On the trail of Gabon’s forest elephants

FSC / Alex Dunn
Our 4x4 slowly files down the dust road past rows and rows of dense forests with trees shooting as high as 30 meters into the sky.
Giant tree in Gabon jungle
FSC / Alex Dunn
August 12, 2019
Category : Stories

Many are Okoume trees, tall and regal with their red-spotted bark, reminding us of the abundance of this valuable species in Gabon’s rich forestry resources.

We’re on our way to see the forest elephants – an African elephant species native to the rainforests of West Africa and slightly smaller in size, as evolution made it adapt to its natural surroundings - bathe in the salty marshes of a wildlife conservation area inside the Precious Wood forest management concession in the heart of Gabon’s rainforest.

The concession includes several conservation areas where no harvesting takes place. Although animals are known to roam throughout the full concession and the company takes great care in protecting these throughout the concession, these areas are specifically set aside to conform with FSC’s standards, serving as unique natural habitats for different species, including water buffalo, great apes and elephants.

Our journey starts in the early afternoon, so we can reach the area before dusk, when the animals tend to gather in the mineral rich marshes known as mineral licks. The elephants appreciate these because of their content in salts and other mineral nutrients.

greenery in Gabon rainforest
FSC / Alex Dunn

Out in the open savannah

After an hour of travelling, our guide, Toussaint, the concession’s wildlife protection manager, tells us that we are approaching the area. We descend from the car and begin on foot through an expanse of forest savannah characterized by high grass and sparsely populated bushes and smaller tree species.

“We’re reaching the Holy Grail”, jokingly whispers Cynel, our research partner in Gabon who is working with FSC on a pioneering wood sampling project in partnership with Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and Agroisolab to combat illegal logging. Along with members of the FSC Supply Chain Integrity team, we’ve been collecting samples of different wood species in FSC-certified concessions in Gabon for isotope testing. The information obtained from this project will help match the origin of wood items with the samples collected to better determine their origin and help fight illegal timber trade.

Enter the forest

As the savannah abruptly turns into a dense forest, we reach a trail with clear signs of elephant activity: trees whose bark has been rubbed down to glossy lumps as the pachyderms make good use of them to scratch themselves.

This is a different world to the one we’ve left behind, and the ecosystem change is phenomenal: light is scarcer, but moisture and vegetation is more intense, as if in a constant struggle to reach the distant canopy light.

Here the elephant trail becomes denser and darker, ominous almost, with tracks on the mud so fresh that you can make out the toenails.

Further on, a stream runs through our path. We waddle across it and climb a small hill where the clever animals have learned to bypass a couple of large fallen trunks, possibly from a storm, by cutting a side trail through the dense foliage to ease their way towards the marsh.

Our silence now becomes almost complete as Toussaint signals with a swift motion of his hand that we are approaching the herd. Elephants have excellent hearing and we try to walk as slowly and silently as possible so that the only sound is that of the forest foliage trampled under our feet.

Despite the heat and humidity, the prospect of seeing these beautiful animals keeps us going relentlessly towards our goal. At this stage we are stooping low because as we near the watering hole the foliage and trees become scarcer, making us more visible.

Suddenly, as if by a natural automatism from many years as an experienced conservationist first with WWF and now with Precious Woods, Toussaint signals with his hand to stop and remain low. After a moment that seems an eternity only interrupted by the pounding sound of our excitement, he points his forefinger towards a depression right in front of us.

small group of elephants stand in river surrounded by forest in Gabon
FSC / Alex Dunn

Our senses are mesmerized. A mere hundred meters two calves and two adult cows, one clearly the matriarch, nonchalantly bathe in the saline water, drinking the needed mineral elements.

We all stoop and observe the majesty of nature at its best. The calves rejoice in the water as their adult minders acutely observe their surroundings with their ears alert, probably already aware of our presence on the higher ground.

We are so hypnotized by these beautiful creatures that we can barely hear our own breathing. While the elephants keep to their ritual, in all their majestic beauty, we can only think how privileged we are to witness nature reconciled with responsible management of forestry resources and how in this corner of Gabon, conservation of wildlife is safeguarded within the boundaries of an FSC-certified forest concession.

After about fifteen minutes, the matriarch decides they’ve had enough, and they start their way back into the dense forest opposite from where we are while a calf stays put, oblivious to their departure and gulping the tasty water. As she suddenly realizes how far she’s been left behind, she quickly gaits to reach the rest of the herd, only to be reprimanded of her selfish decision by one of the adults with a swift motion of the trunk and a loud trumpet.

As the herd disappears into the forest, we all look at each other our hearts pounding with excitement and a wide grin on our faces. It’s a long hike back to the car and we’re exhausted but every step is well worth the effort, as is that of ensuring the presence of these animals for future generations.