A distant roar echoes through the dim rainforest as I scramble along an ancient elephant path meandering through the understory. Ahead was the reason I swapped my comfortable office at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for a basic camp without electricity and running water – Dzanga bai: a vast forest clearing that is home to the largest known aggregation of forest elephants. Nestled within an ocean of lush green vegetation and enormous trees that makes the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park in the Central African Republic, elephants have shaped and maintained this clearing over generations. They come to access mineral-rich water percolating up into small waterholes in the ground.
As I try to keep up with my new friend, Ngbanda, a Ba’Aka (the forest people indigenous to this part of the world), the sun casts a mosaic of shadow and light through the forest canopy into the dark green understory and onto the brown weathered leaves covering the sandy forest floor. The forest now turns into a swampy area and suddenly opens up into a vast sun-lit clearing. As I step up the stairs leading to the observation platform my heart almost bursts with joy at the sight of about 80 magnificent elephants roaming about under the bright Central African sun.
I quickly get settled, with video and audio recording equipment, photo camera and binoculars, and begin my daily observations. From 7m high, I witness a constant game of avoidance and displacement between the females over access to the waterholes. Some females are feistier than others! Bouba makes others give way with just a subtle shake of her head, while ancient Chelsea always occupies the same hole that no one else seems interested in. While probing the waterholes with their trunks, the females are patiently nursing their infants or fending off older offspring trying to claim their fair share of water. Other youngsters team up to wrestle and engage in adorably clumsy play. All the while, another group is enjoying a mud bath at the edge of the clearing leaving them glistening all golden in the sun. And there is the occasional massive elephant bull with thick long arched tusks entering the clearing with an imposing strut making everyone part in front of him like a king on his way to his throne.
After a month here, I am slowly beginning to understand the significance of this clearing for the elephants. They do not just come here to drink the mineral-rich water! Just as we humans do not go to a bar just to toss down a glass of wine. The clearing provides the elephants with the opportunity for social interaction – the glue that binds them all together within an intricate network of social relationships. Here, infants and adolescents can hang out and learn elephant social etiquette. Females reunite with their mothers, aunts, sisters, and cousins. Bulls establish who is top ranking and check out females to find a potential mate.
As part of my daily work, I count the number of elephants in the clearing every 30 minutes and I identify elephants using as reference a photo database of over 3,000 known individuals. These are my humble efforts in trying to walk in the footsteps of ELP founding member Andrea Turkalo, who dedicated almost 30 years of her life to studying the Dzanga elephants. Andrea has recently retired and ELP is trying to ensure the continuation of her legacy: a dataset of unparalleled value for understanding forest elephant behavior and society. Little is known about forest elephants – mainly because they are nearly impossible to observe directly in their dense rainforest habitat. Dzanga provides us with the exceptional opportunity to study forest elephants on the rare occasion they venture out into the open. The more we understand their behavior, the better we can protect this species, which is highly threatened by the rampant poaching for their ivory.
As a postdoc with the Elephant Listening Project, I am particularly interested in the elephant’s vocal behavior and their low-frequency rumble vocalizations, which they use to coordinate their social interactions. ELP is dedicated to develop and implement passive acoustic monitoring tools to help protect and study the elusive forest elephants. From the recorded rumbles, we can infer the number of elephants present and potentially what they are doing. But from thousands of hours of recordings we now know that elephant rumbles are quite variable. My goal is to investigate how this acoustic variation relates to the elephants’ behavior. Once we have established such an “elephant dictionary” we can use it to interpret the rumbles we record in places where direct observations are impossible!
Three more weeks I will be spending at Dzanga following the daily elephant soap opera at the clearing, refining my data collection protocols for a comprehensive study to be conducted next year. If you are interested in learning more about the Elephant Listening Project and our work at Dzanga – check out our website, like us on Facebook, and join us on Instagram!