Why the elephant is not my favorite animal

Recently I have been able to expand my mammal list with a few more spectacular species, including two primate species. The first days after arriving at LuiKotale I had already seen red-tailed monkeys and a large group of red colobus monkeys less than one hundred meters from camp. The red colobus didn’t seem to bother much about my presence, the perfect situation to take pictures. Yesterday I was sitting under a mosquito net to escape from the bees in camp, when I heard branch shaking. A group of Angolan black-and-white colobus monkeys (Colobus angolensis angolensis) was crossing a tree gap closeby. This is one of the less frequently encountered species here. The other day in the forest we stopped along the major trail of the east side to discuss another bonobo or forest issue, when we heard a noise in a tree nearby. We couldn’t see a thing, but there was clearly a large animal coming down to the ground. Leanne, who was showing me around, vaguely saw a second leopard taking the same steps down to the ground and a few seconds later we heard a soft grunt/cough twenty meters from us. We had obviously disturbed these two big cats, so we decided to back off silently.

Searching for bonobos in the forest mostly relies on good hearing. You go to the areas where you anticipate them to be, based on their ranging behaviour of previous days and fresh traces, and then you only have to wait and listen. On my first search day we were lucky and the bonobos happened to be in a fruit tree just one hundred meters from our first listening spot. Bonobos have a fission-fusion social system. This means a group of bonobos, called a community, regularly splits up in parties of varying size and composition which can join and split again during the course of several hours or days. The bonobos in the east are not yet fully habituated. When they descend to the ground it is difficult to approach and follow them closely. Next days and weeks I will focus on identification of all members of the community.

After feeding for a while in a tree the subgroup we were following moved further through a very dense patch of forest. Between 9 and 10 am the adults usually rest, while the juveniles are playing. A young female was chewing on the inner fibers of a liana. The nutritional value of these fibers can’t be that high, so probably some other properties make this food type interesting for bonobos. After the daily rest, we lost sight of the group as they went further east, towards the swampy area along the Bompusa River. The forest we were crawling through was very dense, with a lot of lianas. The further east we went, the more traces of elephants crossed our path. The day before I had walked the “big tour”, a hike of more than 20km along the major trails of the study area with a stop at a marshy forest clearing in the south. On the Nkuma trail from west to east and across the Bompusa River and the swamps at either side, we had come across a lot of elephant traces. In total I counted 25 fresh piles of elephant dung and loads of footprints in the knee-deep mud, indicating that this area is heavily used by forest elephants. When trying to follow bonobos in the forest after you have lost them, you regularly stop to listen for their vocalizations or movement in the trees.

That day we were clearly encountering fresh traces of several elephants, so the situation was tense. We stopped close to a tree fall on our right side. Leanne was just about to walk further when she saw an elephant ten meters in front of us. She whispered “elephant”, although I can’t really remember that. It all went very fast, but I think I saw the silhouette of the elephant as well and I immediately started to run in the opposite direction at the same time as Leanne did. We ran as fast as we could through dense vegetation, but luckily the elephant didn’t charge. Leanne and I both have stayed several months at Bai Hokou in the Central African Republic, where elephants pose a real threat. Most people in camp would love to see an elephant and we, the only two who don’t want to see them, are among the few to have seen elephants in the forest. Elephants are rare at LuiKotale, so let’s hope I won’t see another one for the rest of my stay.

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Lieven in congo

At the moment Lieven Devreese is staying at LuiKotale, a bonobo research site of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in the vicinity of Salonga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. Lieven is a research assistant working on habituation of a second group of bonobos and he hopes to get to see some golden-bellied mangabeys as well. Here you can read more about his 10-month adventure.