Elephant grand-papa, April 18

En route to the forest fronting the Boume’ Boume’ River, we plan to walk the forest quietly, listening for elephants, buffalo, sitatunga, animals that may move between forest and savanna in the late afternoon.  We were here at sunrise today, waiting along the forest route adjacent to Boume’ Boume’, hoping elephants or hippos might cross the track.  The track is heavily traversed with trails of elephants and hippos, likely crossing in the night or early morning.

an elephant tests for scent in a savanna at the approach of a vehicle

Halfway to our destination, we spot a large solitary male elephant at 350 meters moving slowly before us along a distant edge of savanna.  A set of enormous tusks flash glinting sunlight under the late afternoon sky.  It appears he is planning to cross the savanna, then cross the route we travel to enter the continuous forest east of our route.  Exiting the vehicle behind the elephant, I begin pursuit, again a northward breeze in my favor.  Running where savanna is dry, sloshing giant steps where the savanna holds water, slowly I close the distance behind the elephant.  He disappears around a small gallery forest and, approaching the gallery, I proceed cautiously, peering into the dense shadows of vegetation, for he may have stopped to enter the gallery.  But I relocate him still moving, now approaching midway between gallery and route.  Sloshing and running 150 meters behind, I try to synchronize the splash of my footsteps with the slosh of the elephant’s steps to lessen my chance of being heard, an impossible challenge as I am tossed off balance by the clumps of savanna grasses in my path.  He slows several times swaying left and right to surveil the savanna, forcing me to drop to saturated ground while I wait for him to resume his traverse.

obstructed by a vehicle on the track, an elephant turns back on a savanna traverse, becoming aware of my silhouette kneeling in the grasses

Closing the distance to 100 meters, it appears I will not have a frontal view, unless I pass him, which is not such a good plan, for I am already out of breath.  Windmilling my arms, I try to signal the pickup some 400 meters behind me to move forward, in an attempt to stall the animal and possibly turn him around.  Glancing back, I can see and hear the vehicle begin an approach, rocking and chugging through the pools in the roadway, clacking like a machine gun as the damaged and stretched 4WD drive chain clanks and rattles.  My plan works as hoped; the animal slows to assess the approaching vehicle,  then stops, backing slowly, slowly, turning left then right to reconsider his direction.  200 meters away, the pickup, now in front of us, stops to block his forward progress, and he turns back to the gallery as I remain frozen on the savanna.  Not having much of an escape plan should he decide I am a problem, I remain motionless, hoping the commotion of the vehicle will focus his egress to the gallery.

Having been downwind of him at all times, he has so far been unaware of my presence.  He can now see me easily as I kneel on the savanna, and stops to face me several times.  It appears he cannot identify a threat.  Finally, at 40 meters, he is directly upwind in the light breeze, and must have picked up a reflection or scent, swaying his massive head to give me a look.  He quickly breaks to a run, heading directly for the gallery forest.  Pausing before the gallery, he turns again to face me, possibly testing the breeze.  I watch him closely should he change direction, but this is not likely with Wilfrid and Igor behind me at 250 meters.

I breathe a sigh of relief as my adrenaline dissipates, the elephant crunching through the vegetation crowding the gallery edge to slowly disappear into the leaves.

an elephant passes closely at 40 meters, keeping an eye on my silhouette as he returns to a gallery forest

The evening light casts a beautiful glow across the open landscape as I slog through the inundated savanna to the pickup.  A cooling breeze ripples through the savanna grasses, rattling the hollow canes to the accompaniment of piping frogs.

Continuing down the track to the Boume’ Boume’, we arrive to walk quietly along the track in the few remaining minutes before sunset.  Listening for the crackle of vegetation, the grunt of a hippo, or the snort of a buffalo, the tranquil sundown comes alive with the birds of the evening; the turacos, the ibises, the hornbills, together with the frogs and crickets, gradually filling the air with the twilight music of another day spent in the Gabon wilderness.

2 responses to “Elephant grand-papa, April 18”

  1. Beautiful, you are so lucky to have this and so many other exceptional experiences as you work. May this big guy be safe for a long time to come. He is so amazing that I fear for him and so many others like him.

  2. Becky,
    I feel the same way every time I have an opportunity like this. I wonder if they have a sense that things are about to change. I can’t imagine the calamity of construction once the road building reaches their wilderness. DK

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