It was a day for hornbill spotting. A walk in the forest started with a visit from the Red-billed dwarf hornbill. It seemed to show some curiosity as I passed by on the trail beneath, dropping down from the canopy, then fluttering back, then returning for another look. I have read they hang out with primates, waiting in the wings for the insects and lizards disturbed as the monkeys feed through a forest. When it chose a perch in the sun, its bill glowed translucent red as if illuminated from within.
Red-billed dwarf hornbill peers through jungle vegetation reminiscent of a Henri Rousseau painting.
Later that afternoon a pair of Piping hornbills sailed by over the savanna, their scimitar bills bright yellow in the sunlight. Two Pied hornbills followed a few minutes later on wings banded in black and white. As the shadows darkened the forest, a shy White-crested hornbill crossed the trail before me, its brilliant white crest, white-tipped wings and long tail flashing into the muted forest. And I could hear the rusted-hinge cries of a pair of Black-casqued hornbills in the canopy of a distant forest. Not until driving home did I spot a pair of these large hornbills cruising above a forest in the evening sky.
A tiny flash of iridescence disappeared into the leaves across the garden. About the size of a sunbird, a tiny kingfisher perched in the shadows, tipping its head every few seconds as it surveyed the garden for crawling insects. A minute later it darted out to snatch some creature from a tangle of groundcover, finding a new perch on a thorned branch, the diffuse sunlight illuminating the brilliant blue, violet and rust plumage as it sat smart in the green of the lime tree.
Steve and I arrived late morning at Jardin des Elephants, one of the beaches north of Gamba, south of Sette Cama along the Gabonese coast. The beach was particularly wide at low tide, barely a whisper of surf washing ashore. Stepping out of the vegetation, I surprised an adult monitor lizard, nearly 1.5 meters long, sunning on the slope to beach. It sprinted across the 40 meters of sand to the sea, then proceeded to trudge slowly along the water’s edge. I quickly returned to retrieve my camera and gave chase, running up the beach to intercept should it make a dash for the forest. Circling to the front, I was able to approach until it reluctantly headed into the surf, disappearing out to sea. By the time I returned to car, it was on the beach once again. I returned more carefully and was able to approach within several meters. It showed no further interest in the sea and sat patiently, though perhaps a bit annoyed, while I made a few pictures.
The gurgling and splashing was coming from the confluence of the Ngove and Eshira Rivers in front of Akaka Camp. We could see a disturbance in the water across the river, like a barrel bobbing into the current. Soon, a trunk appeared, snaking above the surface, and the amorphous shape began to make sense of an elephant. He was up to his ears, submerged in river. In no great hurry to make his way across, he would occasionally plunge completely underwater, only to resurface several meters closer.
Seeing so little of this elephant made me think it was a juvenile, but as it emerged onto the riverbank, it became clear that it was a very large elephant. Plodding up the embankment, it was completely calm and relaxed. I believe it noticed us on the edge of Camp, but the wind must have been in our favor, for it busied itself snuffling up the ozouga fruits dropped beneath the fruiting trees, slowly working its way along the trail before disappearing into the forest.
Once again, I had fallen behind the safari through the forest, searching out some detail in the canopy above. Ange suddenly appeared at my side, whispering an urgent “Allez! Allez! Elephant venir!”
Surprised by an elephant silently padding its way through the forest.
The silence of an elephant in the forest is astounding. An elephant materialized from behind one of the massive trees not more than 30 meters from where I stood. The detail I had seen in the canopy no longer held any interest as we gauged the intention of the elephant and searched our exit strategy. Not yet aware of our presence, the elephant turned onto the trail before us. Suddenly it froze, as it noticed us moving out of its way. The elephant’s focus honed in on our position and with a snort and flap of ears, feigned a tentative mock charge before crashing off back into the forest.
Moukalaba-Doudou National Park. We had just crossed the Mbane River, keeping to the grassy banks to avoid the crush of vegetation, when guides Pie, Ange, and Jet quietly motioned us forward. A female Nile crocodile was sunning on her nest about 15 meters before us, as yet unaware of our presence.
Our principal guide, Pie, scans the banks of Mbane River for any sign of crocodiles.
Nearly 4 meters in length, she was impressive even while partially hidden in the grass. As we carefully approached, she became aware of us and with a sudden explosion of action she lunged for the river in a spray of sand, diving from the meter-high bank with a tremendous splash. We followed the surge of her movement beneath the water as she headed upstream until the river current erased any trace of her presence. The next river crossing was slightly more apprehensive; we were all eyes searching the depths, imagining her barreling through the water in our direction.
Ange estimates the width of the crocodile from impressions on the nest as Pie and Jet, and visitors Dave and Jean, observe.
A weathered gorilla skull sits impaled before earth-moving machinery on a roadside through the Gabon wilderness. Road improvement projects benefit local communities but displace wildlife habitat. As progress continues, the National Parks will become even more valuable to the remaining populations of gorillas, elephants, crocodiles, hippopotamus, and the forest buffalo.
One by one, they emerged from the forest edge onto the distant savanna, dark shadows moving with a lively bobbling gait. By the upright posture, the babies riding on the shoulders of adults, heads held high, these were likely gorillas. Binoculars confirmed my guess as a family of at least eight individuals struck off across the savanna, three infants riding bareback on the shoulders of three mothers, a juvenile, possibly two, racing ahead, and finally the immense silverback shuffling up from the rear. At four hundred meters, the shapes were easily identifiable as primate, though subsequent photographs left detail to be desired. The silverback paused midway across the savanna, sitting on his haunches while apparently waiting for a juvenile that had fallen behind. I could see it studying my shape far off across the savanna, but with distance and wind in my favor, it failed to alarm. The juvenile raced past the silverback, which then resumed a powerful shuffle at the back of the procession. They were entering into forest I had just left. Thinking they may circle north, I doubled back into this forest to find a hide on the edge of an internal savanna, waiting for two hours in hopes of another glimpse.
This is likely the family recorded on the camera traps I have set here, and I am pleased to see that the group is still present. I was returning from replacing batteries and memory cards on the two cameras in this forest. These cameras would later download to show the family recorded over several days in the past two weeks, passing back and forth before the lenses. In addition, sitatunga, chevrotain, porcupine, mangabeys, and elephants managed to record on the cameras. An impressive cast of characters to call this expanse of forest home.
Today the gorillas didn’t reappear as I waited, but it is enough to know they are nearby. They will hopefully return, and so will I.
A silverback gorilla takes a break from foraging and manages a good back-scratch on a warm, sunny afternoon.
A billboard from the 2009 Presidential election stands fading and tattered along the west entrance to Tchibanga, Gabon. About 20,000 in population, Tchibanga is one of the larger towns in southern Gabon. Government bureaus, a lively market scene and stage for bush taxis create a vibrant economy. It is the entry point for Moukalaba-Doudou National Park.