Avian Demography Unit
Department of Statistical Sciences
University of Cape Town
|BIRD NUMBERS||Volume 10 Number 1, July 2001|
19. Herping and fishing in central Africa
A good friend, Brian Fisher, once remarked that in his opinion modern biology and management of the planet can only begin after the completion of an inventory of all life on earth – the ‘Planet Genome Project’, so to speak. Although that’s quite a tall order, I do share his feelings that basic biological inventories to record alpha-level taxonomy should be a high conservation priority.
Brian, an ant expert with the California Academy of Sciences, had been in the inventory game for many years by the time we met in Madagascar in 1993. I was absolutely gob-smacked to learn that in only three years he had discovered nearly 600 new ant species in Madagascar! We have subsequently done a number of fieldtrips together, the most recent (27 April–5 June 2001) being in the Central African Republic (CAR).
‘Where is that?’ some one asked before my departure. ‘Uhm, middle of Africa, would you believe.’ More precisely, the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park and the Dzanga-Sangha Dense Forest Special Reserve are situated in the south-western corner of CAR where the country borders with Cameroon and the Congo Republic. It falls within the Northwestern Congolian Lowland Forest Ecoregion, a WWF Global 200 site, which has a combination of jungle ingredients that I found simply irresistible.
Take a million hectares of rainforest as a base, add tons of elephants and buffalo for substance, mix well with exotics such as Bongo, Sitatunga, Water Chevrotain and Giant Forest Hog, add a sprinkle of gorilla and a dash of chimpanzee (not too much though) and liberal lashings of multi-coloured birds and snakes and lizards and, very importantly, a good helping of frogs, and don’t forget BaAka pygmies for special flavouring. Bring all of this together in a slow simmer under humid conditions, serve to a party of hungry biologists, and watch the feeding frenzy (visit www.worldwildlife.org/expeditions/).
I count myself indeed fortunate to have been a part of the multi-disciplinary biological inventory team that was commissioned by WWF–US to survey this very special region. In addition to Ant Man Brian Fisher who was the expedition leader, the team consisted of entomologist Simon van Noort (South African Museum), ornithologist Dave Willard (Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago), mammalogist Steve Goodman (also FMNH) and his assistant Jean-Bosco Kpanou, and botanist Dave Harris. I was the herpetologist and, with the help of Jean-Bernard, also collected freshwater fish specimens for Roger Bills at the J.L.B. Smith Institute of Ichthyology.
As is so typical of many of the Congo Basin countries, baseline information on the various faunal and plant groups is pitifully scarce. In the past 100 years, only six papers have reported on herpetological studies in CAR! With a total of only 50 frog species recorded for the entire country, I knew that it would be easy for me to make a substantial contribution. During the four weeks of fieldwork we surveyed three different forest sites to maximize the potential for finding a variety of species. Herpetologically speaking, I recorded 78 species comprising 20 snakes, 15 lizards, one terrapin and 42 frogs. At least 15 of the frogs were new species for CAR, and at this stage it seems that three of them may be new to science. Over the next year we will each be examining and analysing our respective hauls of material and preparing a book on our findings. But, as I write this, our specimens are still stuck in containers in Dzanga-Sangha.
As if a jungle expedition wasn’t enough of a hearty meal, we were served a small coup for dessert. As we were wrapping up our business at Camp 3, we got word that rebels were attempting to overthrow the government. In doing so they were effectively blocking our scheduled departure from the capital city, Bangui. I am very relieved that we were not caught up in the middle of this coup because machine gun and mortar attacks, with corpses lining the streets of Bangui, are not my scene. So we started to plan our ‘escape’.
Being stranded in a million hectares of rainforest filled with the most amazing variety of critters wasn’t exactly the kind of situation that I wanted to ‘escape’ from. But in my head I could hear James Harrison calling me back to the ADU to resume my frog-atlasing responsibilities. The rest reads a bit like those ‘Incredible Adventure’ or ‘Homeward Bound’ tales. After much deliberation and strategizing with WWF–US and other assisting parties, we came up with a plan. A small aircraft operated by missionaries was available to fly us from a port in Cameroon, but we had to meet the pilot there by 06h00 the next morning. So we spent a frantic afternoon/evening packing and preparing our specimens so that these could be sent to us at a later date. Then we squeezed in a short party with the reserve managers and by 03h00 the next morning we were cruising down the river in a dugout. It was beautiful! We didn’t really want to leave.
At Libongo we unsuccessfully tried to obtain temporary Cameroon visas, but we took off anyway and flew to Yaounde. For the first 20 minutes our pilot agreed to give us the just-above-the-canopy perspective. Fantastic! At Yaounde we managed to get papers and then we set off on a three-hour-long bus ride to Douala on the west coast. It took some fancy footwork from Brian to persuade Air France to accommodate a bunch of smelly, hairy-faced biologists on that night’s flight to Paris, especially since we didn’t have tickets (these were somewhere in an office in war-stricken Bangui).
A few hours later we were sipping whiskeys and ogling the air hostesses – well done, Brian – and eight hours later in Paris, Brian went through all the motions again to get us on a flight back to South Africa that same evening. Sleep beckoned, but we had half a day in Paris to indulge. Staring at the Eiffel Tower in a daze, I thought I heard the call of the Redchested Cuckoo: ‘Please don’t go.’
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Document posted: 24-Aug-2001
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