Grand Theft Moto 4

14 July 2015: Kindu, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Because I was able to get ahold of a portable modem today, I was able to update some photos from the previous post, and I’ve uploaded several more for this one.  UTEP students please note that the previous post now has photos ready for the cybertaxonomy project, and this one does as well.  The fieldwork is now over and I am in the process of traveling back to Goma to obtain export permits, an endeavor that is usually not very exciting, and thus this will likely be my last post for the year.  I’ve made it a good long one and hope everyone will enjoy!

Just minutes after uploading my last post at Katopa, Aristote met a man in the nearby village, who told him that he had killed a snake four days ago.  They went to find the thing, and although it was badly decomposed, it turned out to be something quite rare.  The grayish black body was unusually long, and in the tattered remains of the head, I could see a distinctive, very long fang.  It was an Atractaspis, a genus commonly known as stiletto snakes (for the switchblade-like fangs) or burrowing vipers, although they are not closely related to the true vipers.  The fangs are so long that several herpetologists have been bitten when they have foolishly tried to pick up the snake from the back of the head—for every other kind of venomous snake in the world this is a safe way to handle them, but Atractaspis only need to swivel the fang out the side of the mouth and with a quick muscle contraction a finger is penetrated.  The venom varies from very mild to deadly depending on the species, but most species in Central Africa are so rare that the venom strength is unknown in most cases.  Wandege had the misfortune of being bitten by Atractaspis irregularis, a species that occurs in the Albertine Rift along the eastern border of Congo, and he nearly died from an agonizingly painful bite in 2013.  My Ph.D. student Frank Portillo is doing his dissertation on this group of snakes, and if we are very lucky, some of the muscle I was able to get from the carcass will contain enough DNA to be usable for his project.  Sometimes a DNA sample is all it takes to identify a species, especially a really rare one like this, and thus improve information about its geographic distribution.  Many times I have taken a DNA sample from an unrecognizable road-killed snake and discovered later from the genetic analyses that it is something very rare with a poorly known distribution.

In the evening when we returned to the forest where we had found the unusual, green Leptopelis the night before, they were gone (perhaps the downpour had triggered them for a one-night performance only?), but we did manage to find a single specimen of another species with a distinctive white tarsal spur.  There seemed to be a few more of them calling around us, but we figured out that they were so high up in the trees that it would be impossible to find any more.  When we returned to the campsite, we could hear a group of people banging on a tom-tom (a huge African drum that was used for communication across long distances until the end of the 20th century) and singing, apparently as part of a mourning ceremony for someone who had died.  Chif said they would continue the ceremony day and night for 3 days, a practice that occurs all over the country regardless of the tribe.  Of course the exact rhythm of the music and the language of the singing can vary from place to place, and Chif said that around Kinshasa, some tribes will continue the practice for 7 days straight, presumably without sleeping.

Over the next few days we continued to have slim pickings, at one point spending most of the day to visit a horrendously hot savanna locality on the western side of the Lomami River to find only a single frog.  It seemed to be the same species as the colorful savanna species we had found on the eastern side (photo now on previous post), and at least some of the other frogs and lizards seemed to be the same too, suggesting that perhaps the Lomami wasn’t the major biogeographic barrier that people thought it might be.  Hopefully the DNA will tell us the full story in the coming months when the samples are analyzed in the lab at UTEP.

Realizing that we were getting diminishing returns for our efforts, I decided to move the team back to Kindu a little earlier than planned so that we would have time to sample one more forest on the eastern side of the Lualaba River.  A team of 7 motorcycles was able to make the long drive to meet us at Katopa, and after a ridiculous one-hour argument among the drivers about where we would eat along the way, we left for the 11-hour journey back to Kindu.  We again passed through beautiful stands of rainforest intermixed with burning hot savannas, which created fishtailing problems for the motorcycles because of the deep white sand in places, but mostly the long ride was uneventful.  We passed by many places with beautiful little streams in the forest where I thought it would be great for us to work if only we had more time.

I decided to treat the team to a nice dinner at a local hotel when we arrived in Kindu, and after finishing the meal, Aristote wanted to show me how nice his room was.  It was a bargain for only $15 per night, and very spacious and comfortable, he said.  When he opened the door to his bathroom, I saw a bat roosting on a clothesline that had been suspended over his grimy bathtub.  Spooked by our presence, it took off flying around our heads and Aristote and Wandege laughed at me as I recoiled with horror.  I’m not particularly afraid of bats, but I do not want to be bitten by one in an accidental experiment to see what kind of hemorrhagic diseases it is carrying!  In general, I try to avoid direct contact with all mammals in Central Africa (especially bats and rodents), because they are carriers of a long and nasty list of zoonotic diseases, some of which may not yet be known to science.

Once I had finished providing the evening’s entertainment, we sat down to discuss where we would go next.  Chifundera reminded me that we were near Pangi, where Belgian herpetologist Raymond Laurent had described a frog called Rana amieti in 1976 (based on specimens he had collected 26 years previously), or so we thought.  When I managed to hop online to double check on the Amphibian Species of the World website, it turned out that it had been described from the territory of Pangi, but the exact place was a tiny little speck of a village called Lubile, where Laurent had found several of the frogs in forest in January 1950.  Laurent had named the frog for his French colleague Jean-Louis Amiet, who worked in Cameroon and published extensively on Central African frogs, describing scores of new species in the process.  Amiet’s influence on African herpetology was so great that, years later, another French herpetologist named Alain Dubois (still at the natural history museum in Paris) coined the genus Amietia for him, which is still recognized today for African frogs that were in the genus Rana.  And thus, the frog from Lubile is now a double namesake called Amietia amieti.  Amiet recently published an enormous tome on the small frogs of Cameroon based on his life’s work there, and I recently learned from colleagues at Paris that at 84 years old, Amiet still regularly conducts fieldwork around his house in Nyons.  Amiet is obviously one of the heroes of African herpetology, and I certainly hope to publish as much as he has by the time I consider retirement.  I deeply regret I didn’t have time to make the journey to Nyons to meet with him when I was in France in May, but perhaps I can try next time I visit—nobody will have to twist my arm too hard to return to France in the near future.  At this moment, I would do just about anything for a cup of chocolate mousse and a glass of cabernet from Paris!

Because Amietia amieti was the only species of Amietia (commonly known as African River Frogs) known from Congo that I had not yet found, I was eager to follow through with our plan to visit Lubile for a few days.  The only problem is Murphy’s Law—with very few exceptions over the course of my career, I usually haven’t found the species I am targeting when I visit the type locality, or the exact place where the species was described from in the original publication.  In my experience, the habitat at these places is often destroyed (most species in Congo were described based on collections made in the 1950s or earlier before widespread deforestation took place), or for whatever the reason the targeted species doesn’t show up because we’re not looking in the exact right place known only to the long-dead original collector, or perhaps we are there at a time of year when it is inactive.  Nonetheless, with a small chance of filling in the only gap in my sampling for this genus, I decided we would roll the dice and spend 3 days in Lubile.

Bright and early the next morning, only a couple hundred meters from the guesthouse in Kindu, we dealt with the usual chaos of negotiating our passage (and again 7 motorcycles) in dugout canoes across the Lualaba River, which took the better part of an hour.  After that, we crossed the Ulindi River on a nice bridge, and it was smooth sailing for the dusty two-hour drive to Kamina, where we stopped for a quick lunch of goat meat and beer.  Along the way Wandege spotted yet another enormous forest cobra on the side of the road, but his longshot attempt to snag it with his snake tongs from the back of a moving motorcycle failed, and it took off into the bush, never to be seen by us again.

From Kamina the semi-paved road (perhaps remnants left over from the colonial era) disappeared and we were on a muddy and rocky footpath leading us through small villages and long intermittent tracks of bamboo forest, reminding me of negative memories of the horrible quagmire the team endured in the Ituri Forest in 2014 on the destroyed road between Buta and Isiro (see blog from 2014).  Even though it hadn’t rained in a long time, the shade created by the enormous clumps of bamboo effectively make the road a dark tunnel protected from the sun, and large pools of water and mud accumulate on the ground.  Although I probably weighed at least 50 lbs. more than my motorcycle driver, he managed to keep our bike upright through the slippery tracks of flooded road, and thankfully, we never took a tumble into the large pools of ooze that were traversed with some difficulty.  While passing through one of these areas, the lead motorcycle in our caravan ran over a green snake, which turned out to be the relatively widespread and common species Philothamnus carinatus, or 13-scaled green snake.

As we neared Lubile, I became hopeful that the habitat would be very good, because we passed through several kilometers of breathtakingly beautiful forest.  I would learn later from Chif that this small patch of forest was set aside by the Belgians in the 1930s as Melongo Forest Reserve.  Some of the trees seemed to be over 100 feet tall, and like all rainforests in Africa, they were heavily laden with large tangles of lianas, which were the inspiration for the legend of Tarzan to swing through trees.  Below is a photo of this forest.


Unfortunately, the beautiful scene of the forest evaporated into a typical Congolese village when we reached the outskirts of Lubile a few kilometers later.  The village is obviously much larger than it was in the colonial era, and all the forest in the area had been cleared for agriculture, and even the surrounding hills were a patchwork of crops and a few rainforest trees that had been spared the axe, at least for now.  The only bright spot was that the Lubile River was about 3 kilometers east of the village at the exact border between Maniema and South Kivu provinces, and because it was outside the village, some of the gallery forest along the river’s edge had been spared.  After meeting with the local authorities, we were told we would have to make our base camp in the village with a police escort (not really because of security concerns, but as a way to get money), and then we could keep one of our motorcycle drivers to shuttle us back and forth to either the Lubile River or Melongo.  Chifundera selected Dieu Donne (French for God gives), one of the more reliable and less problematic drivers we had used to Lomami and back.

All of these logistics took time to set up, so the first night the team collected around the degraded stream near our campsite, and found a few “trash” species that prefer to live in the ecologically destroyed environments of villages.  The only surprising exception was a handful of Phlyctimantis treefrogs, which we have found in only a handful of forests in eastern Congo before, mostly in the mountains.

The second night we were prepared to do a proper search in both the Lubile River and Menongo Forest, so I decided to split the team in two—Wandege and I would sample Menongo (with a police escort of course) while Chifundera and Aristote would work around the Lubile with their escort.  When Chif had checked the Lubile during the day to find an optimal place to work at night, he said the forest was in slightly better shape than the village, but it was not great.  I was just about to take off with Wandege on our motorcycle when Chifundera stopped us at the last minute and switched him out for Aristote.  I didn’t completely understand why he made this decision, and I didn’t have the patience to have him justify it, because I just wanted to get into the forest and see what was there, but it turned out to be a lucky break for me.  If the sensitive Wandege had been with me instead of Aristote when the catastrophe struck later that night, he probably would have sat down and cried instead of take control of the situation, which is exactly what Aristote did.

Soon after heading west from Lubile, Aristote and I realized we didn’t know if there were any streams (where frogs tend to congregate) that passed through Menongo, and the information he had tried to get from the locals about this was vague.  We passed by only one stream that was perpendicular to the road, but it was at the edge of the village well before Menongo and the forest on each side of it was heavily damaged.  As the sun began to set, we stopped at a few places along the road where there seemed to be a trail into the forest, thinking that maybe one of them led to water.  We wandered around for the better part of an hour in this way, but the only thing that turned up was a couple gecko eggs (about 1 cm long) that had been deposited inside an abandoned termite nest.  I thought I might be able to identify the species by taking a DNA sample, but the next day when I examined them more closely, I found that they had completely dried out inside, and their identity will likely remain a mystery forever.

We were about to give up our strategy when an especially well-used path into the forest was spotted.  I thought if it looked promising that our driver would return to Lubile to fetch our police escort, but instead, he hid his motorcycle a few meters down this path and followed Aristote and I into the forest.  We walked for about a mile into the forest when Aristote decided to follow a small trail off the main path—he told me to wait 5 minutes, which I did, but after 20 he hadn’t returned.  Dieu and I decided to go down the path to look for him, and after starting down this way, we heard somebody with a radio playing music on the main path we had just left.  Whoever it was nearly reached the intersection with the small path we had entered when they decided to turn back the way they had come.  We didn’t think anything of it, and a few minutes later we caught up with Aristote, who had found some water at the end of the trail, but it was a man-made fish pond, and the handful of frogs he collected were mostly the same trash species we had found at our campsite at Lubile.  However, the pond had been fed by a small stream leading out of the forest, and perhaps we could reach the stream in a more pristine place if we continued down the main path we had been on before.

We followed that plan, walking deeper into the forest, when Aristote spotted a sleeping gecko curled up on a piece of vegetation at waist-height near the edge of the trail.  As he carefully unfolded the coiled tail from the stalk of the plant, I realized he had found a very rare gecko that we had encountered only once before in Ituri—Hemidactylus echinus, commonly known as the Hedgehog Leaf-Toed Gecko.  Originally described from Gabon (a country often with animals that are genetically distinct from Congo in my analyses), samples of the gecko are obtained so rarely that nobody knows for sure if the species really extends all the way into Congo, or if the gecko we had found is actually a new species that is only superficially similar to bona fide echinus.  It is possible that the species spends most of its time in the canopy, only rarely coming down to the forest floor, and perhaps that is why it is so rarely encountered.  Below is a photo.

Gecko Eye Lick

We continued on the path, finally descending an especially steep hill to a small valley with a tiny stream.  The stagnant water smelled foul, but I quickly found some Hylarana frogs hanging out on vegetation near the water, and Aristote and I both found some tiny Arthroleptis hiding in the leaf litter near the stream.  Nothing was calling, and after searching around a bit longer, we decided to call it a night and head back.  Covered in sweat and tired from the uphill hike back to the main road, all of us were shocked when we returned to find that Dieu’s motorcycle was missing.  Perhaps the person playing the radio had come down the trail to see if the owner was around, and failing to find us, decided to steal the motorcycle.  We frantically searched around for a minute or two before deciding that the motorcycle really was gone, and we had no choice but to walk to the nearest village.  Luckily we were only a few hundred feet from the western edge of Menongo, and we found a village nearby.  Everyone came out of their huts when Dieu started making a fuss about his missing bike, and a meeting was immediately set up with the village chief.

Aristote guided me to a small circle of people, including the chief, who were sitting on wooden chairs of traditional African style, but somebody brought a more Western-styled chair for me to sit in.  More often than not, my hips are too wide to fit into the small-framed African chairs, and somebody was nice enough to save me the embarrassment of trying to squeeze into one.  A heated conversation took place in which Dieu recounted how he had hidden his motorcycle in the nearby forest, how we had heard somebody with a radio coming down the path, and how we had returned to find his bike gone.  He had the key with him, so the thief would not be able to drive the motorcycle anywhere, and most likely it had been stashed someplace until a co-conspirator could come back to hot wire it.  Aristote told me to stay put while he, Dieu and seemingly every male in the village disappeared to look for the missing motorcycle.

As the light from their headlamps died away, my eyes slowly adjusted to the moonless night, and I found myself sitting at the edge of a group of women, their small children, and three half-starved dogs that sniffed me suspiciously before losing interest.  Apparently somebody had told the women that my Swahili was limited, because they made no attempt to talk to me, so I just listened for the better part of two hours as they chatted about their work day, man troubles, and how hungry they were.  Their words were interrupted by frequent coughing from all of them, and not a quick cough from the accidental inhalation of an insect as happens to me, but the deep, juicy and body-wracking cough of someone who has a chronic health problem.  They seemed indifferent to the incessant crying of one of the children who stood alone just outside the edge of the group, and I winced from the pitiful squeals of the dogs as they were punished for wandering too close to their masters in search of a scrap of food.  Every now and then an old man wandered into the clearing and ordered one of them to do something, and they groaned as they slowly got up to obey the command, complaining that they were tired and hungry in the process. All of these observations reminded me that life in Congo is VERY hard, especially for those who have the fewest resources to deal with the many challenges that arise in a country with poor infrastructure and few public health services.  I also began to wonder if the compassion and empathy for all life (human and animal) that is such an integral part of American culture is the exception or the norm in the rest of the world.  As my mind wandered during the seemingly endless sojourn in the dark, I tried to admire the stars and listened to the haunting call of a tree hyrax, which was shrieking from somewhere deep in the forest.

Eventually the men returned with Dieu’s bike in tow.  Something minor was broken, a spare tire he had bought was missing, and it was completely covered in mud, but otherwise it was fine.  Someone had indeed hidden it deep in the forest, but everyone had fanned out, and eventually it was found.  Hooray!  I paid each man in the search party some money, and I threw in some money for the women so that they (and hopefully their dogs as a consequence) could have something to eat.  Everyone was very happy, but before we left, Aristote had the chief write down the name of everyone who had participated in the search.  This was very clever, because he had a strong suspicion that one of them was in fact the thief, and he planned to hand the list over to the police chief in Lubile for further action on the day we left.  When we finally returned to our camp just before midnight, I was surprised to find that the rest of the team was in bed, and unconcerned that we hadn’t turned up as planned.  Chif had good news—in addition to a handful of frogs that were of moderate interest and a relatively common species of snake (Gonionotophis poensis, common in lowland rainforest throughout Congo), they had managed to capture a single individual of Amietia amieti!  In an instant I forgot all the hardships from the evening, and I smiled as I looked at the first individual of the species any herpetologist had seen in many years.  Below is a photo.


Soon after waking the next morning, Aristote showed up with a dead snake and a story.  A woman was about to use a fish pond as her bathtub when she saw the snake swimming across the water.  Like all snakes that wander into an African village, she dispatched it with a stick, and remembering our mission, decided to bring it to us.  I’m glad she did that.  The snake was another Gonionotophis, but unlike the gray or purplish black color of the common species G. poensis the team had captured the previous night, this one was more of a matte black with two rows of white spots that formed dashed lines on the sides of the body.  I honestly have no idea what species it is, and because many species of reptiles from all over the world have been described from only a single specimen (perhaps because they are exceptionally rare), who knows if this could be another one.  I am probably more excited to test the DNA of this animal than I am for anything else we have found on the expedition this year.

On our final night at Lubile I had the team return to the Lubile River to try to find more individuals of Amietia amieti, but they didn’t see any more.  I guess the herpetology gods wanted to be happy with the single individual they had granted to us.  However, they did come up with 5 very rare frogs, one of which is shown below for the cybertaxonomy project.

Card Crawl

After our dusty caravan returned to Kindu it was very nice to have a bucket of water for a bath for the first time in several days, a bed to sleep in, and the exceptional luxury of an electric fan to keep me cool at night.  Today was mercifully overcast, so I was able to type up this post in relative comfort with good food.  Tomorrow we plan to do a return flight to Goma, where I hope to send Wandege and Aristote to Rutchuru for a quick one-night collecting trip into the marshes there.  In the near future they are going to dam the river leading into the marsh to provide the locals with hydroelectric power, a necessary concession in exchange for local community support of the conservation efforts at Virunga National Park.  It is likely that the frogs from the marsh will disappear, so better sample now before it is too late.  After that, nothing but permit paperwork and killing time until I can have my rendezvous with Mathias and Danny at the Uganda border (Bunagana) on the 19th.  From there it’s back to Kampala to prepare for my flight home.  Really looking forward to a hot shower at the hotel!

And so as the current NSF-funded expedition comes to a close, I’d like to thank those of you who have taken the time to follow my blog.  It’s been a lot of fun writing it, even more fun going through the experiences to write about, and I will definitely miss the exciting surprises that make these expeditions worthwhile and interesting.  I hope to apply for more funding to continue and expand this work in the future, but most likely, at least for the next year, it will be nothing but lab work to figure out exactly what we have found in the field.  Please keep an eye out for updates on my main homepage—future successful grant projects will be announced there, and I am trying to find a publisher for a book I have written about my very eventful expeditions in 2008 and 2009.  Those trips were so rough that they made my recent experiences in Congo seem like a trip to Disneyland.  Four years in the making, the book is written for the general public and mixes a harrowing story of my fieldwork with original scholarship on Congo’s history, cultures, languages, geography, tropical diseases, conservation efforts, biology of other animals (including gorillas, okapi, elephant, and more), and other aspects that may be of interest to anyone with an interest in Africa.  Rest assured that once the book is in the pipeline, I will promote it to all who are interested.  Thank you!

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