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Why an SA wildlife vet had to crawl to collar Congo elephants

Joel Alves spent 14 days in a Congo rainforest to assist with darting and collaring forest elephants.

South African wildlife vet Joe Alves and his team of trackers in a natural forest clearing shortly after collaring an elephant cow. Picture: Joe Alves

HARARE - Dodging dwarf crocodiles and forest buffaloes, wildlife vet Joel Alves was recently in the Congo Republic to dart and collar forest elephants.

The smaller cousin of South Africa’s savannah elephants, forest elephants are also threatened by poachers. But Congo Republic’s thick jungle means access isn’t easy for conservationists and those trying to protect these animals, who when fully grown aren’t likely to exceed 2.5 metres in height compared to up to four metres for savannah elephants.

EWN’s Ryan Truscott spoke to Alves.

How did you get invited to the Congo Republic?

A good friend of mine was recently posted as the logistics manager for a wildlife reserve there and when they were looking for a veterinarian to assist with the collarings, he suggested me to the head of research. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I found myself in the Congo.

Was it hard finding elephants in the jungle?

It was extremely difficult. In the fourteen straight days I spent in the rainforest, I saw a total of seven elephants and heard about four or five more that we never got sight of in the thick foliage. Even with brilliant trackers on very fresh tracks, you struggle to keep up with the elephants. It was also relatively dry in areas, which made the tracks tough to discern in the leafy ground-cover.

A collared sub-adult elephant: the age is discerned by tusk size.

Did you witness for yourself some of the threats faced by this species?

We found one old carcass in a bai (natural forest clearing) but the tusks were still there so I cannot say whether or not there were unnatural causes involved. Fortunately, we did not come across any fresh signs of poaching while on this mission.

How many elephants did you manage to collar and how will the collars help to protect them?

We managed to collar three elephants in the time I was there. The satellite collars will give better indications of the areas/corridors utilised by the elephants, thus providing really good spatial data. By looking a little deeper into the data and associating it with times of day, season, areas, proximity to known poaching incidents and hotspots etc, it can give a great idea of where to focus anti-poaching efforts and resources. The reserve is massive and logistically challenging to work in. That makes it important to identify areas where limited effort and input can make comparatively big differences.

Alves with a team of trackers and their quarry deep in the forest.

What was the toughest part of the job?

The first challenge was getting a dart into the elephant while staying safe. Sometimes you’re crawling on your hands and knees to within 10-15 metres of the elephant, in very thick foliage. The second challenge is tracking the elephant if it runs off after being darted. This aspect is essential in ensuring the safety of the elephant by locating it as soon as possible.

A darted elephant before a reversal agent was given to wake it up.

What were the highlights?

The entire operation was a career highlight for me. It was an absolute privilege to work in the untouched wilderness of the Congo Basin with an iconic species like the forest elephant. Beyond the operation itself, we had incredible sightings and encounters with forest buffalo, lowland gorillas, dwarf crocodiles and a multitude of incredible birds and other species. We experienced a proper rainforest torrential downpour, bathed in the river, went everywhere by boat or foot, ate a multitude of interesting things and simply enjoyed being disconnected from the rest of the world in one of the remotest places I’ve ever been to.

Alves and his team went everywhere by boat or by foot.

What would you like people to know?

Some of the biggest conservation challenges and success stories are happening in the severely underfunded and under-resourced Central and West African countries. Whether or not it is as a result of people's perceptions of the danger and myth associated with these countries, it results in them being almost ignored when it comes to external funding and support. Southern and Eastern Africa have been the beneficiaries of the largest chunk of support and there really needs to be a shift towards assisting the lesser-known countries and conservation areas where some of the wildest places and rarest animals still exist but won’t continue to for much longer without help.

All images courtesy of Joel Alves.

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