Two mysterious creatures roaming the dense forests of Central Africa

We haven’t been very successful in finding bonobos on the east side lately. The rain has hampered our effort and maybe the bonobos are more focusing on fruit trees in the swampy areas along the Bompusa river, where it is harder to find them (and where elephants are more present). The big rains of last week have transformed the trail across the Bompusa into a real swamp with almost knee-deep water. By now my feet have adapted to walking in sandals through wet terrain for several kilometers a day. Despite the rain and not finding bonobos, camp life has been very nice last week. Several people have made bread, soup, cakes and chapattis for Thanksgiving and other occasions. Our kitchen is just an open fire and a couple of pots, but it’s amazing how creative one becomes when confronted with a very basic diet every day.

One morning in the forest we came across several freshly dug holes near the trail. It seemed a large animal was trying to make a burrow on this spot. Would it be an aardvark, a giant pangolin or simply a red river hog? We decided to install a camera trap and the following night we recorded several pictures of an aardvark (Orycteropus afer). Probably few people would ever expect an aardvark to live in the dense forests of Central Africa. However, this habitat with a year-round abundance of ants and termites is very suitable for the species. Little is known about these nocturnal creatures roaming the forests of Central Africa. Some scientists believe that several species of aardvark exist. If true, I expect the forest ones to be clearly different from aardvarks living in the savannahs of East and Southern Africa.

Today we went to the forest at six o’clock to search for bonobos. Upon arriving at one of our usual listening spots it started drizzling and some minutes later the real rain came in. We waited for two hours, but finally decided to head back to camp. It looked like the morning shift had been useless, but on our way back we stumbled upon a tortoise. The only species inhabiting Central Africa is the forest hinge-backed tortoise (Kinixys erosa). Earlier this year I trained the trackers of a Congolese ngo, called Mbou-Mon-Tour, working for the conservation of bonobos near the city of Bolobo (by the way, this city probably gave rise to the name of the great apes we are following at LuiKotale). I had contacted a tortoise researcher about marking individuals in the field before I went to Bolobo. Here in LuiKotale I also brought the materials needed for this simple method: a small metal saw blade and a file. Hinge-backed tortoises have 13 marginal scutes, each one is given a different value (see figure).

    

Using the saw and file we engraved a distinct man-made notch in the scute with value one, while the rain was pouring down. The carapax of a turtle is made of the same material as human hair and nails (keratin), so notching is completely unharmful. The flat underside indicated that our tortoise was a female and we recorded its size and location. When we find this individual again, we will be able to identify it as female 001. Over a long time span one could gather interesting data on density, survival and ranging patterns of these mysterious reptiles. I have to note that the chance of encountering tortoises in the forest is low and probably next time we see one, it will be when chasing bonobos, so we won’t have time to look at a stone-like thing on the ground. But who knows, maybe we might learn something about the ecology of this little-known species. Since the work of Schmidt in 1919 in DR Congo, no one has published detailed information on the species. IUCN (the World Conservation Union) does not have enough data on its distribution, local densities and ecology to determine its conservation status (“Data Deficient”). Schmidt provided data on morphometrics, clutch size and egg size and considered it to be omnivorous, “eating plants, insects and other arthropods and carrion”. It is said to be fond of fungi. Tortoises are traditionally consumed by local people all over Central Africa (see picture), so information obtained by a simple notching system might prove useful for conservation one day.

Tortoise marking_hunt

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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.