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Academic Pursuit: Getting poop on Pachyderms can be hard at Elephant U—Students in Ghana track droppings, footprints to count elusive subjects

Roger Thurow | Wall Street Journal, A1 | November 27, 2002
© 2002, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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 meters], 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. "But seeing the elephants isn't our priority," noted Umaru Farouk Dubiure, who is one of six students in Elephant U's first class, which includes Mr. Boafo and Ms. Manford. "Observing abundance is." And so 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," Mr. Dubiure said. "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, and are 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 5.5 meters in length and nearly 2.5 meters in height, and weighing as much as 3,500 kilograms. 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 is a 360-square-kilometer rain forest that may host the largest group of forest elephants in West Africa.

Various models from dung surveys put the number 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." And there is this. "Over the years," Mr. Nateg noted, "they have associated humans with death and harm."

The forest that once stretched for thousands of kilometers along the Atlantic coast of tropical West Africa has been whittled back by human beings. Expanding fields of cash crops like cocoa and food staples like 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." So the students have become elephant psychologists. "We try to understand what draws the elephants out of the park," said Nandjui Awo of the Ivory Coast. "Maybe the elephants think the food is being grown for them.

Since they see people coming into the forest to get things to eat, maybe they think they can come out and eat." They have become elephant nutritionists, too. "They don't like pepper," said Emmanuel Hema of Burkina Faso. Perhaps, the students suggest, some cocoa pods can be sprayed with pepper, and elephants will begin turning up their trunks at cocoa. And elephant intercessors as well. "We can't talk to the animal and ask what he's doing," said Mr. Awo. "But we can talk to humans about the elephants. Sometimes people aren't easy to talk to, either." Like 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 atop 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. Above all, 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 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. That day they didn't see any elephants, either. At least not with their eyes. But, still, their West African forest elephant count soared.

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