In this story published on the initiative of ATIBT, Nicolas Bayol tells an impressive encounter with an elephant, 20 years ago in Gabon. February 8
February 8, 2002, in the Crystal Mountains. I am on the Haut-Abanga concession, on a mission to supervise the logging inventory teams that we have just launched with Rougier Gabon in order to improve logging planning.
With Emmanuel, a young Gabonese engineer trained at the Cape Esterias School, we joined our team in the forest early in the morning. I didn't have breakfast, I don't eat breakfast when I get up early on the site. The work is going well even if the team has not yet reached the targeted rhythm.
A little before 2 pm, we take the way back to the car. The area having already been exploited by the previous company operating on the concession, we take advantage of an old skidding track to walk more easily than on the inventory trails, which are difficult to walk in this dense and hilly forest. The elephants make the same reasoning and their traces are numerous on the track.
On a descent, I point out to Emmanuel a strong smell of fermentation. Emmanuel shows me the crown of an "Andok" tree that we can see about 20 meters from the trail, the wild mangoes that have fallen from the tree are rotting on the ground. Emmanuel reminds me that elephants are fond of these fruits which intoxicate them. A few seconds after passing the tree, a great noise startles us in the forest already teeming with the sounds of insects. An elephant was there, a few steps away, and we had not seen it, despite its size, camouflaged in the undergrowth. The giant of the forest, until then so discreet, pushes aside or crushes the shrubs, and the marantaceae (herbaceous plants abundant in this undergrowth). A "bushman" would certainly have felt, seen or heard the elephant, but we are finally two city dwellers, who have become forest engineers, and who will never be able to tame the forest and its inhabitants as the villagers do in this great green country, more than eighty-five percent forested.
We run to escape the danger, however I am not really afraid yet, I have already undergone charges of intimidation, I think that the animal has for only goal to move us away. So I start walking again after a few seconds, I was certainly wrong, maybe the rest of the story would have been different if I had had a saving fear earlier. Emmanuel didn't make the same mistake, he continued his race and left me alone behind.
This time it's a barking sound that resounds. And there I feel that I am not dealing with a charge of intimidation. Why, I could not say, perhaps the fact that the elephant insists and followed me or I feel his irritation in the tone of its cry.
So I run away, I run down the slope, still on the logging track. The elephant is there, following me, maybe getting closer, I don't know, I haven't seen him yet, I look ahead and try not to trip on the bushes. A big trunk there, in front of me, I hide behind it, press myself against the tree, try to catch my breath and listen. The elephant is there, very close, probably raising its trunk to find me thanks to its very developed sense of smell. I hear it roar, for the first time in my life I hear this dull roar by which the elephants communicate. How long do we stay there, on both sides of this immense tree. Time no longer exists in this early afternoon, the world is frozen and I can't tell if each of the sequences of this adventure lasted ten seconds or five minutes.
Then the elephant smells me, it was inevitable, how could it end otherwise? I just hung there for a while waiting for my smell to reach its nostrils. Its runs, I have the impression that the scene happens in slow motion and later the director of operations of Rougier Gabon will make me a humorous drawing of it, the elephant goes around the trunk, well I think, I don't know anymore, I'm in a dream? I resume the race, but how could I compete with the king of the forest in its element? It would already be difficult in open ground, but there its crushes the branches on which I stumble or that I have to step over. My only chance is that its loses sight of me, which it has very bad, but it is too close. I leave the track and try to go up the hill, it is there, always closer, irremediably closer.
Always in this misty halo that surrounds my mind, half-unconscious perhaps and yet paradoxically kept alert by the proximity of the danger, I fall or throw myself on the ground in a last hope to escape, I don't know. And the elephant is literally on top of me, on my back, with all the weight of its forehead. Probably it is trying to plant its tusks in my back, but its tusks are short and I kept the backpack that protects me and maybe saves me. I had also kept my machete in my hand while running, why? I could have cut myself. It is thrown beside me, as well as the map and compass I have in my other hand and my watch.
Did I lose consciousness? I don't think so, or not for long, but how do I know? I am stunned, or rather "stunned", I am breathless. When I regain my senses, I sit down, with difficulty, I gather my things, and I stay there, for a long time, panting and recovering from the terror I have just experienced. Then I hear a rustle of leaves in the insect hubbub, almost imperceptible, I am on the lookout, is my attacker still around? Or am I so upset that the slightest sound in this ever-noisy forest terrifies me.
No, there is an abnormal noise, I locate it. And there, at maybe twenty meters, or less, it is there, hidden again like a goblin who would hide from the eyes of humans, it looks at me, it nods. What does it want? How can it still react? Finally, I see it, until then I had only glimpsed a shadow. Seeing it soothes my terror a little, making it more real, less monstrous. The invisible is always more frightening. In reality, I only catch a glimpse of it through the foliage, and above all I see its eye and this so particular look. It is an "assala", a forest elephant, small compared to those of the savannah, a female probably, with very short tusks. It shakes its head from right to left as if it wanted to tell me no, don't come this way.
The elephant is placed on the shortest path that I should take to return to the road, I decide to move away to the opposite. First I crawl away, still stunned, I start to feel pain in my chest. I get up and walk slowly, very slowly, my leg hurts, probably a nerve that got stuck, I slip. I make a detour to make sure I don't come back to my assailant. At each rustle I shiver with terror and my pulse quickens but they are only the sounds of leaves in the wind. It takes me an hour to walk eight hundred meters back to the car. I get into the driver's seat, start the engine, and drive at a steady pace for a few dozen meters before I find the site manager's car, alerted by Emmanuel who has run to the operation site about ten kilometers away. The site manager and a few other people from the site have gone to meet me in the forest, I honk the horn, they arrive, and there, knowing that I am finally being taken care of, I collapse, I give up all effort and I finally realize what has just happened to me.
I was evacuated the next day to Libreville and a few days later to France, with a fractured rib and a pneumothorax. A pneumothorax that the gynecologist who observed my blurred X-ray in front of a thin neon sign, with a cigarette in his mouth, had not diagnosed. The agents of the hospital of Puy-en-Velay must still keep in memory this young patient who arrived at their home after having been attacked by an elephant, the news of the arrival of this unusual patient in my native Auvergne crossed the hospital like a powder trail.
After a month of convalescence, I would go back to Gabon, then to the forest. However, the day of the accident I thought I would never have the courage to go back to the African tropical undergrowth. The forest is no longer the same, it has become hostile to me, it terrorizes me at every move, it plays at scaring me. Back on the site of Babylon, every night before going to face it I sleep badly, if at all. But I don't want to give up, the forest is my job and my passion. Twice, as soon as I returned to Babylon, on the other bank of the river Abanga, I was charged again, by groups of elephants. I remember the second time especially, we hide behind an embankment, my team leader who knows the forest well is able to follow the movement of the elephants by listening to them, to feel the danger and to react by also taking into account the wind, the elephants move away, we take back the car to enter another plot, but there I do not follow the team, I had enough. Again, a second time in the day, they will be loaded and will have to flee.
The forest seems to be full of danger, it is a hostile environment that scares people, even Africans who live in the heart of the massifs, but by creating openings for themselves, except for the pygmies perhaps who have managed to tame it. Elephants are far from being the greatest danger in the forest, they usually run away when they hear a man coming. Snakes are almost never seen, especially if you can't see them, like me. Buffalo can be aggressive and can gore you when they are injured, gorillas sometimes attack and bite when they feel in danger. The most dangerous beings in the forest are finally the trees, whose branches, falling from several tens of meters high, can smash skulls.
In this Upper Abanga forest, at this time, the assalas are particularly aggressive. Before my painful encounter, our team had been chased to the staff transport truck. Elephants can be seen on the tracks between skidder passes, so they are surprisingly unfazed by the noise of the machines. Even loggers have been disturbed by the noise of their chainsaws. And Rougier Gabon's camps were regularly visited by the pachyderms, who may even stick their tusks into the plywood walls of the huts at night or pass their trunks over the terraces to grab a fruit. The fields of the workers and their families are ravaged, accidents are not uncommon, some women farmers have been attacked and injured. The only effective solution was to build fences by piling logs or dig deep ditches around the fields.
Why did that elephant charge me? Why didn't it trample me and walk away? Why are the elephants in this forest so aggressive? The people I talked to had various hypotheses. Perhaps it was a female elephant trying to protect her baby elephant, or perhaps it was an elephant that was drunk on fermented fruit. I don't really believe that the elephants in the area are remembering old acts of poaching, even though I once came across a carcass with cut tusks and a Babylonian had some fun trapping elephants with skidding cables. I have my own theory, which is only a theory, I do not claim to be a specialist. The marantaceous forests on the banks of the Abanga River probably attest to a significant human occupation a few decades ago, and the inhabitants then would have moved to the National Road further south. The elephants would have taken possession of the area and would have found there an abundance of food and a tranquility that would not incite them to move over long distances as their congeners often do. These elephants would have become very territorial and would defend their forest?