A report of an aggressive elephant prompted Shell Gabon to call on a veterinarian from Port Gentil to assess the health of the elephant in question. He is called Tchibanga by local Smithsonian scientist Mireille Johnson, a specialist studying human-elephant interactions in the Gamba Complex of Protected Areas.
Tchibanga was observed by another veterinarian back in September 2015 (http://dkortephoto.com/wordpress/?p=2495) and was determined to be healthy. He was, and is again in musth, a hormonal condition normal in bull elephants where they produce additional testosterone, making them less tolerant of human contact and more likely to show aggression. This condition can last from several weeks to a month or more. There is no reason that a bull elephant in musth needs to be killed. Elephants are always dangerous and unpredictable, and the report of aggression has much to do with the availability of produce and garbage available in Yenzi Camp and the nearby Economat grocery store, which brings Tchibanga into close contact with people.
Tchibanga has learned to tip bins for waste vegetables in Yenzi Camp, and makes frequent visits to the Economat store, looking for expired and sometimes fresh produce. He has a fondness for baguettes which required Economat to modify the store entrance with barricades and move the bakery selection to the back of the store. Now he prefers to enter from the loading docks, where a flimsy gate on rollers may as well be left open. With a flick of his powerful trunk, the gates topple with a crash, which at least alerts the store staff that Tchibanga is visiting.
The problem of elephant security at Economat is a mix of human negligence and inadequate design. The most robust bin containment barricade is useless if the door is open. Likewise, access to the loading dock will need to be redesigned to withstand the power of an elephant’s strength. Tchibanga now knows where to find food, has had previous success gaining entry, and will likely not give up easily. This behavior is not aggression. Tchibanga is on a quest for food.
By the time Tchibanga is ready to leave Economat, we have been following him for 90 minutes. Dr. Philippe Sarrazin remarks how calm and complacent is Tchibanga’s behavior. He knows we are here, and has made eye contact often. An aggressive elephant would have reacted to our presence. Mireille has been diligent to ensure we are not too close, that we have a safe retreat if necessary, that we show proper respect for any potential behaviors.
We continue to follow Tchibanga. Dr. Philippe does not see signs of irritation or aggression. On a production road near the water facility, we see a slight temper flare as he follows our vehicle, but we soon determine that Dr. Philippe’s camera flash has begun firing in the subdued light, and, after making adjustment, we have restored order. Tchibanga follows our vehicle some fifty meters behind, stopping to pull some vegetation at the roadside, fresh greens for an animal that needs to be eating often.
The production road joins the tarmac road connecting Yenzi to Plaine, and once on the tarmac, Tchibanga walks down the roadway as if he were president, a trail of vehicles building behind him, with cars coming to an abrubt halt and U-turn to the front. He shows a dislike for the few taxis that dodge past him. With ears flapping, he charges about the roadway, exhibiting normal behaviour for an elephant feeling threatened. After a half-hour of slowing traffic to the pace of an elephant, he turns off to disappear into the forest, and hopefully a peaceful night.