Tag Archives: elephants

Field notes from Uganda 6: I am an elephant magnet

It’s official. I am an elephant magnet. Among over 30 people here on this Tropical Biology Association field course, I’m still the only one to have seen elephants in the forest. Three times. This last encounter was by far the most unsettling.

Most of the forest close to the research station here in Kibale is logged, and of the primary forest that remains, the majority is on steep rocky slopes where extraction of timber would have been impossible. I was getting a little frustrated at not seeing any tall-stature primary forest, but that may be because the forests here seem to be relatively young.

Yesterday afternoon I decided it was time to extend the range of my excursions and, following a tip-off from one of the local PhD students, I copied his GPS base maps and headed to the southeast, descending in altitude most of the way.

At one point I almost walked into a large male chimpanzee. Crossing a boggy patch at the bottom of a gorge and watching where I was putting my feet, I was already quite close before noticing him. Startled, I scampered back a few paces then looked to see how he would respond. Not a twitch. He cast me a laconic, disinterested glance, then continued grazing on a bush. I managed to take a couple of pictures before he moved on and allowed me to pass. I’m used to meeting orang utan in the forest, when that kind of proximity to an adult male would be a dangerous situation. It’s taking a little time to adjust to how habituated these chimpanzees are.

A large male chimp finally decides to vacate the path in front of me, in no particular hurry.

Eventually the trail ended, running into a larger orthogonal path that looked like it would connect with one of the main tracks through the reserve and give me an easy trip home. This led me for a mile through some beautiful dry forest which looked to be infilled savannah dominated by Olea trees. It had a nice, open understorey and some lovely views to forested ridges beyond. Having taken two hours to get out there I was tired but it was worth the effort.

Hill forest dominated by Olea trees with some spectacular lianas. Definitely worth a two-hour hike.

Sadly my chosen trial petered out, or rather it turned into a delta of narrow interweaving and overgrown paths through tall spiny Acanthus thickets. I knew the main trail was only a few hundred metres away, but it became increasingly obvious that the paths I was using had not been made by humans. This was exactly the kind of vegetation in which I met the elephants the first time, and visibility was only a few metres. Keen not to take many risks so far from base I turned back and retraced my steps for a few miles.

The outbound trip had been over some demanding topography, but there was a ridge trail to the north that was wide and easy-going, so I took a side trail up to meet it. On the way I passed an elephant wallow and a salt lick, which meant my senses were already tingling, but it didn’t look like there had been any activity there for some time. Nevertheless I was proceeding with extreme caution.

Meeting the ridge trail was a relief, though this was soon dispelled when I found a fresh pile of elephant dung. The ground was dry so there was no definitive way of knowing whether they were ahead or behind me, and this trail was the most efficient and direct route home. I proceeded with extreme caution, practically on tiptoes, listening constantly for any sign that there might be elephants nearby. There were broken branches and a characteristic stench that I’m belatedly coming to recognise. The problem was the trail, which had high banked walls with thick scrubby vegetation on each side. It didn’t offer many means of escape.

Rounding a corner I suddenly found myself metres away from the backside of a large male elephant. My heart was already pounding, but fortunately I had seen them before they saw me, and I was still walking as silently as possible. I crept back a short way then walked briskly back down the trail, putting some fast yards between myself and the herd. It was only when I heard movement — and they were out of sight — that I broke off the trail and sped into the forest.

This stuff is no fun to run through, especially with elephants on your tail.

This stuff is no fun to run through, especially with elephants on your tail.

The forest was filled with thick undergrowth on a steep slope, but I knew that my best course of action was to head west and get to the other side of the valley, so I aimed for the sun and pulled out my machete. I dropped right back down to the valley floor, waded through the swampy vegetation (if I’ve picked up mango flies I’ll be very displeased), then hacked up the other side. Here the GPS came into its own as I was able to eventually pick up another main trail on the next ridge which led safely back to base from the other direction, completely circumnavigating the elephants. Overall the diversion added several hard miles to the return journey. I made it back at dusk, shaken, soaked in sweat and exhausted. I then bought a beer.

Surely this can’t keep happening to me?

One of our students had a memorable though less pleasant encounter with the chimps. While measuring one of the liana plots, the chimp troop came past and the group of students decided, quite reasonably, to down tools and watch. One of the girls stood on the trail directly beneath a pair of chimps engaged in enthusiastic congress when a small deposit of something warm and slimy landed on her cheek. By all accounts this was not well-received.

In all the millions of years for which our two species have shared this planet, how many times do you think that has happened?

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.