Walls of Green
26 July 2013: Watsi Kengo, Salonga River, DR Congo. After spending an interminable six days at an-oven like hotel in Mbandaka waiting for everything to fall into place with the logistics for our long journey to Salonga, we finally left and transferred everything to the backyard of a beautiful colonial-era home on the Ruki River. Some of the siding was falling apart, but otherwise the house looked much the same as it did in the 1950’s, when Mbandaka (or Coquilhatville as it was called then) was probably the most affluent city in the Congo. Two small motorized boats filled with rainwater rusted away in the backyard, and I noticed strategically planted mango and lemon trees. A 50-foot tall television antenna was still supported by wires anchored into slabs of concrete. An attractive staircase made from rocks snaked its way down the steep slope from the backyard to a dock at the river. Looking downriver, I could see numerous other similar houses with a beautiful view of the river and the deforested opposite bank.
We arrived just after 10 in the morning, and everything seemed to be in order. We transferred all our gear down to the shore, and at least a couple dozen jerry cans of fuel and motor oil were placed neatly under the shade of one of the enormous mango trees. But then Chifundera told me we had to wait for immigration officials to give their blessing before we could leave. Unlike most other countries, in Congo immigration officials hound foreigners whenever they travel from one territory (equivalent of a county) to another, especially at airports, ports, and roadside checkpoints. I enjoyed the cool breeze wafting up from the river and watched a few boats filled with firewood and other goods slowly pass by as I waited. Finally, an unusually corpulent man (for Congo) showed up on a motorcycle and demanded to see the official documents authorizing our mission and my passport. His assistant showed up shortly thereafter to give his two cents in between the questions to Chifundera. This went on for about an hour, and at one point the assistant suggested I should stay in Mbandaka so that I could teach a course in English. It took a little while for me to explain that I was already being paid to do another job, but eventually, both officials decided to let us leave after insisting that we pay $15 for nautical maps we didn’t need. And then I was given the bad news that one of the boat motors we had rented wasn’t working properly, and our captain, a very tall man named Jonathan, had gone looking for a replacement. In fact, the boat I had already paid to rent was too big, so we had to find a replacement for that too. I tried not to become enraged as I questioned why Chifundera had failed to check out all of this before we were ready to depart. “I understand your perspective,” he began. “But in Congo things are VERY difficult…” and he went on and on until I told him not to bother explaining any further. As the afternoon sun waned, I had to accept that we were not leaving and I set up my tent to pass the night.
Finally the next day at about 9 we motored away from the shore and headed east. We passed some crumbling ports, complete with rusting cranes, as well as some old churches, warehouses and old Belgian mansions with waterfront views. Beyond the city, there was a great marsh, and the local fishermen had built little wooden bamboo and thatch huts on stilts above the water. I couldn’t imagine why someone would purposely want to live in a mosquito-ridden swamp with no shade from the powerful equatorial sun, but perhaps the fishermen wanted to be close to the market where they could sell their daily catch.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the marshy plants and small trees transitioned into larger and larger trees until we were finally surrounded by beautiful, pristine rainforest on both sides of the river. Fishing eagles with white-tipped wings became increasingly common, as did various other birds. White butterflies with a reticulate black pattern on their wings were especially common, and in some places, dozens of them fluttered around the water adjacent to our boat, occasionally nosediving into the water for a quick drink. It reminded me of a scene with dancing fairies from the movie Fantasia. At other times, beautiful lime-green or vibrant-blue butterflies darted in between us in the boat, keeping up with us for a mile or more, almost seeming curious about us. Although we passed through long stretches of riverine forest without seeing another human being, for the most part we could see tiny fishing villages on the riverbank every few miles or so. And so things continued for several days, as we camped in these villages just before dusk, and then either picked up and left the next morning, or stayed for a few days if the forest seemed promising for frogs. At times it was monotonous, but I never really tired of looking at the forest. No stretch of it was the same—in general tropical rainforests contain an enormous amount of biodiversity, both plant and animal, and the jumbled mix of tree species was extraordinary. In some places along the edge of the river, tiny reeds transitioned to rattan, palms, and then enormous giant trees over 100 feet tall. It was as if I was staring at enormous green walls on each side of the river, and only the tiny fishing villages interrupted them here and there. Below is a photo of the landscape from my perspective on the dugout canoe.
As we passed through some of these villages, there was a tragic reminder of how poor and underdeveloped Congo can be. In the village of Bomputu, an eight year-old girl died of some unknown disease the day we arrived. And the first night we spent in Watsi Kengo, I was awakened by people singing and drumming at 3 AM after a woman and her baby died in childbirth. Because this place is so isolated, there is no hospital when someone gets sick. At Bomputu there was a “health center,” but Chifundera explained they had no medication or trained nurse, and in reality it was a comfortable place to die if someone became ill.
Most of the villages had friendly people, who were always willing to accommodate us when we showed up out of the blue looking for a place to pass the night, or a good forest to look for frogs. But at Bomputu, about a day’s journey west of Watsi Kengo, my experience was a bit more negative. Although most of the fishing villages were so small that people didn’t bother to dig a latrine, Bomputu was large enough (perhaps 100 people) that the lack of a latrine made for very unsanitary conditions around the camp. As usual, when we showed up, the entire village dropped what they were doing to come and stare at us as we set up our camp, often screaming and chattering away with excitement. But at Bomputu, they didn’t stop after we had been there for two hours, and I felt obliged to use duct tape to cover up the small windows on my tent so that I could avoid the stares of all the people who gawked at me like I was an animal in a cage at the zoo. Somebody had a large speaker, which they used to blast Congo’s popular rumba music, the same exact 20 songs, for 20 hours per day. “Don’t they get tired of listening to the same songs?” I asked. “Don’t the neighbors complain when they begin to play the music at 4 AM?” Apparently not! We had made contact with a nearby village of pygmies, but when one of them tried to walk to Bomputu to give us a snake he had found in the forest, it escaped when he was beaten by a policeman for no reason. Unfortunately in many places in Central Africa, pygmies are treated as second-class citizens, and even considered to be animals by the various Bantu tribes. Finally, we were all shocked when a group of people at Bomputu decided to kill, cook and eat one of their pet dogs in front of us. We were not aware that dogs were on the menu in this part of Congo, but in retrospect, the tribes here seem to eat every kind of animal that they can catch, including insect larvae, frogs, snakes, turtles, lizards, birds, and mammals of all kinds.
Despite these unpleasantries, the work is going quite well. New species of frogs continue to be found, including some interesting toads that will be helpful for the project described in one of my earlier posts below. Yesterday, a fisherman brought us a water cobra that had slithered from the river right into his dugout canoe! When most of the children in Watsi Kengo came running into our camp, screaming with excitement after someone found a common rhinoceros viper, the vibrations scared a leaf-litter frog (Arthroleptis) with a flame-orange belly from its hiding place. Some unusual, possibly new species of day geckos (Lygodactylus) are also among the noteworthy finds during our leisurely journey down the Ruki, Busira, and Salonga rivers. Below is a photo of the day gecko.
Unfortunately, no sign of crocodiles, with the single exception of another hogtied dwarf crocodile that someone tried to sell to us at a small village near Watsi Kengo. We are told that once we enter the national park, just a few kilometers east of here, we will have a chance to see both Nile and Slender-snouted Crocodiles, both of which I would be delighted to see in the wild. Because there are no people living inside the park (with the unfortunate exception of poachers), I will be able to set up a camera trap to see what animals are present there, and we will deploy a drift fence with pitfall traps. This is simply a long piece of plastic sheeting, erected with saplings, which forms a little plastic fence in the middle of the forest. When a snake or lizard encounters the barrier, they don’t crawl over it, but instead follow along the edge of it in an attempt to go around it. When they reach the end of the fence, the idea is for them to fall into a big bucket (i.e., the pitfall) so that they can later be collected by an eager herpetologist. Although I have had some luck with this technique in West Africa, it hasn’t yet been successful on my previous trips to Congo, and all I can do is cross my fingers that we will have better luck this year. What is certain is that the drift fence/pitfall trap method, when it works, usually traps animals that are rarely encountered during visual, opportunistic surveys of the forest, which is how we find animals otherwise.
The only bummer to report is our miscalculation of fuel for the boat. Unfortunately, the people I hired to help with logistics in Mbandaka underestimated the amount of fuel it would take to reach Watsi Kengo, which is affected by the size of the boat, the number of passengers and gear, wind, and river current. All of these factors conspired to exhaust 50% of our fuel by the time we reached Watsi Kengo a couple days ago, and although I was able to send someone with a motorcycle to the larger town of Boende, about 50 miles north of us, to look for more fuel, it is not possible to buy enough to travel more than a few kilometers down the Yenge River into the park. On the one hand, I doubt the animal fauna differs very much. We are finding some species here that seem to be the same as some of the things we found at Lake Mai-Ndombe, and although many of the reptiles are rare, few of them seem to be potentially new to science. Then again, the tropical rainforest is a very heterogeneous place, and one never knows when a “magic spot” will be found with things that have never been seen before. It is disappointing that we cannot venture far into the park, but this is the first time we are attempting a major river expedition, and the mistakes we have made will allow us to have more effective and efficient expeditions in the future.
Below is a photo for the cybertaxonomy project. I will warn the students that this will probably be quite a challenge for them to identify, but give it your best shot! As a clue, I can tell you that I have never found this genus of frog before.
Our plan is to venture to a park ranger outpost about 25 kilometers east of here sometime this weekend, spend a few days there, then return to Watsi Kengo and slowly make our way west back to Mbandaka over the course of another week. My goal is to be back in Mbandaka by about August 10th so that we have plenty of time to return to Kinshasa. Our hope is to fly from Mbandaka to Kinshasa, which will save us at least a week traveling downriver by boat. The only wild card is whether the Congolese airline will allow us to travel with specimens soaked in formaldehyde- this would certainly be a no no in the US, but there is no FAA here so we will see!