Portlanders Trip Jennings and Andy Maser will be tromping through Central Africa next month, packs of elephant poop strapped to their backs.
Accompanied by armed park rangers, the two explorer-filmmakers will penetrate the jungles and savannas of the Democratic Republic of Congo for six weeks starting Jan. 28, scooping samples of fresh elephant scat into plastic vials.
Um, why? Because the two are working with University of Washington conservation biologist Dr. Samuel Wasser to collect elephant feces to create a DNA map of African elephants. The tool will help international police identify poaching hot spots and trade routes by matching the genetic material in confiscated ivory with the gene info left encoded in the crap.
If you must know, Jennings describes elephant-poop piles as "gigantic," measuring several feet across and weighing up to 25 pounds. But he isn't feeling at all squeamish about the mission to help save the endangered population.
"If we can't protect a species as world-renowned, as iconic and as much like humans as elephants, what good are we?" asks Jennings, 28. "What does that say about us as a species?"
Under the name EP Films (epfilms.tv, formerly Epicocity), Jennings and Maser, two pro kayakers who got their start making extreme kayaking videos, have undertaken five international wilderness expeditions over the past three years, all funded in part by grants from the National Geographic Society.
The African elephant population has decreased by 95 percent over the past 50 years, to between 450,000 and 500,000 animals. And if poachers continue to kill at the current rate—10 percent of the total elephant population each year—few if any wild elephants will remain in a decade.
Because elephants disperse seeds in their manure and clear vegetation to let sunlight in, the health of the ecosystem depends on their survival, Wasser says.
"There are a lot of species depending on them," he adds.
The gene map is nearly complete, with the only major holes in Angola and Congo, countries where armed rebel groups and poachers make feces collection not only an icky venture, but a life-threatening one. After hearing about Jennings and Maser's work on similar expeditions into politically unstable countries, the biologist commissioned the two to help with the Elephant Ivory Project (elephantivoryproject.org).
The prevalence of guns among poachers and guerrilla insurgents in the bush is what worries Jennings the most about his upcoming trip.
"They call them 'AK credit cards,'" he said. "You can get whatever you want with an AK-47 in the Congo."
Maser, 25, hopes viewers come away from EP films realizing that "the decisions we make here affect places halfway around the world."
When people buy an ivory figurine, he says, or a hunting knife with an ivory handle, for example, they're supporting the decimation of a species.
"It's easy to get disconnected from where all of the stuff around here comes from," Maser says. "For me, it's rewarding to get people to understand all the different things that are going on and how interconnected everything is."
"Go Wild—A Night of Fashion and Celebration to Save Elephants" features a fashion show of locally designed, eco-friendly couture, a raffle, a silent auction, a photo booth and, oh yeah, body-painted models wandering all around. Ten bucks includes a pint glass and unlimited beer from Full Sail Brewing. All proceeds benefit the Elephant Ivory Project. Boothster, 521 NE Davis St., 703-9148. 8 pm Friday, Dec. 10.