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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