Tuesday, 26 August 2014

White-skinned, super-aggressive scimitar-tusked pygmy elephants from the "zone of mystery"

While I was at this year's recent Weird Weekend, Richard Muirhead gave me a photocopied chapter of a book he'd discovered completely by chance, his hairdresser had it on display in an ornamental bookshelf in their salon in Macclesfield.

The book was Great Mother Forest by Attilio Gatti, published by Hodder and Stroughton, London (no publication date given, but it seems from the text to have been some time around 1937.)

The book describes the four-feet high (1.21 metres) white-coloured, super-aggressive pygmy elephants of the Kibali-Ituri forest, the "zone of mystery" in the Belgian Congo. (Gatti was Belgian, Richard told me, despite having a very Italian-sounding name. Italian immigrants settled in large numbers in the industrial heartlands of Belgium in the late nineteenth century, there are still identifiably Italian communities in Belgium.)

According to Gatti, an aggressive herd of these pale pygmy elephants, looking for a fight, had attacked the Belgian colonial District Commissioner Hackers in the forest, forcing him to hide up a tree for many hours. These elephants had very dense, sharp-pointed tusks, with a reddish tinge to them, some of the tusks Gatti had been shown by the "natives" had streaks of dark red or even purple in them.

Great Mother Forest also described how "some months ago" and official in Lubero (somewhere else in the same region of the Belgian Congo) argued over the price of a permit to hunt and kill "one elephant" with a local chief who presented four tusks from the same elephant. (This appears to have been a conventional-sized elephant, not a pygmy.) Gatti said the skull with the four tusks ended up in a museum, possibly the Terveuren Museum near Brussels. (This could be this specimen , and it's a similar story to the one described by Armand Denis in On Safari: The Story of My Life, (see Pygmy Elephants, page 12.)

Gatti's super-aggressive pygmy elephant has many characteristics in common with the forest elephant – a supposedly more aggressive temperament and denser, thinner, pinkish-grey tinted tusks being a characteristic of the forest elephant Loxodonta cyclotis. It would be tempting to put this down to a simple misidentification of the local forest elephants (L. cyclotis).

But there are some problems with that assessment. Firstly, forest elephants had become by the mid-1930s quite well-known among zoologists. Secondly, Gatti mentions three types of elephants known to the local Mambuti and Bandande "pygmy" tribes (ethnic groups of smaller than average forest-dwelling peoples) – savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana), M'zei, the feisty, four-footer pointy-tusked pygmy elephants, Somà, another variety bigger than M'zei but at around nine feet at the shoulder smaller than the savannah elephants, and about the correct height for a forest elephant.

In Gatti's opinion, the Somà elephant is of the sub-species Loxodonta knochenhaueri, a now discredited sub-species of elephant that's since disappeared from zoology catalogues. The now defunct elephant sub-species L.africana knochenhaueri, which described the type of savannah elephant normally encountered in Tanzania, was an invention of German zoologist Paul Matschie at the turn of the twentieth century, when he whittled down the 22 then prevailing sub-species of African elephant to just four. By the 1940s, L.africana knochenhaueri had gone from the zoological literature, replaced by just two types of known African elephant – L. africana and L. cyclotis.

The pygmy M'zei elephants were, according to Gatti, the male of the (sub-)species, while the noticeably smaller females were known as Malekwe. They were said to live in small herds, between 10 and 12 individuals. The Mambuti and Bandande peoples were very reluctant to enter the deep forest's "zone of mystery", so terrified were they at the prospect of the extraordinarily fierce M'zei pygmy elephants not only goring them with their scimitar-like tusks, but also repeatedly stomping on them in a very vindictive manner.

The reluctance of the Bandande and Mambuti guides notwithstanding, Gatti claimed he was actually able to see the M'zei for himself in Tchibinda Forest, from a distance - a group of these were "at play" by a river.

The M'zei, were, according to Gatti, not recognised by the Belgian colonial authorities. As colonial officialdom didn't accept that some of the small tusks the "natives" tried to sell them were from adult pygmy elephants, they assumed these were instead merely the tusks of juvenile elephants – illegal for sale under Belgian colonial regulations. So the natives were forced to hide these "too small" tusks, selling them clandestinely to the "ivory workers" that occasionally came round, for a knockdown price. A possibly last-minute footnote by Gatti adds that the "most recent decree" of April 1935 "mentions" pygmy elephants for the first time.

This decree by the Belgian administration "mentioning" pygmy elephants would be consistent with the conservation laws of today's Democratic Republic of the Congo. This law, possibly inherited from Belgium, decrees that the éléphant pygmée (pygmy elephant) shall enjoy the same complete protection as other types of elephant. See Pygmy Elephants pages 115-166 for pygmy elephant references in the current conservation laws of the Congo Basin states.

Locating pygmy elephants in the "Kabali-Ituri" forest is interesting. As described in Pygmy Elephants (page 184), there was a lot of traffic on bulletin boards used by conservation people a couple of years back about the forest elephants of what's now known as the Iture-Uélé being some sort of unique eco-type. These Iture-Uélé elephants were said to be particularly hard to photograph in their habitat, and if you saw them at all in their deep forest environment, it was as a "dark shadow moving."

Also described in Great Mother Forest is "Lord Rothschild" (Baron Walter Rothschild) showing Gatti a variety of elephant tusks in his museum at Tring (then the Zoology Museum, shortly thereafter to become an annex of the British Museum, Natural History) with Rothschild demonstrating to Gatti how the tusks of "pygmy elephants" differed from those of other elephants.

Rothschild was a believer in pygmy elephants it seemed, and was apparently able to tell the age and gender of an elephant from its tusks with great certainty – which much more certainty than we are able to do today, it seems. We know have the technology to tell where in Africa elephants came from, based on their isotopes, but gauging the age and gender of an elephant from its tusks remains an inexact science, so I have to say I'm a little dubious of Rothschild's confident assessments.

Gatti led ten expeditions to Africa up to 1945, and was one of the first Europeans to see an okapi. There's a very short biography of Gatti here and a photo of him here.

I also got an update from Lars Thomas, regarding the Camerooni "pygmy elephant" specimens rediscovered in the University of Copenhagen's museum. (See Pygmy Elephants pages 151-155.)

I'm afraid the news is not good. Lars thinks his team now know where the missing skin of one of the elephants is (it was stored somewhere "off-site" and was unaccounted for), and a DNA test on the skin would be much easier and less destructive than DNA testing the tusks, skull or teeth. But there have been cutbacks at the University, and the prospect of there being resources available to DNA test any of their Camerooni "pygmy elephants" is becoming more remote.

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