We traveled up a crocodile-filled lagoon in our dinghy, and on reaching a grove of trees, Iain had a hunch he should get up one of the trees and have a look at the beach. Knee-deep in green wax-leaved bushes, fifty yards away, stood a dozen forest elephants, the open blue sea and long white waves breaking behind them. It was as if Iain had seen a vision, so surprised was he to have found them that easily, after dreaming for years of seeing such elephants on a beach.
Iain went up another tree, closer to the elephants, and René stayed with me as I crawled on the sand behind some bushes. Makita and Joseph were terrified. They had never seen two people so eager to be killed by an elephant, and they were under Guizard’s strict orders not to shoot. We were all excited and nervous, as Iain and I click-clicked our cameras and watched those elusive elephants. There was a bull with spread-out tusks, females with calves picking fruit from the waxy plants, and several half-grown youngsters playing in the sea. They were certainly smaller than the elephants we knew, and with rounded, smaller ears blown out by the wind.
Suddenly there was panic, and our three guards were running in all directions as an elephant came up behind and walked straight past us. Iain and I found ourselves alone, with the reputedly fierce assala, as they are known locally, heading slowly toward us, their thin little tusks pointing slightly inward. But the wind carried our scent away, and we escaped detection.
The Gabon elephants, although hunted for ivory, meat, and pleasure, seem to be in balance with their environment. But in Zaire we were less optimistic. Though by our estimates it had more than 370,000 elephants in 1977, it had now become the hub of the corrupt ivory trade.
During the early 1970s, reports of poaching and the complicity of high officials in evading ivory-trading laws were widespread. Issuing of trading permits got out of hand, and in 1978 one of the greatest massacres of Zaire’s elephants took place. Wardens and acquaintances reported to us that military personnel were machine-gunning elephants, and that whole families had been killed by the use of fruit poisoned with battery acid or insecticide and placed on well-used elephant trails and at water holes. For the local people this was big and easy money, to buy food, medicine, radios, vehicles, or wives. For the traders in Europe, the Far East, the U. S., it was just more money.
In August 1978, after tens of thousands of elephants were killed, President Mobutu Sese Seko declared a moratorium on all further ivory exports. But illegal ivory trading continued to cross the borders into Uganda, Burundi, the Congo, and the Central African Republic. And, in spite of the ban, Zaire itself remained one of the leading producers of ivory on the continent, with major airlines involved in carrying large ivory consignments to markets around the world.