Forest elephants, scientists and chance

By Carlos Drews,Global Species Programme Director
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Crossing paths

Andrea Turkalo from Wildlife Conservation Society has been studying elephants from this location for two decades and has identified over 4,000 individuals. I found her observing a large bull with her binoculars. She expressed her frustration at witnessing many of the well-known animals leaving the park, into areas where poaching is rampant, never to return. Turkalo is convinced that forest elephants are a separate species from savannah elephants. And she can refer with authority after 30 years in the Central African Republic, about how the establishment of logging companies and their road networks increase poaching pressures on elephants and facilitate ivory trade.

Elephants, buffaloes and other species meet in Dzanga-Baï, a unique forest clearing and source of water and minerals for wildlife in Central Africa. © WWF / Carlos Drews
I was unaware of the chance event that was about to happen as she introduced to me another senior scientist on the platform, Peter, who was using a thermal camera to observe elephants at night. The device showed in blues, oranges and yellows the temperature of any object in view. He pointed out to me through the camera that one could even see the veins on the ears of elephant bulls, which transport blood to the large skin surface for cooling purposes. More importantly, however, he was able to see the elephants with high definition in absolute darkness.
Peter has also set up a device to record the sounds at the Baï uninterruptedly for 6 months, as a way of monitoring elephant trumpeting and other vocalizations as indicators of activity levels. When he revealed to me his surname, Wrege, and his affiliation to Cornell University I realized that we had met 28 years ago in Kenya, when he was studying the social behaviour of bee-eater birds and I was studying migratory birds.
We hugged and laughed and recalled the circumstance that brought us together: he was bitten by a venomous snake during a nightly visit to the bee-eater nests, barefoot to minimize disturbance. I remember accompanying him through the agony of hours, monitoring his pain on the leg, his feeling of numbness in the face and other strange symptoms. We had anti-venom, but decided to observe the evolution of the condition before administering the dose, aware of the risk of a sudden allergic reaction that could have killed him. He recovered well, without the anti-venom. And there he was, at age 64, fit and cheerful as always, following his passion for animals and spending the nights on his own, up on a platform in the heart of the Congo Basin.

Yellow mud gives a distinct look to this forest elephant in Dzanga-Baï, Central African Republic. © WWF / Carlos Drews
These two fascinating characters I met today are examples of a life-long dedication to the study of animals in the wild. Good wildlife conservation needs to be based on the best available science. Turkalo and Wrege, in their own ways, contribute knowledge that can better inform the decisions of conservationists and policy makers.

Agents of change

And then there is Terence Fuh, a young and energetic Cameroonian, whom I met yesterday. He was recruited by WWF to run the gorilla habituation camp in Dzanga Sangha. The vision for his rightfulness, skills and commitment to learning is to become a leading conservationist and a powerful agent of change. Fuh and Lamine Sebogo, WWF´s African Elephant Leader born in Burkina Faso, are examples of the African talent that is so much needed to influence the path of conservation in this region.
On an ironic note, I learned this evening that three of the endangered elephants that we all so much care for were killed recently in the national park by a falling tree as they were digging for minerals close to its roots. I was reminded by this incident and the meeting of Wrege today that chance is in itself an agent of change too, sometimes in favour, sometimes against our interests. There is nobody to thank and nobody to blame. I would need to blame myself, however, if I did not maintain an open mind for the unexpected, look at the glass half full, and grasp with enthusiasm the opportunities that chance may put before me.

Terrence Fuh, a young Cameroonian, is the head of a gorilla habituation camp in Dzanga Sangha and a dedicated talent to wildlife conservation. © WWF / Carlos Drews