Our excitement rises as we sneak up the ladder onto the deck of the Mbeli bai mirador. Stepping up onto the platform we remove our shoes to avoid disturbing the wildlife. Early morning mist rises off of the main pool, draping the group of forest elephants enjoying its mineral deposits and lush vegetation in a shroud of mystery. There are two young calves in the group, one so small that it slips under its mother’s belly swimming through the arch of her legs and popping out in a fountain of bubbles on her far side.
Wildlife is attracted out of the forest to Mbeli bai, a natural forest clearing spanning 13-hectares, by its mineral deposits and the protein rich aquatic vegetation growing in its fertile soil. The clearing offers shy forest animals the opportunity for social interaction, and provides visitors and researchers with a rare ‘window’ into the lives of these elusive forest species.
The clearing offers shy forest animals the opportunity for social interaction, and provides visitors and researchers with a rare ‘window’ into the lives of these elusive forest species.
The elephants dive their heads into the bai’s main pool, sucking up soil from submerged springs with their trunks, often leaving only a large grey pachyderm derrière exposed. A herd of forest buffalo begins to swim across the pool. Bodies submerged, only russet red heads visible with shining noses turned skyward and trailing horns sending out diverging trails in their wake. The best way out of the pool is through the group of elephants who are less than pleased with this rude interruption to their morning activities. The females suck up water in their trunks flinging aqueous ammunition at the escaping buffaloes. Even the small calf gets involved with a contemptuous fling of its tiny trunk in the direction of the much larger buffaloes. The buffaloes make it through the pachyderm gauntlet and move off with haste, leaving the elephants the rule of the pool.
Intermittently an elephant in the herd raises their trunk in a ‘periscope sniff’ to try and identify the location and cause of an unidentified smell. Elephants rely heavily on their sense of smell to keep aware of their surroundings and pick up on danger. For over two decades researchers at Mbeli bai have collected long-term data on elephant behavior, making a substantial contribution to our understanding of these secretive giants. After an hour of enjoying the tranquil scene we observe a female’s demeanor change. The group’s composure quickly shifts to high alert: heads elevated, ears out, and trunks up smelling. There is a moment of complete still and silence before the unanimous decision to move into the safety of the forest understory. A minute later the only sign of their presence are the disappearing ripples in the pool and a photo or two to tell the tale.