One of the horrors of field work

Since about a week we have some visitors in camp, raising the number of white people to eleven. Camp life can be quite busy at times, especially because after more than ten years some major rearrangements in the camp infrastructure are being done. A new ten-meter long radio antenna has been installed with the help of half a dozen men, a roof collapsed as the workers were dismantling it pole by pole and houses are given new destinations and completely rebuilt during a single shift in the forest. These houses, most of them just shelters to put a tent underneath, are made of a wooden structure tied together using lianas covered with palm leaf roofing panels. All building materials come from the forest surrounding camp, so 100% ecologically certified.

Among the “visitors” is Gottfried Hohmann, one of the directors of the project. He brought in a good supply of goodies ranging from cinnamon to peanut butter. The first night we ate some leftover bread from Kinshasa. When your diet is rather limited in variation, one really appreciates the pleasure of eating something as simple as bread. Apart from the goodies he brought, Gottfried is particularly appreciated in camp because of his knowledge of bonobos. He is a good story-teller and when he shares his ideas at the dinner table everyone is listening and trying to absorb as much as possible.

Some days ago I experienced one of the horrors of the forest which many people fear. We left camp at 3:50 to arrive at the nest site at around 5:15 in the far south of bonobos’ range. The bonobos left their nest some ten minutes later and by 5:30 more and more individuals started eating in a nearby maku tree. It was still rather dark and we were trying to identify the first individuals. All of a sudden some bonobos quickly left the tree crown while others had not even entered it. Leanne had an insect in her hair and asked me to have a look at it. At the same time I felt something biting on my back, but I tried to help Leanne first. This became more and more difficult as I was bitten on my arms, head and hands by extremely fierce biting creatures. I thought we were standing above an ant nest from which the ants were falling down to protect their nest. It took us some time and a couple of meters running to realize we were being attacked by wasps! My guess is that the bonobos disturbed the nest in the tree, which made them leave the crown rapidly. I had a total of twelve stings, mostly on my head and hands, and Leanne had one. People have gone unconscious after only a few stings of these wasps as a result of an anaphylactic shock. I immediately took antihistamine and relied on the fact that I have never had a severe allergic reaction to bee or wasp stings. During the rest of the shift I could feel the pounding pain, although less extreme as I had expected, and the area around the stings started to swell gradually. We lost the bonobos during the wasp attack but found them again after a while. I couldn’t hold my binoculars properly and felt really tired, probably the combined effect of the adrenaline and the antihistamine, so I was not fully enjoying my time in the forest. However, the bonobos were showing some interesting ranging behaviour. They had nested the day before in the far south of their home range and in contrast to what one would expect, our bonobos only travelled south for more than two kilometers. When we entered the GPS track log in the file containing all follows since the beginning of habituation, the route of that day was clearly an outlier, not even crossed by any other track log ever recorded before. Why did they go there? Is it because of the current apparent difficulty of finding fruit? What would have happened if they would have bumped into the community inhabiting the south? Are they still hanging out in this southern area and does this explain our difficulty in finding them recently? Some interesting questions that can only be answered as habituation improves and we will be able to follow the bonobos for full days on end. It took us more than two hours, at a relatively slow pace, to get back to camp.

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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.