Published: September 2008
Africa's Elephants: Can They Survive?
(Originally published in the November 1980 issue of National Geographic)

Wildlife consultants Oria and Iain Douglas-Hamilton tally the continent's embattled giants, documenting the havoc wreaked by ivory hunters and human population pressure.
By Oria Douglas-Hamilton

In the immense silence of dawn, before the sun rose and burned the skies, I watched through the opening of our tent the morning beauty of an untouched place, and dreamed how lucky we were to be here in one of the strongholds of the elephant in Africa.

Then, across the hills of Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, a gunshot echoed and broke all dreams. A terrible stillness followed; then two, three, four shots blasted out and set my heart pounding. I could see an elephant limping away from a line of tents. People were running.

I fell into some clothes and ran down the green slope. The elephant was limping badly, his right side stained red. I joined some half-dressed game scouts. One, draped in a towel, held an empty gun. He was going back to his tent to get more cartridges.

The elephant kept walking away, and we, 15 of us, followed. He had such a sad look on his face—no anger or violence. His head was bobbing from side to side to keep watch on us, his trunk testing the ground ahead. The scout returned, fired, and missed; fired again and hit in the shoulder, and the blood ran through the crackly skin.

My husband, Iain, took the gun from the scout. He did not want to shoot the elephant, he hated shooting elephants, but there was no choice. Iain aimed and fired.

The elephant screamed and thrashed the bushes with his trunk, tottering on three legs. The bullet had not dispatched him. "There are no more cartridges," the scout said. "There is only a small gun in the lodge," and he walked away to get it. We waited in the thick wet bush as the blood-soaked elephant moved step by painful step to a little river.

He was standing looking at the water, waiting with us for death, when the gun arrived. Iain walked up to him, lifted the gun to his heart, said, "Sorry, old chap," and pulled the trigger. Instantly, his legs folded and he collapsed. No one moved, the birds were still, there was no sound now except the trickling stream. It was the saddest sight I ever saw.

The scout was standing nearby. "Why did you shoot?" I whispered.

"Because he was touching the ropes of my tent," he answered.

This tragic scene symbolized for me a story as old as the history of elephants and man. Recently man has been killing a higher proportion of Africa’s elephants than ever before. Comparatively few people struggle to conserve them. For nearly 15 years Iain has fought for the elephant, a battle I have shared wholeheartedly with him.

It is a losing battle. The elephant’s range is steadily diminished by expanding civilization and its need for more farms and ranchlands, and man continues to slaughter him for his ivory—by poisoned arrows in Kenya, by fires in Sudan, by pitfalls in Zaire, by Pygmies’ spear traps in the forest, by horsemen’s spears in Chad. A new technique is to place poisoned fruit along his pathways.

But the greater slaughter in the past decade has been by guns—from muzzle-loaders with poisoned spears to the high-powered rifles and automatic weapons used by poachers, soldiers, guerrillas, even rangers.

Elephants by the tens of thousands are slain every few years. Mountains of ivory leave Africa and are being used for currency, jewelry, and objets d’art. It is man who is digging the elephant graveyards.

Iain’s work with the elephant began in 1966 with studies in Tanzania’s Lake Manyara National Park. Later I joined him there, and together we have succeeded in following the life histories of individual elephants and families.

A decade after this work began, we were on our way back to the park in our old Cessna 185, flying down the Great Rift Valley as red dust coiled into the sky. Lake Manyara came up like a silver spot, while all around the bare earth was blowing away. The lake was smaller than before, surrounded with salt. Manyara was in the grip of a drought—the third dry year in a row. We knew the elephants would be having difficulty finding food. Ten years before, the problem had been to cope with their destructive feeding habits—pushing over trees and stripping the bark. Now, with drought, the problem could be worse unless poaching had reduced their numbers.

On the lakeshore was a gray mass of at least 200 elephants gathered in the soft evening light, sunning themselves. Each family formed a distinct little group, all walking slowly in the same direction.

We touched down nearby on the sandy beach just as a battered Land-Rover approached. Out jumped Mhoja Burengo, the Tanzanian park ranger who has worked with Iain since 1966, welcoming us back with his wonderful smile. Because of difficulties in getting research clearance, our visits to Manyara had become only occasional since 1973, and Mhoja was doing most of the job of keeping an eye on births, deaths, and disappearances within the elephant community. He can still recognize many of the 400 individuals identified from 1966 on. He told us that poaching had killed many of the elephants, and drought had turned thousands of acres of the park’s lush foliage into a barren windswept land of skeletal trees.

Iain and I were particularly interested to find what had happened to the family of a one-tusker, Jezebel, who had died a year before. Elephant families are not led by bulls, who at puberty, about 13 years of age, are pushed out by the matriarchs, returning periodically to mate beginning around the age of 20. The family leaders are the experienced matriarchs, and so Jezebel’s successor was Curie, who was probably her sister, and not Valeria, her daughter. As her assistant leader, Curie had another matriarch named Hera, who once had a reputation for being extremely fierce.

On a visit two months before, in August, Iain discovered, to his amazement, that Valeria had given birth to twins, the first we had ever seen. They must have been about ten days old, both males. One had a straight tail and the other a crooked tail. The dominant twin was Crooked Tail; though slightly smaller, he pushed ahead of Straight Tail, establishing his position to walk right behind his mother.

The leading matriarch, Curie, had a four-month-old daughter named Pili, and Curie and Valeria were the only nursing mothers in the family. When the twins tried to get some milk from Curie, who had an agitated nature, she slapped them with her trunk, kicked and toppled them, and made them squeal. Only Yusta, the adolescent daughter of Hera, tried to comfort them, pushing them under her belly. Adolescent females often help in elephant families, giving the calves a better chance of survival and learning themselves how to act when they later become mothers.

A month after the birth of the twins, Mhoja, patrolling in the woods, heard loud elephant screams. Curie came crashing out with her family close behind. Mhoja saw that Hera had been speared in the side, blood pouring out. Yusta was helping her mother, allowing Hera to lean against her, putting earth in the wound, and pinching the wound together with the two tips of her trunk, as if they were fingers. She had blood all over her face.

Curie quickly moved the family on toward thickets in the south, and for a month they could not be found. Then one day they returned, Hera’s wound healed and all the family alive, though the twins were a lot thinner.

By this time the heat and drought were intense. Vegetation shriveled, and the hungry elephants ate even the shrubs down to raw wood. Parched, Valeria and her twins went to drink where the river was shallow. Like all baby elephants, the twins were still to learn the art of siphoning water with their trunks. Now they could drink only with their mouths, wading in till they were practically submerged. Straight Tail seemed the better organized; he kept the tip of his trunk out of water so that he could drink and breathe at the same time. Crooked Tail constantly got his trunk stuck in the riverbed and had to come up for air.

Surprisingly, because she was not in estrus, Valeria was joined for a week by a young bull. We scanned our photographs of the family and discovered that he was in fact Valeria’s older brother. He had left the family many years before when Jezebel was matriarch. This was only the second time we had witnessed such a long reunion of a bull with a member of his family after the mature females had forced him to leave.

By December the ground was barren, boiling hot, with nothing tender for young elephants to nibble on. The twins looked like skeletons, stumbling behind Valeria. Straight Tail, his little face pinched, was so weak he could hardly keep up. Crooked Tail became more aggressive toward his brother, pushing him away to nurse, fighting for his own survival.

On December 19, Straight Tail died, only two weeks before the rains broke. Crooked Tail, now with that extra portion of milk, lived on to welcome the cool rain and the new tender grass. He grew into a big fat round elephant.

Though the rain finally came with a vengeance, perhaps a hundred of Manyara’s elephants did not live to enjoy it; following hard on the drought, a lethal pneumonic disease cut them down. Curie may have been a victim; at any rate she disappeared, leaving little Pili to the care of Valeria and Yusta. The leadership passed to Hera, who once again displayed her sudden threat charges, which, however, were never as frightening as Boadicea’s.

That huge tusker, named after a fierce ancient British queen, had been chief matriarch of the largest group of Manyara elephants, which included the family of Jezebel and Curie. How she died we never learned.

I remember clearly the first time I met Boadicea, in 1969. I was driving with Iain through the dark silent Manyara forest when a great gray mass wheeled and moved gracefully but with elephantine power toward us. As if floating on air, ears flapping like wings in slow motion, she seemed to grow taller and taller, and then she stopped in front of us. She did this not suddenly, but with a flowing movement of the body. Eyes fixed on us like bright disks, she barred our way, and then, with a trumpet burst through her trunk, she shattered all silence and displayed her power.

I sat there frozen to my seat, pale and insignificant, unable even to think, faced by this magnificent creation of the wilderness. She did not attempt to hurt us. She was merely warning us away from her family. Iain, knowing what she was doing, remained motionless, respecting her presence. She moved on then, taking some of her family with her, while the others stood nearby, watching us.

A little farther on Iain opened the door of the Land-Rover and slipped out, moving cautiously toward an elephant with one tusk. When he was about two paces from her, she turned on him, lifting her head, ears outstretched, only needing to fling her trunk to hammer his chest. He spread out his arms in a similar human gesture and stood his ground. They looked at each other, and slowly they lowered ears and arms. Iain stretched out a hand. Hesitatingly, she touched it with her trunk. It was a fleeting moment of contact between man and beast, in which ancient enmities between alien intelligences were forgotten.

"This is Virgo," Iain told me. "It has taken me nearly four years to get this close. In a few months I will be able to stroke her."

That relatively peaceful life of the Lake Manyara elephants suddenly changed in the early 1970s, when the price of ivory soared. A poacher who in the ’50s and ’60s could get only 45 cents or so a pound by 1976 was extracting almost six dollars a pound from middlemen. Many of the great Manyara matriarchs fell to the swelling ranks of the poachers. It felt as if our own family were having their teeth hacked out by axes for money. Boadicea was one of the few of her age still alive, always standing tall and ready to charge, with all the others rallying round her. Then, in late 1974, Mhoja found Boadicea’s skeleton.

We asked Tanzania’s director of national parks, Derek Bryceson, to let us buy her tusks and take her skull to our home in Kenya, a favor he readily granted. But in the few days it took to get our government permissions, the tusks, we were told, had already departed to Japan’s ivory market. Iain flew home with only Boadicea’s skull in the rear seat. That is all that is left of the magnificent creature that roamed the forests, plains, and hillsides of Manyara.

Since at that time we could only guess at how many elephants were left in Africa, it was impossible to say whether the ivory rush was threatening their survival. Some people regarded Africa as a bottomless store of tusks and claimed there were millions upon millions of elephants. If there was to be any action to limit the trade, we needed facts. With the support of the New York Zoological Society, the World Wildlife Fund, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, we began a survey of African elephants in 1976. Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya were among the countries from which, we had heard, poachers and traders were feeding the ivory warehouses of the world, and we made them our priorities.

In March 1976 Iain with two of his colleagues flew west from our Nairobi headquarters to Ruwenzori National Park in Uganda. Their eyes were caught by many elephant skeletons littering the landscape. Never had they seen so many skeletons; in just 15 minutes they counted 78 carcasses and only 58 live elephants.

Then in Uganda’s Kabalega Falls National Park they discovered more than 900 elephants lying dead in the huge stretch of parkland south of the Nile. The park staff told them that the poachers were army men who came in with their automatic weapons, and that the trade was in the hands of close associates of President Idi Amin.

In 1979, with the overthrow of Amin in the Uganda-Tanzania war, the situation in the two parks actually worsened. The frontline Tanzanian troops passed through Ruwenzori in good order, but those who followed reportedly shot hundreds of hippos and elephants. Thousands of Amin’s soldiers retreated through Kabalega, gunning down elephants and other game and looting park equipment.

This past spring Iain returned to Uganda for another look. The whole country was awash with automatic rifles captured or looted from Amin’s army, and with them the poachers were taking tusks. In the northern part of Kabalega some 1,200 elephants had survived; in the south they had been reduced from 8,000 in 1966 to a mere 160, almost all clustered in one terrified herd, moving day and night, unable to find refuge, and shedding corpses like leaves along the trail. Iain and his team counted 374 carcasses. The tusks of the dead had been hacked out and the meat left untouched, food for hundreds of vultures.

"We have only one working vehicle and no money to patrol against poachers," said Alfred Labongo, warden of Kabalega. "Our rangers earn 450 Ugandan shillings a month [about $6 in real spending power] and have not been paid for three months. What is my ministry doing, except turning all these rangers into poachers?"

We realized with horror that we were witnessing the extermination of the elephants, and no one seemed to care. But our hopes soared several months later as Uganda’s new government stepped in, aided by international conservation organizations: Kabalega soon would have new vehicles and spare parts, landing strips, and desperately needed money for staff salaries and training.

Formerly much of the ivory from the elephant slaughter ended up in the curio shops of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. One morning in 19771 walked into one of the largest in town. A young Indian clerk, all smiles and very polite, greeted me, slowly walking backward, pulling out piece after piece of enticing ivory from shelves packed with statues, jewelry, and small tusks. There must have been at least 200 tusks of every imaginable size in the shop.

The Indian took me to a back room where two African carvers sat under a glaring bulb. One squatted on a stool with a dentist’s drill in his hand, carving identical figures and faces on chopped-off pieces of tusk.

A pile of ivory chippings and dust fell on the ground. "What does the owner do with this tooth dust?" I asked.

"I put it in a bag every evening, and he takes it home to put on his road," the carver said. "You know, to make the road pretty into his house." When I told the clerk I would like to take pictures in the shop, he warned that the owner would have me arrested.

The most profitable way to take legal ivory out of Zaire, Uganda, and Tanzania in those days was to trade it through Kenya. Poachers also had their big-shot contacts there to smuggle ivory out by trucks, camels, cars, and major airlines. So Nairobi became one of Africa’s ivory capitals, and in 1976 exported more than 400 tons.

In Kenya itself, poachers were killing elephants by the thousands despite a hunting ban. Tsavo National Park, biggest in Kenya, with one-third of the country’s elephants, had already been hit hard by drought, and the unprecedented wave of poaching caused a further decline among the remaining elephants. In 1975 the warden sent eight truckloads of ivory, weighing more than 66,000 pounds, to the ivory room in Mombasa to be auctioned off, a large part of it confiscated from poachers. Tsavo was littered with mounds of "eleskeles," white bones draped with a dark skin like a blanket covering the dead.

The poachers then were mainly Kamba people using bows and poisoned arrows. "Working for rich people in Nairobi," they confessed when caught in anti-poaching raids. Later, fierce nomadic Somalis from the north took a heavy toll with firearms.

We landed in Tsavo at a small tourist camp on the edge of the Athi River, where a family of eight elephants had lived. The manager, a young blond German, told us that one by one they had fallen to the Kamba arrows, leaving only one cow with her two calves. Just a couple of months before, the cow had staggered toward the camp with four poisoned arrowheads in her side, collapsed, and had to be shot. The poison is concocted from the wood of Acocanthera trees. It is usually effective immediately, but a poorly placed arrowhead can sometimes take as long as a month to kill an elephant.

Today the poachers have been cleaned out, the park has revived, and one rarely sees a dead elephant. The big change began at the end of 1977, when elephant killing in Kenya had reached its peak. President Kenyatta announced on December 12, Independence Day, that a total ban on private trade in wildlife trophies, skins, and ivory would be enforced in Kenya in three months’ time. That announcement coincided with another step forward. It came as the United States Congress was holding hearings on the threatened status of the African elephant. The result of the hearings, at which Iain testified, was that the U.S. would limit its ivory imports to countries that had signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and would fund a study on the international ivory trade.

New Year of 1978 in Kenya found posters pasted on the windows of the curio shops, announcing reduced prices on all stocks. Prices dropped further as the March deadline approached, but the stocks seemed to be growing. Business was flourishing.

People crammed the shops and crowded the sidewalks, waiting their turn to get in, to buy hideous skin bags and wallets and badly finished ivory statues. Iain and I stood in one shop watching. The Minister of Wildlife and Tourism, Mr. Matthews Ogutu, was there beside me, talking with the owner.

"Why don’t you buy anything?" the minister said to me. "It’s the last day." I couldn’t. Not after seeing the elephants in Tsavo dragging their poisoned bodies, waiting in agony for death.

From the Nairobi curio stampede we flew into Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which, in spite of its then tense, war-strained atmosphere, had retained a substantial elephant population and a highly efficient wildlife department. We were invited there to a symposium celebrating the 50th anniversary of Wankie National Park.

Civil war was in progress, and we entered Wankie in a convoy, escorted by armored cars. Their underbodies were V-shaped to minimize damage from land-mine blasts, and they had zigzag sides to deflect rockets.

Every year a culling team inside the park kills elephants. The wildlife-management department maintains that their numbers must be kept below certain limits to preserve the habitat and ensure adequate food for the other animals. A team of three or four riflemen drop the matriarchs first, then shoot the other adults of the family as they mill around leaderless. The youngsters, up to the age of four, are tranquilized and transported to pens next to park headquarters.

I saw about 40 youngsters huddled together in the "baby pens." They would be sold to a contractor for about $1,000 each, and then to zoos and circuses in the United States and other countries. Two very tiny ones were kept in big boxes. One seemed lonely and immediately ran to me, hoping to get some milk. I gave it my thumb to suck, and it held on with a soft pink tongue. These tiny ones are bottle-fed, and lacking the antibodies in mother’s milk, they tend to die from intestinal infections.

The other babies under three were herded into a paddock together, some eating oranges, branches, and green stuff, others just standing in corners sucking their trunks. Every now and then one would come out and charge at the ranger looking after them.

In the stables with smaller paddocks lived the juveniles, three to four years old, who were much more nervous and frightened and charged instantly. Any young elephants over 60 inches at the shoulder were too big and too aggressive; the riflemen with an experienced eye for age could easily pick them out. Perhaps they had the better fate. The survivors, from now onward, would spend their lives in little enclosures to amuse man, with almost nothing to do but eat. Culling takes place between May and August in Wankie, for only then is the climate cool enough for processing the elephant meat. In the 1978 season, 398 elephants were shot, skinned, cut up, and dried.

We arrived in time to see the meat of at least 15 elephants being cut into strips and laid on long, low tables made of metal rods and chicken wire. The carcasses were now the property of contractors, who had paid the government $240 for each animal, regardless of size.

The dried meat from a single carcass brings about $100 and goes for 55 cents a pound in the local market. The skin is more valuable, bringing up to $1,200. The tanned hide is used for leather goods. Briefcases fetch $400; scraps are used in shoes, bags, purses. The feet become wastepaper baskets, umbrella stands, or in the case of baby elephants, pencil holders. The fat is melted down and sold in 44-gallon drums for cooking. The tusks go to the ivory auction in Salisbury, where a matched pair brought $50 a pound in 1978.

Culling, when properly done, far from harming the elephant herds, guarantees more plentiful food for the survivors. The alternative can be, in extreme cases, overpopulation and starvation. Iain believes that culling should be done for ecological management when necessary, though neither of us thinks it should replace a laissez-faire policy in every instance.

To see the elephants shot in masses, especially a whole family, is a most horrific experience. It is easy for armchair ecologists to recommend shooting programs when they have never participated in the shooting. But hearing the guns mixed with the screams and bellowing of the terrified elephants as they all collapse needs a strong stomach and a cold nerve.

In Rhodesia, during the guerrilla warfare, the elephants had to face the risk of land mines as well as guns. A few miles from the majestic beauty of Victoria Falls, Dave Scammell, warden of Zambesi National Park, had spotted an elephant that had crossed over from nearby Zambia. He invited us along to chase it away from the minefields set by the Rhodesians along the border. His Land-Rover had thick steel protection underneath and steel bars over the roof. "I’m sorry I have to take you in this cage," apologized Dave. "Occasionally on the road one does hit mines that have been slipped in by the terrorists. But in here we’re probably pretty safe."

Tightly strapped into our seats, we were driven along a lonely road through the bush until we came to a big fence. We found some elephant tracks that followed the road, but we were too late. The fence was broken down, and the tracks went into the mines. Where they came out they had blood on them. "Damn, he’s been hit," Dave said. "Let’s follow the tracks and see what’s become of him."

He had come out of the minefields, then gone deep into them again, this time almost certainly blown up for good. Dave told us that scores of such dismembered animals lay along Rhodesia’s borders with Mozambique and Zambia. Frequently the hyenas or vultures that descended on the carcasses also got blown up.

But not all our Rhodesian experiences were so gory. On a hill covered in orange and yellow mopane trees, where the Sengwa River runs under sienna-colored cliffs, stands the Hostes Nicolle research station. Here a young scientist, Rowan Martin, was working on an elephant-tracking program.

He had developed a new type of radio collar that used little power, and that could continue transmitting for more than 12 months and be received at a range of ten miles. Tracking was done from tall, rotatable antennas atop sheer hills. He had trained rangers to record the bearings of each of his 20 or so collared elephants every three hours, day and night.

Locating his elephants from his stations, on foot, and by air, Rowan has built up the most detailed data ever compiled on continuous elephant movements. His most exciting result is apparent proof of a new level of elephant society, the "clan," which is beyond the family units and the kinship groups that Iain has found.

Rowan has clear evidence that as many as a hundred individuals sharing a common home range freely associate with each other, but not with individuals of a neighboring clan. He also discovered, as Iain did at Manyara, that large strung-out assemblages of elephants show extraordinary coordination of movement. They rumble to each other, and at times their communication seems almost telepathic.

Leaving the elephant clans of Rhodesia, we flew to South Africa, where the fate of most elephants was sealed a century ago by ivory and meat hunters. Today the only substantial elephant population, about 7,500, lives in the rigidly managed Kruger National Park, where excess animals are processed scientifically and hygienically in a huge abbatoir.

Two tiny herds also exist on the country’s southern shore. One is in the dense Knysna forest, which grows on steep V-shaped slopes. Here, on rare occasions, an elephant emerges from his hiding place and stands in a clear patch facing the sea, watching waves crash on pink rocks. These elephants, roaming a 100,000-acre forest reserve, are seldom seen. But from time to time, when they raid private farmland, they are shot and wounded or killed. The existence of this little group of elephants—probably no more than five today—hangs by the merest thread.

Another elephant enclave survives in the Addo Elephant National Park. Here separation of man from beast has allowed the elephants to recover. In 1954 a massive steel fence was completed to enclose the last 10 or 20 elephants. Since then they have increased rapidly, and they total more than 100 today. The historic conflict with man is over. Man and the elephant are mutually tolerant, separated from each other by steel barriers. From slaughter to strict preservation of a tiny fragment—this South African example may foreshadow the fate of most of Africa’s elephants.

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."

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.

The wildlife consultant charged by Iain with investigating the international ivory trade for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was Ian Parker. A former Kenya game warden and elephant cropper, he was recently back from a trip to Hong Kong, where he had inspected more than 20,000 tusks. When we talked to him in June 1979, he concluded that more than half came from the forest elephants of West and central Africa.

Powerful officials in Zaire were alleged by members of the legislature to be behind the illegal ivory traffic: four members of the Political Bureau, who had immunity from prosecution, and a relative of the president himself. One Western military attache told Iain he had seen fresh tusks being loaded into a Zaire military plane to be conveyed to Kinshasa for export.

Iain and I had been talking to people for months, listening not only to facts and informed opinion about elephants but also, too often, to lies, indifference, and excuses. Many times I was overwhelmed by discouragement as I took the same notes about smart traders and smugglers, corrupt ministers, disillusioned conservationists, paid-off officials, and wildlife directors who had not been in their offices for weeks.

In such hands were the lives of the great elephants. They were so vulnerable. Man, the self-appointed decision maker, says, "Eradicate the elephants," and they are eradicated with guns and helicopters, as they were in part of Rwanda. "Cull the elephants, for they are destroying the trees and the crops," and whole families are shot and eaten. I began to wonder whether man could or really wanted to save the elephants.

I remember when Iain returned from a 1976 trip to Tanzania, where he had been flying for six weeks, and announced with jubilation, "There are 110,000 elephants alive and well in the Selous!" Realizing that only we and the crew knew, my first reaction was to keep this a secret. Those elephants are going to be killed, I thought. But the Selous count had been financed by Danish aid to the Tanzanian government, and it had to go in, exact "to the last elephant," so to speak.

In country after country we made our counts from our airplane, flying in straight lines 300 feet above the ground, each run three to six miles apart. Stopwatch in hand, Iain would call out, "Stand by for transect one," and two observers in the backseat would tape-record their sightings: "Eles six—skele one—skele one—eles three .. ." Minutes later, "Transect two—huts 10—shoats [for sheep and goats] 40—skele one." In the seat beside Iain, the habitat observer took pictures and marked his map.

The numbers kept coming in, though the magnitude of the task was daunting, since the elephants of Africa still occupy a range of nearly three million square miles. Within this area lie 35 countries and some 90 national parks and reserves. Extrapolating likely densities for the total range, Iain concluded that a minimum of 1.3 million elephants survived at the time of our survey. This figure was based on the work of other scientists, as well as our own, but I believe it is by now a great overestimate, considering the amount of ivory still flowing out of the continent.

One of the big ivory drains was through La Couronne, a company in the Central African Republic managed by a Belgian woman and a young Spaniard. In 1976 it obtained a virtual monopoly to trade in ivory from President Bokassa, reportedly a shareholder in the enterprise. Here some of the last big tuskers carrying ivory of more than 100 pounds could and still can be found. In 1977 the official record of elephants killed suddenly jumped to 4,065, from the 1976 figure of 1,420.

One contributor to our elephant survey reported that military trucks were used to transport this ivory to Bangui, the capital and company headquarters, for export to China, Japan, and Hong Kong on major airlines, with the ivory transiting Paris and Antwerp. But as one of the airline officials said: "It’s only cargo."

After Bokassa was overthrown in September 1979, La Couronne’s ivory business was closed down; so, alas, was wildlife law enforcement. By the end of the year 4,000 elephants were reported killed, with ivory weighing 85 tons. In reality, our contact in Bangui said, these figures could be doubled.

In the spring of 1980 the new government forbade all elephant hunting and stopped all trade in ivory. It still needs to convince the people of the value of this new policy, however, since many profited from the perhaps 28,000 elephants killed during the three-year ascendancy of La Couronne. But this is the first good news this year, giving us hope that such treaties as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species might work.

Wherever man has penetrated and settled, the elephant range has disintegrated, especially in West Africa. In 30 years nearly 24 million acres of primary forest have been destroyed by man in the Ivory Coast. Across the remaining forests of Africa the timber companies are cutting the trees, hundreds of years old, opening roads for the primitive agriculture of the slashers and burners. Squatter families move into these forests to grow their patches of millet and maize. The elephants must find their lives elsewhere.

The Tai forest in the west of the Ivory Coast bordering Liberia is one of West Africa’s largest remaining primary forests. For hours we drove on traffic-filled roads, passing trucks carrying three to four gigantic logs each. All day this procession proceeded to the logging ports, so crammed we could hardly see the water for the floating logs.

Few are interested in the salvation of that forest. Only presidential action can keep the timber raiders out. With that forest go the elephants, and all the rare species of plants and birds that have been protected from man, till now, by the trees. While the mighty international industrial overlords, totally uncontrolled, continue to make their fortunes, the elephants and the great trees, the giants of Africa, are going hand in hand to their graves.

From the decimated forests of the Ivory Coast, a thousand miles as the crow flies, we dropped into Cameroon with its largely unspoiled forests. Along the eastward track to Lomie is a series of Pygmy villages, where the people live by hunting and gathering. They still exploit the forest, and elephant hunting remains very important—a source of food, festivity, and prestige. Fat, which is plentiful in elephant meat and lacking in most of their other game, is a special bonus in their diet.

Their traditional method of hunting is exceedingly dangerous. On sighting an elephant, the chief hunter and a learner, usually his son or son-in-law, leave the hunting party and follow the prey. The hunter alone creeps up and cuts the elephant’s hamstrings with an ax or machete and attacks the soft underbelly with a large spear. The hunter and learner then retreat and wait for the elephant to die.

Till recently Pygmies would kill an elephant only for its meat. They gave the tusks to the Bantu village chief in exchange for protection and small gifts. But the availability of big-game guns in the past few years has pushed the Pygmies’ motives toward ivory. Gun owners lend them weapons on condition that the Pygmies may keep the meat and they the ivory, in return for such gifts as clothes, liquor, and cash.

Down in the southeast tip of Cameroon, the Pygmies are more sophisticated. They own plantations, pay taxes; many even speak French. The gifts they demand from gun owners, besides large cash payments, include transistor radios and 12-bore cartridges. In some places in the forest they are reported to kill more than a hundred elephants a year, often just for the ivory, leaving the carcasses to rot.

In the Cameroon capital of Yaounde we visited the offices of the Wildlife and Forest Environment Service, where we were shown three and a half tons of ivory that had been seized from a Frenchman and northern tribesmen. The only safe place to keep these tusks was in one of the lavatories. The little room was stuffed to the ceiling, and it was impossible for anyone to enter. A court case had been filed, but the director, Victor Sunday Balinga, told us he thought the defendants would probably get their tusks back in the end.

Mr. Balinga was alarmed by the speed at which the elephants are disappearing in the south. "Enormous amounts of ivory leave Cameroon each year," he said. And every year the price of ivory goes up.

In the ivory markets and galleries of Yaounde, a Greek dealer offered us a 110-pound tusk for $3,250. "The price is going up, yes, but there is money to be made in ivory," he said. He has ten carvers working for him, each producing a statue a day worth about $100. "Plenty of orders," he said. "I have a special order from France to produce ivory porno all year round."

Despite the lively business in Cameroon, the ivory trade there and all through western and central Africa seems to be in the hands of merchants from Senegal. In Dakar, the capital, a wonderfully flavored place of multicolored people in multicolored markets, one trader pulled tusk after tusk out of a bag, admitting it was all illegal. "I can send these anywhere for you," he said. "I know the right way; it’s just a matter of some money here and there.

"I have to earn a living somehow," he said. "I have never killed an elephant. Anyway, there aren’t many elephants left here. I once went to Niokolo Koba National Park; it was quite nice, but when I saw all those elephants moving away in the bush, I said to myself, ‘Look at all that ivory’; but then I thought life is worth more than money."

Senegal has about 450 elephants left because Leopold Senghor, the poet-president, stepped in at the last hour and saved them from extinction. He appointed a young Frenchman, Andre Dupuy, a former French Foreign Legion officer, to create a national park system. Dupuy runs it today with a Senegalese deputy and 300 militarily trained men, making Niokolo Koba one of the best protected parks in Africa.

We went on north to Mauritania, to look for some elephants last seen by scientists ten years ago. If they were still alive, they would be the last survivors in this northern part of Africa where the Sahara begins.

We reached Selibaby, a flat spread-out village shimmering in a mirage. There the governor pronounced: "You cannot go on to Assaba. You are not desert people. It is too hot this time of year, and you will probably die. There are very few elephants left. After the big drought they either died or left for another country." He paused. "But you might be able to find some near Harr, a village not far from here. I can give you my driver."

The arrival of toubab—foreigners—in Harr was a great event. The whole village crowded round as we talked to the 77-year-old chief, who was dressed in a yellow robe.

"We do not kill elephants here," the chief said. "When the elephants come, we burn bits of cloth. When they smell it, they go away, and we beat on the tom-toms. If an elephant dies, we do not eat it, as it has not been bismelah"—a Muslim blessing uttered at the ritual slaughter of an animal. "One elephant killed a girl here in 1919. It was our only accident.

"The elephants were here in December. When the water is finished, they cross into Senegal. It would be nice to have tame elephants here, if a reserve could be made."

We returned to say good-bye to the governor, who told us: "We too would like to have national parks and a place for wild animals to live in peace, but how can we when we ourselves are struggling to live? Maybe if some of your big organizations helped, something could be done, but, you understand, it is the last hour for these animals."

In neighboring Mali the elephants’ thread of survival is also perilously thin. By 1920 French colonizers had killed most of them for the ivory trade. About 550 survive there in the Gourma area, which spreads from Mali into Upper Volta and Niger. There they coexist harmoniously with the Pheul and Tuareg pastoralists. The water holes are shared, with the tribesmen’s cattle drinking by day and the elephants at night.

Landing in the Gourma in April, we walked in search of tracks. The ground was like concrete at that time of the year. Not a blade of grass. The elephants were eating bark from stunted trees. We were told they move in herds of 50 to 100 and stand out like huge monuments on the dry pink earth. We saw not one, though we did find some tracks and dung only a day old.

Mali’s Gourma elephants represent the ultimate capacity of the African elephant to adapt to the harshest conditions. If the fragile harmony between the elephants and the nomads is allowed to thrive, then perhaps these desert elephants will continue to survive. As with all Africa’s elephants, their future depends on man’s allowing them to live, even through his own political upheavals.

But I can see only guns and more guns, and man wrapped in snakes of bullets as he sets forth emptying the forests and the plains, leaving carcasses and empty cartridges on his trail. I see only a few people working in the field and behind desks who are protecting the elephants, compared with the multitudes who are indifferent or whose focus is a quick way of making money. What happened to Uganda’s elephants has taken place before and is happening now in Chad and Zambia. It will happen again in other lands already plagued by tribal power struggles, a breakdown of law and order, war, and famine.

The story of the African elephant could have a happy ending, but the ultimate choice is ours. Are we going to sit back and accept that the age of giants has passed without a whimper? Shall we simply allow the great elephant to be pushed into the refuges we carve out for him? Or are we going to take a stand and make this giant a living symbol of our freedom? That powerful yet gentle wanderer who can cross the boundaries of the great African plains and forests must, to survive, be freed from the political and financial burdens of man.