November 27, 2002


Page One: He's No Dumbo: Expatriate's Pachyderms Help Create a Multimillion-Dollar Business

Getting the Scoop on Elephant Means Hunting Beast's Dung

Shy West African Species Is So Elusive Droppings Must Be Used for Head Count

KAKUM NATIONAL PARK, Ghana -- How does an elephant hide?

"Very, very well," said Yaw Boafo, who should know. For three years, he has been trying to count the elephants of Kakum.

"I've seen them maybe eight or nine times. Well, not seen with my eyes. Maybe I've seen them four times with my eyes," he said while peering through a thick cluster of trees. No elephants here.

"Other times," he said, "I've seen them by hearing. We can see they are around by hearing them."

"Once we came so close to a group of elephants, 20 yards, and we couldn't see them," added Mildred Manford, a fellow elephant counter. She was walking on a suspension bridge hanging high in the Kakum canopy, looking for movement below. No elephants in sight here, either. "They were around us, but we never saw them," she continued. "We just heard them leaving."

So it goes at Ghana's Abrafo Academy, informally called Elephant University, where the main subject -- Loxodonta africana cyclotis, or the West African forest elephant -- is an elusive critter. Loxodonta invisibilis, the students joke, would be more like it.

Thus, the students -- four from Ghana and one each from neighboring Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso -- have learned the fine arts of counting what you can't see: analyzing dung piles, measuring footprints and listening to low-frequency elephant chatter captured by recording devices hung in trees. As West Africa's first homegrown elephant experts, they will soon leave the small white house on the edge of Kakum forest that serves as Elephant U and take up a challenge of elephantine proportion: conducting a census using all the senses. "First, we have to establish how many elephants there are in West Africa," said Umaru Farouk Dubiure, one of the six students in Elephant U's first class graduating this week. "You can't preserve and manage something if you don't know how many of it there are."

The forest elephants of West Africa are the most endangered -- and least studied -- of Africa's giants. The savanna elephants of East and Southern Africa tower above the bush and can be tracked by aerial survey or foot patrol. They are also a favorite sighting of safari tourists. But the forest elephant lives in dense rain forests, where even sunlight struggles to find its way through.

The students could barely conceive their subject's elusiveness when they entered Elephant U, which was founded by Ghana's government and the U.S.-based Conservation International in 1999. Sure, the forest elephant is a bit smaller than its savanna cousin, maybe two-thirds the size. But it is still a massive creature, reaching 18 feet in length and more than eight feet in height, and weighing up to 7,700 pounds. It isn't exactly a needle in a haystack.

"Ah, but the forest elephant is very secretive," said Cletus Nateg, the senior wildlife officer at Kakum Conservation Area and an instructor at Elephant U. Kakum, a 144-square-mile rain forest, may hold the largest group of forest elephants in West Africa. Various models from dung surveys put the number at between 183 and 241. Still, in three years, the students have managed only one grainy photo of a single elephant, and that was from an automatic infrared camera mounted on a tree.

"The elephants themselves have a good sense of smell and hearing, but poor sight," explained Mr. Nateg. "You rely on sight, but the forest is dark. So an elephant detects you before you detect the elephant. That's why they're so elusive."

The forest that once stretched for thousands of miles along the Atlantic coast of tropical West Africa has been whittled back by human beings. Expanding fields of cash crops such as cocoa and food staples including corn and cassava have shrunk the elephants' habitat, cut off their instinctive migratory routes and isolated them in islands of forest surrounded by farming villages. That has greatly increased the contact zone between humans and elephants, and conflict has escalated as the elephants occasionally emerge from the forest for a midnight snack.

Over the years, the elephants have developed quite a taste for cocoa. Cocoa is the main pampered species in Ghana, for it provides a vital source of foreign currency to buy imports and pay off debt. Thus, the more that elephants eat cocoa and disturb the crop, the more agitated the nation's bean counters, not to mention the farmers, become. In recent years, reports of elephant shootings have increased.

"There's a lot of pointing going on, some with fingers, some with trunks," said Brent Bailey, a forest resource specialist at Conservation International and one of the coordinators of Elephant U. "Elephants have good memories. They may see the land as theirs, and the villagers think it belongs to them."

"We can't talk to the animal and ask what he's doing," said Nandjui Awo, of the Ivory Coast. "But we can talk to humans about the elephants. Sometimes people aren't easy to talk to, either."

Take Naana Tsibu Asare II, the paramount chief of an area bordering Kakum. The students, after a day in the forest, stopped by to visit him bearing two courtesy bottles of schnapps. But the chief, perched on a gold-studded throne, wasn't soothed. "My farmers are complaining that crops are being destroyed," he said. "What can you do for us?"

The students have heard it many times. "The villagers tell us, 'These are your elephants that are doing this,' " said Ms. Manford, rolling her eyes heavenward.

In any event, the students have become adroit analyzers of elephant dung. Working with U.S. researchers, the students have participated in dung DNA testing as a way of counting elephants. But mainly they stick to counting piles of poop.

Their tools of tracking invisible elephants are always at the ready: a compass to keep trackers hewing to a straight line, a rolling measuring wheel to record the dung details, some machetes to hack back low-hanging branches and a global positioning box taped to a long stick to pinpoint the location.

Longitude: five degrees, 27.5 minutes. Latitude: one degree, 17.1 minutes. Another dung quest has begun.

"When we're very, very lucky," whispered Emmanuel Danquah, one of the Ghanaian students, "we see fresh dung and a dispersal of urine that will tell us whether a female or male left this gold nugget behind."

No dung nuggets were found this day -- and no elephants -- but the memory of a counting expedition in Tai National Park in Ivory Coast kept them going. "We first searched the east side, we searched and searched and didn't find any dung," remembered Mr. Danquah. "Then we moved camp and went to the western side. We walked and walked and finally we found some dung.

"We started pumping our fists and yelling 'Yeah!' " he said. "Then we found a lot more dung. That day, we were so dung hungry, we skipped lunch, we just kept counting."

Write to Roger Thurow at [email protected]

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Updated November 27, 2002

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