My research focuses on questions concerning social behaviour and demography of forest elephants in northern Republic of Congo, in Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Forest elephants are poorly known in comparison with their savannah counterparts, due the difficulties and dangers of observing them in their dense rainforest habitat. Ivory poaching poses a very real and increasing threat to the persistence of forest elephant populations, as human resource exploitation pushes ever further into remote and previously inaccesible areas of rainforest. Odzala-Kokoua is one of the last blocks of wilderness in Africa, and represents a true stronghold for forest elephants; the Park covers 13,546km2 and is estimated to contain between 11,000 and 18,000 elephants, by far the largest population in the region.
Large forest clearings (called bais by local BaAka people) give excellent visual access to elephants, who use and maintain these openings in the forest, potentially for mineral access and as social arenas. Unfortunately, this access is afforded to both conservationists and poachers. By establishing a permanent research presence, my study will assist in securing the Park against poaching activity, and will assess the visiting population's health and demographic status, as well as documenting elephant response to risk. Working with local government and employing local trackers, the project also fits into an overall regional strategy for Central African elephant management and conservation.
My research focuses on three principal questions;
- what do bais mean to elephants? Who uses them, when and how? Do they constitute social resources?
- how can we use observational data from bais to infer something about the organisation of forest elephants' social structure?
- how do we ensure an adequate conservation status is initiated, developed and maintained for the study population?