Natural forest clearings such as the Dzanga Bai in the Central African Dzanga Sangha Conservation Complex are extremely prominent places for numerous animal species. They provide minerals, water and protein-rich vegetation that cannot be found in the forest. No wonder elephant families move very far to reach them. But bais also harbour dangers – for large and small pachyderms.
Elephants love bais
For African forest elephants, bais are a gourmet restaurant, spa and playground all in one. The pachyderms pick up soil with their trunks, pump water from the substrate and feed on the rich vegetation. They wallow in the mud and engage in social interactions with other elephants.
Elephant calves are very special because they grow up in their mother's womb for 22 months - this means that an elephant cow is pregnant longer than any other mammal. After birth, the calf is greeted by the elephant cow and any older siblings in a friendly manner with soft growling sounds and gentle touches. It weighs around 100 kilograms and usually has quite dense hair that serves as insulation and becomes less and less with time. The sparse hair of adult animals in turn helps regulate heat, so it has more of a cooling effect.
Elephant calves feed exclusively on their mother's milk for a long time. At about two years of age, they can already eat greens, but it is not until they are about five years old that they stop drinking milk altogether.
Forest elephant families often consist of only one mother and her children. The complex, highly social behaviour of the pachyderms becomes apparent, for example, when danger threatens. Then the cow elephant and the big siblings protect the young animals and attack the aggressor.
At the age of five, small forest elephants can already look for their own food and at 12 to 13 years of age, the young animals are adults. However, it takes on average until the age of 23 for elephant cows to become pregnant for the first time. Bull elephants in turn leave their mothers to roam in bachelor groups for the time being.
Bais are usually located along a watercourse in the middle of forest blocks or savannahs. They are particularly attractive to mammal species such as forest elephants, antelopes, forest buffaloes and lowland gorillas. The mineral-rich soils are extremely valuable for the health of the animals. In addition, highly digestible plant species rich in energy and protein grow here.
Dzanga Bai is one of the gentle giants’ favourite places. It is about 10 hectares in size and is characterised by a sand pan with a flowing stream running through it. In 1990, research on forest elephants began here. Since then, more than 4,000 individuals have been identified. 85 percent of them have returned at least one more time – many even more than 100 times.
Bais are natural windows into the forest and offer perfect observation conditions to research species that are normally hidden in the dense forest. But unfortunately, this also means that the animals are highly visible, easy to find and thus defenceless against poachers – especially as the animals are forced to return to the bais again and again to meet their mineral needs. Even in strictly protected national parks, bloody hunts occur again and again.
The worst hit on Dzanga Bai happened during the civil war in 2013. In the turmoil of rebel fighting, 26 forest elephants were killed in just two days by a heavily armed gang of poachers. Particularly sobering: even young animals with very small tusks were among them. Although the WWF office on site was also looted, our staff were able to prevent further animals from being killed. This shocking incident shows once again how important conservation work is on the ground – even in times of political unrest.
Securing protected areas, strengthening the population
WWF has been active in the Dzanga-Sangha area since 1990. Our main tasks include securing protected areas and equipping and training rangers. But involving the local population is also an essential part. We work to offer alternatives to deforestation and poaching, to create jobs and to develop sustainable concepts for forestry and agriculture.
Tourism in particular plays a major role. A fixed percentage of the money that visitors pay to enter the park goes to the local communities. This type of sustainable tourism benefits both nature in this unique ecoregion and the local population;
Help us to preserve the bais of the Congo Basin so that forest elephant families, lowland gorillas and other species have a safe haven for a long time to come!