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We are well into the dry season, and have even had a few light rains to hold the dust down. Humidity has been very low and temperatures a little chilly for equatorial Africa.
I have noticed on my walks through the forest that leaves have been dropping, making it difficult to walk quietly. A few trees have been flowering, the smell intoxicating. Butterflies have been busy collecting nectar when they aren’t basking in the warmth of the sun.
The dry season is nearing the end of the cycle, and rain will soon return to replenish the parched landscape.
Swooping down over the trail before me, an unusual bird silently glides on ahead into the scrub. As I search for its perch, I see the hopping form through branches. It pops into the open, sitting for a moment, and a photograph, before launching itself back down the track and into the heavy coastal scrub forest.
I am able to get a good look at Levaillant’s cuckoo, a dove-sized bird with a long tail, two wing patches that flash white when it flies, and a shaggy crested head. This one looks like a juvenile molting to adult colors, hence the mottled patchwork of charcoal and gunmetal gray plumage. I think I saw one when I first arrived in Gabon years ago, in the same patch of forest, and have been watching for one ever since. They seem to be a secretive, quiet bird.
Branches snapping from deep within a forest full of shadows stop me in my tracks. I try to pinpoint the source and direction of a likely elephant as a flock of parrots disturbed a hundred meters ahead take to wing, squawking and whistling in a circle above. The chip-ch-chip of a scuttling band of moustached monkeys rustle through the canopy on my right in a shudder of branches, moving like wind through the trees. No time like now to assess my surroundings. Several trails meander through the forest, a sure sign that elephants have been passing through. Trails that become options if I suddenly need to make a quick departure, the obvious problem being these trails are used by elephants, and I have no idea where they may lead. Listening to the oncoming crackle in the understory, I slip behind some thick vegetation, eyes straining, heart pounding, searching for the first sign of movement.
Suddenly, silence. A distant sea tumbles into the void. Two hornbills drum a reverberating course beneath clouds hanging heavy in the dry season. I try to imagine the elephant, pausing in suspicious interest, testing the air with trunk raised, ears alert, a pair of yellow eyes probing forest left to right. I fear my breathing will give me away and try holding my breath but the blood coursing through my ears sounds like an oncoming adrenaline train.
A snort, more like air escaping a tire puncture as the elephant clears scent from trunk, followed by the penetrating rumble of low growl that seems to rise omnipresent from the very forest floor. I feel like I have been busted. A tentative creaking of bush suddenly erupts in a crash as saplings writhe beneath a forest canopy. Lianas twist and spiral, wrenching a shower of leaves from high above. Beneath all this ruckus is an elephant I can be sure. The limited visibility of thick forest obscures the details. I read the torment of vegetation lashing wildly under a bulldoze of moving elephant. The elephant crosses the trail twenty meters before me, a flash of ivory stuttering through occluded light followed by a fragmented wall of gray. My eyes are riveted to the movement, my feet ready to spring into action should elephant veer in my direction.
Today the elephant continues bearing west, exploding vegetation marking its progress until some 60 meters off to my left the silence returns. My piqued imagination sees it turning to circle back my way and I remain frozen in my tracks, listening for a second charge. A long, anxious minute later, in the midst of an otherworldly silence, I hear the slow, padded footsteps of an elephant moving, receding among the shadows of the forest, swallowed by whispers from the sea.
Bicycling along the road to Point Dick, a jewel like bug is walking across the road. Upon further examination, it reflects a candy-apple shimmer of green to gold to orange, depending on how the light strikes the shell. Like a tiny leopard in shining armor.
It is quite small, less than 2 centimeters in length. Not knowing what I was looking at, I consulted the library at Smithsonian Vembo Lab and discovered this is a bug, not a beetle. Bugs have sucking mouth parts, not chewing mouth parts, if anyone was wondering. Also they have juveniles that resemble the adults, though smaller and without wings, unlike beetles that start out as grubs, usually underground.
Rainbow Shield bugs feed on fruits and plant juices like nectar and sap.
Walking a sand track today I heard a buzz coming up from the trail behind. Looking around, I saw an insect hovering among the leaves, landing for a split-second, then moving on, then landing, then moving on ahead. I was able to follow it for a moment, pleased to have one opportunity for a photograph before it zoomed up over the treetops. Gone.
After a bit of searching, I discovered the name of this moth is the Splendrous hornet-moth, Euchromia formosa. Eu-truly, chromia-colored, formosa-really beautiful. Sometimes called a Handmaiden.
Our weekend in Sette Cama was off to a good start. We weren’t yet to the village when we saw a calamity of splashing a few hundred meters from our boat. At first sight a great gray hulk reared through a spray of water and I thought, perhaps a shark was attacking another large fish, but as we got closer, we recognized the large open mouths of two male hippos sparring in the lagoon. The water appeared to be shallow, maybe a meter in depth, for they were able to rise more than 1.5 meters into the air as they collided in a forceful display of aggression. Maybe we arrived late, or the battle mismatched, for it was over in short order, one hippo retreating in submission and the larger hippo following with an intimidating open mouth.
We met Sylvan, groundskeeper of Shell Hut where we planned to stay, in Sette Cama, then continued on to ANPN (Loango Park Guard) station on the far side of Sette Cama village. No one was on duty, and it appeared one of the guard cabins had recently been damaged by an elephant. The door had been torn loose, a window destroyed, and we learned from Sylvan that provisions of rice and flour had been raided by the elephant. Being approximately two kilometers from Shell Hut, we were a little concerned that this was the same elephant that, one month past, had broken into the cabin where we would be staying on this weekend.
We arrived and quickly unloaded our provisions. Seeing no imminent danger of wild beasts, we gathered a few drinks and snacks, setting out a picnic on the seashore to watch the sunset. It was high tide, and as luck would have it a rogue wave surged over the crested sand embankment without warning, sweeping our beach mat, snacks, camera case (luckily a closed pelican case) and drinks into the coastal vegetation, with us sloshing after to retrieve what we could. Soaked from the dousing, we decided to finish happy hour sitting on a fallen tree, a safe distance from the restless waves.
It was a fitful night’s sleep for Lisa. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so dramatic imagining how an elephant could bust into the hut to ransack our weekend. Regardless, I slept well and we awoke without further physical trauma. We packed breakfast into the boat, motoring up the lagoon to have a look for wildlife. Not far from the hut, we spotted the back-ends of two elephants leaving the lagoon for the security of forest. We continued up the lagoon, then into the Muna Muele River to look for hippos. None at the first pool, so we continued upriver and found several hippos in a second pool. A third pool near the end of the navigable river had several more hippos, all of them very shy and disappearing at our approach. Other than a soaring flock of pelicans, an eagle or two, egrets, and a green-backed heron, the river was quiet, so we returned to the lagoon for an hour of fishing. Trolling past the skeleton-trees, I hooked into some fish that stripped line from my reel in that screaming zing-zing-zing-zing of a fish that has no intention of stopping. I watched helpless as the line spun from my reel, slowly turning up the drag to try and slow the fish. This had no effect on its departure. There was no sporting battle, no struggle and retrieve, no tiring of this fish, just a final snap of my line as it made off with my lure. Reeling in what was left of my line, I re-tied another lure and spent another hour trolling without success as we made our way back to Shell Hut. It was not looking promising for the fish grill I had planned for dinner. A quick lunch was followed by some reading and napping in the hammock. We took another walk on the beach to cool our feet, on the way keeping an eye out for our package of olives that had washed away in yesterday evening’s tsunami. No luck there.
Later in the afternoon we motored down to Rouge Alley, trying again to catch our dinner. The weather is cooler now that the dry season is settling in, and it was a pleasant outing. We listened to the Great-blue turacos calling through the treetops on the islands of Rouge Alley, Lisa taking pictures, me doing my best to find a fish. Finally around 5pm I managed to catch a carpe rouge, which Lisa brought on board with expert handling of the landing net, and we were on our way back to prepare dinner. Rounding up a few tools to filet my fish, I returned to the jetty, arrested on my way by the sounds of crunching jungle near the path. I stopped long enough to notice the movement of vegetation, which is good indication of an elephant feeding beneath. Quickly making my way to the end of the jetty, I soon saw the flashing ivory of a feeding elephant about thirty meters into the jungle. It was making its way to the lagoon and soon I had the company of an elephant at twenty meters while cleaning my fish, trying to devise a plan what I would do if it decided to wade closer. The elephant was soon joined by another, much larger, and now I started to get nervous. With two elephants in the water, I felt less safe, and if that wasn’t enough concern, two more elephants followed the big elephant into the lagoon, where I was now gravely outnumbered. The four elephants didn’t appear to be bothered by my presence, at least the breeze was in my favor, so when they weren’t looking, I sprinted up to the cabin to get my camera and warn Lisa to be on the lookout. The two of us returned to watch the elephants splashing in the water before they ambled away down the edge of the lagoon. It was a great anniversary dinner of grilled fish with potatoes and peppers, with Kate Benc’s gift of cookies, fudge and tea for dessert, followed by chocolate and whiskey. The crickets and frogs provided company as we sat on the patio dodging bats, listening to the rhythm of the sea.
Sunday morning we were awakened early, the birds especially lively in the morning before sunrise. I made a few recordings of their melodies. We packed our breakfast, motoring up the lagoon to the Muna Muele River to look for wildlife once again. This time we came upon a band of Moustached monkeys, with a few Putty-nosed monkeys mixed in, leaping through the mangroves along the river edge. They followed us until they got bored with our slow progress. A few more hippos at pool number two, quiet water at number three, then a slow return to Shell Hut for lunch and some relaxation. A quick swim in the sea proved refreshing before we packed our gear to begin our journey home. We stopped again for a round of fishing in Rouge Alley, then the hour of open-water boating back to N’Dogo jetty in Gamba.
Walking the edge of a narrow savanna late in the afternoon I was alerted to a sudden ripping and snapping in the forest to my right. Sounding not unlike elephants feeding on lianas forty meters into the forest, I looked for cover while I figured their direction. With the sounds moving closer, I soon spotted the shadows of four elephants making their way from forest onto savanna. They crossed the savanna into the adjacent forest too quickly for me to find a position for a clear picture. Having at least a kilometer yet to walk before reaching two camera traps, I continued on when the sounds of their movement faded into the deep shadows.
Changing batteries and memory cards in the gloom of a forest trail, I returned to savanna and discovered what were likely the same four elephants feeding in forest vegetation, now on the other side of the savanna. Finding cover once again, I waited for the elephants to move to the forest edge, whereupon two of the elephants decided to approach directly to my position, unaware of my presence. Behind me, an elephant trail led into the forest. This would be my escape route should they continue in my direction. Fortunately, they picked up my scent soon onto the savanna and with trunks waving wildly they turned, fleeing back into the forest.
The thrill of watching elephants in the wild never seems to grow old. Perhaps it is the unpredictability of their behavior that fuels the adrenaline, focussing attention to the immediate right of now.
Two additional elephants were recorded on the camera traps over the past week, along with a large sitatunga. Both elephants were aware of the camera and reacted with curiosity and surprise. Not sure if it is a sound of exposure, or the light of infra-red flash, or a smell that alerts the elephants to the camera. Their senses of smell and hearing are especially acute. Regardless, it has created some unusual confrontations.
Three forest elephants feeding in close proximity to a camera trap. They showed some initial surprise (backing up, smelling, coming in for a closer look) then calmly stripped vegetation from the tree limbs and ground shrubs for several minutes before moving on.
Elephants feed throughout the night. They prefer to sleep in shade during the heat of the day, but may take short naps after dark. The daily food requirement of 100 to 200 kg. means they spend most of their waking hours eating. Something like 18 hours per day spent eating.
Occasionally a camera trap records pictures of an animal as it becomes aware of the camera. It is fascinating to see the eye contact and the behavior that follows. A buffalo might flee, a sitatunga might investigate, and there is no telling what an elephant may do. I lost my first camera trap to what appeared to be an angry elephant. (lowland forest, part 3. http://dkortephoto.com/wordpress/?p=1147)
Maybe elephants can feel curiosity. I would like to think so.