26 June 2013: Kutu, Fimi River, DR Congo. Quick update to the post below… it has taken longer than expected to travel the short distance from Nioki to Kutu because of continued problems with transportation. One does not simply go to the river bank, find a boat and hire it. No, you must find someone who owns a boat and negotiate with him, then you must find another person with a motor and negotiate with him, then a captain, and then the fuel, then the permits for river transportation, and so on. This took the better part of a day. The plan was to leave Nioki and then over the course of 2 or 3 days, travel east along the Fimi River to Kutu, where we were going to turn north and enter Lake Mai-Ndombe. But after spending the night on a small sand bank with a few huts just shy of our goal of Kutu, it became clear that there was a problem. The fuel we had purchased for the journey was almost finished! Somehow the captain claimed he didn’t know the distance we wanted to travel, and he hadn’t brought enough fuel. Either that or the engine had consumed more fuel that anticipated. After arguing with him, we moved on the next morning and ran out of fuel completely at a colonial-era Belgian logging port, complete with rusting boats, decrepit cranes, and the mangled remnants of tracks that must have used heavy machinery to load timber onto boats. We collected some interesting lizards while we waited 2 hours to find enough fuel to reach Kutu. Once we arrived at Kutu, we discovered there was no more fuel there or anywhere nearby, but that took another 3 hours to figure out, and by then it was late afternoon. Exasperated, we moved all our gear into a hotel in the middle of town, and then started a protracted argument with the captain and engine owner about the best way to continue. When I looked in on how things were going an hour later, I discovered a middle-aged Belgian who had appeared out of nowhere and injected himself into the argument in perfect Lingala! In the end, I was forced to pay even more money than the exorbitant sum of approximately $300 I had already paid to reach Kutu to get out of our agreement with the boat captain, who was creating more problems than he was worth. By dismissing them, we effectively became stranded in Kutu.
When I had a chance to talk to the Belgian, I was able to ascertain with my rudimentary French that he had been in Kutu quite a while as a fisherman, working for someone in Kinshasa. Boggles the mind how one can transport fish to Kinshasa without a plane in this climate, or how that would be a profitable venture, but I decided it was best to not ask too many questions. Several snakes have turned up here, so it wouldn’t be so bad to be stranded here if it weren’t for the inferno of heat and humidity. We are not yet in the lowland forest, and the monotonous landscape of tall grass and reeds at the river’s edge has continued since we left Nioki. With almost no trees for shade, this place is very hot. The “hotel” is a simple building with a metal roof, which effectively traps the heat like an oven, making sleep difficult and uncomfortable, but c’est la vie in Congo.
As I was finishing the typing for this post, Chifundera informed me that he found enough fuel and a boat to get us out of here tomorrow. We will have a 12-hour journey to reach Inongo on the eastern shore if all goes well, but I hope to find a village just south of there so that we can work in relatively undisturbed forest near the lake. This might be my last post for a while unless we are lucky enough to find someplace with a generator between Inongo and Mbandaka. We plan to spend the better part of a week at the place near Inongo, then travel to the eastern part of Lake Tumba, spend a few days there, and then finally move on to Mbandaka where I am told there is the unparalleled luxury of a hotel with internet access. I can post more photos then (see bad news about this below).
23 June 2013: Nioki, Fimi River, DR Congo. Before I get into the meat of my next post, I need to break the bad news that it will not be possible to post more photos until I reach Mbandaka. The problem is that I have a 60 MB limit on my satellite internet use, and I discovered it costs about 10 MB to access the multimedia section of the blog’s website to post photos. Obviously that is not feasible, so what I will do is post text only for now, and then add photos later when I can get to an internet café. This has certainly been a learning experience, and I hope on future expeditions that these technology kinks with the blog can be addressed more efficiently.
After collecting a handful of species of frogs along the Congo River at Kwamouth for a couple of days, I was beginning to get bored and was ready to move on to Lake Mai-Ndombe to the east. And then the day before I planned to leave, there was a knock on my hotel door, and an English-speaking, Congolese journalist introduced himself. I wasn’t quite sure what he wanted, but I listened for only a few minutes to his story before I became very intrigued. Such is life in Africa- one never knows when an amazing, terrifying or intriguing surprise will pop up from nowhere as Jimmy did last Saturday.
Somehow Jimmy figured out that a foreign biologist had arrived in his town, and he decided to pay me a visit to tell me about the bonobos just a few hours away. The last great ape to be described to science in the 1920’s, the bonobo is now recognized as a distinct species of chimpanzee, which is restricted to DR Congo south of the Congo River. The bonobo groups are led by females who rule by the motto “make love not war,” whereas the regular chimpanzees on the other side of the Congo River (and elsewhere in Africa) are ruled by violent males. Unlike their more widespread and well-studied cousins in other parts of Africa, the bonobo’s biology is just beginning to be understood, and scientists still lack basic information about its ecology, behavior and distribution. Case in point: I was very skeptical when Jimmy told me that there was a sizable population of bonobos only 3 hours north of Kwamouth. I had recently seen an article about the apes in National Geographic magazine, and I was under the impression that they only occurred in Salonga National Park and nearby areas, hundreds of miles away to the northeast. He told me that when the leading experts about bonobos heard the story that I was hearing now less than 10 years ago, they were skeptical too. But now, he told me, there was a field station managed by WWF, the World Wide Fund for Nature, an organization with prominent American stakeholders. In fact, I make regular tax-deductible donations to them because of the great work they are doing for animal conservation around the world.
Speaking to me in a loud voice that reminded me of a zealous preacher, Jimmy gesticulated wildly as he described how the protected bonobo sanctuary had become established a few years ago. “How had the bonobos survived without protection?” he asked loudly. He produced a worn notebook with hand written notes to explain the story. The local Teke tribe believed that the bonobo was descended from a great warrior who had become indebted to someone, and he had hidden in the forest to escape an ancient law that required him to become the slave of the man to whom he owed the money. Now the bonobo was considered taboo, and the local people never hunted them. Jimmy bragged that after a 3-hour boat ride north up the Congo River I could see bonobos after walking only one kilometer into the forest. The story, opportunity and adventure was too good to pass up, and the following Monday, Jimmy accompanied us in a small dugout canoe as we motored north out of Kwamouth.
It actually took us over 6 hours to reach the town of Tshumbiri, and I looked jealously at the twinkling golden lights on the opposite bank from us at Mpouya, Congo-Brazzaville. Jimmy said the town there had good restaurants, modern hotels, and other desirable amenities. As my gaze brought me back to the eastern bank (and reality) at Tshumbiri, the only twinkling lights I could see were from cheap LED flashlights and flickering candles in the local market just off shore. There was no hotel on our side of the Congo River, and I pitched my tent after a supper of stale bread and a grenadine soda, which was more sugar than liquid. The next morning, I learned that Nkala, the village where the WWF reserve was located, was about seven miles east of Tshumbiri. Of course nobody had a truck, so we were stuck. Jimmy suggested I use a motorcycle to travel to Nkala, beg for a truck from the German project manager there, and then the team and our gear could work in the nearby forest and see the bonobos. I should have known better that this was not going to be easy! After an hour and a half of getting slapped in the face from long grassy vegetation as I traveled east through a savannah on the back of a motorcycle, I arrived in Nkala to find that I had been extraordinarily lucky. Petra Lahann, the German project manager, happened to be there on her weekly visit to that part of the reserve. Even better, she immediately agreed to help me and by dusk, everything was in place for us to start exploring the jungle for frogs.
I hadn’t expected to see the forest that was now in front of us, because I had associated bonobos with pristine swampy lowland rainforest. The site we now found ourselves in was a patchwork of grassy savannahs and rather dry rainforest with a few small streams passing from one area into the next. The exciting thing we discovered over several days of working in the area was that we could see species associated with either savannah or rainforest habitats on a daily basis, and there was just no telling what would turn up. Over the better part of a week, we uncovered burrowing skinks, Causus vipers, and plated lizards that occur in the savannah. The forest species were even more interesting, and included a new species of Arthroleptis frog that was no larger than the fingernail on my pinky. An impressive diversity of snakes showed up too, ending the long serpentine dry spell we had experienced before coming to Nkala. Below is a mystery frog for my students to work on for the cybertaxonomy project.
Aristote suddenly took up the habit of wearing a ski mask during our nightly excursions into the forest, and after finding several very rare frogs, I started teasing him that maybe his mask was magic. He immediately agreed with my viewpoint, and his good luck continued every time he wore the mask into the forest.
To our great disappointment, the trackers who normally make contact with the bonobos daily lost track of the group just before our visit, and we were not able to see even a trace of the apes during the six days we spent at Nkala. It was a real bummer to miss out on the objective of our visit, but I can’t complain after the incredible diversity of amphibians and reptiles we found there. Perhaps there will be a chance to catch a glimpse of the apes in Salonga if we are very lucky, but we are more likely to see crocodiles there. Will try to post again after we’ve worked at Lake Mai-Ndombe for a few days.