To paraphrase an old saying, “You can’t see the elephants for the trees.” That’s the problem for researchers trying to study forest elephants. Despite being the size of an elephant, these pachyderms can be only a few yards away, and yet disappear completely in the forest. One of the best places to observe their behavior on a regular basis is the Dzanga Sangha Bai in the Central African Republic. A Bai is a clearing in the forest and this particular clearing is a large one, perhaps the size of ten football fields. The Wildlife Conservation Society has been doing research on the elephants here for more than twenty years.
I recently spent some time at the research station taking pictures of the forest elephants. I don’t think we ever had fewer than forty elephants at a time in the Bai and there were occasions when we had as many as a hundred. They don’t come here just to be seen, like celebrities showing up at a night club because they know the paparazzi is waiting out front. These guys show up despite the cameras. They want the minerals in the soil, it’s almost like an addiction. They eat dirt for hours and come back day after day. One theory is there’s something in the dirt that helps with the elephant’s digestion.
When that many elephants gather in the same place, especially a lot of young males, it’s like putting a group of teenagers together in a high school, social dynamics will be tested every way possible. The big guys of course mark off their territory and let anyone who comes by know who’s in charge and who gets prime access to the best dirt and water. And of course eventually there will be some sparing over which guy gets the best women. While I was there several young males engaged in several pushing and shoving contests or play fighting in advance of the day when it will turn serious.
Andrea Turkalo has been coming to this bai leading the WCS research for 20 plus years and knows most of the elephants who show up here, kids and parents. I shared the viewing platform with her for two days and interviewed her about her work and its importance. You can check out the interview at ngweekend.com