In case you forgot…

Fizi, 11 January 2018

Things got off to a worrying start this year, because I came down with a cold just before leaving El Paso, it got much worse during the uncomfortably long flights to Africa, and I was so exhausted when I finally arrived in Bukavu that I wasn’t sure if I would ever recover.  When I met up with the team at my hotel, poor Wandege told me that three of his children were sick—one of his sons had malaria and two daughters were apparently poisoned by a neighbor.  I decided to delay leaving by one day and told him to use some of his salary to buy them medication, and I would use the extra time to rest a little more.  This was a wise decision, because the extra day of acclimation was very helpful and I felt much better when we left a day later.  However, when I was introduced to our driver, I wondered if the gods of fate were playing with me when he said his name was Faustin.  To understand what I’m talking about, check out my blog from 2014 when our driver at the time, also named Faustin, tried in vain to drive our team across the worst road I have ever experienced in Congo.

Luckily things haven’t been that bad, at least so far, but I have struggled to shake off other minor annoyances.  Because it has been a year and a half since I last visited Congo, I had forgotten about some of the mundane things that can occur during fieldwork here.  For example, I was reminded of the feeling of 4-day old clothes, because it is a bit of a production to wash up in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes when traveling between field sites, there simply isn’t time to do it.  At the behest of the village chief where we are staying, our campsite is next door to a church, and at exactly 5 AM each morning, somebody takes a crowbar and repeatedly bangs on a huge tire rim to call the most zealous worshippers to choir practice.  The insect fauna is easy to forget when one hasn’t been around it for a while, but an intrepid ant reminded me how annoying it can be when it silently slipped into my clothes and refrained from biting until it reached the most inaccessible part of my back, requiring me to drop everything, create a soundtrack of colorful language, and lean against a tree to dislodge it.  Perhaps most frustrating of all, our team has spent hours climbing the hills around Fizi looking for amphibians and reptiles, only to find common species that occur around our campsite.

But one must take these annoyances in stride, because there has been a lot of good too.  We were barely out of Bukavu when I spotted a relatively rare Afrotyphlops blind snake that had been run over on the road, quite a surprise given the surrounding agricultural landscape, and a very positive omen for the start of the expedition.  A few hours later I struck gold again when a Psammophis sand snake turned up on the road near Luvungi.  The color pattern is quite different from the species I have encountered before in the area, and it will be very exciting to sequence its DNA and identify it when I return to UTEP.

It has rained nearly every day, and the grass, bushes, and trees are luxuriant and blooming as a result.  As the scenery transitioned from agricultural landscape near Bukavu to grassland around the southern edge of Itombwe, to the euphorbia valley at Luvungi, and woodland/rainforest mosaic around Fizi, I marveled at the seemingly endless variations of green exhibited by the vegetation.  The flame-of-the-forest trees, as the name implies, are displaying flamboyant orangish-red flowers, and some of the acacia trees have beautiful yellow blooms that resemble tiny trumpets.  As we have wandered through different habitats in Fizi, I have paused frequently to admire the flowers of vines, creepers, and shrubs, and the occasional orchid, which has white flowers with purple striations.  The diverse chorus of many species of birds has augmented the beautiful scenery.

In the overall scheme of things, the expedition has been going very well.  I set up my outdoor laboratory under the shade of an enormous mango tree (see photo), and the team, including Franck and Gaby who successfully joined us from Kisangani (both wearing leather jackets I might add!), has been finding enough animals to keep my camera very busy.

At least two species of Hyperolius reed frogs, a Leptopelis treefrog, a Kassina “walking frog,” an unknown species of Phrynobatrachus puddle frog, Afrixalus spiny reed frogs, a possibly new species of Sclerophrys forest toad, and aquatic Xenopus are among the trove so far, and we have even found some snakes, including a Crotaphopeltis (shown below) that turned up at the edge of a stream during one of our night searches.  The calls of tiny Arthroleptis squeaker frogs have taunted us from the shrubby vegetation around our campsite, but because they are especially good at hiding when a bright light from our headlamp comes near, we failed to find even one for days.  In the end, however, we managed to find two handsome males.

My presence has proven to be very popular with the small army of school children who attend school next door to our campsite.  Regardless of the time of the day, they greet me at the top of their lungs by screaming “Good morning!” or “How arrre yuuuu!” Whenever they have a break from their classes, they bolt en masse to see what I am up to, and they screamed with delight when I skinned a 3-foot long puff adder (Bitis arietans).  I am sure they will miss the entertaining muzungu (white man) when we leave tomorrow.

On a not-so-positive note, Chifundera passed along some very sad news from Mt. Tshiaberimu in Virunga National Park.  As explained in detail in Emerald Labyrinth, I visited the tiny sliver of montane forest in 2008 when 16 gorillas still lived there, but their existence was precarious because the site was almost completely surrounded by a large human population, and a ranger had been killed just before my visit.  By late 2015, the gorillas dwindled to only six animals, and apparently all of them were recently killed by Mai Mai militia who added insult to injury by burning down the research station.  These militia want to gain access to the land so that they can plunder its natural resources, and if this is allowed to happen, an iconic section of the park will be destroyed forever.  The loss of the gorillas is truly horrible, but Tshiaberimu still contains a unique flora and fauna that must be protected, despite the formidable challenges.  Law enforcement by Virunga’s rangers will be crucial to this process, and they need all the help they can get—donations can be made on the park’s website.

Because park administrators and other stakeholders must understand the biodiversity that is harbored in their protected areas in order to implement sound conservation strategies, taxonomic inventories are essential.  Such research remains incomplete for much of Congo, especially for the amphibians and reptiles.  And thus, I am hopeful that the work my team is doing in Congo will help protect more of the country’s beautiful natural areas for many years to come.

We were planning to explore Kazimia Peninsula near the Bay of Burton on Lake Tanganyika, but a regional administrator refused to grant permission for our project, hinting that exorbitant fees would be required to change his mind.  Of course that is not going to happen.  While this is regrettable, because the peninsula hasn’t been explored by herpetologists for many years, we will instead turn our attention to the Kabobo Plateau to the south.  The steep slopes of Kabobo will be a challenging climb, but with a great deal of luck and a little rain, Callixalus will turn up after nearly 70 years of hiding.  If not, at least we will get plenty of exercise!

NOTE:  special thanks to Doctors Without Borders for allowing me to use their internet connection at Lulimba- I will be making another donation to them when I return, and hopefully the BGAN will work in the future!

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