Perhaps the safest refuge is still the dense equatorial forest. There below our plane stood the towering trees, wrapped in shifting mists of rain, a forest floored in thick red sludge, through which it is almost impossible to move. A stronghold where elephants and other species can get away from man.
We were at the start of another long journey to look at the effects of the ivory trade on the elephant population. It would take us to the forest elephants of central Africa, then across thousands of miles to the most westerly elephants, in Senegal, and north to the desert elephants of Mauritania and Mali.
Little is known about the forest subspecies, Loxodonta africana cyclotis. Far from communication, they have been undisturbed by man, except for the Pygmies. But now the ivory hunters, working on behalf of rich men, follow the forest elephants’ tracks for days on end, inspired by the high price of ivory. Today the elephants are pursued through the great forests that stretch from Cameroon, in a wide D shape, over the Central African Republic, Zaire, Angola, the Congo, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea.
It was in Gabon in May 1979 that we first sighted wild forest elephants, strolling in patches of long golden grass between islands of forest. We were at Petit Bam-Bam in the Wonga Wongué Reserve, private hunting ground of President Albert-Bernard Bongo. It was virtually impossible to observe these elephants at close quarters because hunters and the recent explosions for oil exploration had made all the animals wary. Sensing our disappointment, the guide remarked, "Don’t worry, the oil is nearly finished in Gabon, and there are plenty of elephants farther on."
We flew southward along the Atlantic coast, and met Pierre Guizard by chance at Iguela. He had been in Gabon for 34 years as a forester and later as a prospector for gold and diamonds. "I have also been a hunter and have shot many, many elephants," he told me with a half smile.
He offered us a boat to track these forest elephants, with his son René as guide, his tracker Makita, and Joseph the boatman. "Tomorrow you will see the elephants strolling out of the forest and walking next to the sea," he said, "family after family, like clumps of rocks in the sand, but be careful, for they become extremely fierce."