Tales from a far-flung forest: Part 2

When Science Met Nature…

Dzanga Bai: Village of the Elephants PC: Karin von Loebenstein

Jessica’s Science Blog – 07.01.17

Tales from a far-flung forest: Part 2

Map of Mondika camp in relation to the Djeke Triangle and Sangha Trinational World Heritage area. Image produced by Gorilla Stichting Nederland

Background information: 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 plastic basin for a sink, and high speed internet for a sat phone.

Samedi, an expert gorilla tracker for the project, in the tropical lowland mixed forest

No one demonstrates the principles of forest living better than the Bayaka people of the Central African Republic. The Bayaka are hunter-gatherers who’ve 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, like Samedi and Mamendele, 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.

In this second installment of tales from a far-flung forest, I’ve compiled a few of my MOST memorable encounters with charismatic forest animals (some big, some small)! I feel extremely privileged to have been afforded the opportunity to observe such an incredible range of wildlife in the course of my studies and travels. I believe one must SEE wild animals to WANT to protect them. I hope you enjoy! *Disclaimer: no animals (other than the occasional sweat bee) were harmed or contacted directly in the course of my adventures.*

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Spontaneous Encounters with Remarkable Forest Animals

                                                                Chimpanzees

Wild chimpanzees in a central African forest PC: Lukuru Foundation; Bili site in D.R.C.

Perhaps you’ve watched chimpanzees in the zoo? Maybe you’ve perceived the sentience in their eyes? The curiosity they show toward new objects and people? I had an impression of chimpanzees before I went to Africa. I’d been to chimpanzee exhibits at a handful of zoos. I’d written my undergraduate honor’s thesis on chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) behavioral ecology using archival data from the Jane Goodall Institute. I guess I thought that reading papers and watching natural history films on chimpanzees would prepare me for what to expect. It didn’t. In fact, it was *naive* of me to think it would.

Flash to the forest: I was once again with Mamendele, one of the most experienced gorilla trackers at the project. We were in an area of the forest that was situated pretty close to the swamp. It was my day off, and we were collecting fruit samples from a tree that the gorillas had fed from the evening before. We had a bit of down time, and I told Mamendele that I hadn’t seen a chimpanzee yet. I said that I had only heard chimpanzees drumming on the buttresses of trees (which is CRAZY cool). He told me that he knew how to make a call that sounds like that of a blue duiker (a small forest antelope). He told me that chimpanzees are attracted to the calls of duikers. I assumed that was because chimpanzees are known opportunists where hunting is concerned and would view blue duikers as prey.

Blue duiker (Philantomba monticola)

I must have looked at Mamendele with eyes-large-as-saucers because the next thing I knew he was making a loud nasal call. It sounded a bit like a crying baby. We waited patiently for about 20 minutes. I noticed Mamendele, always vigilant, listening to and scanning his surroundings. Before long, a dark and slender figure appeared from behind a tree. Curious and cautious, the figure peered at us. I stifled a gasp. This was an unhabituated wild chimpanzee. Mamendele whispered to me, “Do you see them?” I squinted my eyes and looked closer. Another chimpanzee had appeared from the darkness of the forest. Stealthy, to say the least. Perhaps they were looking for a duiker, and in the absence of one they were trying to work out what had occurred when they came by two humans instead? Some cruel trick. I could not believe how curious and patient these chimpanzees seemed.They kept a healthy distance of about 60 ft. If they were fearful, curiosity must have been tempered their fear? And then as if it was all a dream, the pair of chimpanzees returned to the forest.

I’ll never forget this intimate and fleeting moment spent with chimpanzees because it inspired me to support research and conservation efforts aimed at understanding and protecting these highly intelligent animals. They are, after all, our closest living relatives!! If you want to do something to support chimpanzee research and conservation in central Africa, I encourage you to look into the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project. Consider making a donation! Goualougo’s project directors, Drs. Dave Morgan and Crickette Sanz, are nice people and extremely dedicated and hard-working scientists. I greatly respect and admire the nature of their work with great apes in the region.

                                            Forest Elephants

African forest elephants visit a clearing at Bai Hokou, Central African Republic

How can a 6,000 lb behemoth with giant ears disappear in the forest? At first, the prospect seems counterintuitive. Well, the understory of this tropical mixed forest is dense and dark. You could probably hide a tank in plain sight and not notice it until you were 15 ft away! That’s the way in which African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) blend with their surroundings. Also, they are surprisingly quiet, except when feeding or snoring (yes, I’ve heard an elephant snore in the early morning hours). While following the gorillas, I’d estimate that we encountered a forest elephant about once per month. Roughly half of the time the elephant heard our footsteps and trumpeted in our direction. In fact, one of the first skills I learned was how to run from a trumpeting or charging elephant. You’d be surprised how well you can leap over tree roots and claw your way through thickets when properly motivated!

Forest elephants have excellent hearing and can detect vibrations from your movements. They are also important seed dispersers, and you will often encounter forest elephants at fruiting trees. Fortunately, forest elephants that come to feed in this part of the forest tend to be solitary. I visited another gorilla field site further north in the Central African Republic, known as Bai Hokou, where you can easily meet several elephants in a clearing at once. A beautiful sight, but a potentially dangerous situation in which to find yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Village of the elephants: Dzanga Bai PC: WWF blogs

Forest elephants in the Central African Republic face a lot of poaching pressure and, as a result, can be quite aggressive. I heard a story about an inexperienced researcher getting gored by a forest elephant at Bai Hokou. One of the best places in the world to view forest elephants is at Dzanga Bai (a.k.a. the “village of the elephants”!), a long-term elephant research and conservation site in the Central African Republic that is a crown jewel within the larger World Heritage Site of the Sangha Trinational area. natural wonder of the world. Elephants gather here in large numbers (e.g. I counted 69 elephants in the bai at one time) to drink mineral salts from the sandy soil. I had the privilege of visiting Dzangi Bai with my field assistant, Whitney Meno, my friend and colleague from the World Wildlife Fund, David Greer, and the director of the Elephant Listening Project, Andrea Turkalo.

David Greer and Andrea Turkalo en route to Dzanga Bai

I consider my visit to Dzanga Bai to be one of my most treasured experiences in Central Africa. You can read about the pioneering work of Andrea Turkalo with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Cornell University here. Andrea is a world expert on forest elephants, having studied hundreds of individuals in this population over the span of decades. She has braved threats from elephant poachers and more recently from C.A.R. rebels, but she persisted and she persevered. I hope her work will continue at Dzanga Bai because forest elephants have terribly slow life histories and more data are needed to understand long-term changes in the population.

Sweat Bees, Spiders, and Snakes

Not everyone is a lover of creepy crawly things. I recognize that. Personally, I think most spiders are beautiful. Although I appreciate snakes for their fascinating adaptations, I’m fearful of snakes that are venomous or fit the mold of large constrictors. I hate sweat bees. Wait, hate is an understatement. I loathe sweat bees.

Sweat bees by the thousand PC: Holly goes apes blog

Sweat bees (family Halactidae) use your body exudations to make honey. First strike against them right there! They also aggregate by the hundreds, possibly thousands, when you cross into a part of the forest occupied by a colony. They swarm around your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, entering when they have the chance. Ugh. I wondered if the gorillas ever became annoyed by sweat bees. I didn’t see them swatting sweat bees from their face like I did. Although, who am I kidding? Swatting sweat bees gives you a reprieve of about 1.5 seconds until they return to invade your eyeballs and ears. I noticed that sweat bees assaulted my face and hands in greater numbers than they did with our trackers. Was it my soap? Diet? Hormones? What could I do to reduce the                                                                                                                                   appeal of my sweat? Oof, I never solved that puzzle.

Golden silk orb weaver (Nephilia)

Spiders, on the other hand. For a period of about two months, I hosted a rather gorgeous golden silk orb-weaver (Nephilia) spider as a resident at the entrance of my tent. I felt a little guilty leaving my tent in the morning, because I inadvertently disturbed its web. Every night, I’d find my spider friend perched on a new web in the same spot as before. Hard-working spider! I beheld its beauty every day for a time. I wish I would have taken a photo! I preferred spider residents to transient biting ants any day. There was even a time when I had a termite colony invade my sleeping quarters after my candle had tipped over, burning a small hole in the tent fabric. They ceremoniously chewed my books and papers to bits. I’m generally of the opinion that spiders tend to be more afraid of me then I am of them. I like that arrangement just fine.

One morning in the Gilbertiodendron forest, I came across evidence of- what I thought to be- colonial spider activity. We’re talking hundreds of webs. Webs bridging to other webs. Webs connecting sapling trees. Like the way artificial Halloween cobwebs decorate a haunted house. This network of webs spanned at least the length of 50 yards or half a football field! I should have measured the length, or taken a picture. Hindsight is 20/20. Unfortunately, you don’t always have a camera on you when you’re traveling through the forest. Alas, I didn’t have a tropical entomologist with me in the field, nor a detailed book on spiders of central Africa. The identity of the colonial residents remains a mystery I may never solve?!?

Rhinoceros viper (Bitis nasicornis)

Finally, we come to snakes. I came across snakes (that I knew about) only rarely. There were three snakes that stood out to me. The first was a rhinoceros viper (Bitis nasicornis), a.k.a. the horned puff adder, resting on the trail across the Mondika river. This was a rather impressive looking snake that boasted nasal horns and measured about two to three feet in length. We came across this beauty in the early morning light. He or she was slow-moving and posed no threat to our safety. I remember seeing the horns protruding from the head of the snake and wondering what their function might be? Was it a sexually selected trait, preferred by females? Were the horns used as a weapon against males? I think I need to read up on this!

The other snake was a much more scary sight. I was scurrying through the forest, trying to keep up with one of the female gorillas. My guide saw it and yelled for me to stop. I look up and see a slender green snake on a liana about three feet in front of me and two feet above my head. Could this be a Jameson’s mamba? There is absolutely NO WAY that I would have noticed this snake. The light was too dim and the understory too dense. We had no antivenin at camp. Even if we did, it probably wouldn’t be the right kind? Lucky for me, my forest guide had exceptional vision and skill. The final snake, well, I’ll spare you the details. But suffice it to say that this snake crawled out of the latrine just as I opened the lid! I jumped backwards like a cartoon character on fire. Ever since that episode, I was wary of snake friends when opening the lid!

Never again do I hope to meet a snake in the toilet!!!! 

Mamendele poses for my camera in camp

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Did you enjoy tales from a far-flung forest: Parts 1 & 2?

Good news: I have at least ONE MORE tale to tell! In a future post, I remain open to including a story from another far-flung forest on the other side of the world! A dear herpetologist friend of mine once told me a chilling story from her field work in Panama involving frogs and spiders…. Perhaps, I’ll be able to collaborate with her on a future installment featuring the forests of Central America?

Previous post on When Science Met NatureTales from a far-flung forest: Part 1

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My field assistant, Whitney (black shirt), and myself (green shirt) en route to Dzanga Bai

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