Pre-colonial Africa was home to about 26 million elephants. By 1970, their numbers were down to 1.3 million. Today, there are only about 400,000 of these animals across the continent.
Many factors have contributed to the decline in elephant populations.
Poachers have culled them for their ivory tusks, human development has encroached on natural habitats and they have been pushed out as lands are used for agriculture.
In Angola, there was another threat to the native elephant population: war.
In 1961, the Angolan War of Independence began, marking the beginning of 40 years of conflict in the region.
“The whole of south and eastern of Angola used to be the headquarters of what were considered the rebels back then. The two main parties needed to feed their own troops and the population that supported them, so there are a lot of stories about soldiers hunting down elephants and other animal populations from helicopters and from military vehicles,” says Kerllen Costa, an Angolan scientist and the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project’s country director in Angola.
Both sides of the conflict began deploying landmines across the region. They were planted randomly, as a way to protect themselves or prevent their opponents from reaching an area.
“Angola is still one of the most mined regions of the world and the war, the hunting and all of that together forced the elephants to move down to safer havens like Namibia and Botswana,” says Costa.
Just as humans carry the trauma of those years, it is likely that the elephants do too. In his research, Graeme Shannon, a lecturer in zoology at Bangor University, found that “it’s not only humans who suffer from the long-term effects of childhood trauma… there appears to be a very real and lasting impact on elephants who experienced trauma and profound social disruption many decades earlier”.
The elephants’ bodies are marked by gunfire, and many would have witnessed their family members being shot or killed after setting off a landmine. They have exceptional memories and can live up to 70 years, and there is no doubt that some of the elephants that still live in southern Africa carry the memories of the violence.
“I think the elephants know that there are dangers there in Angola, they’ve seen family members being exploded by mines and being hunted. So they’re still a bit traumatised, that’s why they remain in those parts that are safer,” says Costa.
In Botswana’s Okavango Delta, there is now a large population of about 70,000 elephants living in the area, and conservation biologist Dr Steve Boyes, the project leader for the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project, believes many of them could have been from Angola, displaced during the war.
“Anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 elephants were lost in southeast Angola – we don’t know how many were shot, or how many simply walked across borders into Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, where we find these large populations, because we’re dealing with the largest elephant population in the world,” explains Boyes.
But did they all go? Perhaps not, Boyes and Costa discovered.
“Through our interactions over the past seven years or so with the local villages, we’ve discovered that not all of them went down. So there’s a remaining population that is living hidden in some patches of the forest,” says Costa.
These elephants, instead of crossing borders down into other countries where they would be safer, went into hiding, and they don’t want to be found.
These are the ghost elephants of Lisima.
The Lisima region sits at the highest point in the Kalahari sand basin. It’s an “anomalous kind of hump, a mountain of sand”, says Boyes.
With the mistveld making it so grey, especially in the mornings, it is the perfect place for elephants to blend in and disappear into the fog.
“It is a place that’s difficult for elephants to live in. It’s very high altitude. It’s a place where elephants can get lost. If I wanted to hide in the forests of Angola, I would dress in the colour of an elephant; it just blends into the haze of that forest, they would disappear,” Boyes says.
Boyes and Costa first heard the stories of the ghost elephants when they were working in different villages in the area and asking residents what animals they were seeing.
In a village called Tchinjanga, locals told them that they had seen elephant dung close by. “They said ‘give us two hours on a motorbike and we’ll go find elephant dung and bring it back and show it to you’,” Boyes remembers.
To find the dung takes hours; getting a glimpse of an elephant takes even longer.
“We’ve done a couple of trips to try to have a glimpse of them. One of them was on bicycles; we did 300km deep down into the forest. And we did see a lot of dung, a lot of fresh marks, we could feel the smell of them, but we never got to actually see them. But we could sense that they were there. They are there, but you can’t see them, even though they’re that big. So that’s where we got that ghost elephant terminology,” Costa remembers.
The elephants are elusive and cryptic, and Costa says it will take time to locate them physically.
“Elephants, in a way, are already very subtle. You need to be very attentive to realise that you’re actually being watched by an elephant if you’re not careful. But due to these traumas from the war, from the mines and the excessive hunting, they’ve become increasingly more cryptic. We literally could feel that there was an elephant 15m from us, and yet we couldn’t see such a big animal, even though we felt it was there,” he says.
“It’s powerful… there’s no sign of it, no sound of it, but [you know] it was there quite recently,” Boyes adds.
The Fénykövi Elephant
Across the sea, at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, there is another clue that may reveal more about these ghost elephants, and his name is Henry.
Henry stands in the entrance hall to the Smithsonian, and at just more than 4m tall, the massive elephant has loomed over visitors since 1959.
Henry, formally known as the Fénykövi elephant, is the largest land mammal in known history. He weighed about 11 tonnes and his skin alone weighed two tonnes. In 1954, Josef J Fénykövi, a Hungarian-born engineer and big-game hunter, discovered his huge tracks while hunting rhinoceros in the Cuíto River region of southeastern Angola. The following year, he organised a special expedition to hunt the elephant down, and Henry was fatally shot.
Fénykövi then gave the elephant’s skin to the Smithsonian, which prepared it for display. Henry has been there ever since.
Henry’s story is tragic, but worth revisiting, as Boyes and Costa wonder what became of Henry’s family, who would have been close by when he died. They hypothesise that the ghost elephants could be related to Henry.
“The Fénykövi elephant was connected to this ghost elephant population, if not part of it, and it’s the largest living land animal ever recorded, and is significantly bigger than any elephants living today. There are these ghosts, these giants of the forest, that may be the descendants of the Fénykövi elephant,” Boyes explains.
And Costa, Boyes and their team are still searching, their only clues in the dung and markings the elephants leave behind, and a smashed camera trap that an elephant toppled.
“We are engaging with specific elders that actually interacted with the elephants in the past and will be the ones leading us into those regions. I am pretty sure we will spot them. We’ve seen signs where an elephant stepped on a camera trap, so we know where they are,” Costa says.
“Our plan is to start increasing efforts to deploy camera traps in specific regions to try to get photos of them, and then start having satellite camps to actually observe them.”
“We are making a concerted effort to put more camera traps out in more cryptic and protected locations so they can’t get knocked over,” says Boyes.
“The satellite camps are the most important thing to have people quietly out there. We’re looking at e-bikes and bicycles, not motorbikes and mechanised machinery, so people can move around quietly and really start to get to know the elephants, so that we can learn about the tricks that they’ve learned to live there.”
Learning from the Gentle Giants
Being able to observe these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat will hopefully reveal more about the landscape and whether more elephants could potentially migrate back into Angola.
“It’s about the whole landscape, the whole ecosystem, it’s something unique and special that the elephants are an important part of and their absence certainly causes certain disruptions in the whole balance of things,” Costa explains.
It is vital that elephants acquire the ecological knowledge of their own population and surrounding environment. With Angola’s elephants having fled for safety, the ghost elephants of Lisima are the only animals that have this knowledge, and tapping into that could offer clues to how more elephants can be reintroduced to the area.
“If you were to take elephants from the Okavango Delta, and airlift them and drop them off around the source lakes, they would not survive. There’s a cultural knowledge that allows and enables elephants to live there: seasonal movement to exploit a certain fruit, access to water as they migrate up and down the landscape – specialised activities that require specialised knowledge. It’s about protecting that knowledge. Once those elephants die out, and they came very close during the war, that knowledge is lost, and elephants would struggle to live there again,” Boyes says.
The Exploding Lands
Part of making sure Angola is safe for a return of elephants is working to de-mine the area. It’s impossible to know how many landmines are left in the country, but in 2019 The Guardian reported that there are 1,100 known minefields in the country, in which there could be up to 500,000 devices. To help make the land safer for both humans and animals, the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project has partnered with Halo Trust, an organisation that is clearing landmines in Angola.
“Normally, minefields are found after accidents. As people are coming back into these lands after the war, they are cultivating the lands and by accident they activate the mines, then a mining team comes to check the field. The fact that people have seen a big team come for the first time and clear certain patches of minefields, it gives them confidence to go about daily life. It’s already had an effect on the people’s psychological dynamics, but I wouldn’t say it has had any impact in terms of wildlife dynamics,” Costa says.
“We’re just seeing the elephant habitat and opportunity for new populations shrinking. I think we have maybe a few hundred elephants that are coming into the upper landscape from the larger population, that could be increased to several thousand. We don’t know, but we’d like to see it as a vast landscape. We’re talking about eight times bigger than the Kruger National Park. And that’s a lot of elephant habitat available.”
Boyes, Costa and their team have yet to see a ghost elephant, but they are still searching, and when they do find one, it could open up a whole new understanding of these gentle giants.