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Dense forest cover around the Gash River The rediscovery of Eritrea's elephants

After 40 years, the rediscovery of Eritrea's elephants heralds a new era for East Africa's most northerly population.

Words: David Nicholson-Lord
Images: United Nations


A memorable Christmas
Hezy Shoshani remembers Christmas 2001 with extraordinary clarity. The day dawned warm, dry and windless. The sky was blue. From the hill where he had taken up position with his students, there was an almost perfect view of the dried-out sandy bed of the Gash River, of the palm trees dotting the floodplains on either side and, finally, obscured by palm leaves, of the top half of a browsing elephant. "For a few minutes we were all transfixed," he recalls. "Then I came to, thinking: this is for real, this is not a dream."

There were two elephants munching away among the doum palms, and more, it seemed, deeper in the forest. The word from the local guides was that they usually emerged in the afternoon, around 4pm, to drink from a waterhole. Hezy and his students waited and, more or less on time, the herd appeared, about 500m away. "What a wonderful Christmas present," says Hezy.

Remarkable conservation
And what a remarkable story of contemporary African conservation. Close to 30 were sighted that day, at least 10 of them newly born, all in apparently good health. Subsequent expeditions suggest a national population of 100. In a region noted for drought, famine, climatic extreme and racked by a 30-year civil war, the findings were almost unbelievable.

Elephants were recorded in Eritrea in Biblical times, and in the third century BC, Ptolemy II and III of Egypt staged elephant hunts there and used the animals in their military campaigns in Asia. A herd of 100-200 was observed in 1955 - but from then until 2001, there were only sporadic sightings of a few individuals at a time. Many believed they had fallen victim to the long and bitter war of secession, which saw Eritrea finally gain independence from Ethiopia in 1991. Hezy's sighting not only confirmed their survival, it may also help to ensure it. "If it is thought there are no elephants in Eritrea," he says, "there will be no funds to survey and protect them."

Odd behaviour
The elephants display some intriguing behaviour. At one watering hole, they formed orderly queues to drink, each queue kept in line by an adult 'prefect'. And olive baboons figure repeatedly in sightings. The two species, Hezy suggests, have formed a symbiotic relationship: the baboons drink from the water wells dug by the elephants, while the elephants use the baboons as a tree-top early-warning system.

The elephants of Eritrea seem in good shape. Long-term plans to protect them include a solar-powered elephant-proof fence to reduce conflict with farmers - and possibly relocating farmers away from the Gash River floodplain. For Hezy, who has spent most of his 25-year career in museums and laboratories, following them in the wild is a "dream come true."

See www.bornfree.org.uk/elefriends/eritrea/index.html

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites listed.

From an original article in the July 2003 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine - Elephantine miracle.

Elephants of Eritrea

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