By Andy Maser; Photographs by Andy Maser and Trip Jennings, Elephant Ivory Project, EP Films
We were recovering at our Obenge base camp when we heard the strange screams. “Pardon Papa! Pardon Papa!” over and over again, with a sound like bamboo being chopped down prompting each yell. Effrin, a local guide, pointed to the corner of camp and explained in half French, half English that Major Guy was whipping a 16-year-old boy for raping an 11-year-old girl earlier that day in the village. It was a wakeup call, just in case we needed one—we were still in Congo, where you should always expect anything.
Trip and I returned to camp the previous day empty handed after a week of bushwhacking through the jungle searching for elephants. The only trace of “lox”—the locals’ term for forest elephants—that we’d seen was a pile of bones left behind by poachers some years ago. Luckily one of the other teams had better luck, and had collected the first five elephant scat samples of the project. As we relaxed at camp after Major Guy flogged the rapist, news came in via satellite phone that five more samples had been collected near the village of Katopa in the northern part of the TL2 wilderness. With samples from the northern and central parts of the area, it was time for us to head south. In the meantime, a team would head much deeper into the central part of the wilderness and continue searching for elephants. Ultimately, we hope to end up with scat samples from as wide an area as possible to ensure a comprehensive representation of elephant genetics. We also hoped to actually do some scat collecting ourselves.
Travel via motorbike
From Obenge, we piled into the pirogue and spent three days motoring 200 kilometers downstream with John Hart, Major Guy, his three heavily armed men, and the captured rapist to the village of Opala. There, the prisoner was escorted to jail while Trip and I jumped on motorbikes to head back into the forest in search of elephants. We’d been in Congo for four weeks, and the end of our expedition was quickly approaching. Every day for the rest of the trip was accounted for—the clock was ticking for us to round off our collections and start the long trip out of the wilderness.
With a local village chief, an incredible wildlife tracker, and a local guide, we gathered supplies in the village of Lelende Monene and set off on foot into the jungle. Elephants were definitely nearby—recently they had been caught coming to the villagers’ gardens to munch on their manioc greens and scare unsuspecting farmers. This type of human-elephant conflict is one of the greatest threats to the survival of the species, along with poaching and habitat loss. Fortunately, our crew of locals didn’t seem too upset with the resident “lox” yet, and excitedly led us on our trek to find scat.
It took us less than a day of searching to find the first elephant tracks—indentations in the forest floor the size of motorcycle rims amidst swaths of flattened vegetation. “Crot ici!” the chief yells in French. He finally perks up as he finds the first pile of elephant dung. Excitedly, Trip and I donned latex gloves, filled a vial with small pinches of dung, and labeled it with GPS coordinates. With the adventure nearly over, we’d finally gotten a chance to do some collecting ourselves.
For the next four days we navigated from elephant track to elephant track, looking for the freshest piles of dung we could find. Fortunately we found too much scat, and began passing over samples. Some was too old to contain genetic information, some too close together to be from different individual elephants or family groups. In all, our crew collected six viable samples during the 75 kilometer trek, some as fresh as the same day the elephants dropped them. Trip and I collected four samples ourselves, and our guide gloved-up to collect two. As close to elephants as we were, we never saw one. It seems that the 10 percent of elephants left unpoached in this area aren’t interested in human contact.
With our collections complete, the only thing standing between us and civilization was “The Prophet,” the cross-burning poacher/bandit that had been terrorizing the region for weeks. To get back to Kisingani we’d have to travel through his territory. Then hope that the cholera outbreak in Kisingani had gotten better instead of worse while we were in the bush.
We never did see The Prophet during the two-day, 250-kilometer motorbike ride back to civilization. And fortunately, the local government decided that quarantine was the best action for cholera and the outbreak was contained.
There’s still one looming question though—how are we going to get all of these samples out of the country and back to Seattle? And even more than that, how are all of the samples being collected by teams still in the field going to get out? It sounds like our best bet may be a Wildlife Conservation Society agent in Goma named Deo. He’s gotten samples to Sam Wasser from Congo before, but the process is complicated and uncertain. All the paperwork is in order to get them into the U.S., but carrying them past the corrupt Congolese boarder guards into Rwanda for our flight is a risk we’re hoping that we don’t have to take. There’s no way that Trip and I can smuggle this many samples wrapped in stinky socks in our backpacks, so were hoping that Deo will be able to help us ship them to the U.S. instead. We’re flying to Goma tomorrow, so well know soon enough. We’ll be sure to check back in and let you know how it went.
In the meantime, follow our progress on the Spot Live Map posted at the Elephant Ivory Project’s home page. Thanks to Spot Messenger, you can follow our progress on the map at our website, our tweets at @EPfilmsTV and @amaser, and our blogs here on National Geographic Adventure. Wish us luck.