How Humans Benefit From a Highway of Trails Created by African Forest Elephants


Helen Santoro, Smithsonian

Date Published
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Early one summer morning, anthropologist Carolyn Jost Robinson woke up in a campsite nestled in the dense, tangled rainforest of the Central African Republic. The cacophony of howler monkeys, African grey parrots and cicadas filled her ears and the smell of the rich clay soil—musty decay with a hint of cocoa—permeated her nostrils.

Using a highway of winding trails formed by African forest elephants, Jost Robinson navigated to her research site in the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area, which lies in the republic’s southernmost tip. “You’re lost in your mind—the smells and the sounds,” says Jost Robinson, who is director of sociocultural research and community engagement at Chengeta Wildlife, an organization that trains and supports anti-poaching operations.

For decades, Jost Robinson and Melissa Remis, a professor and head of the anthropology department at Purdue University, have traveled to this Dzanga-Sangha and followed the intricate elephant trails to study the behaviors of western lowland gorillas and small antelopes called duikers. But for many years, they never stopped to look at the trails themselves. “When you’re doing research it’s easy to forget what you’re moving through,” says Jost Robinson. In 2012, they decided to study the paths that gave them easy access to water, campsites and data. It was then that they fully recognized the significance of this complex networks of trails.

Now, in a study published this August in American Anthropologist, Remis and Jost Robinson examined how elephants have shaped the landscape and created paths that are essential for researchers, animals and locals alike. “They are the engineers of the forest,” says Remis.

Today, this ecosystem of trails and the surrounding forest are endangered by the impacts of elephant poaching and logging. The loss of these paths will greatly affect the indigenous people, the BaAka, who use them to hunt small game and search out medicine and other resources in the labyrinthine rainforest. As policymakers tackle how to continue protecting the elephants and preserving the forest through zoned conservations areas, the researchers say officials must also consider the BaAka. “For conservation to be successful, we need to take into account the needs of everybody,” says Remis. “You can’t just conserve the wildlife without also protecting the people.”

African forest elephants are intelligent and social animals that travel in small family groups. Unlike savanna elephants that inhabit open areas in sub-Saharan Africa, forest elephants are smaller and more elusive, living in tightly packed rainforests. But they are still large, weighing in at up to around 13,000 pounds. Once, these animals roamed across a large span of African forests, but because of habitat destruction and poaching, they are now confined to 25 percent of their historical range. The exact number of elephants is difficult to track, but scientists estimate that the number has dropped from several million in the 1930s to less than 100,000 today.

The Dzanga-Sangha, which is roughly 2,000 square miles, is a haven for these colossal creatures, housing around 4,000 elephants. Each day, they travel from the forest’s fruit trees to a large clearing with mineral-rich water known by locals including the BaAka as the Dzanga Bai, or the Village of Elephants. The pachyderms trample the ground and topple trees, producing thousands of miles worth of trails. Everything within the reserve—from forest buffalos to small rodents to tourists to tribal residents—move along these paths.

Along with flattening the earth, elephants are the “landscape gardeners of the wild, opening up habitats and accessing water in drought, giving vital access to important resources for other species,” says Kate Evans, a behavioral ecologist and founder and director of the charity, Elephants for Africa. Additionally, they eat an abundance of fruit and disperse the seeds through their dung. Without them, scores of tree species will be left without a means to spread their seeds. Nutrients like nitrogen, which are also distributed through the elephants’ feces, will be concentrated to smaller areas, limiting future plant growth. Trails will become overgrown, restricting other animals’ easy access to water and food. Altogether, the forest structure and ecology will be forever changed.

The BaAka, the foraging community that is among the area’s oldest inhabitants, also use these elephant trails, or bembo, as an integral part of their culture and livelihood. Oral histories show that the BaAka have traveled the bembo in search of food and resources, including medicine and hunting technologies, and to exchange marriage partners and dances with neighboring communities. They also have specialized elephant hunters, or tuma, who use these trails to maneuver throughout the forest.

In 2012, the researchers interviewed seven BaAka men to learn more about the tuma. “I am the elephant. The elephant is me—you are the elephant,” Komo, one of the BaAka men who was given a pseudonym, told the researchers while raising his hands to his head and flapping them like elephant ears. According to Komo, and as described by Remis and Jost Robinson in their study, elephants are “sentient creatures with complex emotions and social lives, formidable enemies to be outsmarted and majestic packages of meat to sustain communities.”

During traditional elephant hunts, the tuma say they were guided along the elephant trails by forest spirits that protected the hunters. They would follow the trails for two to three days until they found an elephant, which they killed using spears. The meat was then distributed wildly with other communities.

Today, this age-old relationship is under threat. The number of African forest elephants is on the decline, namely due to poaching for their ivory tusks. Consequently, elephant hunting is illegal throughout the Central African Republic and the tuma can no longer hunt them. Also, as the populations of small villages inside the Dzanga-Sangha have grown over the decades, wild game and other resources that the BaAka and others depend on have been strained. As a result, in the 1970s, the BaAka moved out of the rainforest and into villages in search of economic opportunities and resources. After the establishment of the Dzanga-Sangha in 1990, conservation zoning rules regulated movement within the forest and hunting became limited to a 189-square-mile zone. This restricted access to other hunting territories that some BaAka used to track smaller game, including duikers and porcupines.

“When our ancestors went into the forest to eat animals, nobody could chase them out,” Komo told the researchers. “We are out in the open now, in the place of the outsiders, with nothing left for us.”

Moving forward, Jost Robinson and Remis hope to include the needs of the BaAka in conservation discussions. Similar to the agreement between the Cameroon government and the Baka, an indigenous group that inhabits Cameroon and Gabon, the researchers support the enactment of laws that allow the BaAka to be part of the conversation around managing the Dzanga-Sangha. This may include allowing them greater access to elephant trails in conservation zones within the forest that are currently off limits, Remis says.

Currently, the team is working to engage local policymakers to create new laws, but it’s an uphill battle. The Western idea of conservation often focuses on flagship species like elephants and rarely considers the people who depend on those species, Remis explains. This is because of Western conservation’s roots in colonialism, says Siân Waters, an honorary fellow at Durham University in the United Kingdom and founder of the Barbary Macaque Awareness and Conservation organization. Many conservationists belittle or ignore local people’s ideologies and needs in conservation decisions.

Waters has noticed that conservationists are more willing nowadays to discuss the field’s imperialistic roots. But it’s a difficult and arduous process. “It’s uncomfortable and painful,” she says. “It is hard because you’re fighting every day with your own biases.”

Fifteen years ago, deep in the Dzanga-Sangha, Jost Robinson navigated down an elephant trail with two BaAka colleagues, lost in thought about the data she needed to collect for her PhD research on duikers. Suddenly, she received the quiet signal that indicated elephants were ahead. It was a female and her calf. The group sat quietly for two hours, not wanting to disturb the giant creatures that could charge. Finally, the elephants moved on, their large feet further flattening the path that their ancestors created.

“Elephant trails can open up a way for everyone to think about how people interact with the environment,” she says. “They’re a common ground to think about how to approach forest protection.”