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Thursday, December 31, 2009

More on Forest Elephants

December 15, 2009

There have been a lot of elephants in the forest lately. Typically, the other researchers and I will set off into the forest at 5:45AM to un-nest the chimps at 6:30AM. Lately however, we have been waiting until sunrise (~6:15AM) before entering the forest in an effort to avoid forest elephants. There are signs of elephants everywhere: broken trees, huge piles of dung (which the dung beetles clearly have a feast over!), and enormous elephant foot prints and slide marks (like the ones below).

The Ugandan field assistants (FAs) all have their own “elephant encounter” stories. They say the elephants charge at “terrific speeds” and are like “a very fast car coming straight for you!” The FAs told me – if an elephant charges you, you should turn quickly at a right angle – even if there is no path and only thick vegetation. Apparently, elephants cannot see well and rely mostly on their sense of smell. Thus – if you turn off the trail, the elephant will likely not realize you have turned until after he/she has already run past you. The other tip the FAs have passed on to me, is to drop your back pack (yes – even though it contains binoculars, GPS, field computer!) – as your backpack will carry your scent and may distract the elephant while you run in the other direction. One of the FAs told me that one time when he was charged by an elephant – he dropped his pack and watched from afar while the elephant rummaged through his pack and scattered all of its contents (some of which he had to later climb trees to retrieve!).

So, after all of the elephant stories and warnings I’ve heard – today I finally saw a forest elephant! Luckily – it was not quite as dramatic of an encounter as I had expected. I was with another researcher (Alex) and an FA (Wilbur) at mid-day when the FA noticed trees shaking in typical elephant fashion. Wilbur whispered to me and Alex that we should come quickly to catch a glimpse of the elephant. Alex and I hurried over and we could see a big, tall elephant bum amongst the trees. The elephant, aware we were near, started to turn around, at which point Wilbur told us to run. So, while Wilbur and I ran in the other direction, Alex stuck around and took this phenomenal photo (below photo by Alexander Georgiev). Luckily, the elephant didn’t charge and simply ran off the trail away from us. Whew!

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