Monday was a public holiday here in Côte d’Ivoire. A quiet day in the office made for a peak period of paperwork productivity. It also meant I could take an hour off to jump in the car of my friends from Solidarités (a French NGO that seemingly employs only extremely friendly people, based on my experience living in one of their bases in the Congo last year, and hanging out with their staff in South Sudan later on) and go for a spin. But this drive was no meaningless midday Monday meander; rather, it was with the express intent of seeing an elephant, that we set off for Sapia, a small village on the outskirts of town.
One of my off-duty guards came with us on the trip, and when we arrived in Sapia he pointed the driver toward the home of the brother of another of our staff members, to ask for information about the elephants. You see, the rumour had spread back on Thursday that there were wild elephants in Sapia, and hundreds of locals had thronged to the area to see them. Elephants aren’t a common sight here; the internet says that both savanna and forest elephants in Côte d’Ivoire are facing extinction. Most of our staff told me they’ve never seen one in person, with the exception of a few who’ve seen one in a zoo as a child.
Now, having arrived in Sapia, and seeing no elephants in sight, we found the aforementioned brother of another, and asked him what he knew. “Well,” he said, “they were here for three days, just there across the street, but they’ve left now. They’re heading back toward Bouaflé, they’ve set off into the forest near Caillou. If you want, I could come with you and maybe we’ll manage to find them there.” Of course, our new friend was welcomed into the car and off we set down a dirt road.
All along this road, there were streams of people walking in both directions, as if it were a market day nearby. However, after a while, we came up on a group of people gathered in one spot at the roadside, for no apparent reason. Past that, there were barely any people on the road at all. Of course, they were there for the same reason as us – elephants. So we parked the car, asked the kids for a quick summary of the facts, and within seconds were setting off through the forest down narrow winding paths and over big tree roots and past small cocoa plantations. After a brisk ten minute walk we found a crowd of about fifty to sixty people all staring in the same direction across a small clearing in the forest.
We looked to the right, where all the others were staring, and there it was – an elephant. Now, this was not like the elephants I had seen up close in Southeast Asia, which were a little bit frightening and certainly quite amazing. No, standing a mere twenty metres away from us was a living, breathing, walking concrete parkade. This thing was GINORMOUS! Out of a family of five, the one elephant we got to see was apparently the biggest. Check out his tree-eating skills:
He didn’t seem to mind the people hanging around, except when the crowd became too loud or too close, at which point he flared his ears and started to lumber in our direction.
Seeing as how a lot of the younger people in the crowd clearly had no idea how to keep a safe distance and avoid loud noises, we decided we’d enjoyed ourselves enough and we headed for home each in one piece.
The photos don’t do justice to the size of this guy. Only there on the ground, where you could see the size of the trees next to him, and the people around you, was it possible to fully grasp just how unbelievably enormous he is. To see an animal of that size was amazing. To help you understand how big he was, I’ve added a fully grown skateboarding fiddler to the photo for scale: