Gangala-na-Bodio Elephant Domestication Center in Congo

Gangala-na-Bodio Elephant Domestication Center
First elephant1920

Garamba National Park is situated in the north-eastern corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the border with Sudan. It is the only park in Africa where a tourist can go on safari on the back of an elephant. The park was established by Belgian royal decree in 1938 as one of the fi rst national parks in Africa and was closely tied to the Elephant Domestication Centre, established in the early 1920s at Gangala na Bodio. King Leopold II of Belgium started the African Elephant Domestication Program in 1906, with the hopes that they could be used to haul cargo between the Nile, to the east of the park, and the Congo river to the west of the area. In the forties the camp was managed by belgian Major J. Haezeart, but most most training was done by Zande tribesmen. At one time, over 80 elephants were being used for work in the area, maintaining roads and plowing fields. Today only 4 remain. The park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. Elephants were caught at the reserve of Haut Uele.

It was presumably this sort of example of what the Asian elephant could do that persuaded the Belgians to start trying the
same. In 1900, King Leopold II sent to India for several mahouts and their elephants to be shipped to the Congo.

This was the start of the Station de Capture et de Dressage des Elephants at Gangala-na-Bodio. The Indian elephants soon died
the diseases in Africa were more malignant than in their native land but the mahouts stayed on, and when I was at Gangala I
recognised the Indian elephant song, which they were using to soothe their animals and put them to sleep. But. apart from this, the
African elephant trainers soon developed methods of their own, very different from anything 1 have ever seen in India.

When we arrived, the place was being run by a remarkable man called Commandant Offerman, who was later to become chief
game warden for the whole of the Congo. He was the last sort of man I would ever have expected to find in charge of elephants. By
training he was a cavalryman in the Belgian army, and he was one of those spare, volatile, rather dashing men who always seem to
look best on horseback.

He ran this elephant station deep in the middle of nowhere with
the discipline and precision of a good cavalry barracks. There were
thirty-five elephants there at the rime; die camp stood on a cliff over-
looking a river, with the elephant lines laid out exactly like cavalry
lines behind. Twelve or fourteen of the elephants had been captured
during the previous year and were still under training; others were
rented out to neighbouring planters for agricultural work, such as
pulling ploughs and logs and uprooting trees.

I had arranged to arrive at Gangala-na-Bodio in time for the
capture season just as Commandant Offerman and his men were
setting off to capture fresh wild elephants for training during the
coming year. It is economically far more sensible to catch elephants
wild and train them, than to breed them in captivity like horses. It
is not merely that a female elephant´s pregnancy lasts twenty-two
months, and that she would be practically useless for work for more
than a year on the occasion of each pregnancy. More important
than this is the fact that, once her baby is born, the mother elephant
can think of nothing else, and thereafter, for a period of years again,
is always dropping whatever she is doing at the moment to go
trumpeting off in rage or anxiety to discover what has happened to
her offspring.

Rather than put up with this sort of thing, Offerman and his
men would submit to the incredible hazards of their annual elephant
round-up. The capture party would leave early in the morning.
There would be thirty or forty men and eight or ten big elephants,
two or three pairs of which would be yoked to heavy, wooden-
tyred wagons, similar to those used by "the Boers when they trekked
up into the Transvaal The wagons would be loaded with heavy
ropes and chains and supplies for several weeks.

They would head north across the river and up into the rough
savannah country where there are still some of the biggest elephant
herds in Africa. All the time they moved, trackers were out ahead,
looking for signs of elephants, and once they found a herd of reason-
able size, the rest would come up as close as they could and set up
camp for the night.

I remember going out with Offerman before dawn the morning
after our herd had been sighted, accompanied by the men who were


going to make the captures. Each one carried a bundle of heavy
rope on his back and was dressed in his roughest, oldest clothes.

They worked down-wind of the elephants; in the dim light
just before the dawn, I had no idea where the herd could be. From
time to time I would hear distant trumpeting, although this was
deceptive in this sort of country. But the men were amazingly
expert in moving without being seen, and when the foremost of
them stopped, Offerman took me by the arm and led me forward
to the edge of a low clump of bushes. There, feeding peacefully,
was a herd of several hundred elephants the nearest barely fifty
yards from us. One of Offerman´s most experienced men came
forward with us. He and Offerman stayed to pick out the elephants
they wanted. Meanwhile, a few yards back, all the men were bind-
ing sacking and thick canvas puttees around their legs, to protect
them from the thorns of the bush during the hunt. When Offerman
joined us again, he issued each man six blank cartridges for his rifle.

Guns are used only for scaring the elephants, and the noise of the
blanks is all that the men use to break up a charge.

When everyone was ready, Offcrman climbed on his horse and,
like a starter at an old-fashioned horse race, fired his pistol into the
air. For a moment I was reminded of an infantry attack in wartime.
From all sides the men rushed towards the elephants, shouting and
firing off blanks. Immediately the elephants panicked, exactly as
they were meant to, and the hunt was on. It lasted for hours, and
was a terrible test of endurance for the men.

Our cameras were mounted on our four wheel drive truck,
but even so we had a job to keep up, for stampeding elephants,
despite their weight, can maintain a remarkable speed across country.
OfFerman´s men, on foot, with their heavy ropes and their rifles,
managed to do what we could not. With unfailing stamina they
kept with the herd for more than three hours before the first capture
was made.

The way they worked was to run alongside the elephants until
they saw a gap in the herd. As soon as they found one, they would
try to slip inside and then, by firing their guns practically into the
faces of the stampeding elephants, divert enough to split the herd up.

We saw the men make several attempts at this and fail each


time. Then one man who, I thought, must surely be killed, managed
somehow to duck right under the legs of an elephant to fire at the
one behind.

This went on time after time. At first some fifty animals were
split off from the herd. These were narrowed down in their turn
until twenty remained, and by luck these twenty included three of the
animals selected for capture. We followed a group of four men who
had their eye on one heavy young bull. By now the pace was be-
ginning to slacken a little. I could see now the way they were
hoping to work, although to me it appeared too far-fetched to be
even remotely possible.

The men were carrying a long noose, and the foremost of the men
was actually trying to slip this over the animal´s hind legs as he was
running. Twice he threw it and failed, while the elephant trum-
peted and broke off in another direction. Finally they managed it.

The elephant stopped like an angry battleship- With trunk erect
and ears out, he tried to charge his pursuers. They were ready for
him. With the sort of good sense I would have shown several hours
earlier, the men let go of the rope and ran for it. But they did not
run far. As soon as the young elephant had trumpeted uselessly
once more and set off again, with the rope trailing behind him, the
four men reappeared, grabbed the rope and followed.

By now their tactics were clearer. The first move was to get the
rope firmly tied round a tree large enough to take the weight of the
elephant. This took some time, and a lot of manoeuvring, but in
the end they managed it, the men keeping well out of range as he
turned around the tree, lashing out furiously at the men with his
trunk. Then a man in front started teasing him, to hold his attention,
while the rest of the hunters laid nooses of rope on the ground, in the
hope that when he finally charged, the elephant would put his feet
into them, thus allowing them to tie his front legs as well.

After several false tries, this succeeded too, and finally at two-
thirty that afternoon, eight and a half hours after the hunt started,
we saw the first capture laboriously roped by all four legs between
two large trees. I felt completely exhausted with the extreme heat
and with the mere effort of keeping up with the hunt, but the four
men who had caught the elephant looked almost as fresh as when



they started. I had with me only some very soft chocolate and
half-a-gallon of warm water; the least I could do was to share it
with them, if only to show my admiration for one of the most
courageous feats I had ever seen.

Although the elephant trumpeted forlornly from time to time,
he too seemed grateful that all the effort of the chase was over at

We all lay around in what shade we could find for about half-an-
hour. Then Commandant Offerman arrived on his grey horse, still
immaculate, as if in some eighteenth century parade. I was naturally
excited by what had happened, but he took remarkably little notice,
mentioned something about the monitor elephants arriving soon,
and galloped off again in search of more elephants.

The monitor elephants turned out to be a pair of the old, trained
elephants we had brought with us from Gangala-na-Bodio. They
were gently led, one each side of the newly-captured male. The
effect was immediate. The old elephants had scarcely touched his
side before he calmed down. He stopped waving his trunk around
and trying to uproot the trees he was tied to, and I watched as the
biggest of the elephants put its trunk on the younger one´s shoulder
as if saying qiuetly, "It´s all right. It´s going to be all right."

The men seemed to know what to do without a word of com-
mand being spoken. The ropes that were round the captive´s neck
were untied and refastened to the neck ropes of the two monitors.
Then the leg ropes were untied, and slowly, like a newly launched
ship being manoeuvred into position by a pair of tugs, the newly-
captured elephant was turned round in the direction of Gangala-na-
Bodio, and the long march back to camp between the two monitors

I did not particularly pity this elephant. I had seen far too many
animals in the wild that were desperately hungry or ill or afraid, to
share the general view that a captive animal must always be pitied.
The elephants at Gangala-na-Bodio, once they were trained, led an
easy life and were physically better off than facing the dangers and
hardships of the wild.

At the start of their training, all that could be done was to
accustom them to the sound and voices of men, to the smell of the



camp and the smell of the other elephants. The emphasis was on
patiently establishing a routine.

I remember how the animal I had seen captured was brought
by the monitors his first evening in camp, and then tied, fore and
aft between a pair of large trees. Here he stayed for the night. He
could stand but he could not really move, and all the time the men
hung around him, talking and eating their food near him, to get him
accustomed to people and to the idea that humans do not necessarily
bring danger.

All night, of course, he was fed. For, like all elephants, he spent
most of the night eating, and when I woke in the morning I was just
in time to see him being led away by his two patient attendants,
down to the river where he could bathe and throw water over him-
self and talk to the other elephants.

In this way he was accustomed to the routine of the carnp, and
after six weeks Offerman would decide it was time to dispense with
one of the monitors. A few weeks later, when he was completely
used to the sights and smell of men, training would begin.

As far as training goes, elephants are peculiar creatures. Although
they can ultimately become so reliable, they are probably of all
animals the most difficult to train. In this they are completely
different from rhinos, who may be hard to catch, but within 48
hours of being captured, I have had one taking food from my hand.
By then he was no longer trying to batter himself to bits and did
not go through any subsequent period of depression and frustration.

With elephants it is the exact opposite. For months after
capture they are depressed, and struggle against the idea of accepting
human domination, so that the training demands day-long patience
month after month from their trainers. Unlike the Indian system,
where a single mahout is assigned to the elephant immediately he is
captured and stays with him for life, the system here was to train
the elephant to take orders from anyone and this was more difficult
to achieve.

The methods we watched at Gangala-na-Bodio were pains-
taking in the extreme. We saw the new elephants being taken by
the monitors and led to their places along the elephant lines where
their hind legs were tied to heavy stakes in the ground. The front



legs were tied to long ropes, each rope held by three men. As soon
as he stopped struggling, the new elephant was given the order
"Lie down." This would be repeated several times, whilst the men
pulled hard at the front leg ropes.

This might go on several hours until tired, exasperated, and
perhaps just beginning to understand what was expected of him,
the elephant decided to lie down.

At once the man would shout "Saba, saba" (good) at him, and
give him carrots and big sunflowers full of the fat seeds elephants
love. And so, slowly, laboriously the elephants would begin to
understand what was required of them.

Although I admired the patience of Offerman and his men and
spent several weeks in their camp filming the elephant training in
detail, I have to admit that I never really trusted their elephants as I
trusted the elephants in Burma or Ceylon. Riding an Asian elephant
is one of the stateliest experiences I know. You are so high up that
you feel you dominate the world. It is slow and assured and as the
elephant walks it is rather like floating over the jungle in a balloon.

Riding an African elephant on the other hand I always found an
extremely nerve-racking affair. I used to travel a lot on the elephants
at Gangala-na-Bodio; for a while all would be fine, then I would
see a tree coming towards us with a horizontal branch sticking out
at just about the height of the elephant´s back. I would look at it.
The elephant would look at it too, and both of us would know
what was going through the other´s mind.

If he could run just a few paces to the left he would pass directly
under the branch and I would be swept neatly off his back. This
was usually the point at which I would jump off, but I did see several
mahouts, braver men than me, end up hanging on to the elephant´s

For the truth is that despite all the efforts of Gangala-na-Bodio
I have yet to be convinced that it is possible to make an entirely
satisfactory job of training an African elephant.

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