In the forest with Martin the Elephant Man.

April 20, 2006

When villagers told us that the elephant that killed two people in 2000 might have returned, we did the only sensible thing and called on Martin the Elephant Man. I don’t know Martin’s last name. I’m not sure anyone does. I’ve overheard his best chums call him “Marty the Elephant Man”, but few people here claim that intimacy. This much I’ve pieced together: he’s from Liverpool, but lives in North Wales when he’s not in some Asian forest and he has done ecological research, mostly about large mammals, for over twenty years. He’s a skinny guy who builds up a huge appetite hiking mile after mile through the forest searching for elephant signs. Martin knows just about all there is to know about elephants and is passionately committed to their survival. He’s here in Laos trying to determine what impact the new dam and reservoir will have on his favorite animal.

Martin was concerned over our report. If an elephant is living in an area where we are clearing land for the resettlement of villages, it means that people and elephants will soon cross paths and come into conflict. When humans and elephants compete, the humans may suffer the first injury, but the elephants almost always end up on the losing side.

Our bomb and landmine clearance starts with the removal of jungle foliage so we can get our metal detectors close to the ground. Therefore, the first workers we put on a new site are the “scrub cutters.” When they finish their job, all the thick, dense vegetation that is perfect elephant habitat is gone. Then, after the area is thoroughly searched and cleared of ordnance, the land is turned over to the displaced villagers who construct new homes and plant new gardens. As their new village takes shape and grows, there is no room for wild elephants. If elephants are around, everyone hopes that they will migrate to new habitat. Usually the villagers will do whatever it takes to encourage the elephants to leave.

We took Martin the elephant man to the area where villagers had heard an elephant trumpeting the day before. Martin immediately picked up a clue. The wall of jungle foliage was parted slightly; his keen eyes recognized a trail. It didn’t look like much of a trail to me. I was looking for a path you could drive a truck down. Martin explained that an elephant doesn’t leave much of a trail. As elephants move wedge-like through the forest, the foliage parts in front of them parting like a sliding door, and then silently closing behind.

With this clue indicating that an elephant had indeed been in the area, Martin paused to give a quick lesson: “Surviving an Elephant Attack”. He explained that forest elephants were quiet animals and that their gray bodycolor in the mottled light of the jungle was perfect camouflage. Martin emphasized that our first encounter with an elephant could be a surprise attack. If the elephant charged, it might be on top of us in an instant, and we would have only seconds to escape. Martin had been chased by elephants before; I was I was eager to hear to his advice. Here are his suggestions:

1.  Don’t run directly away from the elephant. Elephants are fast; they will out run you. You could be on a mountain bike, and an elephant could still run you down.

2.  Instead, run on a line that is 90 degrees off the line of the elephant’s attack. If you have a choice, run downhill. Your goal should be to get out of the elephant’s vision.

3.  Hide in the thickest vegetation you can find and try to stay out of the elephant’s sight. If spotted, run again on a line 90 degrees off the elephant’s path.

4.  If you are very good at climbing trees, you can try to escape up a tree. Choose a tree that is at least 12 inches in diameter. Bigger would be better. Climb high.

5. If the elephant grabs hold of you and thrashes you about, don’t bother playing dead. Elephants usually step on you one last time just to make sure.

Now being prepared for an attack, we stepped into the forest to search for more signs. We quickly found a pile of elephant dung. Martin rolled some of the coffee-colored feces between his fingers and announced, “Looks like elephant dung.” Then, he held a hand-full of dung to his nose and said, “Smells like elephant dung.” Silently, I thought to myself, “If this guy says, ‘Tastes like elephant dung,’ I am never eating a meal with him again”. Fortunately for my appetite, Martin needed only three of his five senses to determine that the sample in his hand truly was elephant dung.

Martin announced that he would have to spend a couple of hours hiking the area in order to determine whether the animal (which we had begun calling “our elephant”) was just passing through or was likely to remain. His search would involve looking for the things an elephant would need to have a happy home: food, water, mineral deposits, proper vegetation for cover, peace and quiet, and, I suppose, other things that only Martin would know about. It was work that Martin preferred to do by himself. I felt a little guilty leaving him alone in the forest but decided that he was, after all, the expert, and I was not. I took a GPS reading in case I had to report on the last known sighting of Martin the Elephant Man. Then, I left him to his solitary work.

Later that day, as a teammate and I ate dinner, Martin the Elephant Man enthusiastically bounded into the restaurant. He cheerfully reported that it was highly unlikely that our elephant was still around. All evidence supported the conclusion that the animal was just passing through our area, and would not find the site a suitable place to remain. Martin was happy for the elephant; I was happy for the scrub cutters; I suppose, at that very moment our elephant was someplace in the deeper forest, quite happy with himself.

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