Field notes from Uganda 4: Are the elephants following me?

It seems that I’m an elephant magnet. Yesterday I encountered a herd while walking alone in the forest. As one of the local researchers put it, everyone wants to see the elephants, until they do. Actually I would have been quite happy not to see them at all. Instead I’ve now run into them twice in two days.

Following a morning spent accompanying my student research groups in the field, I decided to take off on my own for the afternoon and explore the infilled savannah on the far side of the swamp. The Land Rover dropped me at the swamp and left, but I didn’t get far. About a kilometre further on I came across a large, very fresh pile of elephant dung in the middle of the trail. A few beetles had found it and were enthusiastically burrowing but there was still plenty to go round. The only question was whether the elephants were ahead of me or — worse — behind.

That was soon answered by a loud bellow from around 30 m ahead, accompanied by the sound of several large animals turning round and the crashing of bushes. I didn’t stop to take a closer look; I was off. Meeting elephants at close quarters is not an opportunity for a selfie.

Everyone has their own recommendation as to what to do if you meet an elephant (as, in boreal fieldwork, I’ve heard a thousand ways to escape a grizzly bear). Most of these are likely untested by experience. Mine is to head into thick woody vegetation, preferably downhill, on the basis that a medium-bodied primate is faster than a bulky elephant under such conditions. Machete in hand I put a rapid hundred metres between myself and the herd, checked that I wasn’t being followed, then tracked back to the trail lower down. There were many nervous glances over my shoulder all the way home.

This morning I headed out again, accompanying one of the local PhD students, who is studying parasitoid wasps. He has a set of Malaise traps collecting ichneumonids and braconids, and having already collected many hundreds of species, he’s estimating a total species richness in the thousands. A high proportion will be undescribed; these are not groups about which much is known and even the basic taxonomy is lacking.

We joked about my elephant escape, especially in light of his own experience a week ago. He accidentally stumbled into the herd while they were asleep and ended up climbing a tree to escape. He was stuck there for three hours. Luckily mobile phone coverage in the forest is pretty reliable, especially if you can get high up, so he was able to text friends back at camp and summon help.

As we were wandering along one of the main trails — what are the chances — the elephants appeared just in front of us. This time it was a relatively open area, and his field assistant counted seven adults with five juveniles. One mock charged so we didn’t wait around but luckily they didn’t seem in the mood to follow us.

Tomorrow I’m planning to go for a walk in the complete opposite direction. What can go wrong?

In a previous post I was concerned that the baboons were up to something. They finally struck. They’ve eaten my soap and run away with my toilet paper. This means war.


3 thoughts on “Field notes from Uganda 4: Are the elephants following me?

  1. Pingback: Field notes from Uganda 6: I am an elephant magnet | Trees In Space

  2. Pingback: Field notes from Uganda 8: Farewell, potatoes | Trees In Space

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