THE ASSALA ELEPHANT, EMBLEMATIC OF GABON, IS TODAY ENDANGERED BY OUTRAGEOUS POACHING
The Gabonese elephant, also called Assala or forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis), is an endemic species from the Congo Basin and one of the emblematic animals of Gabon. With its maximum 3 meters at the withers – 2.75 meters in the female – and its relatively “light” weight (three tons all the same), it is less imposing than its “big brother” the savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana oxyotis ), which measures 3 to 4 meters in height and weighs 5 to 7 tonnes for males. Another difference: the Assala has five fingers and four toes, while its savannah colleague has only four fingers and three toes. Its rounded ears, which regulate body temperature, thanks to a very large vascular supply, are more modest in size than that of the savannah elephant but larger than the Asian elephant. Its tusks are also thinner. They are larger in the male than in the female. The Assala of Gabon is renowned for its bad character and liveliness. It is capable of charging, especially – it is said – when it has consumed iboga, the sacred plant of Gabon which provokes in men and animals all kinds of visions … When we see it uncovered, most often in edge of the forest at dusk, moment when he likes to go out to cool off, the Assala elephant quickly takes umbrage and expresses his anger to see an intruder on his territory by beating his ears furiously. If a little one is under his protection, and all the more if it is his mother, then the risk of being charged is very real. The attitude of the crossed giants in Kenya, for example, at the foot of Kilimanjaro, is very different. There, the convoys of tourists meet herds of hundreds of individuals who walk casually, when they do not simply stop across the road.
The Assalas have their reason to be so wary of human beings. They are in fact threatened with disappearance by poachers. The ivory of the tusks, a mixture of dentin and cartilage substances encrusted with calcium salts, is in fact the subject of a lucrative world trade. Poaching increased between the 1970s and the 1980s due to the increase in the international price of ivory. Most states and international bodies then prohibited the circulation, export and import of ivory. Since 1988 and in most of the countries where it lives, the African elephant has been classified in Annex 1 to the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES). However, its illegal trade continues.
In 1989, the number of forest elephants was estimated at 214,000, the majority being concentrated in Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville and DRC. Today it is estimated at 80,000, half of whom live in Gabon. In the context of Green Gabon, one of the pillars of the plan for emergence set up by the government in 2009, poaching is combated, but remains difficult to eliminate. “Gabon was a stable country for forest elephant populations, but hunting has increased sharply in the last 4 or 5 years,” said Professor Lee White, Director of the National Parks Agency (ANPN), in early 2013. 20,000 Assalas have been killed in the past ten years, 11,000 in Minkébé national park (far north) and around 10,000 in the rest of the country, according to the ANPN. At this rate, the Assala elephant will be totally exterminated in 20 year…
ACTIVE DAY AND NIGHT
Like all pachyderms – the Latin word for “thick skin” – the Assala elephant needs to bathe often. The water cools it and the mud protects its epidermis from insects and the sun. This is why he likes salines, called “Baï” by the pygmies, in which he can bathe and lick the salt which he likes. The Baïs, like that of Langoué in central Gabon, are thus places where it is easy to observe them, spraying themselves, or rolling in the mud. From gray, it then becomes all black. The Assalas love to spend the night there. They sleep in periods of an hour or two hours, most often on their feet. The baïs are also the place of many social acts: greetings, various exchanges, games of the little ones, various calls by sounds or ultrasounds, sexual life.
In the morning, they return in the forest to glean their food away from the heat. Assala spends 16 to 20 hours a day looking for food. Each elephant eats 5% of its weight per day. It can stand on its hind legs to catch the softest branches with its trunk. Despite the forty meters of intestine it has, its digestion is not very efficient. It lasts one to two days, 40 to 60% of the food not being digested.
The elephant is an herbivore, it eats a wide variety of plant elements: herbs, plants, leaves, fruits, roots and tubers, bark and even wood. Certain species of trees are dependent on the elephant: the latter, fond of their fruits, disseminates the seeds with the excellent soil that constitutes its droppings, capable of containing up to 35% of seeds. But the elephant sometimes goes beyond the limits by ravaging the plantations, undermining its good relationships with humans…
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