The rhino and the frog


12 June 2013, Kinshasa, DR Congo:


As anticipated, I encountered some problems with the technology I am supposed to use to update this blog from the field—Radio Shack let me down by selling me an inverter, a small gadget that conducts electricity from a solar panel to electronic devices, which does not seem to be compatible with my equipment.  Luckily, the company that sold me the satellite modem is going to try to send me the right part via DHL in Mbandaka, and as explained below, I hope to reach that city in about 10 days from now.  Hopefully after that, the problem will be solved.  Because I wasn’t able to post anything until I returned to the city and got to an internet café just now, I have included two long posts below to bring everyone up to speed on what has been happening over the last week.  If all goes well, I will try to post again on the way to Mbandaka, and will certainly be able to post again when I reach that city if I can find another internet café there …


4 June:  After a 2-hour delay leaving Paris, I finally reached Kinshasa.  Because I arrived in the early evening instead of the late afternoon, I was spared the suffocating heat of the waning sun, but the humidity hit me like a wall as I stepped off the plane, down a mobile staircase, and onto the runway.  As my fellow passengers and I waited to be picked up by a bus to take us to the terminal, I could see and hear bats fluttering overhead.  No doubt they were taking advantage of the abundant insect life attracted to the airport by all the bright lights.


A few minutes later while waiting in line at immigration, I noticed a large color poster on the wall showcasing some of Congo’s spectacular wildlife.  Included were the chimpanzee, lion, elephant, okapi and rhino.  I couldn’t help but feel saddened at the sight of the rhino, because the last rhino in Congo perished only about two years before.  Trophy hunters had depleted the numbers during the colonial era before 1960, and more recently, poachers for the black market in rhino horn wiped out the rest.  The Congolese populations of rhino were likely distinct species from their South African cousins, but now evolutionary geneticists like me will have to study that interesting question with DNA from animals that perished long ago.  At about $400,000 per horn, the current demand is being fueled by the mistaken belief that rhino horn can cure a wide array of ailments from impotence to cancer.  As certain economies in Asia have risen in the past decade, so has the demand for rhino horn, as well as other wildlife products such as ivory.  Decades ago Congo contained untold thousands of elephants, but a recent estimate puts the number at only 10,000, and it is dropping rapidly.  Because elephant poachers have decimated the population in Salonga National Park, where I hope to work in the coming weeks, my dream of seeing a wild forest elephant is not likely to come true anytime soon.  The maddening thing about all this is that in East Africa, including places like Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, wild animals like elephants and mountain gorillas are worth much more than their weight in gold from the tourism dollars they generate.  And yet, for a few hundred dollars per set of tusks, the elephants of Congo are likely to disappear in the coming years because there simply aren’t enough resources to fight the poachers.  It is a stark reminder that the DR Congo remains the poorest and least developed country in the world.


After waiting an hour for all my luggage to show up on the conveyor belt, I was reunited with my field team, including the indefatigable Wandege Moninga, who had suffered a serious snake bite only a few days before.  As I embraced him and gave him the traditional African greeting of touching heads on the left, then the right, then the center, he smiled widely and didn’t show any outward signs of being in pain.  I had heard his entire arm swelled like a sausage, but after stealing a glance, it looked ok to me.  When I asked him how he was feeling, he said, “ok no problem!”  As we drove across the smoky and polluted city towards our hotel, he explained to me that he had captured the snake, put it in a sack, and was planning to move it into a cage for safe keeping the following day.  During the night his captive escaped, somehow found its way into his bed, and bit him on the arm when he turned over in his sleep.  The bite had been so serious that the doctor at the hospital wasn’t sure if he would live, but a combination of luck and a good constitution allowed him to pull through.  I was very happy he had recovered quickly enough to join us on the expedition, because he has become an excellent collector.  With only one day to recover from my jetlag, we planned to head east to a small reserve called Mbombo-Lumene, so called for the rivers that pass through their territory…


12 June:  Just returned from Mbombo-Lumene, where I had a chance to examine the snake that bit poor Wandege.  As I suspected, it was an Atractaspis, commonly known as a burrowing viper, for its tendency to prey on small mammals in their burrows.  These snakes have unusually long fangs that they swing out the sides of their mouth to bite their prey in a sideways and backward stabbing motion, a necessary adaptation in the confined space of little burrows.  The effects of their venom on human victims ranges from a painful and swollen finger to potentially fatal consequences, as Wandege experienced.  Because of the length and flexibility of their fangs, more than a few herpetologists have been bitten when they tried to pick up one of these snakes behind the head after mistaking them for any one of the similar species that can be handled safely in that way.  The only way to avoid a bite from an Atractaspis is to handle the animals with a long pair of forceps, which look like a giant set of tweezers.   During my six years of previous work in Congo, I had only encountered these snakes three times, once while flipping a loose stone on the stairway to an old Belgian house I stayed in.  Below is a photo of the snake that bit Wandege.



The rugged beauty of the savannah at Mbombo-Lumene reserve did not disappoint.  The rolling grassy hills near the park headquarters provided ample territory for exploration, and the Lumene River also harbored a substantial patch of gallery forest.  Gallery forest resembles lowland rainforest, and only grows along the sides or “gallery” of rivers that provide enough moisture for the trees to survive in a relatively dry environment that is more amenable to grassland.  In the photo below, a fully recovered Wandege descends a hill towards the gallery forest in the background.



As the team worked in this area that is in the “transitional zone” between savannah and the lowland rainforest of the Congo Basin, we saw many birds, a seemingly never ending supply of bright orange butterflies, and footprints of a few savannah buffalo that roam the reserve.  The rangers didn’t know the exact number of buffalo, but they estimated about 20 or so.  They didn’t think leopard were present, but hyenas were around and probably preyed on the antelope that also occur in the region.  The habitat seemed perfect for elephants, but the rangers claimed that there had never been any there.  That was hard for me to believe, but then again, because the reserve is only 2 hours east of the capital city of Kinshasa, the Belgian colonizers probably shot all the elephants in this area at least a century ago, long before the collective memory of the rangers.  However, the latter men were able to tell me that many lions once inhabited the area, but the dictator Mobutu had his soldiers shoot all of them in 1973 because the local people complained they were pests (and likely killed them from time to time too).  Like many other large mammals in Africa,  lions have been wiped out in most of the places where they once occurred, especially in Central and Western Africa.  My colleague Chifundera informed me over a beer last night that Virunga National Park, Africa’s first park, has only 16 lions left.  This is the only protected area in Congo that still includes lions, and with such low numbers, they are not likely to survive into the next decade.


But the real purpose of our visit was to sample the herpetofauna, and with the disappointing exception of snakes, the reserve provided quite a bounty.  We encountered at least a dozen species of frogs, some of which seemed so different from the species I expected to occur there that they are likely to be new to science.  We also found a few lizards, and even a turtle that a local spotted in a nearby marsh. 


Part of the purpose of this blog is to involve my students in “cybertaxonomy,” where I post photos and information about some of the “herps” (i.e., amphibians and reptiles) I encounter, and then they try to help me identify them.  My graduate students at UTEP have special access to the website so that they can post responses to my posts, and I am hoping that they will be brave enough to venture some guesses about the identification of the critters I have photographed.  So with this post, I’m going to see what they think of one mystery frog and one lizard. Because they recently completed my graduate course in herpetology, I’m hoping they can at least figure out what family these things are in, and then perhaps they can guess the genus, and if they’re feeling VERY ambitious, perhaps even the species, if it is already described.


The following frog (dorsal and ventral views of the same animal) was encountered at night hopping through the leaf litter of the gallery forest.  It is 27 mm in snout-vent length.





The following lizard was encountered during the day in the savannah.  It is approximately 10 cm in snout-vent length.  Good luck and have fun!



In closing, let me say a brief word about my fieldwork plan over the next 1–2 weeks.  Tomorrow afternoon the team and I hope to leave Kinshasa and move to a tiny town just north of the city to hire a “boat” that will likely be a large dugout canoe with an outboard motor.  If the cost isn’t outrageous, we will hire someone to move us around where we wish for about a week or so, ending up at the northern end of Lake Mai-Ndombe, the squiggly looking lake just northeast of Bandundu on the map illustrated from my first post. Chifundera says the true lowland rainforest of the Congo Basin, the focus of the grant, will be present as we approach the lake, and we can begin in earnest to study the herpetofauna of this fascinating region.  With luck, we’ll also begin to find some snakes too!  Chif said on previous visits to the area he saw many Jameson’s Mambas dangling from the vegetation over the lake, and that sometimes crocodiles were seen, so things seem promising. 

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