Tales from a far-flung forest: Part 1

When Science Met Nature…

Jessica’s Science Blog – 06.01.17

Tales from a far-flung forest: Part 1

When I was 24 years old, I waved goodbye to friends and set off on an epic journey that would last for a full year. I was on my way to live in a central African rainforest! Not exactly Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but close.

I was making my way to a field station, known as the Mondika Research Center, that my Ph.D. advisor had established for studying wild western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla). The forest that I was about to call home was part of a 10,000 hectare expanse known as the Djeke Triangle, stretching from northern Congo to southern Central African Republic. Having no recent history of logging, the rainforests and swamps of the Djeke Triangle support an astounding diversity of flora – from towering fruit trees and lianas to succulent herbs – and fauna – such as forest elephants, chimpanzees, gorillas, forest buffalos, forest antelopes, red river hogs, guenons, mangabeys, vipers, spiders, ants, and bees.

Mondika is the very best place in the world to study lowland gorillas up close and personal. So, I decided that I was ready to trade modern conveniences for a bold adventure observing and walking among a family group of gorillas. To be clear, what I’m talking about is trading a bed for a thermarest, an apartment for a tent, a toilet for a latrine, a shower for a bucket bath, a sink for a plastic basin, and high speed internet for a sat phone.

(Top) Mondika camp (Middle) Colony of army ants (Bottom) Samedi, an expert gorilla tracker for the project

No one demonstrates the principles of forest living better than the Bayaka people of the Central African Republic. The Bayaka are hunter-gatherers who have relied on the rainforests of Central Africa for food and shelter for hundreds of generations. Their traditional knowledge and expertise in tracking animals, net-hunting, fishing, plant medicine, and gathering nuts, leaves, tubers, and honey, is absolutely extraordinary. I had the pleasure of working closely with Bayaka men who make their living as gorilla trackers at the project.

You can imagine that spending 12-hour days in the forest over the course of a year results in unique experiences and great stories. Most of my stories are about living things that surprised me in some way. Things I didn’t expect to see, but will remain in my memory forever. Stories that wouldn’t be nearly as rich or interesting without the knowledge of the Bayaka to impart context.

I’ve curated a story for you to illustrate my point:

 

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We’re Swamp People Now / Oddities of the Swamp

Traveling through a Congolese swamp forest

One day, the gorillas decided to make a bee-line for the swamp. When they do this, they tend to move swiftly and in a single-file line through the forest. Why they do this isn’t clear, but it may have something to do with avoiding other groups or other silverbacks in the area. As my tracker and I bob and weave over roots, shrubs, and thorny Haumania herbs, we scramble to keep up with Kingo, the silverback, and his females. Through sheer luck and determination, I manage to not trip and fall on my face. But, my movements are awkward and my pace is much slower than that of my master guide, Mamandele. He’s wearing $1 flip-flops.

As we catch up to the group, I notice that we are beginning our descent into murky water that’s shin-deep at best and waist-deep at worst. I attempt to summon my balance beam skills from when I was six to tip-toe across submerged roots and branches.

Kingo feeds on Hydrocharis herbs in the swamp (PC: Ian Nichols)

On the outskirts of the swamp, I reach out for a grip and nearly pierce my hand on a row of razor sharp 1-inch THORNS lining the TRUNK of a tree. “Ahhhhh!”, I exclaim. As I lose my balance and one boot goes in the water up to my knee. “Oh shoot”, I think, “I’ve got to get a GPS fix to record my ranging data”. Mamandele, bless his heart, is standing on what I like to call a small ‘island’ waiting for me once again to catch up. Finally, after about 10 minutes we arrive at the part of the bai (a clearing in the swamp) where the gorillas are feeding on mineral-rich Hydrocharis vegetation. I get out my pen and clipboard and start recording feeding data.

Just when you think you’re safe and settled, that’s when the swamp tricks you. So, here I am happily recording feeding rates of my focal subject when I glance down at a small ‘island’ about seven feet from where I’m standing. On that ‘island’, I see thousands of small red ants clambering about. I ask Mamandele what those ants are called. He tells me they are bad ants, that if they bite you you can get very sick and maybe even die. He directs me emphatically to move away.

We find another ‘island’ to stand on. Later, I come to understand that the bites or stings of certain ant and bee species in the forest can cause anaphylaxis in people. I guess we dodged a bullet?!?

In time, the gorillas move to another bai. We follow. I can hear one of the females, Vinni, singing loudly as she feeds. It’s really LOUD and a little amusing. I stifle a giggle. Vinni and Mekome, another female, begin to exchange aggressive vocalizations. Soon, their squabble escalates, and I see Mekome lunge at Vinni. Vinni responds by splashing water in her aggressor’s face. Kingo isn’t having it; he intervenes and smacks Vinni to break up the conflict. Poor Vinni.

Female gorillas feed and walk through the swamp with ease

Why Vinni, I wonder? I record the aggressive event and note that the male intervened on behalf of Mekome. Interesting. Over the next year, I would record other aggressive encounters where the male favored one female consistently over another, typically the higher-ranking female over a lower-ranking opponent. Interestingly, he also mirrored a preference for higher-ranking females when initiating copulations, which is detailed in a study from the project.

A bit soggy and tired but undaunted, we leave the gorillas feeding in the swamp and make it back to camp in time for a candle-lit dinner in the dark. You always hope dinner’s gonna be koko (Gnetum africanum leaves stewed in peanut sauce) with gozo (boiled flour of manioc root). For some reason, you’re addicted to koko with gozo. Fun fact: the protein-rich leaves of Gnetum africanum are a staple food of western lowland gorillas! If you’re really lucky, you’ll even get a bit of fish in your dish.

In truth, my boots were soaked. Mamandele kicked off his flip flops. I slogged to my tent and took a luke-warm bucket bath, which is just what it sounds like but with a can to dump water over my head. The itchy condition known as cutaneous larva migrans was soon to be my souvenir from the swamp.

As with most nights, I wound down by reading a book by candlelight and listening to Led Zeppelin on a cassette walkman. I set my digital watch alarm for 4 AM. I snuffed out the candle. It occurs to me that the gorillas probably slept near the swamp and may return in the morning….

Luxurious shower accommodations al fresco

Good thing I have an extra pair of boots and some leftovers to pack for lunch. Just another day in the life at Mondika.

Koko (right) and gozo (left): my favorite forest dish

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Did you enjoy tales from a far-flung forest?

I have more tales, so I think my upcoming July post will feature a new tale. Possibilities for sequels include encounters with forest elephants, chimpanzees, red river hogs, spiders, snakes, or sweat bees! In a future post, I may even include a story from another far-flung forest on the other side of the world?

African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) visits the Mondika River

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