I write this last blog post sitting at my desk in Belgium. My laptop is plugged in, I will soon switch on the light and if I want a fresh drink on this sunny day, I just have to open the fridge. Before I explain you how I experienced the abrupt change in culture and way of life, let me tell you a bit more about my last days in the forest.
Around the beginning of September the bonobos on the east started eating botende (Pancovia sp.), a delicious orange fruit that usually grows in small trees with good visibility. It was nice to be able to see well these apes that I had been following for almost ten months. Another pleasure was the discovery of a first newborn for the immigrant female Zamu and the big Weyns’ duiker (Cephalophys weynsi) that adult female Soroka managed to catch. It was only by chance that we found Soroka when she was holding the already butchered duiker. There was not so much commotion and the females mostly peacefully shared the meat after rubbing each other’s genital swelling, the typical bonobo way to beg for food. The whole scenery was so different from what I have seen from the duiker hunt on the west. Why this difference? There is still much to learn about the behaviour of one of our closest relatives.
One day the bonobos crossed to the west side. The following day we saw an anomalure, a kind of flying squirrel (although phylogenetically they are not closely related to the real flying squirrels). The big rodent made an impressive glide between two distant trees. We think the bonobos might have eaten this animal. Observation conditions were terrible, but we saw several individuals eating a small mammal some thirty minutes later. That day the group travelled steadily east and finally crossed the Bompusa River. We made some attempts to do the same, but after trying several spots, decided to turn around. The water level was up to our chest when we were not even two meters from the bank, and I was not in a swimming mood that day. I felt a bit guilty about dropping the bonobos, but this feeling disappeared the next day when we crossed the Bompusa River on the regular log. Although it hadn’t rained in the study site, the water level nearly reached the highest point I ever witnessed. Rains can be very localized in the tropics.
One of my last days with the bonobos, they treated me on a lovely resting, grooming and water-playing session. The older juveniles started playing in a shallow stream, turning around in the water. Four-year old Kebo swept the water from side to side with his arms. At one point he was standing half upright in a pool, holding both his arms straight behind him and repeatedly bending down to touch the water with his lips. He swung from left to right, sometimes sucking and spitting out a bit of water. Later Evea and Soso, the two oldest juveniles of about eight years old, joined in, all getting wet with fun. Kebo showed a clear laughing expression on his face. Bonobos are able to laugh just like we do and they really enjoy playing, even as adults. Play is an important mechanism to learn motor and social skills, but we still need a good explanation as to why adult bonobos play much more than their closest relatives, chimpanzees, do.
The day of my byo-party (byo is one of the few Lingala words burrowed from English) we made bean burgers with delicious buns and we got plenty of eggs from the village, a real luxury. The others made a nice cake and everyone got a fried egg to put on the burger together with a spoon of guacamole and tomato sauce. You need some creativity and the necessary skills and ingredients, but it is not that difficult to make a good meal in the forest.
The next day I left camp around noon. Lofombo brought me over in the pirogue, but at the other side I said goodbye. By now I knew the trail to the village well enough to walk on my own. I crossed the Bompindji River, passed through Iyaka camp, the savannah next to it and after crossing the Lomena River (only up to my thighs, luckily; it can be chest-high), I reached the big Bokapo savannah. I brought a tent and was planning to spend the night here. There was still a fire burning at the small camp place in the forest just before entering the savannah, but I wanted to be able to oversee the sloping savannah when opening my tent in the morning. So, I chose one of the higher spots in the middle of the savannah, where the grass had recently been burnt. I pitched up the tent using wooden sticks and pieces of a termite mound to replace the pegs I left in camp. To make a fire I collected dry grass, kindling and bigger chunks of wood from the partly burnt savannah shrubs. I did bring a lighter, but I wanted to test my real fire-making skills. A couple of strokes with my fire steel and, whoof, the fire was burning. For dinner I brought rice mixed with my last portion of dry tomato sauce, and some peanuts. That morning I had picked a couple of big Haumania leaves in camp to make a liboke. You put the food in the leaves, wrap them together and tie it up at the top. I added a bit of water and put the liboke on the smothering coals. Five minutes later my tasty, hot evening meal was ready! I enjoyed it. Last thing to do was roasting the peanuts in my metal cup, so I would have an easy breakfast.
The night fell and there was nothing more to do, so I went to bed. I slept well, until the wind woke me up at ten thirty. It was blowing quite heavily and I noticed lightning from far away. Five minutes later the first drops started to fall and soon I found myself holding the poles of my tent to avoid it getting blown away by the strong wind. Lightning and thunder was coming closer and the wind strokes tore out my tent peg replacements. The inside space of the tent was seriously reduced as the wind bent in at one side. Rain sprinkled through the tarp of the tent. With one hand holding the tent pole I tried to put on my rain jacket and prepared my stuff for a worse-case scenario. I put my sleeping gear close to the middle of the tent so it wouldn’t get too wet. For twenty minutes I was holding the tent and hoping the thunderstorm would not come closer or grow harder. But this was a typical tropical storm so it stopped as sudden as it had started. I stayed awake for another hour to make sure the storm wouldn’t come back, but I got safely through the night. To announce my arrival in the village, I wrote Mara two days before that I wanted to spend a night on my own to have a unique experience. This was definitely one. A crazy night I will not forget, nature showing its power.
The morning was nice. I saw several bird species as the sun rose and I enjoyed the experience of being out there totally on my own. As far as I could see over the savannah and the surrounding forest, I could only see an intact natural landscape. Not a single other human being around me. By noon I got to the village, where I was welcomed at Maras place. The next day I went in the forest with Michokoto and ma’Marie (the short version of mama Marie) to collect young leaves of kfumo trees. ma’Marie later prepared the leaves in a liboke to serve them as a sauce to go with the kwanga. They also explained and showed me the process of making what was my main food supply for ten months: kwanga. Here’s the recipe: submerge the manioc tubers in water for five to seven days, peal the outer layers and drain the water from the tubers by putting them in woven baskets with some weight on it. The next step consists of sieving the loose tuber mass through a woven sieve. Then put water in a barrel with wooden sticks on the bottom. Cover the sticks and the edges of the barrel with big leaves and put all of the manioc on top. Cover with more leaves and let it steam for two hours. The hot sticky paste then has to be kneaded to get rid of lumps. This is done with leaves, used as gloves, covered with a bit of oil to prevent sticking. Finally the kwanga is wrapped in the steamed leaves and ready to be served. The whole process takes several hours and is generally done twice a week.
The 19th of September was the day I would leave Lompole. We walked the five kilometer to the airstrip near the village of Ipope. We got there only after the plane had landed, because of a lively discussion with the elderly people of Ipope about the payment for the metal roofs of the local school. The chaos of unloading the plane, weighing all the luggage and getting ready to leave started, while more than fifty people had gathered around the plane. When I stood on the balance, the arrow stopped at the lowest number I have ever seen for my body: I lost 6.7kg in ten months. Time had come to say goodbye to Mara and the other villagers. Only when the plane finally left the ground and I saw this beautiful forest and the savannahs from the sky, it hit me that I was leaving this place. The flight was nice. A calm moment to sort out my thoughts. We crossed the Lukenie, the Kasai, Kwilu and Kwango Rivers. I kept thinking about the creatures living below me and how the landscape with its rivers and the savannah patches influences their life. I also thought about the people living in the villages we flew over. About the forests they are roaming, the rivers they are fishing and the roads they are taking to get somewhere.
When we stopped at Semendua to pick up two more passengers, a car came to the airstrip. I was not surprised or overwhelmed to see a car, but I have to admit it took me a while to realize what this car made it not an ordinary one for me: it was imported from a country where they drive on the left side of the road. Back in Kinshasa I was also not as much shocked with the chaos and luxury of city life as I expected I would have been. I went to a restaurant, did some shopping for the people in camp and visited the horrible zoo with a new Congolese friend. The zoo has a lot of monkeys, thirteen species in total, in the smallest cages I have ever seen. There is also a group of skinny horses you are not allowed to photograph, even with a permit! These are the presidential horses, so please follow my advice when you go there to avoid major problems. My two days in Kin I walked the streets and asked the people in Lingala where to get bananas, cakes or peanuts. I enjoyed electricity, internet and plenty of food, although I was not really craving all these luxuries, especially not food. After all these months of quite a monotonous diet I had reached a stage in which I didn’t care much anymore. Of course I do like a slice of toasted bread with strawberry jam on it (and I ate a lot of them in the hostel where I was staying!), and I do like soup, omelet with vegetables and a cold milkshake, but I could easily have eaten overcooked rice with milk powder and a single spoon of sugar, or mashed beans with greens and kwanga.
After ten months and more than 24 hours of travel I finally saw my family again. The day before, all my brothers and sisters (even the one living in Spain!) had come together to prepare the list of food items I send them. We had a lovely evening with plenty of food of all kinds. With my luggage I also brought a roll of kwanga for my family to try. Luckily for them it was not a very acidic one. They tasted it and didn’t totally dislike it. I guess the spinach was well spiced.
It’s now almost a week since I got back to this crazy world you are all so familiar with. I am still struggling to adjust. There’s the chaos of cars, people always going everywhere and all those electronic devices screaming to get your attention. There’s the different social setting, the people online expecting immediate reactions. Of course I will give in to most of these things we all take for granted. I do appreciate certain things that make life more pleasant, but this trip has definitely changed me again a little bit more. Do we really need to be online everywhere at any time? Do we really need to eat fruit and vegetables from the other side of the world? Is it so much of a problem to be five minutes too late at an appointment? I sometimes wonder. And I miss the forest. Oh man, how much do I miss the forest! In want to have nature around me, intact, pure nature, and Flanders is maybe not the best place to be with such a strong philosophical desire. That’s why I’m already planning my next adventure. I just submitted a grant proposal to apply for funding for “The elusive red colobus monkey expedition”. You’ll hear more soon, I’ll keep you updated.
Lokolama has about 7000 inhabitants and is the regional administrative centre. There is a small local market where best-sellers in Africa like flip-flops, cigarettes, soap, batteries and Chinese-quality torches are sold. Lokolama also has a harbour: it is the furthest upstream city where relatively big ballinière boats start their three-week journey to Kinshasa. There are several old buildings from the colonial time, including a beautiful church. Women sell beignets, fried dough balls, a luxury in a region where flour is scarce and expensive. In short, Lokolama really is the place to be.
Lambert and I spent several hours wandering around the dirt roads of Lokolama to deal with the officials, to change dollars in francs congolais, to repair the bikes and to arrange provision for the next days. It seemed everyone in Lokolama knows Lambert, tata Mule, as he is nicknamed. Everyone had to greet us, shake hands and small talk to know what our programme was. We had to see the priest, the bishop, the school director and the engineer who was going to saw planks for Lambert’s new house over the next days. Lambert is well-educated and wants to surround himself with the higher layer of the society, I think. All very time-consuming and rather frustrating after a while, but I guess it is inherently part of the African culture.
The plan was to stay in the guesthouse, but Mara, the project coordinator in Lompole, offered us the old house of his other who passed away two years ago. Mara’s family was an important missionary family and the missionaries provided the money to build this house three decades ago. It is a really good house according to the local standards: it has a corrugated metal roof, a concrete floor, several rooms and furniture like a table, couches and a wooden bed (with bamboo top layer). The bricks are simple sun-dried mud bricks. Only the church and the hospital are made of oven-backed bricks. Running water and electricity are absent, as in probably every building in the region. The shower used to be a toilet and features a big mirror. After spending nine months in a place where there is no mirror bigger than the size of my palm, I was shocked to see the image of my torso. I’m curious to know my weight when I will step on the balance before taking the domestic flight in less than three weeks from now.
We spent three nights in Lokolama. The second day we went to Inako, a village five kilometer away. One of the village hunters, called Lango, had located golden-bellied mangabeys the previous day. We went out, heard mangabeys, but were only able to find them the next morning. This group is under constant hunting pressure and as a consequence reacted much more fearful to us than the one I saw south of LuiKotale. I was able to get a quick look of them, some recordings of their alarm calls and a fecal sample. In the forest we also came across a coffee bush, a witness of a bigger plantation from the Belgian times, Lango told us.
The third day, and after a lot of frustrating delays, we arrived in Mimia, the village from which a southern talapoin (Miopithecus talapoin) has been recorded as a freshly killed kelo monkey in the literature. We gathered the hunters in the village to get to know more about the kelo monkey. I wanted to hear what they had to tell about the kelo’s body size, the habitat in which they live, their behaviour, their calls and the local methods to hunt them. Afterwards I showed pictures of both species of talapoins and Allen’s swamp monkeys (Allenopithecus nigroviridis). All hunters immediately pointed to the swamp monkey pictures. Every piece of information they provided also fits with swamp monkeys. It is impossible to prove the absence of a species, but my conclusions are there is only one kelo monkey in the region: the swamp monkey. We went in the forest the next day, but the rain destroyed much of our plans and we got to see only guenons.
In the centre of the village of Mimia one can find a two-meter long wooden drum that was used to send messages from village to village in the past. A kind of coded language system existed and that is how villagers often knew about the arrival of the first white people like Stanley before he even left the previous village. The piece of antique is placed under a shelter used as a general place for village discussions. The village chief, wearing a hat of leopard skin with magical power, gave us an egg as a gift and showed me the drum. During the discussion concerning the authorization to go in the forest, I cautiously tried to avoid the hunting dogs that surrounded the traditional chief.
Mimia is also home to a hospital created by the missionaries. The missionaries left in the nineties after they accomplished their mission of Christianization. Lambert recalled that the last four-wheel vehicle passed through Mimia and the nearby villages in 1982 or 1983. The hospital is still running, now run by the Congolese government. We were welcomed in the house of doctor Liévin (the French version of my name)
where I spent the night. The doctor grew up and studied in the big cities of Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. After several years of work in Lubumbashi he came to Mimia to provide his services to the population in this remote region. Doctor Liévin’s family is still in Kinshasa and he only goes there every couple of months (luckily the missionaries also left a small air strip). I think doctor Liévin does important work here. He is clearly a man with a mission.
Mimia is also the place with internet. Super slow internet of course, but I was able to send two emails and click some “like” buttons on Facebook. After an hour the solar system shut down, as did the laptop I was using. For an hour I was immersed in a virtual world and all of a sudden it felt very strange to realize I was in a remote village in the Congo.
Between Lokolama and Lompole we biked eighty kilometers from village to village on the old road built in the colonial time. Nowadays the road only allows one bike to pass at a time, but the ridges at both sides of the road are still visible. Now and then a deviation leaves the original track to go round a fallen tree, up and down the side ridges. We passed the thirty-meter wide Lokeli River on a bridge with pillars made of stones transported from far away during the colonization and logs placed between them three decades ago when the last tractor was still working. Now the logs start to fall apart. It will need a considerable amount of investment to allow cars to get to the most remote villages of the interior of the Congo basin. Our bikes were not the best and we had to stop in several villages to repair them. The seat of my bike was not well attached and very uncomfortable to sit on. None of the bikes had brakes and the last five kilometers before reaching Lompole we drove in the dark with only one head torch.Some of the villages were almost empty. Only a handful of people were at home and most houses were locked. During the fishing season everyone wants to make money and they all temporarily move to the fishing camps along the river. However, Lambert told me that fishing is a relatively recent activity. The singangali, who came from Senegal around the sixties to hunt crocodiles, taught the Congolese the skills to commercially fish the river. Traditionally the people in the villages between Lokolama and Lompole mainly rely on meat and kwanga. Fish and especially vegetables like greens, pumpkin and aubergines are recent. In the past the people hunted mainly duikers, hogs and porcupines using a communal net-hunting technique. Every family brings a net made of natural fibers and together they span a semi-circle of several hundred meters. Some men drive the game in the net and others are waiting at the net to give the final stroke. Larger prey like buffaloes and sitatungas were also caught in giant pitfall traps and monkeys are traditionally hunted with bow and arrow, using poison from a specific tree. Nowadays, net-hunting and pitfalls are rarely used. Shotguns and especially cable snare traps are more profitable for individual hunters and since the deterioration of the roads and the disappearance of trucks that could transport agricultural products, the people have shifted more and more to commercial hunting. Meat is smoked and transported to Lokolama, from where it goes on to the bigger cities. While biking between the villages, I had in-depth conversations with Lambert about the local traditions and the way of life. The picture is complex, but I feel like I get to understand it more and more.
On the road we came across Congolese vehicles, as Lambert called them: bicycles on which traders transport sacks of rice, beans, smoked or salted fish, as well as bush meat. The bikes are so overloaded that the drivers steer them with strings attached to the handlebars from behind the bike. The road is not flat all the way and from the sweat on their forehead I can tell you being a Congolese farmer-trader in the interior must be a heavy job. We even met people on their way back to Tshikapa to sell salted fish they bought here. Tshikapa is a big city in the diamond area of southwest DRC, approximately six hundred kilometer from Lompole.
In the villages I met two remarkable women. The wife of the school director in Mimia prepared us several meals. She was very cheerful and gave all of her best. The men around were commanding and often complaining she had to hurry up. I didn’t feel too guilty as she really seemed to enjoy the rare visit of a Lingala-speaking mundele white person to her simple thatched roof house. The food was simple but good: kwanga with fish and avocado for dinner, rice and bananas as breakfast. I secretly gave her some money after every meal. When in the end I took a picture of her with her children in their best cloths, she was smiling proudly in front of her house.Another woman I will not forget is the oldest sister of Lambert. Mamu is not one of these fat, powerful, slow and sometimes grumpy African women like the wives of Lambert and Mara, but a hard-working, submissive mama for whom I had a lot of respect. I wanted some variety in diet after all these days of fish and kwanga, so I asked for mbika, a nut sauce made of pumpkin seeds. I also asked if Mamu could show me how to make mbika. I ended up sitting next to the fire in Mamu’s open kitchen with the whole village around me commenting on everything I did or said. When most people had finally left, I had a good conversation about making mbika and the Congolese way of cooking in general. I was happy that my Lingala has reached this level which makes it possible to really talk to the people (if they don’t talk fast and with difficult words).
Ten days after leaving LuiKotale we spent a lazy morning at Mara’s place in Lompole, slowly preparing for the twenty-kilometer walk-in to camp. The children of Mara spontaneously started singing. When I asked if I could record their songs, Mara suggested that they took a barrel to drum on. Probably because of the drumming more children of all different ages came to join in. They visibly enjoyed singing all their favorite songs. An hour later they were still singing. All villagers were walking around doing their normal thing. I just sat down, listened and enjoyed. What an enormous privilege, I thought. I have seen many things on this ten-day trip that no tourist will ever see. I got an authentic insight in the Congolese culture and way of life. As I realized this, sitting down, listening to the children’s songs, I felt happy and moved at the same time. Around midday we started heading south, direction LuiKotale, and arrived just before sunset. I felt exhausted, but I was happy to be able to share this impression of life with the others in camp.
Sunday the tenth of August was departure day for a ten-day trip to Lokolama, the city everyone talks about around here. The plan was to go four days downstream on the Lokoro River together with Systebole, one of the camp cooks and fishermen. In Lokolama we would meet up with Lambert, my Congolese colleague in the forest. Together, Lambert and I would take five days to bike back through the villages, searching for monkeys on the way, maybe even getting some fecal samples.
From my few short river trips I knew you can’t avoid tsetse flies on the water. Thanks to the tsetse-proof gear of a former Finnish colleague, I only had to guard my hands and face, still a constant attention-demanding task. Four days on the Lokoro is maybe not the lovely boat trip you think about at first. A dug-out canoe is never 100% waterproof, but Systebole had arranged a piece of hardwood so I could sit dry. After about five kilometers my buttock muscle started to feel it was really hard wood. Still 55 kilometers to go. The river is about fifty meters wide and forms a lot of meanders with beautiful curves. The vegetation on the shore is mostly swamp forest, sometimes grassy. Where the forest is dominated by palm trees, I could easily imagine I was flowing through a prehistoric landscape. On some places the river is quite narrow, but most of the time the sun was blazing. Now and then a tree fall across, almost blocking the whole river. Zigzagging between these tree logs is a risky business, but Systebole is an experienced boatman and managed to peddle us safely passed all obstacles but one (only the barrel with the tents fell in the water as we had to dunk under an unexpectedly low branch). I was wondering whether monkeys would have been able to cross this river at one point in time. This is one of the questions I would like to answer by collecting fecal samples for genetic analyses.
On the river I was constantly on the lookout for birds and monkeys. We saw loads of Hartlaub’s ducks (Pteronetta hartlaibii) in pairs or small groups, a single woolly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus), several African darters (Anhinga rufa), palm-nut vultures (Gypohierax angolensis) and different kinds of kingfishers. I planned this trip specifically to search for kelo monkeys (see my post of July 24th), so I told Systebole to slow down as soon as we noticed monkeys around. On the first day we heard monkeys alarm calling from the riverside on three occasions. Systebole said these were keskes, redtailed guenons (Ceropithecus ascanius), but I noticed a slight difference in frequency and after listening to the recordings of swamp monkey alarm calls, I concluded and convinced Systebole this must have been Allen’s swamp monkeys (Allenopithecus nigroviridis). The next day I briefly saw a male and a female on two occasions and I got fecal samples from three locations. Swamp monkeys are very elusive, so I never had a chance to take a picture. We also came across de Brazza guenons (Cercopithecus neglectus) and Angolan black-and-white colobus monkeys (Colobus angolensis), two more riverine species, as well as Wolf’s guenons (Cercopithecus wolfi) and Thollon’s red colobus (Piliocolobus tholloni).
June to August is the peak of the dry season when the water level is at its lowest. It is also the fishing season: the villagers temporarily go to live in a nganda or fishing camp along the river. Each village has several of these camps with names of cities like Kinshasa, Kisangani, Kikwit, or names of trees like Boele or Boseki. The huts are very basic and made of sticks and leaves from the forest. We regularly stopped in these fishing camps for a small chat to get more information about where to find kelo monkeys. Systebole often tried to make a little bit of money with his photo minute business. 1500 francs for a picture printed on the spot. Each time the same happened: the husband and his wife would quickly put on their newest cloths, sometimes picking up the backpack of Systebole or the sun glasses of someone nearby to look as cool as possible in the picture. All children around would try to get in the background of the picture. The husband would get angry and chase them away, but as soon as he turned around to pose in front of the camera, the children would sneak in again.
I will not forget some of my encounters with people along the river. In Lokeli camp we met Benjamin, a relatively wealthy-looking man in his forties with a big belly. Usually these Big Men in Africa are very dominant and lazy so I was surprised that he wanted to show us a good spot himself. He joined us in the canoe and led us to a small tributary where we found two kelo samples at the edge of a muddy pool. On the way back I thanked him in Lingala and took a picture which I promised to send with one of the next planes. In fact, Benjamin seemed to have acompletely different character than what I expected from his outer appearance. He smiled timidly and said: merci mingi.
The second night we stopped at Liema, one of the fishing camps of Iyoko village. Systebole’s family was staying in Liema, so I put up my tentnext to his hut. In the evening he asked if I wanted to shower with hot water. Yes, I would appreciate hot water, I replied. There was one problem. There was not really a shower in this camp. People just wash themselves in the river. I had to wait until sunset and showered ten meters from the forest edge in the dark. I put my torch on a log and poured the steaming hot water over my body.
The next morning we went out early to look for more monkeys along the river. We left at the same time as the fishermen went out to check their nets. Most of them are young adolescents who elegantly maneuver their small canoes between the submerged logs to get to their nets, the water five to ten centimeters from the edge of their canoe. Iyoko is known for its excellent fishermen. That’s why you”ll see a lot of metal roofs on the houses in Iyoko village, Systebole said. The river stretch belonging to Iyoko is also known for its hippopotamus. Some fishermen showed us footprints and old dung, and told us where the ngubo was seen just before. At one point Systebole pointed at a low overhanging tree, but apparently the hippo dunked under as soon as it saw the white person. I would have liked to see a hippo, although it would probably have felt a bit scary to see one from a simple dug-out canoe. I felt safe though. The local people don’t kill nor anxiously fear these huge animals and they have a good reason. To them, these hippos are not real hippos, but a kind of half-hippos. As Lambert would later explain me in Lokolama, a person can be a human being in the village and at the same time an elephant, leopard or hippo in the forest. A lot of workers in camp would actually be half-elephants, Lambert confessed. If an elephant gets killed in the forest, the person immediately dies in the village. The soul of both creatures is permanently connected. See what happened to Innocent’s finger (in February he had a severe infection and his little finger had to be amputated): that’s because a poacher injured an elephant in the forest. Or Djaman who was furious at the camp manager one day: someone scared off elephants and that’s why Djaman reacted in such an angry way. Lambert is a relatively well-educated man reaching his fifties who is used to work with Western people and understands well how we think. He said we as Westerners will never be able to understand this, but it is true, half-elephants, half-hippos and half-leopards do really exist. I just nodded: magic really is a crucial part of African society, I thought.
In general the people in the fishing camps don’t often see Western people, especially not in a dug-out canoe on the river. A lot of them were surprised, little children sometimes frightened. We were always warmly welcomed. Hospitality was remarkable. On day four we stopped in Beke to prepare our first meal of the day: kwanga and dried fish, the same as every meal on this trip to Lokolama. Beke consists of two huts on a high shore where a man called Benseme was staying with some of his sons and other relatives. He was fishing to sell salted fish to traders who pass by in Lokolama. While Systebole was preparing the fish on the fire, Benseme came over and slowly kneeled down in front of me holding his back straight. He explained he was suffering from a hernia. I thought he was feigning and expected a request for money. No, he heard that the mindele in LuiKotale study animals and plants and he was just wondering whether I could tell him which tree he could use the bark of to relieve his back pain. I explained to him that the Congolese master the real knowledge of the trees and gave him some leftover painkillers as we went. He was very grateful.
Soon after noon the fourth day we arrived at Bamponde, another fishing camp, where we left our canoe and a tent with someone we could trust. From here we walked two hours and arrived at Lokolama in the late afternoon. More about the second part of this trip in the next post.
I just came back from a four-day trip to the south. Last Thursday I left camp accompanied by two men from the village: Edito, a serious-looking experienced hunter who regularly joins the anti-poaching patrols that cover the area south of LuiKotale, and Michokoto, a younger and slightly less timid man. My aims were clear: visiting several forest clearings, searching for animals, specifically monkeys, and most importantly, finding golden-bellied mangabeys (Cercocebus chrysogaster). I brought some tubes, as I had also planned to try to get fecal samples of monkeys. These samples could be useful for a possible future project. So the next four days I would spend my time with Edito and Michokoto, who would be my guides, porters, cooks, research assistants and body guards. Both were carrying two tents and our provisions consisting of several kilos of kwanga (the manioc paste that forms the staple of the local diet), a whisky bottle filled with palm oil, three coconuts and some smoked fish. I asked my companions if they would like to carry a mundele backpack. A stupid question. Of course they preferred their jaguar: a rack made of nicely woven wooden sticks, open at the front, but everything packed in a jaguar is hold together with pieces of liana. A jaguar has two liana straps at the shoulder and an optional strap that goes around the forehead. Some old pieces of clothing make carrying a jaguar a bit more comfortable. Both my guides were wearing simple flip flops, taking them off as soon as we hit a muddy spot. The Congolese way of going on a four-day hike seems rough to us, but tough as they are, these guys just go for it.
After crossing Libeke ya Badzungu (libeke means clearing) at the southern edge of the study site, we left the frequently walked trails. From now on I had to rely on Edito for navigation. These trails are only walked by the occasional patrols that come through, by poachers and elephants. Mainly the latter I hoped. However, most trails are barely visible to the inexperienced eye. Edito relied on some cut marks here, a broken branch there and now and then an inscription in the bark of a tree, the local graffiti. I was really amazed by Edito’s navigation skills in the forest. We went more than twenty kilometers south of LuiKotale in an area where he hadn’t been since the last patrol in April, but he perfectly managed to find his way without a compass or gps. Often the trail was confusing as a tree had fallen on the path and several deviations had been formed by previous passengers. I saw possible trails in every direction, but Edito and Michokoto spread out on both sides and as one of them whistled, we knew where to go again. To make it less confusing in the future, Edito would then cut and break a sapling or make some small cut marks in the bark of a tree. We often stopped on a specific spot, to listen for monkeys or poachers, and then Edito would recall that this or that had happened on a previous patrol on this specific spot. Each time I was totally amazed by his memory. Behind one tree they saw a nkulupa duiker together with Abana, on another spot they encountered bonobos.
After three hours of walking we reached a small savannah patch: Momentaole. While walking through the waist-high grass, we heard bonobos south. Ten minutes later we were standing below a bodzilo mpongo tree (Parinari excelsa) observing bonobos. I took my camera and filmed these truly wild bonobos before they noticed me. In contrast to my expectation, they didn’t instantaneously flee upon detection. The bonobos were not pleased with our presence and made that clear by barking at us. A couple of them moved to a nearby tree, but they didn’t flee. Could I be observing virtually naive bonobos? Great apes that live in extremely remote areas often do not flee when contacted by humans and sometimes even approach their observers. That is exactly what happened. I noticed a subadult female who was not barking at all. She seemed more relaxed and climbed the trees above us to have a better look at these weird-looking bipedal primates on the forest floor. Although these bonobos have definitely seen humans before, they must have never had negative experiences with humans. Or this subadult female could possibly have been an ex-LuiKotale female who joined this group to the south. When we left half an hour later this female was still hanging around in the trees ten meters above the trail.
Two hours later we hit a very wide, well-maintained trail. This was not a human-maintained trail, however. This was a clear path walked by generations of forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis). Highways that connect important locations in the life of elephants. The trail became gradually more swampy and led us to Libeke ya Loombo, a nice clearing filled with butterflies and swallows sweeping along the surface of a slow-flowing stream. Edito and Michokoto were excited to see so many fish swimming along our feet. We saw more traces of elephants and bongos (large forest antelopes, Tragelaphus euryceros) at the other end of the clearing and found our camping spot for the night three hundred meters further. Being the youngest of the two, Michokoto was responsible for clearing the spot with a machete, setting up the tents and preparing food. Edito made the fire going with bougies locales, the highly flammable resin of a tree we found on the way. Michokoto cut some saplings and quickly made me a bench with a small table where he later presented me roasted peanuts as an afternoon snack. Edito and I spent the last hours before sunset looking for monkeys, while Michokoto prepared the meal of kwanga and smoked fish. We ate together next to the fire. I tried to catch sleep on the uneven floor quite early to be ready to search for more monkeys (and their feces) the next morning. The following days went just like that, as we went from one clearing to the other with names like Kaotsikitende, Ntoka and Nzelo.
The second night we camped close to a three-hundred meter wide forest clearing, called Ntoka, where it was planned Edito would go night-fishing to replenish our supplies. By that time we had had several conversations in Lingala and I felt like I got to know my new Congolese friends pretty well. In my enthusiasm I suggested joining Edito to learn more about this way of fishing. A decision I will maybe not take next time. Edito was surprised, but encouraged my enthusiasm and happily accepted my offer. The moon was still up, so we had to wait a bit. The western technology of my gps told me moon set would be at 21h51. It was after dinner at seven that we agreed to leave at nine o’clock. In the meantime I was slightly regretting my suggestion, as I was already struggling to stay awake. But I could not crawl back anymore, so I went to my tent to catch some sleep and at nine I was ready to go. By that time Edito and Michokoto were already asleep next to the fire, so we only left at nine thirty. Navigating through the dark was a challenge, but Edito knows the forest, so after doing a loop that fooled any sense of orientation in me, we arrived at the forest edge. I followed Edito as he walked through the shallow waters of the clearing spotting sleeping fish with his torch. A quick stroke of his machete and that’s the first one. Fish after fish disappeared in our cooking pot. The sounds of frogs and the mist above the water gave this night a kind of calmness I have rarely sensed. At one point a sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekei) was calmly standing fifteen meters in front of us. After half an hour I felt the fatigue sweeping in, but Edito kept going for every fish. It was only after an hour and a half that we slowly started to head back to camp. Slowly, because only now I remembered that Edito had said we would come back via the river that flows into the clearing. Crawling through vines in knee-deep waterlogged mud in the middle of the night is not what I had in mind when I suggested to go night-fishing. Edito was looking under tree roots to get every fish. During the day he had asked me if he could kill a dwarf crocodile (Osteolaemus tetraspis) if we would come across this njama mabe, bad animal. I explained him we would leave the animal in peace and killing it was not necessary. But when we did come across a lokese that night, I was too confused and too tired to realize what was going on. Edito whispered nakoboma ye and before I could intervene, he killed the 50-cm crocodile with a single hit of his machete. Where the river became clearer further upstream, Edito put a couple of branches on the river bank, threw the fish on them and started cleaning every single fish. It was one o’clock at night when we reached our camp site. I was exhausted. I closed my eyes and fell asleep immediately. During the rest of the night Edito and Michokoto further processed and smoked the fish and crocodile on a small rack of sticks above the fire. The animal was killed instantaneously, so no welfare issues involved, and the ecological impact of this hunt was probably minimal. Hence, our next lunch consisted of kwanga and smoked dwarf crocodile. Not really my favorite.
During one of our hunts for monkey feces, Edito and I were crawling upon a polyspecific group consisting of black mangabeys (Lophocebus aterrimus), yellow-nosed redtailed guenons (Cercopithecus ascanius whitesidei) and Wolf’s guenons (Cercopithecus wolfi). Both of us didn’t have much experience with this work. When some of the monkeys had detected us, Edito wanted to try a different technique. Nakobanga yango. He would frighten them. He heavily shook two saplings for over thirty seconds and imitated the call of a crowned eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus). When an eagle catches a monkey, both of them often fall to the ground and a severe wrestle follows. This simulated eagle attack provoked an intense response from all animals in the group. A loud concert of different species-specific alarm calls lasted for about twenty minutes. Some monkeys came closer to keep an eye on the eagle that was not there. When the monkeys finally calmed down and left the scene, we searched the area and found a single fecal sample. This old hunting technique was maybe not the best strategy for our scientific purpose.
We collected more samples than I expected, but by the last evening we still hadn’t heard any sign of golden-bellied mangabeys. I was already thinking to plan a second trip to the south, focusing only on searching golden-bellied mangabeys. The morning of the fourth day we left camp at sun rise to try one more time. After five hundred meters we heard movement in the trees, but the calls told us this was a group of redtails. I am really happy that I learned all the calls of the monkeys in these forests. Most of the time I know the species before I see a monkey, just based on the calls they make. Half an hour later we heard more branch movement a couple of hundred meters to the south and Edito said: inku! I was not expecting golden-bellied mangabeys and I hadn’t heard a single call, so I didn’t put a lot of faith in Edito’s species identification. But as we were heading south, I heard monkey calls in the distance that I only recognized from my work at Bai Hokou in the Central African Republic. This was a group of inku, the golden-bellied mangabey! Then it all went quick. We heard more calls from further away. Edito said rapide and rushed through the forest to catch up with them. Exactly at seven o’clock I saw my first wild golden-bellied mangabey, finally inku! The group was about thirty meters in front of us moving through the canopy. I saw several adult males with their massive posture and nice golden fur on the belly. I saw females carrying infants and juveniles jumping from one tree top to the next. I took my camera and sound recorder and tried to capture the moment as best as possible. Golden-bellied mangabeys belong to the semi-terrestrial white-eyelid mangabeys (genus Cercocebus). After following the group for half an hour the first individuals started coming to the ground. It was impossible to make an accurate estimate of the size of the group, but white-eyelid mangabeys are known to form huge groups of more than a hundred individuals in certain forests. Golden-bellied mangabeys only occur south of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo and no one has studied them in the wild. Probably very few western people have seen them in their natural habitat. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) does not have enough data to evaluate its conservation status. A special monkey and I am very pleased that I got to follow a group for 1h20. Even better is that I got a total of ten fecal samples. Mission accomplished.The walk back to LuiKotale was longer than I thought and I was physically quite tired from the walking and lack of good sleep. But my mental batteries were fully charged. All my aims and expectations for this trip were fulfilled. We did see monkeys and other animals like sitatungas and red river hogs (Potamochoerus pictus). We crossed some wonderful forest clearings and we were able to avoid elephants and poachers (although we did see signs of both). We did get plenty of fecal samples, and I saw golden-bellied mangabeys! As I was going through this list of achievements on the way back, my Congolese companions were as proud as ever and thanked God for the help. I’m not an anthropologist, but for four days I liked pretending to be one.
As the end of my stay at LuiKotale is approaching, I started focusing on a couple of side projects. One of these concerns kelo, the local name of one of the monkeys. I always like getting to know the local names of animals and plants. Nkolongo is the red colobus (Piliocolobus tholloni), nge the wolf’s guenon (Cercopithecus wolfi), ngila the black mangabey (Lophocebus aterrimus) and so on. Some of these names are similar to the ones I learned at Bolobo. When I was at Bolobo, I compiled a list of local names of animals known to the people in the region. From these interviews with villagers I learned to be skeptical at times, as the people in Central Africa are not used to recognize species from drawings in a book. I always try to get additional clues about the behaviour, habitat or calls of a species.
About 10 years ago a short communication was published in a scientific journal stating that the southern talapoin (Miopithecus talapoin) occurs around Mimia. The author found a freshly killed animal that got trapped in a cable snare by accident. The local name of this monkey was kelo, noted the author. I have always been interested in primate taxonomy and distribution, so this paper drew my attention right away. Mimia is approximately 100 km north of the Kasai River, the former limit of the southern talapoin. With the exception of the observation at Mimia, no records or populations of talapoins are known to science north of the Kasai. Mimia is about fifty kilometers from Lompole, the village that agreed to work together with the LuiKotale Bonobo Project, so since my arrival I kept this mysterious kelo monkey at the back of my mind.
In November I brought several cards with drawings of monkeys. A common technique to assess the reliability of the interviewee is to include species that do not occur in the area at all. As expected it proved difficult for most of the trackers to recognize monkeys from these drawings, but I had anticipated this, so I also brought pictures. Talapoins are ecologically very similar to the Allen’s swamp monkey (Allenopithecus nigroviridis). Both species live in swamps along big rivers and have a similar diet including a lot of invertebrates. Swamp monkeys and talapoins have been considered as each others ecological equivalents, which makes the possible occurrence of talapoins near Mimia extra exceptional. When I asked the trackers about the monkeys they know, specifically about the kelo, they all told me kelo monkeys occur along big rivers like the Lokoro north of camp. However, the local people don’t hunt these monkeys, so they were not really able to recognize my pictures. Talapoins are the smallest monkeys in Africa (a bit bigger than squirrel monkeys, Saimiri sp.), so I asked the trackers to show me the size of the kelo monkey. They hold there hands about twenty centimeters apart. And how do the calls sound like? High chirps like keskes, the red-tailed guenon (Cercopithecus ascanius whitesidei). This all fits with the hypothesis of the kelo being a talapoin. It got really exciting when the trackers told me stories about kelo monkeys stealing manioc tubers from ponds near the river, as this behaviour is specifically mentioned for talapoins in a French book on the natural history of Central African primates. However, as a good scientist I tried to remain skeptical and consider alternative hypotheses. People might have confused another monkey for a talapoin, leaving the kelo simply as the swamp monkey. Or most spectacular, both species might occur in the region (but maybe not in the same habitat) and the local people might refer to both species as kelo.
Over the months I tried to gather more information about the kelo monkey. I asked a friend to send in pictures of swamp monkeys, as well as the calls of both talapoin and swamp monkeys. Unfortunately, the trackers in camp didn’t know the calls of both species good enough to be conclusive. When I asked more about the size of the monkey, it turned out that the twenty centimeters they referred to, indicates the width of the animal. Apparently that’s what matters to hunters and therefore that’s how they talk about the size of an animal. I realized I would have to look for kelo monkeys myself to get absolute evidence.
The plan was to put out some camera traps as the water level drops in the dry season. About a month ago we went to Boele, one of the nearby fishing villages thirty minutes downstream along the Lokoro (so an hour to peddle back up), to ask the local fishermen for a good spot. Again these men didn’t know much about kelo monkeys. They remembered two cases of a kelo monkey being brought to the village. It shows how little these monkeys are being caught. In the end it turned out that Divano, our cook in camp, knew most about the kelo. He was imitating the call of a swamp before I even played it to him. It turned less and less likely that the kelo monkey was actually a talapoin, but the possibility remained. We set out two camera traps along the river and on the way back we found relatively fresh pooh on a leaf hanging over the river. I put it in ethanol. Who knows when this sample may become useful. A week later we returned in the early morning to check the camera traps. In the meantime the camp fisherman had seen kelo monkeys near the spot of one of the camera traps and he brought back some more pooh samples, so it was promising. When peddling down the misty river, I heard the alarm calls of a monkey I didn’t recognize. We saw some monkeys along a dried-up river bank. I saw one monkey briefly through my binoculars. It looked like a male swamp monkey, definitely not the size of the smallest monkey in Africa, but observation conditions were not good enough to be 100% certain. The monkeys left within seconds, but on the muddy river bank we found footprints and digging traces. We changed the camera trap to this spot and another week later the fisherman brought back the camera trap, because the water level was rising again. I immediately put the memory card in a laptop and yes!, on three videos a male swamp monkey can be seen searching for something edible in the mud. So what do we know so far: that swamp monkeys definitely occur along the Lokoro. Next step would be to go to Mimia to look for kelo monkeys there. But first I am planning to go a couple of more times on the river to see the swamp monkeys again and hopefully get some good pictures or footage. I will keep you updated on the mysterious kelo monkey along the Lokoro River.