By Ian Birrell
As we set off from our overnight camp in the jungle, the patrol leader turns, gesticulating with a machete in his hand, to deliver the safety drill. It is brief and rather rudimentary.
'If we meet gorillas, come together into a pack so that they think we are bigger than we are,' he says. 'If we meet an elephant, run behind a big tree.'
And with those words, we plunge into the dense foliage of one of the world's finest remaining forests. Soon my clothes are sodden from pushing aside huge leaves drenched in early morning rain; then I am stewing in sweat as the sun rises and the humidity soars.
We stop at a huge Moabi tree. The ground has recently been trampled and picked clean, for this is the favourite fruit of the forest elephant, which shape and seed these lush avenues. But it is no nature trail. We are more interested in signs of human activity, such as freshly hewn paths, marks cut on trees, grass slashed by machetes and spent bullet shells.
For I am with an anti-poaching patrol on the front line of the fight to save the forest elephants – and these virgin rainforests in Gabon are their last major stronghold on Earth.
Like other foot soldiers in this desperate struggle, expedition leader Desiré Ngwa has caught gangs of poachers armed with high-calibre weaponry and stumbled upon clusters of butchered carcasses, the elephants' faces hacked off for their ivory.
Yet bizarrely, the man leading this increasingly vicious war to save one of the world's most magnificent species from extinction is a mild-mannered British zoology professor with pens poking from his shirt pocket.
Lee White is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge he faces. Quite simply, the fate of the forest elephant – a separate species from the savannah elephants found in other African countries, such as Kenya – is in his hands.
'If we fail, the forest elephant will be ecologically extinct,' he says. 'As a species, it will be effectively eliminated.' More....