This morning I'm up at 5:30 after another mostly sleepless night. We're here in the deepest jungles of Africa - how can I possibly sleep now! I can't wait to get out there and see some African wildlife. The darkness is giving way to dawn and animals are stirring. A perfect time for a forest walk.
Beginning my adventure into the heart of an equatorial rain forest alone
was an exhilarating experience, never mind that the path out from camp was well worn.
Monkeys, (I think they were Guenons and DeBrazza's) smaller, but more numerous than I
imagined they would be, filled the trees like kids at a school playground-noisy, curious,
fidgety and chasing each other. Thousands of peculiar jungle animal noises (mostly
insects) permeated the air like different instruments in an orchestra. Harmonious yet
distinct. White noise. Further down the path, I heard quick, firm, yet light hooves
running toward me. A flash of black first one way, then the other. Before I even blinked
it was gone. My best guess is a bush hog-prevalent in this area. The locals were now up as
well, gathering supplies and food for the day. Time to head back to the lodge, where we
needed to figure out our next plan.
As guests at Doli Lodge, everyone is obligated to take a nature walk with the local expert August, to learn about the medicinal uses of plants. We knew this because it's on the schedule that has been prepared for us.
The nature walk was nice, but we couldn't wait to get out to Dzanga-Bai, where elephants come in from the forest to drink mineral water from muddy holes. Pete, Jim and I piled into another version of Mr.DJ's old taxi -- this time a Range Rover with room in the back for six if you sat hunkered down and didn't mind the lack of air circulation. Unfortunately we needed to fit eight back there. It appears it takes a lot of help to get us safely out to the Bai. After the bumpiest ride ever, we finally made it. We all piled out, slung our packs over our shoulders and followed August the naturalist, and William our host and translator. August gave out instructions for hiking through the forest. William translated, as he had on the nature trail earlier.
"If you see an elephant, wait for us to tell you what to do. But if he charges, run behind the biggest, closest tree you see. If you see a gorilla, don't look him in the eye. If he charges, get down into a submissive posture. Pretend you're picking up food and eating. Don't speak, especially loudly, while we're walking out to the Bai."
The hike out to the Bai was enchanting. We began by being shown a tree where bats lived (good place to film later). We then took to the trail, which soon turned into a muddy stream, then a river with water up to my thighs. We had to wade through this for a couple hundred yards before it turned back into a muddy stream and finally dry trail again. At this point, just the fact that we were wading through African water, carrying backpacks and filming gear and watching out for elephants and gorillas made the whole trip worthwhile. Later, Jim reminded me of what the books said about the terrible water quality. Oh well, too late now.
After about 20 minutes of brisk walking, we reached an open area Dzanga-Bai. Suddenly, right before our eyes elephants were everywhere! We climbed the stairs to the observation platform, called a meerdoor in French, and stood about 15 feet above ground. It was a fabulous vantage point from which to view the hundred or so elephants before us. One of the first amazing things I noticed were the sounds. They were incredible. Trumpeting and throaty grumbling from the elephants, a cacophony of high-pitched noises from the ubiquitous insects, periodic vocalizations from birds of prey, and powerful beating of wings from the large, distinguished hornbills flying overhead. It felt as if wed stumbled onto a world prehistoric. Mom and newly born baby elephants ambled by. Youngsters jostled for position and dominance, adults reveled in the mineral rich, muddy water. Elephants bent down on knees to dig deeper into the mud. They threw it on their backs and blew it out their trunks. Babies, trying to get a taste of the liquid being savored by mom, tried to harness the movements of their still uncoordinated trunks to steal a few drops. Nearby, sitatunga, medium-sized antelopes, paced the outskirts of the clearing, and a herd of buffalo relaxed near our observation tower. Elephants came in from the jungle, through the trees and out into the open, as others disappeared into the forest by a different path. Elephants are fascinating and complex animals, besides being the largest living terrestrial mammal on Earth. There is scientific controversy over whether the type of elephant we are observing here, what is generally called the forest elephant, is actually a separate subspecies. They were at one time thought to be and sometimes referred to as pygmy elephants because of an overall smaller size (males averaging 70cm shorter, females not quite so pronounced a difference at 40cm) and more solitary behavior than the bush or savannah elephants.
Both male and female African elephants grow tusks which are actually just modified teeth. It appears however that the tusks of forest elephants develop quicker, at a younger age than those of savannah elephants, thus adding to the stories of pygmy elephant sightings which appeared to be full grown with large tusks but small in overall body size.
African elephants are extremely gregarious, with group size and composition changing with food and water availability, predator or human disturbances and sexual development. Females and pre-pubescent males up to about 20 years old make up groups, which average six to 10 in the savannah elephant. Forrest elephant groups are usually smaller, averaging only three or four. These family groups are headed up by the oldest female, who after death, is succeeded by her eldest daughter. Family groups associate with other groups regularly and may form temporary aggregations of anywhere from a few dozen individuals to over a thousand! Here in the Bai, because of the mineral rich water, we see a fascinating and wide range of social interaction.
Mature males may live alone or join up briefly with bachelor herds, which are loose associations of males of various ages. Males dont normally have the opportunity to mate until they are at least 40, due to competitive pressures against younger males. A female usually chooses a large male with which to breed, often one with which she has associated in the past. Unfortunately, because of the number of older, large males that have been killed by poachers, this amazing and evolutionarily successful selection process is being altered. The same can be said of the matriarchal family structure which has been destroyed in some areas, due to the lucrative ivory trade.
We stayed as long as we could, but August advised us to leave before darkness fell, so we reluctantly called it a day. Andrea Turkalo, the elephant researcher, joined us for dinner after our day in the Bai. I had somewhat hesitantly sent a note by Pygmy messenger over to her mirador (observation platform) after we finished filming. I wasn't sure how she felt about interruptions in her research. I certainly didn't need to worry as Andrea turned out to be gregarious, outspoken and tolerant as well as one of the friendliest and most helpful people we have met. We had a fun dinner, discussing everything from elephant behavior, to the French, to old movies. She became an instant friend.
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