Tracking elephants with the BaAka people



Posted on 30 January 2012  | 
Mr Ichili, a member of the BaAka people, is a forest expert hired by Dzanga Sangha authorities as a guide and wildlife tracker.
© WWF / Carlos DrewsEnlarge
“Have you eaten gorilla meat?”, I asked Mr Ichili, a member of the BaAka people who was sitting next to me in a four-wheel drive vehicle. He was a modest man of few words. But he responded in French and with enthusiasm to all of my questions. He had eaten gorilla meat. He said it was tasty, but that it was years ago.

The BaAka living around Dzanga Sangha Protected Areas, he explained, no longer hunt gorillas and prefer to use their skills working as trackers for the park authorities. I was on my way to a guided walk in the forest, connecting several clearings and their waterholes. This should give me a feel for the area and an opportunity to talk to more locals.

Signs of elephants

Two elephants were crossing the clearing as we approached the first waterhole. We waited. There were pools of standing water, green and seemingly putrid. Upon close inspection we noticed deep holes in the sand, dug by the elephants, in the center of which clear water trickling from the sides had accumulated. A natural filter.

Around us, there were flocks of hundreds of white and yellow butterflies gathered on specific spots in the sand. Mbuya Jeremy, the other BaAka guide, pointed out that the butterflies drank the urine of the elephants that had just left, a key source of dissolved nutrients for these small insects that relied on the largest of terrestrial animals to satisfy this need. My colleague, Lamine Sebogo, the leader of WWF´s African Elephant Programme, wondered what would happen to the butterflies, if the elephants were wiped out from this forest. Species are interconnected in amazing and often mysterious ways, I thought.

Along the trail we noticed tree trunks with the bark polished on the side facing the trail. These were used regularly by passing elephants to scratch ticks off their skin. And so were some large rocks. And a massive termite mound, that had been sculptured by the scratching of the giants of the forest into a piece resembling a miniature amphitheater.

Elephants shape their environment. This became most evident when we encountered, on our way back to the camp, a tree torn down by elephants that blocked the road. Ichili cleared the way with the machete within minutes, a skill that he had used in the past to open trails for the logging company towards the largest forest trees.

Ichili knew the trees individually, for their medicinal properties, as shelter for prey animals, as a source of fruit, among other uses. To make his point, hei reached into his pocket and showed to us the “candle of the forest”, dry balls of sap from a tree, that burn like parafin scented with incense. Ichili says he feels sad when he sees trees surrender to the power of logger's chainsaws.

Living in harmony

Later on, during a boat ride on the Sangha river approaching the sunset, I reflected on this day of insights into the forest and its people. Dzanga Sangha is an example of good management that includes the needs of the local communities. The reserve includes areas where traditional hunting is permitted. And it is currently the main employer in the region.

The protected forest and its animals, and the intricate ways by which they are all linked, demonstrate the fragility of the system. Places like this are a plentiful source of knowledge, inspiration and insight for visitors like myself and others who undertake the journey to this jewel of the Congo Basin.

-Carlos

Read the previous dispatch here: The gorillas of Dzanga Sangha

Read the next dispatch here: An injured gorilla and a volunerable ecosystem

Mr Ichili, a member of the BaAka people, is a forest expert hired by Dzanga Sangha authorities as a guide and wildlife tracker.
© WWF / Carlos Drews Enlarge
Butterflies feed on the nutrients dissolved in the urine of forest elephants by absorbing it from the soil around waterholes in forest clearings.
© WWF / Carlos Drews Enlarge
A family of insectivorous horseshoe bats finds refuge behind the waterfall that serves as a natural shower for gorilla trackers and researchers.
© WWF / Carlos Drews Enlarge

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