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Dispatches from the Congo

Milwaukee Zoological Society

Dec. 31, 2007
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Nov. 26-29: Days begin to blur. Our progress is slowed by daily torrential downpours. We walk from sunup to sundown. We plan our routes and campsites according to where we are most likely to find water at the end of the day. Despite the rains, finding potable water is difficult, since the springs we seek may be bordered by a kilometer of swampland. I’m never too keen on sleeping in swamps, but occasionally we have to. If we stop too early in the day to make camp, the honeybee scouts find us. They relay their discovery to their hive, and by next morning they inundate us with legions of their kind that crawl over and into our backpacks, our clothing and food. …

During the days, we continue to follow Bobowa, who uncovers the path toward the Lolongo River, our intermediate destination. As we progress toward the ridge that marks the source of the Lolongo, we find a beautiful forest, but I note that the understory changes frequently from a lush herbaceous covering to large patches of small trees that create a thick ground layer. From past findings, we know that bonobos are less likely to nest in this type of forest. However, there are no absolute rules about where to find bonobos.

We continue to find their leftover snacks of plant stalks, and occasionally we come upon tree branches that they’ve torn off to use in games and displays of machismo. Moving ahead of the group, Edmond reads the signs. At once he nonchalantly grunts, Madame, a bonobo playground: He points to a 100-square-foot patch of stomped-down vegetation strewn with branches and ripped-off leaves. As I examine tree limbs, I imagine the sight of bonobos at play in the forest—obviously creating a ruckus. On our reconnaissance data sheet, Patrick notes this as another bonobo sign.

Eventually Bobowa’s path turns to the northwest, but now relying on the GPS and predetermined “go-to points,” we continue south-southwest toward the Yenge River into unknown terrain. At this point we have to hack our way with machetes …

We come across many ancient, deeply worn elephant boulevards. These unmistakable corridors crisscross our line of direction, and we gladly stop chopping and follow them as long as they head our direction. Occasionally Bunda spots fresh footprints of elephants that have recently passed this way. It appears, however, that these social beasts are traveling alone and not in groups. Since the early 1980s ivory poachers have virtually destroyed the seemingly infinite elephant population of Salonga. Elephants are now rare in these parts, as we see from the occasional “salines,” where elephants once mined the clay soils for minerals. These clearings are now partially overgrown by small trees. Still, it is thrilling to see elephant signs, and if we could protect this area between the rivers, the elephants could repopulate. I speculate with Patrick that the herbaceous forest undergrowth, so important for bonobos, might be threatened by the disappearance of this giant earth-moving herbivore. Elephants do not tread lightly—they rip up everything in their path and thus open the forest to light that in turn enables the growth of the herb Haumania, the principal year-round bonobo food. The abundance of small tree understory might be connected to the decline of elephants. The old boulevards eventually peter out, and we are left to forge our own pathway with machetes.

After 10 hours of walking, we plod on silently in search of a campsite. … My thoughts wander all over the place, but mostly to food (heaps of green salads, ice cream and cheese!) and what I will do when I’m once again clean and cold. It will be Christmas. Cookies and hot chocolate. I will travel by car on a highway at a frightening speed—a fear my senses take time to master … Fourmis! Ants! The guys in front of me shout, obliterating a useless reverie. Run, damn it! Praying for reserve, I outstrip the hoard of ants that run like a river up our path.

Bunda finds us a place to sleep—yes, in a swamp, but who cares anymore.

Evening time is pleasant, but it will surely rain before morning. There are fewer insects that eat us, and the cool night air makes us feel clean even though our noses say otherwise. We dry our day clothes over the smoky fire and have our cup of hot bouillon pour la force, for strength, as my African colleagues like to say. We make small talk that ranges often from politics, the civil war, old times and former missions, to a new topic—one I hesitate to bring up, but one I must eventually broach. I start by saying: All of you are in various stages of training and learning skills to monitor bonobos. What have you learned, and how will you continue when I can no longer join you? You know I’m getting older …We should begin to think about this and plan for that time. Bunda looks at me sweetly, but smiles as if he does not understand the question …

A friend of mine once said about those of us who wander into this forsaken country: We are doomed. We are doomed to simultaneously love and to dread this place, to suffer our frustrations and presence but yet to bitterly suffer our absence, to come to know the gifts and the losses, to see humanity in raw form stripped of material trappings. I cannot tell you that it is beautiful, but it is real, and therefore it is sacred like the nature in which it evolved. Doomed, I come to this point with gratitude.

Nov. 30-Dec. 1: We cannot get to the Yenge, but we are close to her clay cliffs. The forest understory is too dense, and with the rain, it will take too long. We still find food remains of bonobos up here in the higher elevations, but less frequently. Elephant signs continue. Even though we have not found the Yenge, it will be an easy effort to make a trail connection from the other side. We can bring the pirogue up the river and try to find an inlet or small river that will lead to terra firma. From this point, the Ika patrols can begin to use the pathway we make for patrolling the Yenge. Currently no park patrols exist in this region, and knowing this, poachers definitely exist.

We begin the 21-kilometer march back toward the Lolongo and take the path on which we arrived … After a full day of steady, fast-paced effort, we reach our first campsite, Camp Bunda, at dark …

Dec. 2: Leaving early in the morning in order to meet the pirogue on time, we hurry and cut a couple of straight-line transects in various forest blocks. Thus, we sample the forest for bonobos away from the main trail. We find nests in unlikely places, in the swamplands in trees standing in water. Our work is cut short by a downpour of such force that even Bunda takes out his poncho …

The backpacks get heavier by the minute as soaking rain finds its way down the necks and in the sides of our ponchos. The rain stops after a couple of hours. The last leg of our walk is through a swamp of hip-deep water.

When he hears us coming, Vincent calls out: Delta Force! Laughing and shaking hands, mission accomplished, we clamor on board, and head straight to Etate and to something decent to eat. With foresight, Vincent has kindly prepared a meal of rice and pondu (boiled, masticated manioc leaves) for a snack on board. The Salonga River opens before us, liberating our vision to take in the unaccustomed distances that lie ahead.


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