The Lost Forest: tracking Ethiopia’s last elephants in Chebera Churchura

It is 1.00 in the morning on November 21st and we have just successfully boarded our flight in Addis. The last couple of days have been filled with adventure and despite being drained, I can’t help but feel a buzz of excitement with some of the wonders experienced from this last week on the first ever Wild Philanthropy educational.

This morning we woke early as ever and left our final and arguably most exciting destination of the trip – Chebera Churchura National Park. Located on the western side of the central Omo-Gibe basin, this is one of the last strongholds of elephant and Cape buffalo in Ethiopia and also contains any number of other large mammals from lion and hyaena to hippo. With regards to the impressive biodiversity and commitment that the local wardens, guides and scouts have to the park and community development here, it is, in every respect, an inspirational place.

Before setting off for the 12 hour trip to the airport, we took an early 15-minute stroll to a nearby hot spring and saw colobus monkeys, an eagle owl, a menacing line of ants, and a spotted hyaena (!). The drive that followed was split up nicely with some flooding in the first part of the journey, the customary tibs and njara in Shashemane, and a tasty coffee in Jima before finally reaching Addis on a lively Friday evening.

Yesterday, we undertook our final mission: to find Chebera Churchura’s elephants. Starting with an early morning drive, we found ourselves at the top of the park and from there got our gear together with three scouts dressed in combat clothes with rifles. From the word go we were immersed in thick vegetation, made up of what I can only refer to as all the really painful plants. Some with burs, some with spikes, some with stingers.

As we delved deeper into this damp jungle, beginning to sweat through our clothes even at this early time of the morning, we began to pick up various signs of the elephants we had set out to find. Will had mentioned to me before the trip that he had never seen an elephant in Ethiopia despite the eight years spent living here and countless trips back since. For me this was an exciting first-time expedition, for Will, a very personal journey. For both of us, it was all new stuff. We were explorers in uncharted territory.

The first signs of elephant were the more-than-obvious footprints that led along paths of broken down foliage. Occasionally we came across huge mounds of their faeces. Some of these were swarmed in flies and of these Graeme would grab a handful, to check warmth and therefore closeness of the animal. We continued through a terrain of deep mud and enveloping bushes that mainly scraped, stung, or stuck to us.

The next sign was the occasional deep guttural rumbling not so far off, followed every so often by a burst of trumpeting that brought the entire forest to life with colobus calls and bird song. On we trekked, splashing through streams, squeezing through the smallest gaps in thorny bushes, our boots caked in mud and scratches beginning to dominate our arms and legs. We came across hyaena and hippo spore, porcupine spikes, banana trees at 45 degree angles with the bark all but scraped off and flattened areas of bush. We were close.

Early hours agonisingly turned to mid-morning as we continued to push on through thick bush and swamp in the blistering heat of the day. At one point we were halted by an excited looking scout, who whispered that we were trapped between a cape buffalo 20 meters away on one side and family of elephants the same distance on the other. This was a tense moment. Though we were in very real danger, I had the feeling the scout’s dilemma was which to pursue. After some hurried decision-making we took a path that skirted around the edge of where the buffalo was and were instructed to climb a massive fig tree in the middle of a rare clearing in the forest. We did so without question. Up this large tree and after a few minutes of silence save for our heavy breathing we heard a terrifyingly close ensemble of trumpeting.

We got into various positions in the tree and finally, slowly bustling through the forest not 50 meters away, we saw our family of about 15 elephants with some calves. Here was one of Ethiopia’s last strongholds of elephant, continuing to uphold and support a reproducing population. Stuck to our trees in silent excitement, we watched the social lives of these incredible creatures unfold. It was a reality show at its best. Just when we thought we had seen everything, there appeared another large part of the herd, 15 to 20 strong. We were surrounded on all sides.

Well I can’t say much more than this. Will still talks of this moment with great excitement whenever describing our trip. We continued to watch for a good long time after this until the herd had had their fill and moved on.

As we came down, and exited the forest dazed, a woman who was cooking maize under a shabby-looking shelter gave us a freshly cooked cob each. She was insistent and refused any payment, though I got the feeling this was her lunch and much of all she had. She had nothing to gain. If I could sum up the villagers of Chebera, it would be by this woman’s act of kindness. If you get the chance, do go. This is an original safari.

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