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Letters from the Field: Mya Thompson

Mya Thompson is a research assistant with Cornell University's Elephant Listening Project. This was her second trip into the field to study the forest elephants in the Central African Republic.

January 16, 2002

Dzanga at last!!! I am sitting on the stoop of our cabin listening to the sounds of the forest and cooking beans for lunch. It is very homey and comfortable here now, and most importantly no filaria flies! We crawled into our sleeping bags last night and relished the cool air, after a full day on the road cramped in a pickup, sitting on hard laptop cases and with bags on our laps. As we got closer to Andrea's camp, passing by the BaAka villages everyone waves and says "Aahhhhhhh!" I am so happy to be here, in action after months of anticipation.

January 18, 2002

We've been to the bai three days in a row now, and things are as primeval as ever with 60 to 80 elephants each day. We heard one elephant make a didgeridoo sound with her trunk yesterday. We're also preparing for Andrea's departure to an elephant meeting in Kenya for two weeks. In the meantime Louis Sarno, who studies pygmy music, will be here helping us hold down the fort and install our equipment in the forest. We hope that allows us to get to know the pygmies better, as he speaks BaAka and lives with them in their village. He also knows what all the sounds are that go bump in the night. I'm feeling invigorated by the daily physical labor, the beautiful temperatures (55 degrees at night, 80 degrees in the day). I'd been sitting in an office for too long!

January 28, 2002

The moon is coming up orange tonight, hanging over the swamp, lazily traveling toward Orion. No rain since November, so the drip, drip, drip all night was a mystery. Caterpillars dropping from the trees? No, it's the rainforest on the move. The trees are pulling water up their trunks and releasing it from the 200-feet-high crowns. A few droplets make it back down. The dry season should really be named the drier season. The salt has turned into a liquid and our papers are nearly pulp.

We experienced a peak moment in the elephants' social and emotional lives the other day. A good old-fashioned mating pandemonium. A musth male (musth refers to a hormonal state in which a male elephant is in a period of heightened aggressiveness and sexual activity) suddenly ignited his body into a run, chasing a nearby female and mounting her. Cued by the mating, elephant families rushed over and huge rolling waves of rumbles piled on top of each other punctuated by the screams of calves. About 20 elephants circled around tasting the ground, each adding their voice to the chorus. The overlapping rumbles continued unbroken for about eight minutes. Listening to the recording is like rocking on a ship as each lull predictably brings another surge.

Tonight, as I listen to the elephant rumbles rising up from the swamp, I again feel the privilege and responsibility of being here in the elephants' world. We use their trails to travel, their swamp to swim and their forest clearing (the bai) to peek into their lives. I also feel a rash of guilt, fearing that the process of setting up our equipment, which has caused more than one panicked stampede, is too invasive. They are under increasing poaching pressure and their contagious fear seems to be building.

February 10, 2002

The chaos of 70 elephants together in a small forest clearing! Yesterday was teeming with yelps, screams, growls and rumbles as they chased and jabbed each other out of favorite drinking pits. It really seems that as soon as one of them settles down for a drink, someone else gets interested in kicking them out, if for no other reason but to display dominance. The threatening earflaps were out of control. Some of them thwacked their ears so hard on the back swing, it sounded like gunshot. Yesterday was our lab director Chris Clark's first introduction to the bai in all its competitive glory. What a day. At the end we flung ourselves into the swamp and let ourselves float downstream till the plants crowd in and make you think snake habitat! After that we sat on the sandy beach and cupped our ears to hear the insect and frog chorus bouncing off the water. It seeped into our wilted bodies and minds and created and enforced calm, which then swayed into an overwhelming gratefulness that the wildness of the bai, the forest and the swamp still exists.

February 15, 2002

I've sat down many a night to write a nice long letter, and have been stumped. Either my eyelids are drooping, the flies are biting or I can't find eloquent enough words to describe what I've experienced. We are rising early these days in a race to the bai, hoping there will be few enough elephants to go out and fix the recorders, which are being regularly torn off their batteries and munched on by curious elephants. The dry season is upon us, however, and the elephants continue to thickly coat the surface of the clearing no matter what time we arrive.

The center of the excitement is the male of all males, Hilton, who's the largest, most magnificent bull in the population. Imagine an elephant striding in, who dwarfs all others, with six-foot-long tusks plunging straight to the ground. Then you notice the wetness filling the creases in his cheeks and a continuous dribble of urine between his back legs -- he is in full musth. He makes his way inexorably toward the most favored drinking pit, leaving an odor rich trail. Occasionally the wind wafts it over to us, a pungent smell, skunky and sweet at the same time. We are soon under its spell, ourselves getting an inkling of the power of this hormonal signal. Other males yield quickly and without question. Females allow him to test them, often peeing as if on command, releasing the chemicals needed for decoding their sexual state. Hilton quickly found our estrous female Teardrop and guarded her closely for three days. The days must be exhausting for the couple, Hilton staying within a body length of her at all times, often adjusting just a few meters to be in proper position. Every so often, Hilton will decide the time is right and snake his trunk along the top of her back, then (in a feat of amazement) launch himself up onto his hind legs and mate with her. Unfortunately for Teardrop, Hilton had enough before her estrous period was over and strode off into the forest. Five males in succession then mounted her in a free for all, which makes you appreciate the mediating influence of the musth condition.

February 20, 2002

Like a siesta in the middle of a long hot day, we have arrived at the midpoint of our field season. The sun seems to be expanding each day with the moon. The yolk of the sun giving the evil eye to an egg on the ground could cook it on the spot. Of course this impression is through the prism of my feverish state (a little flu Andrea brought back from an elephant meeting), making everything more dramatic. Normally the turquoise swallowtails flitting through camp wouldn't appear blinding, and the task of shoveling lunch into my mouth not daunting.

The predominant elephant behaviors we've seen lately are the edgy, contagious stampedes, which evacuate the bai once or twice a day. Perhaps it is wariness from the many poachers' guns we've heard lately, or a whiff of us as the Harmattan winds from the Sahara as they flare up suddenly, but they are certainly more prone to fleeing this time round. One elephant perks up her ears and freezes; her sister catches on; they begin to run, and without further ado all the other elephants follow suit, racing off into the forest, juveniles trumpeting and screaming in fear of separation. Half a minute later, all that remains is a dust cloud and the buffalo herd (who never seem to care). There are a few brave souls who do not involve themselves in these episodes of mass panic. Orphaned juveniles seize the opportunity to sip from the best drinking pits, and a few savvy females do the same. There is also an adult male named Miles who remains unperturbed and simply guards his resource.

It is somewhat comforting to know that most of these elephants remain afraid of humans and our proclivity towards killing them, but we worry about their stress level. In some elephant clearings in Congo, where poaching pressure is high, elephants no longer come during the day, preferring the cover of darkness for their mineral fix. What a tragedy if this were to happen at Grand Central Station. The park guards who are permanently camped nearby caught some poachers yesterday. Much to Andrea's dismay, a trusted BaAka who works for the conservation project in town was involved. Ugh.

February 29, 2002

We have been tirelessly trying to save our recorders from the curious elephants. We found one of our units last week completely ripped open and in many pieces. The truck battery's lid had been popped off and acid spilled all over the ground; the plastic case had tusk marks pierced all the way through, and when we finally found the hard drive, it had been pressed in to the sand so deeply that it is now only good as a maraca. Our campaign has therefore been to hoist six extremely heavy recorders (truck battery and all) up into the trees at least 20 ft up (above the elephant trunk tips). Not a simple task.

On top of that, it is very hot. The most oppressive day we've ever had was yesterday. It felt like you had a steaming towel surrounding you all day. We were all just pouring sweat, which of course attracts one of the banes of human existence here. The sweat bees coat your feet, legs and eyes, sucking up your sweat like nectar and driving you batty. Fortunately we were invited to go into town to have dinner with Alex Chadwick and crew from NPR who are here to do a radio piece. The company was a treat, and the French fries we ate were a welcome delicacy. Most mercifully, when we got back, there was a huge thunderstorm with high winds, which released some of the humidity from the air for the moment. Mushrooms popped out of the elephant dung overnight, and my toe fungus turned into a burning rash.

March 12, 2002

With only one month to go, we are getting really determined to collect the best data we possibly can. This means a full schedule with most every minute accounted for. The powers of concentration really have to kick in when we follow an individual for hour-long sessions and score her behavior constantly. There we are reporting, "Ears up, tail out, rumble, displaced from hole by sub-adult male." You can't look down for a second. Not glamorous, but we're excited about being able to answer some of the as yet elusive questions really scientifically.

March 16, 2002

Yesterday, we reluctantly parted from the bai just as the setting sun was caramelizing the elephants. One of those cracks of thunder straight out of a Hollywood special effects lab (the kind that leaves you feeling that your hair is actually standing on end) finally convinced us to tear our eyes and camera lenses off the beautiful, platinum-colored bull "Roddy" who just entered the bai, waltzing past the others with a glowing aura. About halfway down the trail, the drops started sifting through the canopy, and by the time we were in the open swamp, rain was pounding almost painfully. At camp, we immediately went in to disaster-relief mode when we saw that Eric's tent was the recipient of a torrent of muddy water running down the hill. Eric, Melissa and I dug trenches in the pouring rain, feeling quite backwoods-like and commenting on how we reckoned this rain must be a sign and how Ma would probably have some flapjacks ready at dawn when we finished.

Today we set off again, this time with our matching raincoats pessimistically in our bags. Sure enough, just after lunch the wind whipped up and a dark cloud swept over the bai. The elephants fled and another huge storm erupted, flooding the bai within minutes. One savvy bull stuck around and commenced to wildly excavate the best drinking pit by splashing the rainwater out with his front feet doggy-style. A task for Sisyphus as the torrent filled it up as fast as he could dig (elephants prefer the dry pits because then the good stuff at the bottom doesn't get diluted with plain-old normal water). After watching the determined bull for about an hour, we pulled our raincoats (which look like full-length green cloaks) over our backpacks and headed back to camp -- a hilarious parade of Quasimodo hunchbacks.

Andrea keeps saying that it is NOT the rainy season, yet we've had rain every couple days for the past two weeks, and yesterday's storm dumped a whopping 50 millimeters. It's all semantics I guess. The official rainy season isn't supposed to start until May, but my pillow molded and has been valiantly trying to dry after a good scrubbing for the past few days to no avail.

The big excitement of the week was witnessing an enthusiastic greeting between a sub-adult male and his mother with trade-off rumbles, trunk caressing, ear flapping -- all the stereotypical elephant greeting elements. It's rare to see males that age greeting with mothers who they no longer travel with. He probably separated from her within the past couple years and still remembers how to be part of an elephant group. I recorded the sequence on a microphone/geophone pair and found that the geophone picked up the calls fairly well from about 200 meters away.

I've become very attached to a tiny juvenile female named Elodie 2 (daughter of Elodie 1), whose strategy is to sidle into the best drinking pits while the huge males are still in them. She's the only little one who is gutsy enough to do this, and somewhat inexplicably, the males tolerate her presence even though another bull approaching within 10 meters would be summarily chased or stabbed away. So far her strategy is working. She gets way more mineral-filled sips than her mom who nervously waits nearby with her ears up as her calf tempts fate. We hope she doesn't end up skewered on the end of a musth male's tusks one of these days. Maybe she isn't the first in a long line of feminists who will insist that the bai's resources be shared equally between the sexes.

I can hardly believe we only have three weeks left. When you're on the down slope, you suddenly feel the snowball effect and time speeds up. Suddenly you're running out of time to do all those fabulous things you planned. Right now I'm just grateful for this incredibly waterproof grass roof and the cool rainy air, which has convinced me to climb into my sleeping bag for some enforced rest.

March 31, 2002

As we pack up our microphones, computers and databooks there is an explosion of last minute obsessions. The profusion of butterflies is mine. I spent most of the day photographing them in the forest. If you can believe it the 80 elephants struck me as mundane today.

April 3, 2002

All's well. It's about 8 o'clock and we're all packed. Our chauffeur arrived with the truck for an early a.m. departure and we had a truly awesome afternoon at the bai with no data collection. The light was gorgeous and the biggest male (Hilton) was guarding a female. Also, as a special treat the female whose calf died last visit came in with a healthy new baby. Off to Bangui...

April 5, 2002

We're here in Bangui staying in the lap of luxury on the 11th floor of the Sofitel looking out over the huge Oubangui river where dugout canoes drift back and forth searching for fish and you can see Congolese villages just on the other side. Each of us has balconies with a view and our very own tubs, TVs and toilets. Melissa and I have been sleeping in the same room for 90 or so nights now, and it is quite miraculous to have our own spaces, also quite strange. Last night Melissa said she almost blurted out a question in her room and then realized that I wasn't there. I spent an hour this morning in the bathtub hoping to wash off all the layers of elephant dung from the crevices in my feet. I think it worked! We were successful in confirming our flight reservation today, paying for the car in local currency (which entailed a trip to someone's back office for a black market transaction), buying and eating fresh mangos and discovering that there are no good places to buy wax print fabric in town. Sadly, there are lots of homeless kids in town (most of whose parents died of AIDS), so it is a little painful walking around town trying to ignore their begging. Like last time I was here, I became completely enraged by the huge amounts of dead butterfly art. Tomorrow we check in all of our baggage at 9 a.m., breathe a big sigh of relief, and go eat at the Lebanese restaurant. Then we get to the airport on Sunday and get closer and closer to home from there!

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