leaving Gabon, IV

What used to be a spectacular rainforest harboring gorillas, monkeys and elephants has been hacked to stubble. The debris will soon be burned away. The poor soil of this rainforest region will barely provide for two years of manioc before the plantation will be abandoned and a new tract of forest reduced to cinders. Elephants and other wildlife trying to return to what was once a sustaining habitat are now at risk of being snared or shot. This slash and burn approach to land management is detrimental to long term biodiversity in the Gamba region.

What used to be a spectacular rainforest harboring gorillas, monkeys and elephants has been hacked to stubble. The debris will soon be burned away. The poor soil of this rainforest region will barely provide for two years of manioc before the plantation will be abandoned and a new tract of forest reduced to cinders. Elephants and other wildlife trying to return to what was once a sustaining habitat are now at risk of being snared or shot. This slash and burn approach to land management is detrimental to long term biodiversity in the Gamba region.

An elephant crosses a road near Gamba airport. Unfortunately, these majestic and intelligent creatures have become accustomed to raiding trash bins on the Shell Gabon concession. They have become habituated to human presence. The lack of problem-solving initiative, consequence management, and respect for wildlife has created a human/elephant conflict in the Gamba community. The elephants will ultimately pay the price as the local community labels them aggressive and unsafe.

An elephant crosses a road near Gamba airport. Unfortunately, these majestic and intelligent creatures have become accustomed to raiding trash bins on the Shell Gabon concession. They have become habituated to human presence. The lack of problem-solving initiative, consequence management, and respect for wildlife has created a human/elephant conflict in the Gamba community. The elephants will ultimately pay the price as the local community labels them aggressive and unsafe.

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leaving Gabon, III

A tower created by termites braces against a tree in the Vera Plaines rainforest. The structure is constructed by mud and termite saliva. Its design ventilates the underground nest, while channeling water away from the nest and column.

A tower created by termites braces against a tree in the Vera Plaines rainforest. The structure is constructed by mud and termite saliva. Its design ventilates the underground nest, while channeling water away from the nest and column.

Lianas drape the buttress of a tree in the Vera Plaines rainforest.

Lianas drape the buttress of a tree in the Vera Plaines rainforest.

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leaving Gabon, II

Andrea and Shivangi search for interesting perspectives among a cluster of lianas in the Vera Plaines rainforest

Andrea and Shivangi search for interesting perspectives among a cluster of lianas in the Vera Plaines rainforest.

Andrea focusses on the texture of tree bark as Shivangi listens to sounds of the rainforest in Vera Plaines.

Andrea focusses on the texture of tree bark as Shivangi listens to sounds of the rainforest in Vera Plaines.

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leaving Gabon, I

Lisa and Elle listen to the sea at Pointe Pedras, along the coast of Gabon.

Lisa and Elle listen to the sea at Pointe Pedras, along the coast of Gabon.

Where rainforest meets the sea. Pointe Pedras, Gabon.

Where rainforest meets the sea. Pointe Pedras, Gabon.

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end of the road for Tchibanga the elephant?

A sign at the entrance to Yenzi promotes the vision and mission of Shell Gabon, with a picture of Tchibanga in faded glory.

A sign at the entrance to Yenzi promotes the vision and mission of Shell Gabon, with a picture of Tchibanga in faded glory. 

“LA VISION DE SHELL GABON” appears to have faded. Even more difficult to read, the “MISSION” which concludes with “…RESPECTUESE DE L’ENVIRONEMENT” appears to have faded beyond recognition.

The gentle giant Tchibanga, or Solitaire for some of you, has been labelled, once again, as aggressive.

Even though veterinarians have been consulted on several occasions, and have concluded this elephant is a normal, healthy male that does not behave in an aggressive manner.

Perhaps aggressive has been confused with opportunistic.

Opportunity:

Tchibanga tips household bins of garbage. Yenzi residents have been advised to not leave bins streetside overnight, to not place trash in bins that cannot be collected on the same day. Some Yenzi residents cannot be bothered to comply with rules.

Sanivit has been contracted to pick the trash every day. Sanivit has had problems fulfilling this contract.

The bins behind Yenzi Club and Economart have been placed in reinforced enclosures to prevent access by elephants. A good start to addressing this problem, the problem of trash being available to elephants. Though trash in not always located to these enclosures, and enclosures are not always closed properly.

Some people leave baguettes in their car, unattended, in the vicinity of elephants, which can proceed to break a window for access to baguettes.

This is not aggression. This is people neglecting to take appropriate precaution where elephants are living. The problem lies with people, not elephants.

Victim or aggressor? Confusion exists.

Victim or aggressor? Confusion exists.

And then there is the accusation of aggression.

Tchibanga charging after children who are throwing things at him.                         Tchibanga charging towards Yenzi residents taking pictures of him with flash cameras. Tchibanga becoming upset by Yenzi residents getting too close to him.                Employees taunting and laughing at him until he charges the new barricade at Economart.

The problem lies with people, not elephants.

Some members of the Yenzi community, and Gamba community, have shown a lack of respect, demonstrating that we are unable to live peacefully with the natural environment. People are again calling for this elephant to be killed, for behavior we have created and then misinterpreted.

Kill Tchibanga and another elephant will follow. Maybe this is what Gamba ultimately wants. Some Plaine village residents are sharpening their knives…

 

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butterfly, black and white

butterflyBW_5509

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hunting hornbills

DwarfHB_5488_DKorte

HornbillRBD_5494DKorteRed-billed dwarf hornbill     A trio of these curious little hornbills swept into the tree above in full hunting mode. While one bird sat motionless on a limb, a second would leapfrog to a branch in front. After a few seconds surveillance, the first bird would repeat the maneuver for the second bird. Bird number three was watching from the side and would dive in if any insects were flushed away from the other two birds. They worked the whole tree canopy from one side to the other before heading for the next tree, where I could hear the same hunting pattern unfold. Their bills glow red when backlit by the sun. They appear to have no fear and took a moment to stare me down as they passed within three meters.

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song for a gorilla

Thursday, June 23       6am, riding my bicycle out to a hide in the trees to watch the morning unfold. The sky is beginning to show light to the east, but heavy clouds keep the morning at bay. There is a mist hanging in the air, like riding through a cloud. Where forest meets road, I strain to see any movement, watching for the bulky shadows of elephants that may be nearby.

By 6:30 the mist has turned to a light rain, a rosée, as they call it here. I cross a savanna in the muffled quiet of the rosée, the only sound, the distant rumble of surf along the coast a kilometer away.

The canopy of a tree tipped onto savanna provides a concealed view as a misty morning unfolds.

The canopy of a tree tipped onto savanna provides a concealed view as a misty morning unfolds.

The tree I have discovered for my morning watch offers a beautiful view of the savanna with forests on both sides. The tree tipped onto the savanna many years ago but has continued to grow. It is an easy climb into the branches where I can stand concealed, with an elevated view through the now-horizontal canopy. I am not up very high, but if there was an elephant closing in, I could climb higher to be out of reach. The rain increases in intensity. I am thankful for a cluster of leaves overhead, which channel the water like an umbrella.

A pair of eagles glide low across the savanna to find a perch a hundred meters away. After twenty minutes, they recross the savanna, disrupting several troops of monkeys. Warning calls cascade up and down the savanna, both mangabeys and moustached monkeys join in to call out the eagles.

Somewhere in the forest to the east I hear the chestbeat of a gorilla. This is what I have been coming here for, and I feel vindicated that I am once again in the presence of such a rare creature. Perhaps the silverback is calling his family together to wait for the rain to pass.

By 9am, a soft light glistens on the savanna as the last of the rain moves on. The birds are awakening, led by the chain reaction crowing of turacos. Perhaps six different Yellow-billed turacos provide a lively call and response from the canopies overlooking the savanna. A pair of Dwarf hornbills pass unseen through the forest, their melancholy duet marking their progress. Somewhere near the laterite road an elephant erupts in an agonizing roar, more dinosaur than elephant. I have heard this before, in Yenzi, when the bulls are chasing the females in a sexual fervor. I expect elephants to make an appearance on the savanna, but they have gone in another direction.

Sunlight is struggling through the lifting clouds by the time I hear a first stick break in the direction of the gorilla family. I can’t be sure this means gorillas on the move, but any noise holds promise. The sounds of snapping branches and swishing leaves grow closer. An hour later I see the first shadow of gorilla climbing into a tree near the edge of savanna. I can hear several others moving. If they don’t spot a reflection or movement, I should be in a perfect location when they reach the forest edge. Another gorilla comes into view, foraging in the low vegetation bordering savanna. It is unaware of my presence.

A gorilla forages in vegetation at forest edge.

A gorilla forages in vegetation where forest gives way to savanna.

The intermittent breeze is not crossing the savanna, but carries my scent behind me into the forest. This is where I suddenly have another concern, for I hear footsteps heading my way. It appears that a gorilla has crossed the savanna north of my view and is perhaps 40 meters away and closing in. He should know I am here, being downwind, but possibly because I am in a tree, my scent remains overhead. I hope he trails off and I will not have to deal with this, but when he is within 20 meters, heading directly for the tree where I stand, I need to do something fast. I start clucking like the guides and trackers at Moukalaba Doudou when they locate their family of habituated gorillas, but this gorilla is not habituated and this has no effect on the footsteps, now sounding at 15 meters. I can’t see through the thick vegetation into the forest from where my tree has fallen. I worry that this gorilla also does not see me, and may unknowingly climb onto the trunk of this very tree and we could have a face to face meeting at 2 meters, which will surely be traumatic for all. I need to start singing. According to Angelique Todd, a local gorilla expert, singing to a gorilla may help to defuse a situation, hopefully pique their curiosity long enough for them to discover I am here. The first few lines of “Twinkle, twinkle little star” leave my lips, very badly, I might add. I haven’t been blessed with my mother’s beautiful singing voice, but, regardless, this has the desired effect of stopping the footsteps, now sounding to be within 10 meters of my tree. For the next few excruciating seconds there is no sound coming from the forest behind me. I segue into a whistling version of “London bridge…”, and the footsteps resume, very softly, very slowly. I can’t tell which way they are headed. He is listening, I am sure, but I don’t hear a retreat. I continue with the singing and whistling, while the footsteps continue slowly, slowly, then appear to stop.

A gorilla spots my movement as I try to locate another gorilla approaching from behind.

A gorilla spots my movement as I try to locate another gorilla approaching from behind.

The gorillas across the savanna cannot hear me, being about 70 meters away. But while looking around for my closest friend, my movement has caught the eye of another gorilla. It is not sure what I am, as I am mostly obscured by leaves. He is facing me, squinting, head bobbing, then standing, then moving back slowly into the forest. I can’t be sure what is happening close by. I have not heard any new steps recently, and I think maybe the gorilla has quietly slipped away. I would have expected a scream or bark warning when I was discovered. Back in the forest across the savanna, I hear the hooting call of a gorilla. The remaining gorillas silently melt back into the shadows.

A mother and juvenile gorilla spotted on a savanna head for the cover of forest.

A mother and juvenile gorilla on a savanna head for the cover of forest.

Waiting another ten minutes to be sure my close friend has moved away, I quietly climb down from the tree and walk out to savanna. I am surprised to see a female with large juvenile riding her shoulders in plain view. They are 100 meters distant, and appear more curious than alarmed. The two of them watch me as they slowly amble back into the cover of forest.

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another surprise in the forest

Saturday, June 18, 2016     A cool breeze trickles through the trees, knocking a few leaves free to clatter their way through the branches. The forest floor has dried to a crunch. I carry my bicycle from the laterite road to conceal it in the scrub of withered roadside chaos. This is my usual routine while checking on a nearby camera trap before I walk the kilometer through savanna and forest. Elephants have crossed the road here, trail-blazing a little path through this scrub-forest that opens to a narrow savanna. It is a pretty little entrance to the typical savanna and forest mosaic that defines this environment. I always imagine walking out onto a movie set, the curtains of leaves opening to a savanna full of wildlife.

Elephants aren't the only creatures iinhabiting the Shell Gabon concesssion. Gorillas, buffaloes, sitatungas and monkeys share this habitat.

Elephants aren’t the only creatures inhabiting the Shell Gabon concesssion. Gorillas, buffaloes, sitatungas and monkeys share this habitat.

My first steps into the forest seem to echo from the trail ahead. A curious echo, not quite a reflection of my steps, stops me to listen again. The crunching continues, and my adrenaline braces for what I think may be an elephant working through the vegetation. I am poised with bicycle in hand, ready to flee back to road. But no, that is not quite the sound. The footsteps continue, and a shadow bounds across the forest trail fifteen meters ahead. Through the congested wall of vegetation, I glimpse the fleeting haunches of some gray-brown animal the size of a sitatunga. My breathing resumes, for a sitatunga I can appreciate without fear of a surprise charge. The branches continue to sway behind its crossing, and my curiosity returns. This is not how sitatungas behave. They are solitary, at most a mother and calf, but they are usually stealing quietly through the forest. Perhaps a troop of Red-capped mangabeys are browsing the forest floor. I have seen them here before, scratching through the leaves, pulling on the low branches as they forage for fruits.

Another little brown shadow somersaults across the trail, and I see that it is an infant gorilla. He is glancing behind as he dances ahead, all stomach with arms too long flailing this way and that. He must be only a few months old. My heart slams into overdrive as I realize this is a family of gorillas on the move. Two more gorillas materialize further up the path, likely females or sub-adult males judging by their size. And then, like an apparition, the silverback strides into view. The glistening silver of his impressive cape seems to gather light from the sky above, creating an aura as if under spotlight. He is so close I can see the light reflect in his eyes. Following the infant, his attention appears to be directed to the little ball of fur tumbling before him. I am still clutching my bicycle in mid-air, my camera stowed in my backpack, as I stare in disbelief that he hasn’t looked my way. My disbelief turns to relief, for I have no idea, or maybe I choose not to think, about how he might react to my surprise appearance. The steady crunch of footsteps continue, fading into the forest, and I see no other gorillas cross the trail. I carefully lay my bicycle to rest and dig out my camera. My footsteps sound like a herd of elephants as I backtrack to the roadway. Crunching through the laterite gravel for fifty meters brings me to the other side of the little gallery forest, so close, and at the moment, brimming with gorillas. Creeping in to a cluster of shrubs where forest borders savanna I set up my vigil, listening to the shuffling and occasional stick break that indicates they are approaching. Perhaps I am not in a safe location, I think, maybe too close should they converge on top of my hide, so I back off to a corner where I can see both road and savanna. A few moments later, the crunching and shuffling goes silent. A puff of breeze from the road has placed me at a disadvantage to the forest. They have to know I am here. I try moving away from the breeze spilling off the road, waiting for another hour before deciding they have moved off, probably returning by where they entered the forest.

A Forest buffalo triggers a camera trap during the previous week.

A Forest buffalo triggers a camera trap during the previous week.

Continuing my plan to check a camera trap, I cross the savanna. Where the forest pinches the savanna to a narrow path, the sand is covered with tracks of elephant, buffalo, sitatunga, monkeys, and several gorilla crossings. Truly an environment rich in wildlife. In the distance I hear a scream, perhaps 300 meters into the forest. It sounds very much like a human in distress. It is an unlikely location for a human to be, and I believe it likely to be one of the gorillas, perhaps a juvenile being reprimanded by an adult.

Moustached monkey on a perch at jungle's edge.

Moustached monkey on a perch at jungle’s edge.

The drying savanna grass glows in a soft golden light as I return to my bicycle. A flock of swallows circle overhead and to my left, a troop of moustached monkeys chirp a warning from the forest edge announcing my presence. Approaching the gorilla forest gallery, I see the prints in the sand where they left the gallery, crossing the narrow savanna on their way to a swamp forest where I hope they will be safe for the night. Dormir bien!

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sitatunga crossing a savanna

Saturday, June 11.     It is late afternoon as I return from checking a camera trap in a nearby forest. Shortly after crossing a stream I walk out from beneath the trees to catch sight of a shadow moving slowly through the drying grasses of the savanna. A very large sitatunga has left the forest ahead and is picking his way toward a nearby gallery forest. He freezes when he encounters my track from an hour earlier. I can see his nervousness build as he samples the breeze. Fortunately, he is upwind from where I am watching.

Sitatunga male cautiously crosses a narrow savanna.

Sitatunga male, Tragelaphus spekii, cautiously crosses a narrow savanna.

His caution soon overwhelms him and he spins around, trotting back to his forest. Sitatungas have disproportionately long hooves, evolved for support and balance when in their usual swampy, inundated forest environment. In the soft, dry sand of savanna, he appears awkward in his haste. At the forest edge, his caution returns, ears alert as he carefully nozes his way into the thick border vegetation to slip out of sight.

According to Kingdon’s Field Guide To African Mammals, an adult male sitatunga can weigh more than 100 kilograms. This adult was well over that. Kingdon goes on to say, “they avoid attention by cautiously entering thick vegetation and sink down into water slowly, leaving only the snout and part of the head above the surface”. My imagination will have to dwell on that little drama.

A minute later, the breeze tickles through the leaves of the tall ozougas, making the grasses dance across the savanna. A pair of hornbills break the reverie with their wheezing, melancholy whistles. A beautiful memory for a beautiful day.

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