Bukavu, 10 February 2018
I wish I could say things improved substantially when we headed west to Mwenga, but alas, fate would create more frustrating roadblocks. With considerable effort we would overcome some of them and make the best of others.
The original plan was to ship our repaired truck from Kalemie to Uvira just a few days after our arrival in Bukavu, but without warning, the boat company changed the schedule again, and in the end our truck would not arrive in Bukavu until the 8th of February, when all fieldwork activities were completed. I had left Aristote behind in Uvira to accompany Faustin with the truck to Bukavu, just in case he needed help negotiating checkpoints or dealing with a breakdown, because we thought they would only be a few days behind us and would catch up to us in Mwenga. And thus, the team consisted only of myself, Wandege and Chifundera when we left for Mwenga after a short rest in Bukavu on January 31st.
Chifundera managed to rent another Chinese minibus for our journey, but we had to change vehicles at the “bus station” (a dingy area of the city where buses collect passengers) and Wandege warned me “many thieves are here!” Several men ranging in age from about 13 to mid-30s surrounded our bus, brazenly eyeing all our gear and luggage through the cracked windows and open doors. Even though it was quite hot and the sun was creating an impressive greenhouse effect in the vehicle, we had to close all the windows and doors to prevent the thieves from sticking their hands in and taking what they wanted. When we finally pulled away to leave the city, half-cooked from the oven-like temperatures inside, several of them clung to the side of the bus in the hope of stealing something at the last moment, but somehow, we managed to leave them behind without losing anything. I told Chifundera we would never hire a bus at the station again!
I had high hopes as we traveled west over brutally pockmarked roads. When we left the bleak landscape of eucalyptus plantations and agricultural fields of Bukavu’s outskirts behind, the rolling and grassy hills of Itombwe greeted us. As usual, the natural landscape of Congo was awe-inspiring and beautiful as I marveled at tiny waterfalls cascading down the hills, or small pockets of natural forest that hugged steep ravines with rivers containing churning water the color of café-au-lait. The road corkscrewed through the prettiest areas with tiny villages and breathtaking views (see photo).
We ate a lunch of cassava and grilled goat meet in a small shack on the side of the road about half-way to Mwenga. When the driver’s assistant told me he was very hungry with a pitiful look, I gave him and the driver a little money for food, even though it had cost a fair bit of money to rent the bus. Apparently, the money went to the agency and not them, and they hadn’t eaten much that day. When I finished washing down my meal with a warm coke, I grew concerned when I found our driver had disassembled the wheel under the passenger side of the car. He seemed satisfied enough with his repair job, but when he replaced the tire, it was fastened with only four out of six lug nuts. The battered vehicle jostled violently on the bad roads, but somehow managed to maintain its integrity despite several deep, muddy holes created by downpours of rain. By some miracle the tire didn’t fall off. As we continued west, I noticed our driver had used his food money to buy a small bottle of alcohol instead, and of course he was sipping on it. I couldn’t help thinking that no good deed goes unpunished.
Upon reaching Mwenga we set up a little camp at the local ICCN headquarters (the equivalent of the Congolese Wildlife Service), and were reunited with several people who had worked with us during several previous expeditions. They had an excellent truck that needed a minor repair to its fuel line, and when I fixed it the following day for them, I thought we would be able to use it to collaborate with them in Itombwe. Unfortunately, a recent crackdown on the rules prevented them from doing this without a special document from the main office in Kinshasa. Thinking this would be easy to obtain, I told Wandege and Chifundera to refrain from collecting so that we could press on right away when the document showed up. Our efforts to obtain it were stymied by a poor internet connection, which seized up with heavy cloud cover in the afternoons, and other technical difficulties. After we lost two days waiting around in this manner, I considered hiring motorcycles to move to a more remote area just outside Itombwe Reserve where we could look for frogs in the forest, but our colleagues at ICCN advised us against this for several reasons. Not wanting to jeopardize future collaborations, we acquiesced.
In the end, we had to make small trips to nearby forest as the days ticked by without the needed document. The good news is that we were able to sample several areas in the foothills of Itombwe. And indeed, we found several species of reed frogs and treefrogs, including a handsome green male with white elbows and knees. Usually this color pattern is seen in several species of Leptopelis treefrogs in the juvenile and subadult stage, but this individual was an adult male that was calling for mates, and it will be very interesting to see if it is a distinct species when I have the opportunity to analyze its DNA. A particularly pretty (I dare say cute) Hyperolius ocellatus reed frog with yellow feet is shown below.
Among the other interesting things that we found was a surprise I was not expecting. Back in 2015 while working around Kindu and Lomami National Park (see blog from that year for details), we had found a strange Trachylepis skink with a bright orange-yellow patch near its neck. Because the distance between these places is about 250 km, it was quite a shock to find this handsome lizard near Mwenga, which might be a new species to science (see photo below).
When it was time to head back to Bukavu, Wandege found a bright yellow Chinese minibus for our transport, with a driver who had the unforgettable name of Elvis. Due to heavy rainfall, the condition of the road had deteriorated, and we spent a couple of hours negotiating deep muddy pits where the truck got stuck twice (see photo).
When we were only an hour east of Bukavu, we were delayed again when Elvis ran out of gas. Apparently, his gas gauge, like many things in the vehicle, had broken long ago, leaving him to guess about his fuel level. We all breathed a sigh of relief when we made it to Bukavu, where we were treated with a beautiful view of the city as we approached from the west (see photo). It was also bitter sweet when the long-awaited document finally showed up.
I finally had the ability to take stock of the expedition yesterday, when I tallied up all the specimens we had collected for our export permit. I was surprised to see that despite all the difficulties, we had found at least 55 different species of amphibians and reptiles, including several rare things (e.g., two Letheobia) and possible new species. But that wasn’t all. Chifundera had squirreled away some other collections made by Congolese colleagues months or even years ago, including Franck Masudi. Chif had patiently waited for me to return to Congo to turn everything over to me, and I felt like Christmas had come again as I carefully unpacked everything. As I looked through the specimens that were collected in the poorly known Lendu Plateau and Kahuzi-Biega National Park, there were some amazing surprises in store. The spectacular Hemidactylus gecko we had found at Kabobo had apparently already been found by a team of Congolese biologists in Kahuzi. They also collected a toad that is so strange looking, with extremely spiky skin and round paratoid glands, that I am nearly 100% certain it is a new species. The snakes from Lendu are very interesting, and one of them is so unusual that I failed to guess a genus for it. All of this is very exciting and should keep me busy for years as I try to identify all the material and describe species that are new to science.
Although I am somewhat relieved to be finished with an expedition that was plagued with many delays and obstacles, my woes were put into perspective when I was reminded by my colleague Kate Jackson (via a post on Facebook and Amazon) that working in Congo requires perseverance in “some of the harshest fieldwork conditions in the world.” I am also grateful that we collected so many interesting specimens that will be very helpful for the research program I started in 2007. It’s hard to believe that I have now completed 10 expeditions to Congo, but time flies when one is having fun, and it has been an incredible privilege to experience so much of the country’s stunning landscapes and wildlife. My Congolese colleagues and I are working very hard to ensure that the global scientific community will be aware of the country’s unique biodiversity, and the urgency that is required to save it. With elections looming at the end of the year, I can only hope that Congo will continue to move in a peaceful direction, and that more of its important forests and natural areas will be protected in the future.
If you enjoyed this blog and would like to learn more about my research and Congo in general, please check out my YouTube video from 2016 and my recently published book Emerald Labyrinth, which was lauded as one of the best biology books of 2017 by Forbes Magazine.