28 June 2015: Chombe Kilima (aka Tshombe Kilima), Democratic Republic of the Congo
The plan I outlined at the end of the last post was executed successfully, but it was not easy. After dropping Wendy off at the airport for her 11:30 PM flight to Europe, Mathias and I took a catnap for a few hours before backtracking from Kampala back to Kisoro for about 10 hours, and towards the end of the trip, some bad food I had eaten in Kampala the night before finally caught up with me. That made the border crossing into DR Congo and the 4.5 hour drive from Bunagana (near Kisoro) to Goma all the more miserable, but at least I was able to greet my Congolese colleague Mwenebatu Aristote along the way. I also snuck in a quick meeting with Danny before I slipped out of Kisoro, and he seemed to be in great health and spirits as usual.
We had been lucky to find the truck to take us to Goma in the first place, because I crossed the border in the late afternoon, and all the Chinese minibus taxis that ferry travelers to Goma had already left for the day. For a handsome fee, a local businessman agreed to drive us to Goma in his pickup truck, which was already stuffed with lawn chairs, but upon inspection of the vehicle, I wondered if we would make it. The body looked like it had been through a million minor collisions, the back window was completely destroyed and was now covered in transparent plastic, and the windshield was barely intact, with several cracks and a large piece of blue plastic holding it in place along the top third of its width. When I got inside, I had to hunch my head down to see around a huge impact crater on the side of the windshield, and there was no sign of any seat belts. When he started the engine up, it roared to life with a loud jolt, and the shaky vibrations belied the fact that it had probably been ages since a mechanic had given the truck a proper tune-up.
The long and very bumpy ride to Goma reminded me that I was once again in the poorest and least developed country in the world. Our pace along the road was frustratingly slow because the pavement had worn away, leaving a pockmarked trail of exposed rocks at all angles, long crack-like fissures, and large holes that jostled our vehicle with violent thuds. The suspension was all but destroyed, and after every hour passed without complete disintegration of the vehicle, I marveled that it was a minor miracle that we were continuing on our way.
We passed through a couple police and military checkpoints as the road snaked through the very southern tip of Virunga National Park, which has suffered from the presence of armed militias in the recent past (see the sobering documentary movie Virunga on Netflix for more information about the park and its many challenges). I didn’t mind pulling out my passport and letter of invitation for my research so that they could confirm I was not up to no good, and it was heartening to see that the local authorities are taking the security of the park seriously. They will certainly need to continue doing so if the integrity of the park and its world-heritage wildlife are to survive the 21st century. Unfortunately, the wildlife of the park has been seriously damaged in comparison to what it was in the colonial era. For example, African wild dogs have been wiped out, and hippos, which once numbered in the tens of thousands, have dwindled down to a few hundred. The hippos are a key component of the aquatic ecosystems in the park, including rivers and Lake Edward, which supplies fish (often the only source of protein) to many local people. If the hippos disappear completely, the fisheries may collapse.
Once we approached the outskirts of Goma, we passed by a fenced-in United Nations compound, and then made an abrupt turn down a hill and emerged onto a surprisingly good, paved road. Perhaps because there is a large amount of humanitarian aid and economic activity passing through Goma nowadays, someone had found enough money to build a decent road through the middle of the city. In other parts of Congo, agreements between the government and Chinese investors looking for natural resources of all kinds have resulted in the development of new roads—perhaps this was one of those agreements as well. Too exhausted to contemplate it any further (I’d been traveling for about 20 hours at that point) we pulled into the “Labyrinthe” hotel, and Aristote and I booked a couple rooms for the night. They obviously hadn’t been cleaned for a while, but at least they had their own bathrooms, which is a rare luxury in Congo.
As planned on the next day, Wandege showed up at the hotel to greet me and let me know that Chifundera was already at the airport obtaining exit visas for the Congolese, but our cook Paluku from the previous summer wouldn’t be making it. We hurried over there as quickly as possible to a scene of complete and utter chaos—people crowding around to weigh their baggage, get it checked in, pay extra weight fees, and get to the departure lounge. Nobody seemed to be in charge, heated arguments were occurring everywhere, and baggage was being rushed to and fro with chaotic rapidity. Beads of sweat dampened my shirt as I tried to observe things from the sidelines, but I had to wade into the fray whenever Chifundera needed to answer a query from one of the airline officials. We would be flying on Central African Airlines, the same company we had used in 2013 to return from Mbandaka to Kinshasa. Given the long list of airlines that have extensive travel warnings in Central Africa, I had been pleased to see that they were using modern aircraft with professional pilots.
After a few more hassles, including a health official who, in spite of an extensive list of vaccinations listed on my yellow fever card, questioned whether the list was truly complete, I entered the departure lounge and waited to catch my flight. Without solid information, Aristote gestured to one of the relatively small twin-engine planes and suggested it was our plane, because he had taken one like it when I had sent the team to Kindu for a preliminary expedition the previous month. But since the schedule had changed, we would be traveling on a large Airbus A320 because we would stop in Kindu, and then the plane would continue to the capital Kinshasa. After taking off, I marveled how we crossed the entire length of Lake Kivu in only a few minutes, because by truck, the journey takes about 12 hours! As the short 40-minute flight came to an end, we descended from the clouds to a seemingly endless sea of rainforest canopy, interrupted only occasionally by the light brown clearing of a small village. I could also see the curvy path of the Lualaba River, which is the continuation of the Congo as it passes from Kisangani through a series of waterfalls to Kindu and east to Lake Tanganyika.
Excited that we were now moving closer to the remote corner of Congo I wished to explore, I hopped off the plane into an oppressive wall of heat and humidity. Goma had been hot, but it was nothing compared to this. As we moved into town, I caught a glimpse of an enormous cathedral that had been built just after independence, and several old Belgian houses and buildings near the center of town. Thanks to the generosity of Terese Hart, I was allowed to stay in one of these during my brief sojourn in the town to buy supplies and find transportation to TL2. Following suggestions from her, I planned to hire a motorcycle crew (the roads are too out of shape for trucks) to ferry my team and I to Chombe-Kilima near the southern edge of TL2. In fact, I discovered that TL2 had recently become an official protected area, Lomami National Park. It was nice to see that the Congolese government was taking steps to safeguard the “conservation landscape” that had been established at TL2 a few years before. The park has significant populations of bonobos (the peaceful and promiscuous cousin of the chimpanzee), elephant, Congo peacock, and many other important animals and endangered species. Of course the reason I wanted to come here is because the herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles) is virtually unknown.
Following the usual chaos associated with our departure from a big town into parts unknown, we assembled 9 motorcycles (unfortunately one of these proved to be unnecessary, but we discovered that fact too late) and drove out of town. As we were leaving Kindu heading north, I was surprised to see a few UN soldiers heading into town from a nearby base (and they seemed surprised to see me too), but the last vestiges of the town soon disappeared, and gave way to relatively flat expanses of marshy grasslands and croplands. As the hours passed, these grasslands became increasingly pristine, and they were surrounded by large expanses of lowland rainforest. At times we passed through these forests in very narrow footpaths, and I had to be careful to duck below overhanging branches of bamboo and other trees that had fallen over the path. The forest and its grassy donuts seemed untouched by man, and one could easily imagine a herd of elephant emerging from the forest to drink from the marshy water. Occasional villages popped up to remind me that we were not yet in the core of the park, but I could certainly appreciate the natural beauty of the place. We saw no wild animals, perhaps because our bikes were making a racket, but plenty of eagles and other birdlife were abundant. Below is a photo I took as the team ferried across the Kasuku River in a dugout canoe, an operation that took about 45 minutes for multiple trips for all the bikes, luggage and people.
When we finally reached Chombe-Kilima after a 9-hour journey on the “road” from Kindu, we pulled into a small compound fenced in with a palisade of bamboo. It included two small mud-and-thatch buildings, and a few open structures that could shelter one from the rain and sun. I immediately set up my laboratory under one of the latter places, while the rest of the team erected tents and inquired about a cook. When Wandege pulled in, he presented me with the head of a relatively uncommon forest cobra (Naja melanoleuca) that someone had decapitated at the edge of the village to protect his countrymen.
A fit and middle-aged man named Jomi was the caretaker for the compound, which belonged to ICCN, the Congolese government authority for national parks and wildlife. He quickly found us a cook and other resources we needed to make dinner, and while I was waiting, somebody at a nearby part of the village started blasting a movie. As I contemplated how they had the power for a movie in such an isolated place (we were hours beyond any source of electricity), the music and English dialogue seemed oddly familiar. Within minutes I identified the flick as Terminator 2—the music of Guns-N-Roses and dialogue of Arnold Schwarzenegger were unmistakable, and I would learn later that somebody had access to a solar charger to provide the entertainment.
Somehow Wandege and Aristote had enough energy to take a quick look into the nearby forest, and I was delighted when they returned with a handful of frogs and a tree snake. However, I was disappointed to see that everything was common species that we had found last summer while working in the Ituri Forest, including Hyperolius ocellatus and a relatively common species of Dipsadoboa snake. Was the forest at Lomami really not so different from the ones I had already explored for months? That disturbing question lingered in my mind as I tried to fall asleep to loud gunfire and explosions from the movie.
As I began the work of photographing animals and searching the nearby forests and savannas for good places to work in the night, I had a little down time to have a chat with Jomi, while Aristote translated the Swahili I couldn’t understand. I was surprised to learn that he had been born in 1946 (he looked much younger), well before the end of the colonial era in 1960. He explained that Chombe (meaning ancient forest) was the name of an old chief, probably the one who had founded the village, and Kilima (meaning mountain) was named for some large hill close to the Lomami River west of the village’s current location. He explained that the Belgians had some kind of operation at the summit of the hill there (perhaps mining), and for unknown reasons, they had decided to name the current village for that place. I asked him what the village had been like when he was a kid. Back then, he told me, elephants were absolutely everywhere, including the edge of the village, along with lion (now long gone throughout most of Central Africa), leopard (still present but rare), buffalo (again rare), and many other animals that are either gone or quite rare. He said everything changed in the late 1960s when the dictator Mobutu “gave guns to everyone” and they proceeded to shoot the animals for food and to make a little extra money. Chifundera even told me that Mobutu had a dedicated hunter to kill lion, leopard and elephants to make money for the skins and ivory. What had been a veritable zoological garden was virtually wiped out forever.
Or so it was thought. Elephants are rather smart, and when they realized the area had become too dangerous, they retreated west across the Lomami River to the remote depths of the equatorial rainforest. But now that poaching has been brought under control, they are slowly starting to come back. John and Terese Hart are conducting research on elephants and other wild animals in Lomami to establish a current head count, conduct research and make recommendations for conservation policy, and of course I wish them all the luck in the world in these critically important endeavors.
Last night after finding a promising place to work along a forested stream, we finally hit paydirt and found a bunch of frogs that have been seen only once before in a completely different part of the Congo Basin (not yet clear if they are the same species or just look similar), or in the case of the toad pictured below, never.
It is likely a new species, and it will be a welcome addition to the nearly (and finally!) completed megaproject I’ve been working on for Congo Basin toads. As toads go, I would venture he is an especially striking fellow with colorful tubercles on the side of his body, and one can see from the color pattern how he is trying to camouflage himself as fungi-ridden dead leaves. The paratoid glands (poison glands possessed by all toads behind the eyes) are unusually long and thin, and thus, I have no idea who its closest relative will turn out to be. We’ve also found some treefrogs (genus Leptopelis) that look rather unusual, but because this genus is so variable, we will have to wait for some preliminary results from the DNA work in the laboratory to venture a guess about its identity too.
With only two short weeks remaining before we have to turn our attention back to the return to Kindu and on to Goma and the return to Kampala, there is no time to waste and I am hopeful that our work will continue to go well and yield many exciting surprises. We are contemplating a hellishly long hike west through the park to Katopa, which is on the other side of the Lomami River, perhaps another major biogeographic barrier to some herpetological groups. If we decide to make that trip, I should have another good story or two to tell in a week or so.
One final thing to note: thanks to everyone, especially my students, who are making comments and participating in the cybertaxonomy project. Because I have to approve all new users and comments by email and there are precious few megabytes available by satellite modem for this, most approvals will have to wait until the expedition is nearly over. Sorry for any inconvenience, and thanks for your understanding! E