Letters from the Field: Melissa Groo
Central African Republic, 2002
January 30, 2002
Dear Family and Friends:
Well, we are safely in the forest, arrived a couple weeks ago now. Our trip here was exhausting and at times quite difficult, hampered as we were with about 34 pieces of luggage, trunks and cardboard boxes and pelican cases and duffel bags. We spent some time in Paris, on a layover, and then arrived in hot and dusty Bangui on a Sunday morning. We stayed at a hotel there, simple but adequate. The city felt not vastly different from our last time there almost two years ago, despite the recent failed coup, and aside from the pick-up trucks parked here and there with what looked to be rocket launchers mounted on them.
We ventured out only to eat at the excellent Lebanese and Chinese restaurants located near our hotel, to register with the American embassy or to stop by the hardware and grocery stores to add to our supplies. We rented a truck from the Avis in Bangui -- the only one they had -- and found it wasn't big enough to bring all our things, so we packed it with the things we considered most essential, so that it was close to bursting, and left the remainder of our things at the World Wildlife Fund headquarters there, to be brought out some weeks later by our colleague Andrea, whose camp we are staying in here in the forest. She was here with us our first week, but then left to attend an elephant meeting in Nairobi, and will be returning in a couple weeks, via Bangui.
We left Bangui at 6 in the morning, with our Avis driver who knew the way, and journeyed the long and dusty road to the forest. It's the one main road that goes out this way, southwest of the city, and is paved for perhaps the first third of the 300 miles or so, and then becomes dirt. We periodically had to stop at different barriers presided over by armed guards, who according to their whim would charge us varying amounts to pass through. We were packed in like sardines, Katy, Eric, Mya and I, sitting on pelican cases, and with knapsacks on our laps. The heat was intense, and our open windows allowed for a fine layer of dust to cover us and all our belongings. After a while, we passed no other cars but for huge logging trucks, that came at us with at such an incredible speed in the middle of the road that we fairly had to pitch our car off the road to escape their path. The clouds of dust they left in their wake made it impossible to see the road ahead, but our intrepid driver kept gamely on. The smells along the way reminded me so much of my last time -- the persistent smell of smoke, of burning wood, the smell of rotting meat, of decay, and the sweet smell of flowering trees. Villages built along the road had small stands with things for sale -- cigarettes, manioc, soda. People sat up and watched us with interest as we drove past -- cars are an infrequent thing. The closer we got to Dzanga, the more pygmy villages we began to see, with the familiar dome like huts made of leaves. The children would all wave excitedly at us.
Finally we arrived at Dzanga National Park, and came to Andrea's gate, which we unlocked, and then proceeded along the 14 kilometers to her camp. It was about 6:00, and dusk was rapidly falling. We had a joyful reunion with Andrea and four BaAka pygmies, three of these known to us from two years ago, had dinner, and collapsed into bed. Her camp is more wonderful than ever. She has built a beautiful new hut for herself, and has given Katy her old one. So just Mya and I are sharing our old hut, a one-room structure made of wood, set on concrete, with a thatched roof. We have simple foam mattresses, on a wooden platform, enclosed by a mosquito net. Eric does not have a hut, he sleeps in a very large tent ELP bought him (but has already had difficult with a weaver ant invasion and a termite invasion, so we may have to rig up something different for him). There is also what we call the magasin, a hut where Eric does all his engineering work, and where all our food is kept. And the kitchen of course, which has no walls, but a stove where we make fires from wood the pygmies cut, for cooking. Then there are two bathing stalls, where the pygmies bring us buckets of hot water every evening, and, set back from the camp quite a bit, the outhouse (for which we use the French "cabinet"). It's a bit scary to go back there at night, there are some very odd looking creatures that hang out there, a whip scorpion and lots of cave crickets to be precise, not to mention the mammals that go crashing away when you approach, so I must say I don't venture up there after dark. (Even Andrea says she won't, so that makes me feel like not such a wimp since she's basically fearless).
All of these structures encircle the central structure, the paillote, which is an open, thatched-roofed, concrete platform with a sort of living, or sitting area, and the dining area. And below this main camp are the dwellings of the BaAka, similar in size and structure to our own. A team of four lives with Andrea for three weeks at a time, and then rotates with another team of four, so that they can go return to their families for a while. With us now are MBanda, Melebu, Zo and Matofee. We are making a serious effort this time to learn to speak a few words of BaAka so we can communicate better with them. Currently we are lucky enough to have Louis Sarno staying with us. He's a guy from New Jersey who moved here in the '80s to live among the BaAka and record their music. He's helping translate while Andrea is away. He has a million stories to tell, and is a wonderful companion. He has promised to take us into the forest with the BaAka on a hunting expedition for a couple of days, if we have time towards the end of our stay here.
Our first full day here we took the 2 kilometer walk to the bai with great anticipation. This time we are here in the dry season, not the wet as we were in 2000, and I began to look for the differences. It has not rained since early December. The swamp is still high, as it is stream fed, and still bears traces of regular and recent visits by elephants. Their gigantic footprints are still everywhere in the mud, their dung softening our passage at the outskirts of the water. The clusters of hundreds of white and yellow butterflies still collect on the sandy patches where they have urinated. However, there are not the prevalence of seeds I remember, that I loved so to collect, excreted from the elephants; this is not the fruiting season.
Then we entered the forest, and the dryness is more evident there. The leaves on the path are dry and dung-colored, crunching underfoot. It is the flowering season though, and wafts of blossom scents hit us at various points along the trail. We also, as we neared the bai, became aware of a hum that grew in volume and I realized it was thousands of bees up in the canopy, enjoying the flowering trees. And then suddenly, we were there, at the platform, mounting the stairs, and looking out on the saline at dozens and dozens of elephants (80 in all), arrayed all around us, sipping from holes, taking mud baths, moving languidly from one area to another. White elephants, red elephants, gray elephants, yellow elephants, painted all these different colors because they had bathed in mud of different hues. And there, looking at that incredible sight, taking in the specialness of this place and all it offers, and thinking back briefly on all the effort it took to get here, the months of planning and preparation, the long trip, the millions of details to get straight in order to launch a major technical research expedition in the middle of an African rainforest, seemed completely worth it to me. There is really no place like Dzanga bai on earth, for a glimpse into the lives of a healthy population of the endangered forest elephant. We are extraordinarily privileged.
We began the work at once of getting set up, of filling batteries with acid, carting them out there to the bai, unpacking our gear, setting up solar panels, setting up Eric's shop. Readying the autonomous recording units (ARUs) for deployment--these will continuously record the sounds of the elephants for the length of our three months here. We will be planting eight of them in an array around the bai, but this is tricky work, for you have to work around the elephants, and this of course is pretty perilous. As I write this, we have planted seven of them, and plan to deploy the last one today. Things have gone pretty smoothly so far, and we have begun collecting data up on the platform each day, noting the number of elephants every half hour, and the composition each hour the numbers of females, adult and sub-adult males, juveniles, infants, newborns. And of course, whether any males are in musth, as it is in the dry season that most males come into musth, that heightened state of testosterone where they are searching for females in estrus. And with Andrea's help, we are able to identify hundreds of elephants, and map out relationships among these. This will enable us to better discern the purposes of certain kinds of calls, as there are often family members that are separated, for example, that make contact calls and then reunite. Andrea is able to look at a calling elephant, and say that is Elodi 1, and she is calling her infant calf--and there is Elodi 2, the calf, 50 meters away, responding to her call, running toward her.
Just two days ago we had the most exciting day yet. We were lucky enough to observe a male in musth locate and mate with a female in estrus, and the attendant mating pandemonium was unlike anything any of us had ever seen. Many elephants became visibly excited as the bull first mounted the female, and circled around them, rumbling and trumpeting, twirling around, defecating and urinating. The vocalizations went on for almost nine minutes. We captured it all on high quality audio recording equipment that we had up on the platform. It was an incredible scene. Elephants kept coming over and smelling the ground where they had copulated, tasting their fluids, and continuing to rumble. That night we sat in camp and listened to what we had recorded, amazed at the number of voices we could hear, and feeling that we truly had recorded--and experienced--something extraordinary. It will be fascinating to also see eventually the infrasonic calls that were also going on, the calls below our level of hearing that Katy discovered almost two decades ago that elephants make.
One thing noticeably different about the elephants from our last time here is how much more skittish they are. It is probably because of the increase in poaching. More immigrants from the savanna have moved down to take advantage of the logging industry--which seems to be booming--and the little town of Bayanga nearby has doubled in size since we were here last. More big guns have come down into the area, and the demand for bushmeat--and for ivory--has increased. WWF has dispatched guards that are stationed near our camp and that regularly patrol, but still, we hear gunshots every couple days or so, mostly from our camp, not far in the forest. The elephants in the bai are more apt to stampede if we or tourists make any noise or disturbance, and when they do flee, they go deep into the forest, and don't soon return to the bai the way they did last time. Or when the wind shifts and they catch a whiff of us up there on the platform, that can set them off too. So we are as careful as possible to be as quiet as we can, on the trail through the forest, and up on the platform. Causing them any additional stress has become our biggest concern.
It hits me perhaps even more than last time how rich this place is in sound. It is such a fascinating dimension of the rainforest to me. In the evening I lie in bed and listen to the elephants that nightly collect in the swamp below our camp; their rumbles and screams seem to be amplified by the water; it sounds as if they are right outside our huts. Pygmy crocodiles call, and an African wood owl hoots nearby. Crickets and cicadas clamor all night long, and the tree hyrax utters its increasingly noisy, repetitive screams. It's funny how the most vocal seem to be the hyraxes and the elephants as the hyrax is the elephant's closest land relative. It's a small mammal that looks a bit like a woodchuck. One night at about 3 a.m., I heard chimpanzees grunting and hooting in the distance.
In the morning, we hear the loud whistles and screeches of the African gray parrots as they fly overhead from their roosts. I wonder if these are some of the hundreds that gather in the bai every morning, rising and falling in great groups over the clearing, their tail feathers flashing red. Every morning we hear the blue-headed wood dove, its trill sounding remarkably like a ping-pong ball bouncing along and then coming to a stop. We hear hadada ibises cawing like crows. Often there are mangabee monkeys making their guttural sounds as they crash through the trees around camp, and we watch them swing their way from one branch to another, sometimes making great leaps. White-nosed colobus monkeys also visit us. Down in the swamp, as we walk to the bai, hundreds of little frogs make a pinging sound like a taut rubber band being plucked, and black and white tailed hornbills fly off, making shrill laughing cries. In the forest, there is a hushed quietness, but for the ubiquitous cicadas. Once in a while white-crested hornbills fly overhead, the heavy beating of their wings sounding prehistoric, as if you could look up and see a pterodactyl there. Bright purple and yellow butterflies flit across our paths. Frequently we startle a duiker, and it runs off through the brush. Sometimes, if you listen very closely, you can hear termites drumming--it sounds like salt being shaken over a leaf. Their mounds are everywhere in the forest.
We caught a very fleeting glimpse of a gorilla soon after we had gotten here, but heard it very well. One day, as I drove into town with Andrea for some supplies, we startled on along her drive, and it dashed into the thick undergrowth by the road. As we passed it, it bellowed at us. Once in a while we can also hear gorillas chest-beating off in the distance.
I am going to use the high quality recording equipment we brought to record the sounds at different times of day, so hopefully we will be able to eventually make some CDs for those of you that would enjoy that.
The heat here is intense and seems to be increasing all the time. By day, we can see from our thermometer on the platform that is 88 degrees in the shade and 92 or so in the sun. The humidity is the killer, it's about 99 percent. Today we went swimming in the swamp, pygmy crocodiles and poisonous water snakes be damned. It is the only way to really cool off.
Lastly, for my Lab colleagues and other friends interested in the birds I have seen or heard here, here's a list I am sure is incomplete:
African fish eagle
Pygmy kingfisher (my favorite)
African gray parrot
Palm nut vulture
African wood owl
Blue-headed wood dove
Lots of different kinds of barbets
I have been meaning to get around to this first letter for some time now, but we have been so busy getting things set up that it's not till today that I have really had time to sit and write a long note. When night rolls around, we're so tired that we have barely enough energy to make dinner and eat it, and then fall into bed, to the protection of our netting, to read by candlelight (I brought War and Peace, and that should last me for a good bit) before we drift into sleep, intermittently woken by the crashing of elephants through the trees around our camp. So forgive the long silence. I'll write again soon.
I send you all warm regards---
February 10, 2002
Today I have been having a day off and so I am finally tackling a second letter to my friends and family. It's just the third free day I've had in the seven weeks since we left home, yet I couldn't help but feel guilty as the others left this morning for a long hard day of work. It is still and quiet here, and above all HOT. Much hotter than at the bai where at least you get a breeze now and then. Must be about 92 or so, with a fair degree of humidity. I am overcome by a vegetable torpor, a heat induced lassitude. A few feet away, a five inch long pink and grey agama lizard stops for a moment in its mad dash from one tree to another, its head bobbing jerkily up and down as it surveys the landscape. From time to time I hear a West African fish eagle call as it heads off over the camp towards the swamp; it sounds a bit like a seagull. At noon the BaAka pygmies are pounding manioc, their daily fare. Babblers and barbets sing from time to time. It's been restful but I can't help but wonder what's going on out at the bai. Which elephants are there today? Are Elvira and her two offspring there? Is Hilton still in musth, and guarding a new female? Did Old Left show up and terrorize all the other males? You really get to know the characters, and if you can keep them all straight, it's like a daily soap opera. A bit like reading War and Peace, really. At other times, when I'm watching them, I think of one of my favorite children's books, Where's Wallace, about an orangutan that you have to find in a sea of characters on each page. In each picture there's dozens of little comic vignettes, someone chasing someone over here, someone digging a hole over there, someone swimming over here. Wherever you look there's a story in action. But even in camp here, there's so much to watch. There are the mangabey monkeys, swinging their way along the perimeter of camp, daringly launching themselves from one branch to another three stories lower. Around me swarm filaria flies, hoping to sneak a bite of me. I have to be constantly vigilant to repel them. Close at my feet marches a line of mapekpe ants (this is the pygmy term for them, pronounced mah-peck-pay). They are large and black and to be avoided for their bite. Directly above in the thatched roof of the open paillote, large wolf spiders move ponderously. Sometimes you can hear them drumming up there at night. A weaver ant suddenly appears on my shoulder and I flick it off. A glistening chocolate brown millipede the size of a cigar glides up the path to my hut. Today I followed a large scarab into my hut, waited for it to land, and then captured it in a small clear plastic box so I could examine it closely. It gleamed like a jewel, its body a beautiful luminous green, almost transparent, with bright blue wings. I was afraid it would injure itself beating against the plastic, and I quickly let it loose. In the kitchen as I make lunch, dozens of bees hover around me. I think for the umpteenth time how this is truly the most inhabited place I've ever lived. Every inch is taken up by some creature. It's like the movie Microcosmos times 10. A week or so ago the numbers of one particular species were really brought home to us -- literally. One night as we all prepared to go to bed after a lengthy meeting, Andrea discovered that hordes of driver ants had homed in on her hut and were teeming around her steps and concrete blocks, apparently intent on entering and taking over. This happens sometimes when thousands of these ants -- which have quite a painful bite, I've experienced it a few times -- take over a space in search of food; they are in hunting mode. Some people have woken up to find themselves covered with the things, which eat through their bed netting and swarm over them. Andrea was, of course, unhappy about this, and we watched as she hurriedly filled a huge watering can with kerosene, dousing many of the ants and circling her house with it. Kerosene is the only thing that can deter them. She decided not to sleep in there that night, and made a bed up for herself on the camp's central paillote below. Our skin crawling, Mya and I went over to our hut about 40 feet from Andrea's, and realized with horror that the waves of ants were extending to our home, and were about three feet from entering. There were tens of thousands of them, coiled in these long undulating lines that wrapped around a corner of our hut and moved ever closer. We dashed to get kerosene, and just in the nick of time, drenched the borders of our concrete floor with it. We kept an eye on them for the next 45 minutes or so. Temporarily confused and disoriented, the swirls of ants turned back on their paths, ran in circles, hurried this way and that. Then finally, in a concerted movement, they headed off towards the forest. Mya and I shuddered to think of how things might have gone if we hadn't had that meeting, and therefore had been in bed earlier, unaware of the advance of this copious army. Yikes.
Some flashes of wonderful birds I've seen lately in and around the bai -- two huge maribou storks at one end of the clearing as we entered one morning, looking like smartly dressed old men standing at the edge of a pool. Red-eyed doves mixed in with the African grey parrots one day. White-throated bee eaters swooping down over the bai and returning to a nearby tree. A beautiful turquoise and black woodland kingfisher whose favorite perch I've discovered. Cattle egrets that look like ladies-in-waiting as they follow the buffalo around. Brilliantly iridescent sunbirds -- the African counterpart to hummingbirds -- chattering past our platform. Hartlaub's ducks soaring in for a landing along the stream that cuts through the bai; their pale blue shoulders catching my eye. A large crested guinea fowl, glimpsed through trees on the way to the bai.
As for animals, every day we see sitatunga in the clearing, delicate small swamp-dwelling antelope. They usually travel in small family groups of two or three. One day I walked alone from the camp to the bai, and managed to creep up on a female sitatunga wallowing in the swamp near camp, scaring her only when I was about ten feet away. There are also usually forest buffalo in the clearing, the same herd of seven handsome, sturdy animals, that lie about in the bai in a tight group, sleeping and ruminating, getting up only when some peevish elephant decides they're in the way. One time Andrea saw a buffalo that was giving birth in the bai, that didn't get up when challenged by an elephant. The buffalo was fatally tusked by the elephant, and as she lay there dying, the other buffalo gathered around her and struggled to lift her up.
Also in the bai we sometimes see bongo, the largest forest antelope. They are extraordinarily beautiful animals, chestnut colored, with white bands circling their bodies. Their legs are banded black and white, and the males have huge ivory-tipped horns. Their large ears constantly twirl. They're always a treat to see when they walk into the bai, usually in a group of seven or eight.
We also see monkeys. One day we arrived to find a troop of about 30 mangabeys who moved around one side of the bai over the next few hours, venturing out from the edge of the forest along the ground to sit next to piles of elephant dung, sifting through them for seeds to eat. We also see black and white colobus monkeys ranging up and down trees.
And pigs -- there's the giant forest hog, which is big and black. We saw a group of these one day come out from the forest, about 14 of them. They snuffled around briefly and then left. My favorite though was the red river hog (also known as a bushpig), which we saw the other day for the first time. It's the most whimsical looking creature, truly red, with white eye rings and long tasseled ears.
Around camp, there's at least one civet. One night during dinner, we heard what must have been an estrous female civet mewing close by in the forest, and a couple days later Katy found tracks in the dirt near camp. We also found gorilla scat in the swamp one morning. There have been no leopard sightings yet, though one was seen right near camp about a week before we arrived.
One day we had a close encounter with elephants on the way home. It was just Mya and me with two BaAka trackers. Suddenly we heard something large moving about in the trees just off the trail, and the tracker in front stopped and listened. We all did the same, and then we heard a grunting sound from the same area, just ahead of us. One tracker said it was a forest hog, while the other kept whispering back that it was elephants (later he told us that the grunter had been an infant elephant). Suddenly we could see the large gray shape of an elephant through the trees. It was a female with young. We decided not to run in the other direction, but to hasten past them as quickly and quietly as we could. Andrea has often told us that it is the females that are more dangerous, particularly when they have offspring. Another day we came upon elephants in the swamp on the way home, and had to take a long detour to get home.
And then there are the ever-increasing signs of humans. One morning, as we were moving rapidly through the forest in order to get to the bai in time for our count and composition (where we name the class and sex, e.g. "juvenile female," of each elephant present), I became aware of a low drone penetrating the usual hush of the forest. I asked the pygmy tracker what it was, and he named the local sawmill. Between the greedy increasing reach of the sawmill and the poachers that increasingly prey on this population of elephants and their habitat, I feel this place slowly slipping away, and I'm afraid. Such a place can never be recaptured or reconstructed-when it's gone, it will be gone forever. And pieces of it go every day. There was some poaching last week, and we heard a number of gunshots from camp and from the bai over a couple of days, and all the elephants were terrified. The bai was empty in the mornings when we would arrive and the elephants when they did show up, in much smaller numbers, would enter hesitantly, turning this way and that, standing still, their ears raised as they listened intently, their trunks sniffing the air. We later learned that some tusks had been confiscated, though the hunter had not been caught. The park is trying to conduct a survey of all elephant corpses in the last year or so, and they have found 13 fresh carcasses after only sampling a small portion of the park. Poaching is on the rise, here and in the Congo nearby. It is the sobering reality of this place. Andrea's presence here becomes ever more important.
On a cheerier note, some of my favorite moments happen when an elephant we became familiar with two years ago enters the bai. There have been quite a few so far, but the most exciting was seeing Penny and her mother Penelope 2. We had spent quite a bit of time observing this mother and infant two years ago. In fact, when we first saw her, Penny was a newborn, her umbilicus still evident. Penelope 2 was a mother for the first time, as Andrea told us then, and seemed uncertain and inexperienced. We had watched fascinated as another adult female had tried to "kidnap" Penny when she was only two days old. We had also observed several times how Penny had wandered away from her mother several times as the weeks went by, had suddenly realized she was far from mom, and had screamed in distress. Penelope 2 would always rumble in response and run to her. I think some of you at the lab have seen some of our video footage of this. One day last week, another beautiful day at the bai was drawing to a close. Elephants of all different colors were ambling around in that golden afternoon light. From out of the forest opposite our mirador, about 300 meters away, a mother and her two-year-old infant calf entered the bai. Andrea called out to us, "It's Penelope 2 and Penny!" We were all overjoyed to see how little Penny had grown, and how healthy she and her mother looked. To know that at least some of these elephants have been safe these last two years.
We have had some visitors this past month. Chris Clark, the director of our program at Cornell (the Lab of Ornithology's Bioacoustics Research Program) has been here with us for three weeks. He has been an intrepid and indefatigable member of the team, daily shimmying up trees to try to get the recording units out of the reach of the vandals. Yes, elephants have been tampering with and often destroying our equipment. Almost all of our units have been tusked, disassembled, ripped apart because we had originally not placed them out of the reach of the elephants. So we are now trying to get them all up into trees. The pygmies are expert at tree climbing too, and have been indispensable. But it has been a constant struggle to try to keep a fair number of units operating at one time, with the elephant problem and also with the need for the truck batteries that power the units to be replaced. It's tricky going around to the units, for it can be dangerous when there are a good number of elephants in the clearing, and ones arriving through the forest all the time, so these trips must be planned carefully. We have also been visited by a crew from National Public Radio this last week. Alex Chadwick, his wife Carolyn, and their sound engineer Bill have ventured here to do a segment for Radio Expeditions, a monthly show on NPR that is also hosted by National Geographic. They have been interviewing Katy, Andrea and Chris, and also spending a few days with us on the platform, recording the elephants. We have really enjoyed spending time with them. Last night they stayed out on the bai for the full moon, recording, as the nights out there are particularly loud with elephant rumbles and screams. We mean to do that at least once this trip, too. You're pretty worthless the next day, but it's a spectacular experience. I think they were also quite pleased with the storm they captured on tape the other night. We had an incredible thunderstorm here two nights ago. It followed a day that had been particularly hot, humid, and oppressive and we'd driven into the town of Bayanga to have dinner with the NPR crew and Lisa and Nigel, WWF employees here. When we drove back that night, before we re-entered the forest, we could see almost continuous flashes of lightning in the distance. By the time we got home and in bed, about 11, the wind was starting up and we could hear long rolls of thunder in the distance, drawing closer. The wind moved across the forest in great gusts, furiously whipping about the trees. The temperature suddenly dropped about ten degrees, and huge drops began to fall on our thatched roof. Very quickly it became a torrential downpour and the thunder cracked and rolled directly over us. Sometimes between thunder claps, we could hear elephants screaming in the distance (thunder frightens them). After about half an hour, the thunder moved off, and the rain began to fall more softly, lulling us to sleep.
Katy had a birthday a couple weeks ago, and we planned a surprise trip for her and Chris that day to journey to Bai Hoku, a WWF research camp about an hour away, near the border with the Congo, where the researchers have habituated a gorilla family. Katy and Chris spent a few hours squatting in the forest watching this family, a male, female and their infant. Katy was covered with hundreds of sweat bees that swarmed all over her face, but afterwards bathed in a waterfall, and came back exultant from the experience. Eric, Mya and I hope to have a day there too, though I must admit I dread the sweat bee part of it. Sweat bees seem particularly fond of me, and they have been a constant part of our field season this year. Turns out they are more abundant in the dry season, and we have really had only one or two days without them on the bai. They are small sting-less bees that adore the salt in your sweat, and cluster on your arms and legs, and especially adore dive bombing directly into your eyes. They also are fond of insinuating their way into my widow's peak, and I am constantly extracting them from my hair. I crush them with some small satisfaction. At the end of the day, our eyes clotted with sweat bees, we relish the thought of diving into the swamp and washing it all away. Various other insects have also been having a fine feast on my flesh; daily I play unwilling -- and often unwitting -- host to all kinds of biting creatures. Their traces particularly make themselves known in the middle of the night. I have bites on the bottom of my feet, bites on my eyelids, bites between my fingers. But otherwise I am hale and hearty.
I do send my love and best wishes to everyone. I am now going to slip into my netted bed the way a young male sitatunga we see in the bai slips into the small opening of a hollow tree near our observation platform, hoping to sleep as soundly as I imagine he does in there.
March 21, 2002
Hello dear friends and family:
Greetings from Dzanga, where it is hot and wet. The wet season doesn't typically come till sometime in April, but it looks as if it's truly here now. The first big rainstorm happened about 10 days ago. It was the first day, of course, that I had left my raincoat behind. We were walking home at about 5 p.m. from the bai, and the telltale wind whipped up through the forest. Black clouds quickly moved overhead, and suddenly the skies opened with a great clamor of thunder. I threw my valuable camera equipment in Andrea's drybag, but still had an unprotected knapsack full of other things, so I ran for it, the rain lashing my eyes, and the trail turning into a rushing river almost instantly. I galloped through the swamp, and up the hill to Andrea's camp. Waterfalls of chocolate brown water gushed down the slope.
When we arrived back at camp, we found we needed to dig trenches around Eric's tent as the water was threatening to flood it. Then, about one hour after it had started, the storm suddenly stopped and the sky cleared. Andrea's rain gauge showed that it had rained 50 millimeters. Since then it's rained every couple of days, huge storms with crashing thunder. I love all the rain, though it does seem to spawn new armies of insects each time. And in addition to the panoply of bug bites that assume new proportions each day on the surface of my body, I have prickly heat rashes in just about every place of my body where I fold -- at my wrists, under my arms, inside my elbows, around my knees, even on my eyelids. It happened last time I was here too -- though to a lesser degree, perhaps due to my shorter stay then -- so I know it's not unusual for my sensitive skin to react this way. It's just incredibly itchy and unpleasant. The other day I was dismayed to find the telltale sign of chiggers, or sandfleas, in the bottom of my feet: a raised callus-like spot with a dark point in the center. This had happened to Eric, our engineer, once, and so I knew the routine. I asked one of the pygmies, Bonda, who's quite an expert at chigger extraction, to perform the needed surgery; he sharpened a stick and then proceeded to deftly though gently dig out the eggsac from my sole; he then burned the viscous white ooze in a flame. The crucial thing is to get them before they hatch in your skin, as that is apparently unbearably itchy. Not the most pleasant experience.
The data collection is going beautifully. Our autonomous recordings around the bai are all working well. Just yesterday Eric and I with two pygmy trackers, went around the bai checking battery levels and doing surveys. It was my first time seeing the entire perimeter of the bai, going behind the scenes, as it were, through the backdrop of forest that the elephants appear from every day. It was an extraordinary experience. We moved through idyllic glades with streams and tiny waterfalls, bent double to move through dense vegetation, passed the skull of a young poached male elephant lying in a rivulet, across multiple elephant paths. At any moment I expected to come face to a face with a startled matriarch and her family, but we moved unchallenged around the entire bai. At one point, we stopped at a copal, a tree with copious hard crystal-like sap that the pygmies hack off with machetes; they use the chunks of sap as small torches since it burns so well. In the end we were immensely relieved to see that none of the units had been tampered with by elephants, were indeed safely out of their reach due to Chris Clark's hard work posting them high up in trees.
The wildlife here continues to amaze me. One morning on the way to the bai, ahead of the rest of the group, I startled a pygmy crocodile at the edge of the swamp. He was about four feet long, and he slithered off furiously through the visitation, thankfully as eager for avoidance as I was. Another day we met up with about 10 bongo, barely visible to us in the dense forest. Attendant clouds of flies suddenly surrounded us and followed us for a while in swarms. Sometimes I time it so that I am walking alone to the bai, as I find more and more that I love these solitary trips. I have more chance of surprising wildlife, and, in search of this, I find that I am half afraid and half thrilled as I quietly walk along through the swamp and then the forest ("lions and tigers and bears" becomes "snakes and leopards and giant forest hogs and elephants" in my head). Sometimes I see duiker or sitatunga scampering away. Usually it's just me and the smaller denizens of the forest: brightly colored butterflies that temporarily match their path to mine, flitting on ahead of me for some time before they break away; driver ants fanning out over yards and yards of trail, such that I have to run in a crazy hopscotch; other ants that have built raised paths or tunnels bisecting the trail; dragonflies and other fast moving insects whizzing by me, on their way to something apparently urgent; termites swarming and drumming a beat in the leaves by the side of the trail.
For my bird loving friends, some birds I have seen or heard lately:
Every morning we hear the mournful call of the chocolate-backed kingfisher. There's also the red-chested cuckoo, which we have never seen either, but which we hear every day, all day, from wherever we are. It has a very repetitive call of "it-will-rain," and if I'm not in the best mood, it can make me feel like I'm going cuckoo myself. Lately I've been watching mosque swallows flit over the bai and yellow wagtails hopping about in the swampy edges of the bai, among the sandpipers. My favorite bird sighting of late is the common snipe, a beautiful bird that frequently comes and fishes around in the pools of water right in front of our platform. I saw a francolin in the forest on the way to the bai today. One night we heard the call of a great blue turaco while walking home from the bai; it was way high atop a tree and we could barely see it but I remembered how beautiful it was when we saw a pair in the bai two years ago.
Last Saturday night we prepared to go into the town of Bayanga, to Nigel's house. He is a Brit in charge of anti-poaching efforts for WWF at Dzanga, and a very close friend of Andrea's. He had informed us weeks ago that he was having a get-together for expatriates. We drove with Andrea in her truck the 15 kilometers into Bayanga, and met up with a crowd of young bright people from different countries. I couldn't decide whose conversation to listen in on, as they all seemed equally fascinating. There was Andrea and Marta, an Italian couple from Rome, studying bushmeat use and medicinal uses of rainforest plants, respectively. Bruno, a Belgian who grew up in Zaire and works for the World Health Organization in Congo setting up isolation units for Ebola victims. Chloe, an energetic and charismatic young Italian woman, who has habituated a family of gorillas at a WWF research camp near here, and her fiancé David Greer, who is working on habituation of a gorilla family at another camp. And some others from Bomassa in the Congo, vets and researchers for the Wildlife Conservation Society who are also studying and censusing gorillas; they had journeyed up from their camp to Dzanga in a pirogue earlier that day. And Lisa, an American who is head of WWF's park here. We ate dinner, and drank liberally, and then danced like dervishes till the wee hours to CDs that Mya and I had made from music we have here on a hard drive. Our trip home was interrupted by a tree that had fallen across our path; Andrea got her machete out and hacked it away till we could move it to the side. We hear trees fall all the time here, some much closer than others. The other night as Mya and I lay in our netting, reading, we heard a tremendous cracking sound. We thought perhaps one of the BaAka was up late, doing some work, perhaps hammering or something. But that didn't seem to make sense, and I found when I walked outside that there were no lights down below in their section of the camp. The cracking continued every couple of minutes and we were completely puzzled, until the tremendously thundering sound of a huge tree falling in the forest very close by made it all clear. Those loud sounds at first had been the tree cracking just before giving way. Usually we simply hear the crashing down through the forest and then the thud of a falling tree, but as that one had been so close we had been able to hear every stage of its demise.
Right now Louis Sarno is staying with us again, as he is using Andrea's computer to work on some revisions to the book he's just completed. He brought us a wonderful gift, some honeycomb that a BaAka from his village had just discovered in a tree. He opened up a package after dinner his first night here and there lay a glistening brown chunk of honeycomb, just sweating honey. We tore off smaller chunks and put them in our mouths, chewing the honey out of them. It was absolutely delicious though you couldn't eat too much as it was so rich. But what a delicacy, and a change from our monotonous diet. It's funny how much time we spend here talking about food, daydreaming about what we'd eat if we could. About what we're going to rush to our mouths as soon as we get home. It's a common topic. Fresh fruit and vegetables loom largest in our desires. That's one thing I definitely look forward to. I do find that I look at our impending departure -- only two weeks away -- with equal parts dread and excitement. Excitement to see family and friends and to claim once again the creature comforts we Americans are so accustomed to, and dread to leave a place that means so much to me -- partly because it is a place that is rich in life so mysterious to me. I remember the feeling I had when I returned home last time, and went hiking once again in the forests of northeast America. I felt that it was somehow sterile there, after being here, that the woods back home held just a tiny fraction of the mystery and life that these do here. This time, however, I console myself with the fact that I am going back to a home (new to me as of Sept. 2001) that is out in the country, surrounded by deep woods and wildlife. Just the other day my friend Harold, now staying part time at my house to help with care of Ernie, wrote to tell me that, "We were visited by a bear two nights ago, leaving some impressive claw marks on the remains of your feeder and an equally impressive pile of scat in the yard." Knowing that there was a bear outside my front door made me feel that I was coming back home to a place with its own set of mysteries and wildness. And to think of getting back just in time to watch the unfolding of spring in such a beautiful place, and to see the variety of birds that will come to my feeder there in the woods, makes me more than eager to return.
I'll try to write one more time before coming home. Tomorrow we are planning to visit the gorilla research camp, and I am sure there will be a story to tell. We are also planning to spend the night of the full moon at the bai, and I know that will be an experience, too.
Sending my love and best wishes to all,
April 3, 2002
Dear Friends and Family:
We are only a few days from leaving, but I wanted to get off one more letter to tell about our last couple of weeks here. About 10 days ago, we went to Bai Hokou, the WWF research camp about an hour's drive from here over a rough dirt road, that brings you to within 4 kilometers of the border with Congo. It's where the researchers, namely Chloe, have habituated a family of gorillas. As only two of us were allowed to go out with her to track the gorillas, and as Katy had already gone, Eric, Mya and I drew straws, and Eric and I lucked out. We departed with Chloe and two pygmy trackers at about 12:30 to look for the family, and walked into the forest a couple of kilometers to the spot where they had left them a couple hours prior. As we walked, they made a clucking sound by rolling their tongues along the roof of their mouths. That is the official sound they have established with the gorillas that lets them know people are drawing close, people they are "used to." I was excited and constantly peered through the dense trees and undergrowth, hoping to catch the first glimpse of them. We bent double through twisted thorny vines, following a trail that, in accordance with the trackers' occasional conferring, seemed to be promising. I watched what they were looking for. We came upon fruit fallen from trees, and they could tell that it was freshly eaten, even within half an hour. Bits of termite mounds showed fresh harvesting, as ants still swarmed over them to catch the remains. Even leaves that were turned a certain way showed the path the gorillas had taken.
Sometimes Chloe would squat down with the trackers and they would examine one of these bits of evidence, and then they would point the way through another bramble of bushes, and we would follow. It was exceptionally hot that day, and the sweat poured off us. We walked and walked and walked, and I finally began to lose hope we would find the family. They seemed to have been everywhere just before we got there. At one point, we could smell the silverback very strongly. He has a particular odor, and the air was thick with his musk. The trackers began to pull leaves off of twigs as we walked along. When I asked about this later, Chloe said that they do it to say to the gorillas, don't worry, we're not here to bother you, we're just here to eat, like you. Alas, we again had just missed them, and we continued on, searching in one direction and then another. We headed homeward as the light was falling, and came onto the drive into camp. There in the dirt we found impressions of the silverback's knuckles. I bent down and compared mine with his, which were the size of a large boxing glove. We were excited to know how close they must be, yet it was 5:30 and we had to return to camp. All in all, we had traipsed through that immense forest for five hours without stopping, in search of the elusive family, never finding them. It was disappointing to not see them in the flesh, but thrilling to learn how gorillas are tracked, and to explore a patch of rainforest that spills into the Congo. When we arrived back at camp, more tired than we could have imagined, we were led to a beautiful waterfall, and I stood under its hard rushing water with great relief.
One exciting sighting I did have recently, as Mya and I walked to the bai: I began to hear thrashing sounds ahead, and establishing that the sounds were up in the trees, not at ground level -- therefore, not an elephant -- I darted ahead, eager to see what I was sure must be monkeys. I came upon a gigantic bird winging its way down the path ahead of me, a massive blackish-brown eagle, dark above, with grey bands in the wings. It was a crowned eagle, which has a wing span of about six feet, and preys on monkeys. I couldn't believe that it could even fly through the forest without crashing into branches, it was so huge. I wondered if it had been pursuing some prey. And felt so lucky to have seen it, since it's not a common sight in the forest.
The night before the full moon last week, Mya and I spent the night at the bai. We were there to get counts as much through the night as we could. Since our recording units are capturing sounds 24 hours a day, our team realized we should try to get night coverage for a week or so, when we could do counts by the light of the full moon. We had a foam mattress, netting and some food, and we sat and watched dusk descend, and the elephants continue to gather.
As the light fell, more than 70 elephants were milling about the bai, moving slowly and deliberately from one pool or pit to another. Frogs and crickets began their din. Suddenly there the moon was, a swollen gold orb, rising up over the trees directly across from our mirador. Even when it was fully night, we could see the silhouettes of elephants clearly, particularly in the path of the moon's light. We could see a female elephant reach back with her trunk as she walked across the path, checking gently that her infant was at her side. We could see families walking in single file, calmly shifting from one end of the bai to the other. And the sounds -- the sounds stand out in such sharp relief at night there, because you aren't able to see the attendant behavior. The shape of sounds emerge. Low flat insistent rumbles of mothers calling their young, and rising and falling screams of juveniles. Rumbles that sounded like outboard motors. One character continually made a sound disconcertingly similar to a belch (present in all the high quality recordings we made that night). Elephants expelled water through their trunks as they excavated muddy pits -- like the sound of water being blown out of a snorkel, and made bubbling sounds as they sunk their trunks down deep into those pits.
I began to notice what looked like phosphorescence in the pools of water that elephants were digging deep into, as the ripples created by their trunks working in the water suddenly shone, and then I realized that it was the water catching moonlight. Fireflies cast their own little green glowing lights everywhere. Bats began to buzz us as we sat hanging over the railing of the mirador and I had to keep myself from flinching when they passed inches from my head.
As the night progressed, we were able to make out the shapes of other animals. A pack of about 15 giant forest hogs snuffled their way through piles of dung in the bai, scurrying away from elephants when their paths diverged. An otter appeared in front of the mirador and we watched it meander through the pools. At about midnight, Mya and I gave up counting every hour (at the peak, we counted 144 elephants!), and lay down, exhausted, on the mattress. Our sleep was intermittent, punctured by the screams of elephants directly below the mirador. Bleary-eyed as dawn rose, we hastened to mark numbers and sexes and ages of all elephants in the bai, and some time later, when relieved by Katy, staggered home to rest a bit more.
With the pygmies' help, Eric our engineer has been taking down all the recording units from around the bai, and we have officially stopped collecting data. When we go to the bai these last few days, we go to take video and high quality audio. And to just experience the elephants with no agenda to follow. Our last day was today. We packed up at camp all morning, and by 2 in the afternoon felt confident that we were well enough along in the process to take off for the bai one last time. It had rained the night before, and cleared up just as we reached the bai.
There we found, in all his glory, the king of all Dzanga elephants, Hilton, the largest bull in the population. Andrea has known him for a decade, and has found him to be the most successful breeder. He has come into musth more than any other elephant she has observed. And he has guarded a long line of females in estrus. He stands about 10 feet at the shoulder, and his tusks are 6 feet long, reaching the ground. He is an awesome sight. We saw him guarding a female early on in the season, and mating with her. Today, he was guarding a new female, Juanita 3, who has a young juvenile female about four years old. He was standing by, granting her access to the very best hole in the clearing, shooing all others away just by turning toward them. At one point the three of them walked over close to Andrea's mirador, a small platform about 30 meters away from the main platform, where Katy and I were filming. He was so close I felt I could have touched him, though, really, he was about 10 to 15 meters away. He stood near Juanita as she bathed herself in a dust pool, and as she suckled her daughter. The light shone on his tusks, and he rested his trunk on the tip of one of them. Then he followed the female and her juv to the edge of the forest, and they one by one parted the leaves and left. We were so thrilled to see him on our last day.
And then we were also delighted to see Morna 1 and her new baby, for the first time since we had seen her two years ago, standing by while her infant died (possibly of malnutrition) in front of us. I wrote about this sad event in my letters home that year. But here she was with a n ew baby. And standing quite near her was Oria 1 and her new baby. Oria 1 is the female that had reacted with such horror to Morna's dying calf that day -- I know some people have seen the footage we got of that. So it was a wonderful end to our season, giving the sense that life continues on for these elephants, that the cycle, as clichéd as it sounds, begins anew.
Last night I slept fitfully, overwhelmed by thoughts of our imminent departure, and eager to soak up every sound of the night here. At about 2:30 a.m., I could hear the wood owl, close by in the forest. I could also hear a mouse or rat chewing on something in a corner of our hut. And there was the whine of a mosquito frustrated by my impregnable netting. After some time I could hear the repetitive owl-like hooting of a palm civet in the distance that pierced the incessant cricket chorus. And from time to time an elephant rumbled from the swamp, sounding like far-off thunder. In the morning, at 5:30, I woke again, hoping to hear the Nkulengu rails. It was Louis who told us that if you hear them in the evening, you'll hear them again in the morning -- and I had heard them at 10:30 last night. They make perhaps my favorite sound. One bird book here of Andrea's describes their dueting call as "a repeated rhythmical growling 'ooo a-aa-a' that sounds like a dancing conga-line going through the forest." I find that pretty apt. Unfortunately I seemed to have missed their morning duet. But I heard monkeys hooting in the distance, and African grey parrots flying over, whistling and squawking.
So we are about to make the long trek home and I am trying to wrap my head around it. I look back on these three months here, and that period of time seems to have no meaning. Time seems both attenuated and compressed here. These last days I have measured time by what remains. Five more times I will walk this trail, I think to myself, or this is the last time I will see this elephant, or this may be the last time I see the sitatunga slip into the tree hollow. The pygmies have a word for "Watch out." It's "bondamiso," which literally means, "stick your eyes on this." I think of that word, and how I use it not as a caution but as an exhortation, greedily drinking in sights and sounds and smells. I try to imagine what it will be like to enter the life I left behind. And I know that after the skin eruptions have smoothed over, and the miraculousness of light switches, running water, and variety in food becomes once again commonplace, I will still carry this place with me. Its mark is indelible, and I will bear it "like crack through cup," as Rilke wrote. And I feel split in two -- my body yearning to go home but my soul sick to leave.
"When I go from hence, let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable" -- Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali
Melissa Groo is a research assistant with Cornell University's Elephant Listening Project. This is her second trip into the field to study the forest elephants in the Central African Republic.