest elephants within its borders. One question I always ask Central Africans who visit Dzanga Clearing is if they had ever seen elephants in the wild before visiting the clearing. For ninety nine percent of African visitors this was their first experience of seeing and observing the biggest land mammal.
Of all animals, elephants are the most prevalent in advertising where they appear not only on t shirts but detergent boxes, beer bottles and a variety of products. Sadly to say they will soon exist as flat images serving as an advertising logos rather than a fellow inhabitant of the planet.
The rainiest month is upon us and today it rained lightly twice with the sun shining through. The humidity is about 100% today without the rain making for a very uncomfortable environment.
Lots of happenings here at present. A large film crew has been working on a feature film for the last three months. This is the second time this has happened in the area. In 1986 or thereabouts there was another feature film made by a French crew the area featuring the local Bayaka population, this time will undoubtedly be better. The Bayaka are natural actors and are much more at ease in front of the camera.
The disheartening news is another poaching incident in the neighboring research camp which is devoted to Western Lowland Gorilla habituation. It is reported that at least two elephants were killed last week. Poachers were arrested and an arm confiscated but the main culprit who was arrested with the others escaped. He is well known for his elephant poaching activities and has been arrested before. Recidivism is the rule for elephant poachers who are usually well protected by people in powerful places. This worrisome since if the poaching is taking place in proximity to research camps I hate to think what the poaching is like beyond the range of our hearing. As the animals are being compressed into the national park area poaching will undoubtedly increase in the coming years.
Elephants are perceived here as destructive dangerous animals. Here on the ground we have had few negative experiences with elephants. We pay close attention when we happen upon them in the forest to and from the bai and there have been only a handful of times when I felt there was a real danger. On our return home in the evening we often encounter bulls in the river who sometimes contest our presence. Below is an example of what happens when one bull elephant doesn’t wish to give up his mineral spot in the river in the late afternoon. The person in the foreground is Azobe, one of the crack trackers/assistants who is fearless and has assured my safety for many years.
Although twinning has been observed in elephant populations in Africa, we had never recorded this event at Dzanga. Throughout the years of the study we have recorded many births to known females but they have been single births. To date we have recorded more than 900 calves born to known females, a period of twenty years.
This all changed two weeks ago when just as we were packing up to leave after the daily observations when a female entered the clearing from the south. This entrance is a wide trail winding down a sandy hill. The female, Habiba, was accompanied by a very small calf which I estimated to be at least two months old. I was busy trying to identify the female with the spotting scope when the assistant Bounga pointed in the direction of Habiba and said that she had been accompanied by two calves. I then looked again through the scope, a distance of 400 meters and there were two calves of the same size and who looked alike. We waited five minutes to see if any other females were entering but Habiba was the only adult female in the vicinity of the calves. So we concluded that indeed the two calves were twins. We remained for another ten minutes before departing for camp and still no sign of another female.
Habiba is a female who is very distinct but not one of the regulars to frequent the clearing so verifying the twins may take time since we will await the next time she appears in the clearing to see if she again accompanied by the two calves. I was also able to determine that the twins were a female and a male.
Juvena and Habiba in April 2003