Yenzi Camp, New Year’s Day

January 1, 2011

elephant prints sink into the soft marsh

Last night, Lisa and I were invited to New Year’s Eve festivities at Mary and Andrew’s home on Mango Lane. We drove over from Monkey Road since it was already dark. As we pulled in to park, Whoa!, we nearly bumped into a family of four elephants. There were two females, a juvenile and a little calf sampling the vegetation. What must have been the mother of the calf approached my window (quickly closed) with flapping ears, and for a few moments she rocked back and forth with intimidation as if to say “Keep your distance!” I was worried for the window as well as the side mirror, she was close enough to damage both. Lately we have been having elephants through our yard at night, which concerns our little Elle. They seem to have a taste for bamboo, and, as Jerry Korte would say, have been leaving their “calling card” behind.

Thursday I spent the day on the bicycle, riding the Shell concession production roads through the wetlands, forests and on to the beach. I am easily recognizable and I hear in the village that so-and-so saw me riding with my backpack of cameras and tripod mounted to handlebars, pedaling along the road. Being quiet, the bicycle allows me to approach birds and monkeys on the back roads a little more discretely, and by stopping to listen, I can discover wildlife carrying on without alarm. The birds sing with enthusiasm, and I now have my favorite melodies that I search the overhead canopy for, trying to match up calls to their makers.  A few days earlier I stopped to observe 26 red-capped mangabeys (monkeys) busting out of a palm tree to cross a production road in front of me; each, in turn, stopping to survey the roadway with unique demonstrations of personality before continuing into the forest. I feel pretty fortunate to be able to participate in all this biodiversity, for I have discovered it is the travel, not the destination, where life happens.

Tuesday evening our friend Paul called to invite us out for a bar-b-que and “moth-watch” on the nearby Vera Plaine. Vera Plaine is a landscape of rolling savannahs broken by valleys and ravines of forest fragments. The roads are primitive and not properly maintained, great examples of puddled, potholed, rutted and eroded trails requiring a mix of caution and Paul’s mad-cap driving skill to negotiate. We arrived shortly before sundown about 15 km in along a ridge surrounding forested valleys. The landscape was exquisite with steam rising from ravines, a view through to distant lagoons, and, unfortunately, a passing rain nearly shut down the bar-b-que. But, remaining hopeful, the rain passed and the insects began warming up their orchestra for the evening. After darkness set in, and this is darkness without any spillover lighting, Paul set up a UV light on a tripod of bamboo poles and draped a mosquito net over, plugged in to the car battery, and the show began. First, a few large beetles plowed into the netting like guided missiles, and then the moths started to appear. Large hawkmoths, you could hear them coming, buzzed our heads, circling the light, amazing in their coloration. Small moths with intricate patterns, leafy antennae, wingtails, some with eyes reflecting in our headlamps, fluttered and crawled across the netting. I managed a few pictures before wearing down my camera battery. Paul says there is a gorilla population in the forested valleys here, so I think we will be returning for further observation.

On Wednesday, I accompanied Lisa, Shell officials, and Eaux de Forets (Water and Forest) guards to a scene of an elephant poaching adjacent to Shell Terminal facilities. Unfortunately, poaching is a constant problem here, and not only gunshots can be heard periodically, but snares have been found throughout the Gamba Complex. This particular elephant had been killed several nights previous and most of the meat had been removed. The sight was gruesome and sad, but seems to strengthen official resolve to crack down on poaching. The poacher had been caught, his gun confiscated, and a fine of US$3000 imposed, pending court outcome. The tusks, by now loosened from the skull, were impounded by Eaux de Foret guards.

On Christmas Eve, Lisa and I accompanied Hadrien, the post-doc scientist, on another round of transects in forest-savannah mosaic, doing nine 500 meter walks to note mammal activity along individual transects. We encountered tracks of jackal, mongoose, civet, genet, buffalo and elephant that we were able to identify. The elephant tracks were particularily interesting in the swampier transects, punching through the shallow grass vegetation into the mud to create a trail of little ponds a foot-print apiece, like a string of mirrors reflecting the sky across the landscape.

Another week has passed, and the rain seems to be tapering off a little. A jasmine-like fragrance wafts in the evening air now, some new plants must be flowering nearby. Hundreds of swallows suddenly appeared after yesterdays 2-plus inch downpour, careening through a rising swarm of insects over the forest, only to disappear moments later. What will come next?…

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