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Monday, Dec. 31, 2007

Dispatches from the Congo

Milwaukee Zoological Society

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Nov. 24: Today we leave for Ika, a remote patrol post on the Salonga River about six hours from Etate, our main research station. Our objective is to continue to survey bonobos upriver from Etate in the strip of land bordered by the Yenge and Salonga rivers. We want to know whether the bonobo population continues or whether it ends at some point, limited by either habitat changes or poaching. Based on previous excursions, we know that as we move further away from Etate, poaching increases while the forest remains the same. At the same time, bonobos are present, but they are less densely populated.

While Mira prepares the food stock and camping equipment, Patrick and I use a computer program and satellite images to get geographic points of locations we want to visit. These images will be our map and guide our routes since no one from our team has ever traveled to this region, and no trail spans the 25 miles from river to river.



Take only the essentials, I warn the guards. Everyone wants to slip a little special something (like leftover fish or fried bananas) into his backpack, only to mingle with compasses and data sheets. Take only the essentials: research equipment, tarps, first aid, matches, petrol (to start fires in the rain), sleeping bags, food, pots, utensils and only one change of clothes for our 10-day journey. The food includes rice, salt, sardines, packs of tuna, cubes of bouillon, couscous, dried vegetarian chili and instant coffee. These items are packed into rubberized waterproof backpacks weighing between 40 and 50 pounds. To monitor weight is essential. Each guard will carry a pack, some in addition will carry a gun or a machete, and others will have to cut the trail—an intensely laborious task depending on the type of vegetation we will encounter.



Given a choice, guards would like to take their staple food, chiquangue (French version) or kwanga (Lingala). This is a brick of congealed manioc (cassava) or pure starch—although it has relatively little food value, it is the essential diet of locals. Women prepare chiquangue by harvesting the tubers of the cassava plant and soaking them for several days in water to leach out their bitter taste (along with traces of cyanide). Then they pound the tubers into a paste that they afterward suspend over boiling water in order to start the fermentation process. Once fermented, they knead the paste into pliable dough and then fold this into a giant leaf package ready for consumption. The process takes several days to complete, but the result is a portable food that lasts up to a week. Eating chiquangue with smoked fish is the foundation of life across the Salonga. Few alternatives exist.



The simple availability of chiquangue rations determines park protection: when, how often, and how long patrols go out. Moreover, when guards buy chiquangue in the village, everyone knows (including poachers) that they are preparing to go out on patrol.



In our case, the starchy bricks weigh a ton. At two bricks, each weighing two pounds, per person per day, consumed over 10 days by six persons (excluding Patrick and me), we would have to carry 240 pounds of chiquangue! We come to a happy compromise of 70 pounds of chiquangue and the rest is rice.



After several hours of packing, Vincent pilots us to Ika on this rare sunny day. While on the pirogue, Patrick enters latitude and longitude information into our GPS unit. I stare off into the forest, my mind numbed with details of packing. Mira is with us. Normally he stays in camp to oversee it, but I figure it’s time he learns how to work in the forest in case we’re ever short-handed. Besides, he has earned it.



We reach the Ika post welcomed by a fanfare of village chiefs, a mass of curious onlookers and stray children. We climb the cliffs of the Ika port, a slimy, eroded clay staircase carved in a 75-foot embankment. Huffing and puffing, hello Ika! It has been six years since I was last here. I make a little speech about our mission and introduce our team. Then, as if on cue, the people sing a welcome and dance past us as we enter the patrol post. It is a humbling and lovely custom—there are no traces of self-consciousness as individuals sing and dance in front of strangers. Of course they hope that we will bring some kind of prosperity to their villages, but in reality we have little to offer that is not already spread so thin that it barely counts.



While two men guard the pirogue, we spend the night in the maison de passage, a thatched house built for travelers visiting the post. During the night rats as big as kangaroos bounce on the thatched roof and scale the walls as six of us share a tarp on the clay floor of the maison and pass the night.



Nov. 25: Joined by Chef Mboyo of Ika post and Mr. Bobowa, our local guide, our team continues up the Salonga to a trail-head. Thirty minutes after leaving Ika, we arrive at a small break in the wall of riverine forest, and Vincent cuts the motor. Dipping his long paddle deeply, Bobowa guides our pirogue into a small opening that leads into a swamp. We paddle into a quiet, dark, emerald-green world. No one speaks. Edmond at the bow chops a path for our pirogue, each chop yielding an eerie hollow echo. Passing clots of ferns and epiphytes suspended on tree branches, ducking tangles of vines the size of a man’s leg, we maneuver through the swamp and slide over the black water. Turacos and hornbills break the silence. A large group of Mona monkeys and black mangabeys rustle the canopy overhead.



After an hour, we reach the point where the water is waist-deep. Without chopping down trees, the pirogue can go no further. We heft our backpacks and drop over the side of the pirogue. Our real work begins. Don’t forget to pick us up on Sunday, we joke with Vincent.



In single file, we wade off into the forest, Bobowa leading the way and marking our path with occasional machete cuts. Almost always, I follow sure-footed and lithe Edmond. Without a word between us, he cuts and hands me a hiking stick. With every step, we feel our way along the mud bottom, passing over roots, logs and sinkholes.



We walk an hour before reaching terra firma. The forest is beautiful and ancient with massive trees. Bobowa finds a trail. This trail will not take us to the Yenge, but it will get us about halfway, to a river called the Lolongo. Our goal is to go to the headwaters of the Lolongo and check what kind of habitat exists on this ridge. Does it support bonobos? After reaching the trail end at Lolongo, we will have to find our way by compass and GPS units. From the satellite images, we know the approximate location of major rivers, but rivers are usually bordered by swamp, which is sometimes not detectable. Passing through swamps is slow work, and we have only seven days to reach the Yenge and walk back.



As we walk, we search for signs of animals and humans. Our data will help us evaluate the wildlife population and human pressures on the park. Almost immediately upon reaching high ground, Edmond begins to find the remains of old snares and cable traps, one after another after another down the trail. Obviously the Ika guards have their work cut out for them …



As we walk, we find footprints of elephants, but no indications of bonobos. At 4:30 we make camp by a stream, drink warm bouillon and cook rice. Bunda directs camp construction: He makes little benches around the fire, and he cuts poles to support the tarp that covers us. We forgo tents since they are too heavy. Instead, we lay another tarp down on the ground on which we sleep—everyone lined up together side by side on their air mattresses and sleeping bags. By 7 p.m., I’m ready to turn in. The men have long ago accepted my presence in this arrangement, but they wait until I’m asleep before they lie next to me.



Nov. 26: We repack, break camp and hit the trail by 7 a.m. We walk for half the day when Patrick says that maybe we have found the limits of the bonobos’ population—maybe the Ika trail has none. I give a well-known challenge to the men: $5 to the person who spots the first bonobo nest.



By the end of the day, we’ve counted 19 nests! Nduzo is our winning nest-spotter, but Mira is truly doing a great job.



Hallelujah, Ika.

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