My dislike of snakes, elephants and mice explained

Due to some problems with our energy and mailing system, you had to wait a bit longer for an update from LuiKotale. As you can read in the next post to come, our bonobos on the east have been quite difficult to find last weeks. One day we were searching for traces on Jakobo, one of the trails in the south of the study area. This trail is not frequently used so it was locally overgrown with Haumania. That’s when a pair of shears comes in handy. While cutting a way through the Haumania, I accidently mistook a small greyish green snake for a Haumania stem and cut it. Indeed, you read it right, I cut a snake in the forest! Immediately I realized my mistake, dropped my shears and backed off while producing a fearful scream. I hate snakes! I really hate snakes, so I’m always wary ofthem in the forest. We don’t often see snakes, this was my fifth snake in two and a half months, and when encountering one they usually flee immediately. This was a rather close encounter as I cut the snake twenty centimeters from the head. I didn’t cut through, but the snake’s spinal cord was severely damaged and it couldn’t properly move anymore. Unfortunate for the snake, but it’s the price it has to pay for its supreme camouflage. The book in camp told us it was a forest vine snake (Thelotornis kirtlandii).

A lovely afternoon two weeks later. Lambert, my Congolese colleague, and I were searching for bonobos in the same area. We decided to split up to cover more ground listening for vocalizations. Lambert did the eastern loop while I searched in the west. We agreed to meet at a rendez-vous point before dark to head back to camp together. At 16:30 I reached one of the most southern locations where I heard bonobos far away. Disappointed about not being able to locate them, I was slowly walking back to the rendez-vous point. At 17:19 all of a sudden a giant forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) was standing in the middle of the path in front of me! Wraaagh! I froze, screamed inside me and grabbed a small tree to hide (not that it could have offered protection, I think it was just my instinct). I didn’t run because the elephant saw me at the same time and it ran off through the forest with a thundering sound of breaking branches. My senses were in the highest state of alertness. I listened for the subtle sounds of more branches, footsteps, breaths, ear flapping, or any other sign of more elephants around. I only heard the elephant that had fled, heavily gasping for breath some fifty meters to the west. I walked further as silent as possible, counting 13 big steps to the spot where the elephant had been standing in a patch of boseki fruits (Irvingia gabonensis), but then I just ran off as fast as I could. Boseki trees, also known as forest mangoes, attract a lot of frugivores ranging from mangabeys and bonobos to red river hogs, yellow-backed duikers and elephants. Previous fieldwork has made me dislike elephants in the forest. This encounter was very exciting too, but luckily not with a scary ending, so in a way I’m happy this time to have experienced a real forest elephant in Congo. By the way, the third kind of animals I really dislike are mice. Probably that can be easily explained by the (genetically determined or socially transmitted?) mouse phobia of my mother. Whenever I see a mouse around our dining area or crawling along the onions in the depot, it frightens me to death.

To conclude, these three animals I don’t like are part of the ecosystem here at LuiKotale, and although we sometimes come across one, very rarely do they pose a real threat. I acknowledge this fact and actually, I’m a field biologist, so I like seeing animals, snakes, elephants and mice alike, but my mind just can’t prevent the initial expression of this deeply rooted fear response. And that is why my heart skips a beat whenever I see a snake, an elephant or a mouse.

PS: Since the beginning of the year we have seen several traces of elephants in the forest. We have had footprints as close as a kilometer from camp, fresh dung on the main trail and one or two elephants on the camera traps. My encounter was thus not so surprising.

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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.