Finding Native Animals on Mauritius

I was pretty sick throughout my visit to Mauritius, and could barely muster up the energy to go searching for animals, let alone take pictures of them. All the pictures below were kindly provided by Drs James Baxter-Gilbert and Julia Riley.

I was in Mauritius recently, invited by a friend to add a neural dimension to his research exploring how invasive toads evolve in their new environments. We were all dedicated animal enthusiasts, so we took advantage of being in Mauritius to try and track down as many of the native animals as possible. Turns out, that isn’t so easy.

An old friend of mine, Dr. James Baxter-Gilbert, was in Mauritius with a small team to research how the guttural toad, introduced by humans to the island, had adapted to their new home. He invited me to come add a brain-adaptation dimension to his project. How could I say no?

Perfusing toad brains in Pamplemousses, Mauritius, under the rigorous supervision of lead toad researcher Dr. James Baxter-Gilbert.

Perfusing toad brains in Pamplemousses, Mauritius, under the rigorous supervision of lead toad researcher Dr. James Baxter-Gilbert.

Mauritius is a small island off the east coast of Madagascar. Like most small, tropical islands, the environment on Mauritius has been devastated by humans and the invasive plants and animals that come with us. Chances are, if you just wander around Mauritius, you’ll see nothing but invasive animals and weeds. Finding the native wildlife takes effort. We put in some effort, and here’s what we found:

Mauritius is plagued by numerous introduced species, such as the boring and mundane Aldabra giant tortoise, which should definitely not distract one from the search for native wildlife.

Mammals

Mauritius has only three native species of terrestrial mammal, all bats. We didn’t go looking for any aquatic stuff.

Mauritian Flying Fox (Pteropus niger): Compared to the other fly foxes I’ve seen, this one is surprisingly day-active. As such, it’s s relatively easy animal to see, even if you don’t know where any roosts are. Relatively is the key term, though, you still have to go somewhere like the Black River Gorges National Park or Vallée de Ferney where a little forest remains. But by keeping your eyes out in places like this, it shouldn’t take long to see one fly by.

If you want a truly spectacular flying fox experience, walk down the Maccabée Trail from the Maccabée lookout to the Black River Entrance in Black River Gorges National Park. The first two kilometres of this trail are incredibly steep - I would not recommending walking it uphill - but at one point you come across a ledge you can walk out onto, and in the valley below the ledge is a huge flying fox camp. Watching from above as the giant bats circle was an incredible experience.

Mauritian Tomb Bat (Taphozous mauritianus): This is the common insectivorous bat of Mauritius, and can be seen at night hunting insects around streetlights. We saw many driving away from the airport after I arrived.

Target for next time:

Natal Free-tailed Bat (Mormopterus acetabulosus): We came very close to finding this bat, but ultimately we were exhausted after days of working and couldn’t muster up the energy to go out at dusk on our last night and try to find one of the cave openings. I found the locations where the caves are supposed to be on Google Maps, but it still would require a bit of work to actually go to the site and find the hole in the ground. That can’t be seen from a satellite image.

From a conservation perspective, this bat is an interesting oddity. At the moment, it may be the most endangered animal on the island. There are four known roosting caves, none of which are protected. Two seem to be located in densely populated suburban neighbourhoods and are apparently used as places to dump trash. At the same time, the otherwise passionate and very active conservation organizations on the island seem strangely ambivalent to the bat - most of those I talked to, including some relatively senior people - didn’t know it existed. I can’t fathom why this is, when they are so incredibly knowledgeable and mobilized when it comes to the island’s native birds and reptiles.

Part of the problem may be the insanely idiosyncratic way the bats have been named. Of the two insectivorous bats on the island, the one that is common and widespread, not only on Mauritius but also on Madagascar and the African mainland, is called the Mauritian tomb bat. In contrast, the bat that is found only on Mauritius, and even there is very rare, is named the Natal free-tailed bat. It’s named after a South African local because a vagrant individual that was collected in Natal and described as a new species before anyone realized that it was a Mauritian bat that had gotten very, very lost. So, at the end of the day we have a special, uniquely Mauritian species in desperate need of help named after a South African location, and a widespread African species named for an island that makes up a tiny, insignificant portion of its range. Not helpful from a conservation perspective, I think.

Birds

The terrestrial birds native to Mauritius that still exist today can essentially be counted on your fingers, that’s how much the place’s avifauna has been devastated. Driving around Mauritius, you’re likely to see lots of land birds: finches, corvids, doves, sparrows, etc. They’re all introduced pests. Here are the native species we managed to find:

Mascarene swiftlet (Aerodramus francicus): This is the only native bird you’re likely to just happen across, excluding waders at the right time of year. We saw it from the front porch of our house in Pomplemousses as well as at the birding hotspots of Black River Gorges National Park and Ile aux Aigrettes.

White-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus): This spectacular bird is easily seen flying in the gorges of Black River Gorges National Park. We didn’t see it anywhere else.

Mauritius Kestrel (Falco punctatus): The most reliable place to see Mauritius kestrel is Vallée de Ferney, a privately-held reserve where a habituated pair is fed every day at noon. We missed the feeding time, but even at 3pm, without the promise of food, we saw two individuals. We also saw one at the Black River entrance to the National Park, but my impression is that they are regularly - but not reliably - seen in the park.

One of Mauritius’s spectacular and highly-promoted success stories, saving the Mauritius kestrel seems to have empowered local Mauritians to be proactive in saving their other endemic species. In particular, I was impressed with how proactively people at the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and the Vallée de Ferney talked about saving species that are still declining. Often, people in these sorts of roles seem frustrated, downtrodden, and resigned to failure. The only other place where I have met people as enthusiastic about researching and innovating new ways to save species is New Zealand. And I think New Zealand is probably the best in the world at modern conservation.

Mauritius Kestrel (Falco punctatus)

Pink Pigeon (Nesoenas mayeri): Most easily seen at the Petrin entrance to the National Park, in what they call the “aviary”. It’s actually a cluster of feeding stations inside what used to be a closed aviary, but which has been dismantled. Also relatively easily seen, at least in flight, at the Black River entrance to the park, the Vallée de Ferney, and the Ile aux Aigrettes.

Echo Parakeet (Psittacula eques): Easily seen on the walk from the Petrin entrance of the Black River Gorges National Park to the Maccabée Lookout, after you get out of the pine tree forest and into the native forest. We didn’t see any anywhere else, including other locations in the National Park.

Mascarene Martin (Phedina borbonica): I was not prepared for how hard this species was to find. We saw a few, maybe a handful, while approaching what is just called “Viewpoint” (-20.391814, 57.434228) in Black River Gorges National Park, and a few more looking out from that Viewpoint. I think I also saw one while driving over a bridge - I don’t remember which one - so they might be findable outside the national park. But I was certainly expecting them to be more common.

Mauritius Cuckooshrike (Coracina typica): This bird, considered for a long time not to be a conservation concern, has been declining quite a bit recently. Nobody seems to know quite why, they used to be found even in forests composed entirely of “weed” species. However, the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and the Vallée de Ferney seemed to be on the case, and are actively working on its recovery. I found a male on a guided bird tour with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation that started from the Petrin entrance to the National Park and went along the trail to the Maccabée Lookout, but my guides were quite pessimistic we’d find one, and were ecstatic when it turned up. We watched it forage for caterpillars from a close distance for about 20min before finally moving on. I got the impression I was very lucky to have had this experience.

There is also a male with a known territory in the Vallée the Ferney and apparently you can request special sit-and-wait tours first thing in the morning just to see it.

Mauritius Bulbul (Hypsipetes olivaceus): Relatively easily seen in the Black River Gorges National Park, Vallée de Ferney, and Ile aux Aigrettes.

Mauritius Olive White-eye (Zosterops chloronothos): Hard to find on Ile aux Aigrettes, where we saw one group of four. Basically impossible to find elsewhere.

Mauritius Grey White-eye (Zosterops mauritianus): Easily found in the Black River Gorges National Park and Vallée de Ferney, otherwise sparsely distributed around the island.

Mauritius Fody (Foudia rubra): Easily found on Ile aux Aigrettes, where we saw and heard so many that eBird was sceptical. I watched one gorgeous male forage for lerp about 30 cm from my face as we waited for the boat back to the mainland. Present but hard to find in the Black River Gorges National Park.

Mauritius Fody (Foudia rubra)

Targets for next time:

Mascarene Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone bourbonnensis): This bird can be seen in Black River Gorges National Park, but it is sparse and we didn’t manage to find it. Apparently it’s easier to see in the Ebony Forest Reserve but I didn’t have time to get there.

Herald Petrel (Pterodroma heraldica): One of the world’s rarer petrels, this species breeds on a least one small island off the northern tip of Mauritius. If you’re there during the breeding season, I think it would be worth asking the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation to organize a pelagic birding tour to the area to try and see it. This is a specialty tour, and you have to ask the Foundation for it specifically as they don’t advertise it on their website.

Reptiles

Telfair’s Skink (Leiolopisma telfairii): This skink is huge and definitely worth the effort to see. They aren’t common on Ile aux Aigrettes but we saw several in and around the man-made structures on the island.

Telfair’s Skink (Leiolopisma telfairii)

Ornate Day Gecko (Phelsuma ornata): The common day gecko of Mauritius, we saw many on the plants and outside walls of our accommodation, as well as everywhere else except higher elevations. They occur in basically plague numbers on Ile aux Aigrettes.

Ornate Day Gecko (Phelsuma ornata)

Blue-tailed Day Gecko (Phelsuma cepediana): The “other” common day gecko around Mauritius, we found them in small numbers amongst the ornate day geckos in the garden. Common at all elevations in Black River Gorges National Park.

Blue-tailed Day Gecko (Phelsuma cepediana)

Lowland Day Gecko (Phelsuma guimbeaui): Not easy to find, it is apparently absent from spots that used to be considered reliable for it. I saw it in two places. The first, where they appeared quite numerous, was on what’s labelled as the Plain Champagne Road on Google Maps but which people called the "Ridge Road”, between the Varangue Sur Morne restauratant and the village of Charmarel. The second, where they were significantly less numerous, was on the trail to the Macchabée Viewpoint from the Petrin entrance to the National Park, after leaving the pine forest and entering the native forest. Apparently they are partial to the invasive traveller’s palm, look for them basking on the palm stalks, below the leaves and above the trunk.

Lowland Day Gecko (Phelsuma guimbeaui)

Highland Day Gecko (Phelsuma rosagularis): The hardest of the mainland day geckos to find, we only saw it in one place, on the trail between “Viewpoint” (-20.391814, 57.434228) and the Maccabée Viewpoint. They are apparently preferential to exposed branches on trees that have grown above the canopy (which is quite low at that elevation), so a pair of binoculars will help with the search.

The guides with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation knew some spots for them on the trail from Petrin to the Maccabée Viewpoint, but because I had seen them previously we didn’t spend much time searching for them. Beware, also, because in this area they are sympatric with the lowland day gecko. My guide even showed me a tree where she finds all three species (the blue-tails being the third found in the area).

Targets for next time:

Bojer’s Skink (Gongylomorphus bojerii): Though not present on Ile aux Aigrettes, it is present on some of the islands to the northeast of it, like Ile de la Passe. Some of these islands are also open to the public, though you have to charter a private boat to get there. Depends how much you want to spend to see a rare, small, brown skink, I guess.

It’s also present at some locations in the Black River Gorges National Park. I was told it can be found at Petrin around the picnic area and aviary, but I couldn’t find one there. The rest of the toad research team had found some at one of their research sites - not accessible to the public - before I joined them.

Bojer’s Skink (Gongylomorphus bojerii)

Günther’s Day Gecko (Phelsuma guetheri): A giant and very strange day gecko, there are small numbers of these on Ile aux Aigrettes, but they are very hard to find. Make sure to go on the extended 2hr tour, which takes you to the centre of the island, because the standard 45 min tour doesn’t go to where they’re found. Look for them on the taller knotty trees in the centre of the island, but even then they are difficult to find. When the staff find a tree with a resident Günther’s gecko, the mark the tree with what looks like a metal army tag. So search any trees you find decorated with silver metal trinkets extra thoroughly! We searched and searched and though we found many (hatched) eggs, we didn’t see any actual geckos. But on the positive side, it looks like recruitment is good, so hopefully finding them will get easier!

Hatched Günther’s gecko eggs.

Bouton’s Skink (Cryptoblepharus boutonii): This species is surprisingly rare, considering the success of the genus as a whole in colonizing small oceanic islands. There are a few spots on the mainland where they can still be found, in the rocks right in the surf. However, it sounds like they’re much easier to find on the islands, including some of the publicly accessible ones in the south-east. Unfortunately, they’re not present on Ile aux Aigrettes.

Goodbye to a friend

About a month ago, I was checking my e-mail while on vacation, as academics are notorious for doing. A new e-mail popped up while I was writing, with a forebodingly vague subject: “sad news”. If I ever have to write an e-mail like the one I’d received, I know I’d agonize over the subject for ages, and probably end up leaving it blank. One of my mentors had died, suddenly and unexpectedly.

When I was just starting my PhD, my supervisor encouraged me to study lizard brain evolution. I was in a lab that studied lizard evolution, and I had studied neuroscience in undergrad. I thought it was a great idea, but I quickly realized that studying neuroscience in a department where no-one else worked on brains was an immense challenge. I did a lot of reading scientific papers, trying to figure out what to do and feeling incredibly lost, and I kept coming across a name: Jeremy Ullmann. Some Googling told me that me had recently completed a PhD on fish brain evolution.

I had no connection to Jeremy, and he had no reason to help me. He was doing a postdoc at the University of Queensland and had pivoted away from evolution and towards medicine. But I sent him an e-mail out of the blue one day in 2011, asking for help. He responded almost immediately, asking for more details about my project and seeming genuinely interested. I answered him as best I could. It didn’t satisfy him, he responded immediately again with more questions: “have you thought about doing this?” “what about trying this"?” etc. Finally, after a few more back-and-forths, during which it must have been painfully evident to him that I had no idea what I was doing (despite my best efforts), he suggested I call him, so we could have a proper conversation. And so I did, and it was one of the most useful and inspiring conversations I’ve ever had.

Jeremy mentored me throughout the rest of my PhD. I’m sure it couldn’t have always been easy for him, I was so intimidated by him that sometimes it took me weeks to answer his e-mails. I looked up to him because he was young, sharp, and ambitious. He gave the impression of total confidence and control, and at times during my PhD, particularly when I’d reach out to him for help, I felt like a total failure, completely out of control. He’d set me straight, solve problems over the phone, and remind me to contact him whenever I needed. I learned not only practical skills from him, but people skills as well. The way he was with me, I strive to be that way now, with others. I usually fall short.

Since I graduated, I’ve seen Jeremy at conferences. We’d go out for dinner if he wasn’t too busy networking, or we’d just hang out amongst the posters. He insisted on introducing me to one of my neuroscience heroes, Charles Watson. I learned that he’d gotten married, and last time we spoke he had just had his first child. I still looked up to him, wanting to know what he was thinking of doing next, how he was strategizing, so I could emulate him.

Jeremy died last month climbing Mount Washington. He was 37 years old and leaves behind his wife, Kylie, and their three-year-old son. My heart breaks for them. Despite the fact that we really didn’t know each other that well, he had a profound impact on my life. Jeremy was good at everything I wanted to be good at. He was smart, an agile thinker, confident and charismatic. Science is worse off without him. The world is worse off without him. I feel extraordinarily lucky that he touched my life, however briefly, before we lost him.

Jeremy’s wife and son are stranded in the United States, where Jeremy was doing a postdoc, far away from family in Australia. They have started a Go-Fund-Me to cover the enormous cost of moving back to Australia and rebuilding their lives.

Jeremy’s obituary is here, and his death was also covered by the news.

The Central African Republic, part 3

This is my third of three posts on a trip to the Central African Republic (CAR) in December 2017. The first part dealt with the (extensive) planning for the trip and my days in Bangui at the start of the trip. The second part covered the remainder of my trip, mostly my week at Sangha Lodge in the rainforest of Dzanga-Sangha National Park.

This, last of my CAR posts, is for the intense wild animal-seekers out there. It’s a list of all the mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians I came across during my trip and any relevant notes about where they were seen and suggestions on how others might see them. I’m also including animals that I haven’t been able to properly identify, in hopes that somebody reading this might have some insight as to what these animals could be.

Mammals

I identified mammals based on Kingdon’s Mammals of African, second edition. After my trip I confirmed the IDs from my notes and pictures using the Handbook of the Mammals of the World. I assigned the animals I saw to subspecies based purely on range maps.

African Forest Elephants digging for mud in Bai Hokou.

African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) - Practically guaranteed at Dzanga Bai, also frequent at other bais, like Bai Hokou. Otherwise quite hard to see, even though they are present everywhere.

Southern Needle-clawed Galago (Euoticus elegantulus) - Seemed relatively common on the trails around Sangha Lodge at night. I saw three during my time there.

Demidoff’s and Thomas’s galagos are almost impossible to tell apart in the field based on physical appearance, from what I’ve heard. However, apparently they can be relatively reliably distinguished by behaviour (and by call, though I didn’t hear them make any sounds).

Demidoff’s Dwarf Galago (Galagoides demidovii anomurus) - Sangha Lodge’s owner, Rod, said these are not easy to see. I assigned one galago I saw to this species because it was foraging low in the understory of the forest, at about my eye level, and was moving by scrambling through the vine thickets.

Thomas’s Galago (Galagoides thomasi) - I assigned the rest of the galagos I saw to this species because they were high up in the forest canopy and because they would move by running along branches lengthwise and leaping from tree to tree. If I am correct in my IDs, these are fairly easy to see at night on the trails around Sangha Lodge, though you’ll need a good pair of binoculars to see anything beyond their intense eyeshine.

Milne-Edward’s Potto (Perodicticus edwardsi) - Fairly common on the trails around Sangha Lodge at night.

Moustached Monkey (Cercopithicus cephus cephus) - Common, I saw them in several places but most easily in the forest around the visitor’s centre in Dzanga-Sangha NP.

Putty-nosed Monkey (Cercopithicus nictitans nictitans) - Common and easily seen around Sangha Lodge.

Crowned Monkey (Cercopithicus pogonias grayi) - Apparently common around Sangha Lodge, but I only managed to spot them once, in a mixed group with putty-nosed monkeys.

Grey-cheeked Mangabey (Lophocebus albigena) - I saw them one morning on the hike into Dzanga Bai.

A blurry, heavily cropped picture of a western guereza at Dzanga Bai.

A blurry, heavily cropped picture of a western guereza at Dzanga Bai.

Western Guereza (Colobus guereza occidentalis) - Seen foraging on the ground at Dzanga Bai.

Mongambe, the silverback of one of the two habituated gorilla groups tourists can visit, near Bai Hokou.

Mongambe, the silverback of one of the two habituated gorilla groups tourists can visit, near Bai Hokou.

Western Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) - Guided tours will lead you to one of two habituated groups, so sightings are almost guaranteed. I also saw an unhabituated silverback on one of the mud tracks in Dzanga-Sangha NP, which was one of the most spectacular animal sightings of my life. They’re also occasionally seen foraging in Bai Hokou.

I had a particularly hard time identifying the squirrels I saw, and I saw lots! I saw at least one individual of each of the following five species well enough to confidently ID them to species, but most that I saw went unidentified.

Striped Ground Squirrel (Euxerus erythropus limitaneus) - One seen on the roadside passing though a grassy area on the outskirts of Bayanga Village.

Thomas’s Rope Squirrel (Funisciurus anerythrus mystax) - Seen around Sangha Lodge.

Ribboned Rope Squirrel (Funisciurus lemniscates mayumbicus) - Seen around Sangha Lodge.

Red-legged Sun-squirrel (Heliosciurus rufobrachium) - Seen at Dzangha Bai.

Forest Giant Squirrel (Protoxerus stangeri eborivorus) - One seen at the visitor’s centre in Dzanga-Sangha NP.

Before arriving at Sangha Lodge I’d never heard of anomalures. When I left I’d seen half the world’s species!

It took us forever to identify this Beecroft’s anomalure.

It took us forever to identify this Beecroft’s anomalure.

Beecroft’s Anomalure (Anomalurus beecrofti) - One seen at night on the trails around Sangha Lodge.

Lord Derby’s Anomalure (Anomalurus derbianus) - Seen reliably inside a hollow tree on the Sangha Lodge property.

Lesser Cane Rat (Thryonomys gregorianus) - One seen running across the road on the outskirts of Bayanga at sunset.

As with the squirrels, most of the bats I saw went unidentified. Most were little more than shadowy blurs silhouetted against the dusk.

Pel's Pouched Bat (Saccolaimus peli) - These massive bats were easy to see around Sangha Lodge, particularly flying over the river. They are identifiable by their huge size.

Intermediate Slit-faced Bat (Nycteris intermedia) - The hollow tree that houses the Lord Derby’s anomalure is also home to at least two kinds of bat. I was able to identify one of them as slit-faced bats, and I’ve called them N. intermedia based on Vladimir Dinnet’s notes.

Pangi, one of the two habituated long-tailed pangolins living around Sangha Lodge. There are much better pictures of her elsewhere on the Internet.

Pangi, one of the two habituated long-tailed pangolins living around Sangha Lodge. There are much better pictures of her elsewhere on the Internet.

Long-tailed Pangolin (Manis tetradactyla) - Easily seen at Sangha Lodge by joining the trackers that follow habituated individuals from sunrise to sunset. Otherwise practically impossible to see.

Forest buffalo (left) and giant forest hog (right) hanging out together at Dzanga Bai.

Forest buffalo (left) and giant forest hog (right) hanging out together at Dzanga Bai.

Giant Forest Hog (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni rimator) - Regularly seen at Dzanga Bai.

Forest Buffalo (Syncerus nanus) - Reliable at Dzanga Bai.

Bongo!!!!!!

Bongo!!!!!!

Bongo (Tragelaphus eurycerus) - Occasionally makes an appearance at Dzanga Bai, making that the best place in the world to see them.

Western Sitatunga at Bai Hokou.

Western Sitatunga at Bai Hokou.

Western Sitatunga (Tragelaphus gratus) - Occasionally seen at Bai Hokou.

Can anyone help identify these:

  1. I think these three pictures are of a red-legged sun squirrel. Can anyone confirm or correct me?

2. The hollow tree where the Lord Derby’s anomalure is found, I identified two species of bats. This was quite challenging, I was literally going back-and-forth between looking straight up with my binoculars and reading through Kingdon’s guide. I identified two bats down to genus: the slit-faced bats mentioned above and woolly bats (Kerivoula sp.). Unfortunately Vladimir Dinnet does not list a woolly bat species as occurring inside that tree. Does anyone know what kind(s) of woolly bat roosts in there?

Targets for next time:

Tree Hyrax - Their extremely loud calls were heard nightly around Sangha Lodge, sometimes very close to the trails. I think I could have found them if I had known what I was looking for, I thought I was looking for some kind of nocturnal bird!

Agile Mangabey - Usually easy to see as there is a habituated group at Bai Hokou but unfortunately when I was there the trackers were on strike.

De Brazza’s Monkey - Apparently occasionally seen in the swampy area near Sangha Lodge but I didn’t get enough time to properly explore this area in the daytime.

Brush-tailed Porcupine - There is a cave where they live not far from Sangha Lodge, but when we went they were very skittish and ran too deep into the cave for us to see. They can also be reliably seen by going hunting with the Ba’aka.

Tree Pangolin - Apparently regular on the trails around Sangha Lodge at night, though I think Rod might be a little over optimistic (he said they’re seen approx. once per four night walks).

Red River Hog - My favourite pig, I was really hoping to see them. They’re regular at Dzanga Bai, so I was just unlucky.

Birds:

I identified birds almost exclusively by sight, using the second edition of the Birds of Western Africa. I’m just not good enough at African bird calls to rely on them. However, Rod Cassidy, the owner of Sangha Lodge, was a professional birding guide in Africa before buying the lodge, so I was able to rely on him for help with some hard-to-ID birds. He also loaned me his Swarovski telescope to use at Dzanga Bai, which very much came in handy.

My bird list is here. It is 173 species long, and I don’t think it’s worth reposting. Instead, I’m just going to mention some highlights. Also, I should note that my list may not be complete, I think I forgot to write down some of the common and/or introduced species I’d seen previously.

Plumed Guineafowl (Guttera plumifera) - Seen with Rod’s help on the trails at Sangha Lodge.

African Green Pigeon (Treron calvus) - This spectacular bird was common around Sangha Lodge and Dzanga-Sangha National Park

Yellow-throated Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx flaviguralis) - Not an easy bird to see, Rod help me track down one that was calling around Sangha Lodge early one morning.

Black Spinetail (Telacanthura melanopygia) - The diversity of spinetails around Sangha Lodge makes identification a challenge; I found four species on my trip, of which this is the least reported (according to eBird).

Forbes’s Plover (Charadrius forbesi) - A Central and West African specialty, these were common at Dzanga Bai. There were many other waders at Dzanga Bai as well, a good telescope is necessary if you want to identify them.

Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii) - One seen at Dzanga Bai at the edge of the forest.

Black Goshawk (Accipiter melanoleucus) - A spectacular bird to see emerge from the forest at Dzanga Bai.

Dark Chanting-goshawk (Melierax metabates), Bataleur (Terathopius ecaudatus), Red-necked Buzzard (Buteo auguralis) - Three spectacular African raptors all seen riding the thermals from the road to Lac des Crocodiles.

Fraser’s Eagle-owl (Bubo poensis) - Rod found one at Sangha Lodge after dinner one evening.

Red-billed and Black Dwarf Hornbills (Lophoceros camurus and Horizocerus hartlaubi) - Both dwarf hornbills are rather difficult to see, but can be spotted in the forest canopy around Sangha Lodge.

Black-and-white Casqued Hornbill (Bycanistes subcylindricus) - Rod says he doesn’t think these are present in the area, but I swear I saw one - the diagnostic black-and-white undertail pattern in particular - fly across the river during our river cruise.

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) - Despite seeing this bird regularly in all my hometowns (Toronto, Montreal and Canberra), I was extremely pleased to see a Sky Ferrari perched on the cell tower in downtown Bangui.

Gray Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) - My #2 most wanted bird of the trip, they were so common at Sangha Lodge and around Dzanga-Sangha NP that I could have gotten sick of them if they weren’t so wonderful. The palm wine boat tour is particularly good for seeing them in large, riotous flocks.

Red-eyed Puffback (Dryoscopus senegalensis) - A particularly hard rainforest bird to see, I only saw it once, at Dzanga Bai.

Black -headed x African Paradise-flycatcher (Terpsiphone rufiventer x viridis) - While hanging around Bai Hokou village, I saw what looked like a black-headed paradise-flycatcher, except it had black underparts and white tail streamers of intermediate length. What a weird bird.

White-bearded Greenbul (Criniger ndussumensis) - I saw this around Sangha Lodge, and was able to identify it to species only with Rod’s help.

Lesser Bristlebill (Bleda notatus) - I was lucky in finding an army ant swarm while wandering the Sangha Lodge trails and, though the experience was stressful for trying to avoid being encircled by the ants, it was great for birding those understory skulkers that are otherwise quite difficult to get a look at.

Xavier’s Greenbul (Phyllastrephus xavieri) - I saw this greenbul only once, birding around the Bai Hokou village.

Green-backed Eremomela (Eremomela canescens) - This seldom-reported bird seems pretty easy to see on the road to Lac des Crocodiles.

Gosling’s Apalis (Apalis goslingi) - This Central African specialty was easy to see at Sangha Lodge.

Yellow-footed Flycatcher (Muscicapa sethsmithi) - This did not seem like an easy bird to see, but I found one extremely confiding individual hanging around the Bai Hokou village.

Can anyone help identify this:

This bird was seen and photographed at Dzanga Bai. Yes, this is the best (i.e. only) picture we managed to get. Can anyone identify it from this?

Targets for next time:

Red-necked Picathartes - I was sad to have missed my #1 target bird. Rod has a reliable spot for them, but unfortunately a poacher had camped there recently (the remnants of his fire pit were still very evident) and there were no birds to be found. We did see their weird mud nests.

White-collared Starling - Rod suggested that the road to Lac des Crocodiles is a good place to look for this species because previous groups had found them there.

Pennant-winged and Standard-winged Nightjars - Rod said that these can be found hawking over and around the airstrip at Bayanga, but we didn’t manage to arrange a night trip there. Also, the road to Lac des Crocodiles is almost guaranteed to have them, but I don’t think driving this road at night is a good idea in the current security situation.

Greater Painted-snipe - I was convinced that if I scanned Dzanga Bai long enough and hard enough with the telescope I would find one, but I never did.

Reptiles

Reptiles were the hardest to identify because (1) there is a huge lack of knowledge as to what reptiles live in Central Africa, (2) they are extremely diverse (particularly certain groups of lizards and snakes), and (3) diagnostic differences between species can be subtle. Luckily reptiles have long been my passion, and I can identify almost all reptiles to family on sight, most reptiles to genus on sight, and for the easier groups (monitor lizards, boids, crocodilians, etc) I can identify them to species on sight. However, for a lot of the small, skittish lizards, it just wasn’t possible to identify them on my trip. I took pictures of them if I could get my camera out and focussed before they ran away, and others took notes on their appearance as best I could. Once I got home, I used the primary (scientific) literature to figure out what species in that family or genus could be present in CAR, and then how to tell those species apart. My main source of information for what reptiles are present in CAR was Chirio & Ineich, 2006.

A young Central African dwarf crocodile in the swamps near Sangha Lodge.

A young Central African dwarf crocodile in the swamps near Sangha Lodge.

Central African Dwarf Crocodile (Osteolaemus teraspis) - I saw a young one spotlighting in the swamps on my first night at Sangha Lodge. Rod doubted that I’d find one, and I wasn’t able to find it again on subsequent nights despite intensive searching, so I think they are pretty rare in the area and I was extremely lucky.

A young sacred crocodile at Lac des Crocodiles near Boali Falls.

A young sacred crocodile at Lac des Crocodiles near Boali Falls.

Sacred Crocodile (Crocodylus suchus) - A young one was lured out of the Lac des Crocodiles with the promise of a live chicken, however a hive of angry bees came to the chicken’s rescue. The poor croc retreated back to its lake unfed as we all ran off screaming.

A Calabar burrowing python found at night near the Picathartes waterfall, Sangha Lodge.

A Calabar burrowing python found at night near the Picathartes waterfall, Sangha Lodge.

Calabar Burrowing Python (Calabria reinhardtii) - One found at night spotlighting below the picathartes nesting site. My guide completely freaked out when I picked it up. He was new, very keen to make a good impression (which he did), and thought he was watching his great opportunity disappear before his eyes because who would hire him again when his first tourist committed suicide by snake? After I explained (repeatedly and at length) that this particular snake was not dangerous, he eventually asked to hold it.

Jameson’s Mamba (Dendroaspis jamesoni jamesoni) - There aren’t many wild animal experiences I treasure more than watching a two-meter-long, bright yellow mamba move effortlessly from a sunny patch on the rainforest floor up a palm tree and into the safety of its crown of thorny fronds. The mamba made no hurry and kept its head elevated and eye on me the whole time. I would have walked right by it had a squirrel not been alarm-calling at it, and even then I spent the first few minutes trying to ID the squirrel before I thought to try and figure out what had got the squirrel so worried. How many other amazing, fully exposed but well-camouflaged animals did I walk right past?

A beautifully coloured male African five-lined skink at Boali Falls.

A beautifully coloured male African five-lined skink at Boali Falls.

A baby African five-lined skink with a beautiful blue tail.

A baby African five-lined skink with a beautiful blue tail.

African Five-lined Skink (Trachylepis quinquetaeniata) - Common around man-made structures at Boali Falls and Lac des Crocodiles.

A speckle-lipped skink basking on the deck at Sangha Lodge.

Speckle-lipped Skink (Trachylepis maculilabris) - Common around Sangha Lodge.

A Makolowodé’s skink hanging above the door to my cabin. I took a bunch of pictures of this guy, and he never moved. Later, I realized he was dead.

Makolowodé’s Skink (Trachylepis makolowodei) - Common around Sangha Lodge.

A Benoue agama near Boali Falls.

Benoue Agama (Agama dorian) - Common around man-made structures at Boali Falls and Lac des Crocodiles.

A gorgeous male red-headed agama.

Red-headed Agama (Agama lebertoni) - The Agama agama-group species in the area, these were surprisingly uncommon. Usually they are abundant around human habitation, but I only saw them around the Mausoleum of Ange-Félix Patassé, just outside of Bangui.

Moreau’s tropical house gecko in my cabin at Sangha Lodge.

Moreau’s Tropical House Gecko (Hemidactylus mabouia) - Seen on the interior walls of my cottage at Sangha Lodge, as well as the dining hall.

A coalescent house gecko in my cabin at Sangha Lodge.

Coalescent House Gecko (Hemidactylus coalescens) - Common both in the buildings at Sangha Lodge, and around the bases of trees in the forest.

The one picture I was able to get of the sawtail lizard before it took off.

Sawtail Lizard (Holaspis guentheri) - I saw this gorgeous lizard on a tree limb beside the observation hide at Dzanga Bai. That was the only one I ever saw, so I suspect they aren’t easy to find unless you can get up high.

Ornate Monitor (Varanus ornatus) - Rod was surprised when I told him on my last day that I had yet to see one. He said he frequently sees them wandering around the camp. I made a concerted effort to find on that morning, and finally came across a baby on the bank of the river across from the camp. It was gorgeous, and well worth the effort.

Can anyone help me identify:

1. This gorgeous agama was hanging around on the tree by the Dzanga Bai elevated hide, and I have no idea what it is. Not only is its colour scheme not one I’ve seen described anywhere for any African agamid, but something about this individual says “female” to me, which would make its beautiful colours even more unusual. If you know what it is, please let me know!

2. I chased this agamid around my cabin at Sangha Lodge trying to get decent pictures. Something about this one makes me think it’s a male, but I still have no idea what species it could be.

Targets for next time:

Central African Slender-snouted Crocodile - Rod says these have been hunted out from the area, but the guides in the Dzanga-Sangha NP were familiar with it. It might be worth trying to hire a Ba’aka guide to see if they can take to you a good spot for them.

Gaboon and Rhinoceros Vipers - I borrowed a rake and tried raking through leaves at the bottom of a pit with no luck. Rod says he’s only seen them two ways: when they’re swimming in the river or fleeing army ants. I suspect they aren’t rare, but the quality of their camouflage and their habit of not moving make them almost impossible to find.

Broadley’s and Variable Bush Vipers - Both these spectacular snakes should be present in the rainforest of southwest CAR. Spotlighting at night is probably the best way to find them (along with luck) but I didn’t come across any - and I spotlighted quite a bit!

Ball Python - One of the most popular pet snakes in the world, I’d love to seen this gorgeous animal in the wild. Flipping debris on the road to Lac des Crocodiles would probably give a decent chance of finding one (and who knows what else!)

Conrau’s Dwarf Gecko - These tiny but spectacularly coloured gecko are around Sangha Lodge, I’m sure. They prefer dense vegetation in sunny spots in the forest. I’ll have to look harder next time.

Savannah Monitor - I’ve got no idea what kind of hunting pressure they might be under, but they should be present in the savannah mosaic around Lac des Crocodiles. It’d be worth wandering around the area, or at least keeping an eye out while birding.

Cameroon Stumptail Chameleon - I would LOVE to see a species of dwarf chameleon. I suspect find it is a matter of keeping a close eye on the ground while walking along rainforest trails.

Amphibians

Although the data on amphibian diversity in Central Africa is just as terrible as the data on reptiles, two things made the amphibians easier to identify. First, their diversity is a heck of a lot lower, so the number of species that could possibly be present is less daunting. Second, an academic, David Modry, had recently done a survey of frogs at Sangha Lodge, and left behind a picture book of all the species they found. This was very useful. Unfortunately the data doesn’t seem to have made it into any publication yet.

Greshoff’s Wax Frog

Greshoff’s Wax Frog

Greshoff’s Wax Frog (Cryptothylax greshoffi) - Common on the trails around Sangha Lodge at night.

White-lipped Frog

White-lipped Frog

White-lipped Frog (Amnirana albolabris) - Common in the swamps near Sangha Lodge at night.

Perret’s Grassland Frog

Perret’s Grassland Frog

Perret’s Grassland Frog (Ptychadena perreti) - Common in the grassy areas of Bai Hokou.

Benito River Night Frog

Benito River Night Frog

Benito River Night Frog (Astylosternus batesi) - Not easy to find. I found a couple in the creek that flows down from the Picathartes nesting site.

Buea Screeching Frog

Buea Screeching Frog

Buea Screeching Frog (Arthroleptis variabilis) - We managed to find a couple spotlighting at night on the trails around Sangha Lodge.

Eared River Frog

Eared River Frog

Eared River Frog (Phrynobatrachus auritus) - A few individuals found in the swamps near Sangha Lodge.

Oban Toad

Oban Toad

Oban Toad (Sclerophrys camerunensis) - This human-associated species is relatively easy to find at night around the Sangha Lodge buildings.

Central African clawed frog

Central African clawed frog

Central African clawed frog (Xenopus power) - This, the northernmost of the four species that Xenopus laevis was split into, was common in the swamps around Sangha Lodge at night. This was surprising because it is not included in David Modry’s picture book. Maybe its presence is seasonal?

Can you help me identify:

1. I think this is just a weakly patterned eared river frog. Any other opinions?

2. I’m pretty sure this is  Hyperolius brachiofasciatus  based on the description in  AmphibiaWeb , but identifying newly-metamorphosed froglets like this one is quite difficult. Does anyone have any insight?

2. I’m pretty sure this is Hyperolius brachiofasciatus based on the description in AmphibiaWeb, but identifying newly-metamorphosed froglets like this one is quite difficult. Does anyone have any insight?

3. I think this might be Leptopelis calcaratus? But something about it just doesn’t seem to fit for that species…

4. David Modry has this listed in his book as Hyperolius sp. Anyone know if it’s been described?

Targets for next time:

Congo caecilian - I have never seen any kind of caecilian in the wild. This terrestrial species should be pretty common in the rainforest, but I suspect we didn’t get enough rain when I was there to bring them out of their burrows.

Bolifamba Reed Frog - This spectacularly coloured frog reaches its westernmost distribution in southwester CAR.

Accra Snake-necked Frog - Another spectacularly coloured frog, this one found in dryer savannah regions. Lac des Crocodiles seems like a good place to look for them, but you’d have to be there during the rains.

Cameroon Toad - Among the most beautiful of toads, this species is found in rainforests in the vicinity of large rivers, so Sangha Lodge seems like the perfect place to go looking for them! Maybe I have to spotlight more along the river’s edge, as opposed to in the forests and swamps.













The Central African Republic, part 2

The Central African Republic, part 1 dealt with my preparation for the trip and my time in Bangui at the start of my trip. This part deals with the main attraction: my time at Sangha Lodge in the country’s southwest.

The morning after my trip to Boali Falls, William and Nestor picked me up and we drove to the airport to catch a puddle-jumper flight to Sangha Lodge, in the southwest corner of CAR. William immediately disappeared into the airport to do his fixing for two arriving clients, while I waited in the parking lot with Nestor. Me being me, I asked Nestor if I could pull out my binoculars and look for birds. Nestor approved, and I started trying to figure out what was perched on the fences and light posts around the airport. Many fences and lights surround the airport because it is one of the most strategically important and heavily fortified places in CAR. That means it’s also crawling with heavily armed UN soldiers and at least three tanks. The sight of a guy using a pair of high-powered binoculars to look at them (well, at the finch perched on the fence just to their left) did not please these soldiers, and Nestor quickly came running up to me to tell me he was sorry but I couldn’t do that. Binoculars and heavily armed soldiers just don’t mix.

In the pilot’s seat of our little plane was a twenty-something South African man. His gave a casually self-assured delivery of the safety briefing and we were off flying over Bangui and then the rainforest. I was seated directly behind him, and - a nervous flyer at the best of times - my sense of alarm rose significantly during the flight when I saw him take out the extremely thick airplane manual and place it, open and face-up, in the space between the pilot’s and copilot’s seats. In order to reassure myself (surely he was just looking up something innocuous) I leaned forward and read the title of the page he had opened to: it was the page explaining how to restart the plane in the air following the failure of both engines. Alarmed, I spent the rest of the flight keenly listening to the sounds the plane was making*. Despite my apprehensions we landed safely in Baganga, the village at the entrance to Dzanga-Sangha National Park and close to Sangha Lodge. 

The entrance to Dzanga-Sangha National Park

The entrance to Dzanga-Sangha National Park

The owner of Sangha Lodge is a man named Rod Cassidy, and he was there to meet us at the airstrip along with his staff and many locals. Rod’s advice to me was to start birding right away, as the wildlife around the airstrip tends to be unique because the airstrip is a unique grassy area in the middle of a massive rainforest. There were no armed soldiers in sight, so I entertained myself trying to identify swifts (no easy task) while administrative issues were dealt with around me. I was initially hesitant when Rod told me to hand my passport over to a local official, but in the end I decided against wasting my day going with the official as he processed my entry into the region, and handed over the document. Common travel advice for Africa is to never, ever part with your passport. However, I find that this advice is almost impossible to follow. I had also handed my passport over to William upon arrival in Bangui, and he had then promptly disappeared into the bowels of the airport. Previous experiences with other fixers at African ports of entry have taught me that this is normal. My advice is to carry several certified copies of your passport; these will do in a pinch should your passport fail to be returned. 

Rod Cassidy (L), owner of Sangha Lodge, and me at the Bayanga airstrip.

Rod Cassidy (L), owner of Sangha Lodge, and me at the Bayanga airstrip.

I was blown away by Sangha Lodge. The lodge is perched over the Sangha River, and on the first night we were treated to a river cruise. Big trees hung over the banks, monkeys occasionally causing a ruckus in the canopy. Parrots and hornbills flew overhead, presumably back to their evening roosts, and Rod regaled us with the story of the lodge and his past. He spent many years traveling across Africa as a birding guide, which was music to my ears! 

Sunset over the Sangha River from deck at Sangha Lodge.

Sunset over the Sangha River from deck at Sangha Lodge.

The lodge itself looks exactly like what you might expect - gorgeous but run-down in just the way a remote jungle lodge should be. The buildings were all distressed wood and blooming with moss and epiphytes. Flowering trees were starting to encroach on the lodge grounds. The main building had a comfy indoor common area decorated with local art and a bookshelf of books describing the local environment and culture. Attached was a gorgeous patio overlooking the river. Each “room” was its own little bungalow with a private bathroom (including a shower overlooking the river) and brand-new furniture. 

The main building’s common area at Sangha Lodge.

The main building’s common area at Sangha Lodge.

The lodge used to be a hunter’s camp, as Dzanga-Sangha National Park is surrounded by hunting allotments. By purchasing the hunting allotment just north of the park, Rod and his partner Tamir have stopped all legal sport hunting in addition to creating a tourist attraction. Illegal poaching is an ongoing problem; a European hunting guide still sometimes takes his rich clients into the allotment, lying to the clients about exactly where they are. One evening I was there rifle shots range out from across the river; Rod immediately called rangers from the national park who came in a speedboat to investigate.

Sangha Lodge from the river.

Sangha Lodge from the river.

The Sangha tour I was on included five activities (one per day). The first activity was a full-day visit to Dzanga Bai: the reason I have heard of this national park. As a child I remember staring at photos from Dzanga in my Dad’s National Geographic magazines. Dzanga is one of a collection of bais (small rainforest clearings) scattered through the rainforest in the region where CAR, Cameroon, and the Republic of Congo meet. Bais are special because they provide the best opportunities to see animals that usually stay hidden in the dense rainforest. For whatever reason, each Bai seems to attract a slightly different suite of animals, and Dzanga is famous for its elephants. After a fifteen minute walk through the rainforest I, the other Sangha guests, and our guides emerged at the base of a wooden observation platform about three stories tall. Our guides were very clear that we had to be extremely quiet - another reminder that we were in a remote location, visited only by a very lucky few. You can see elephants, albeit not the same species, easily on the plains and bushland of eastern and southern Africa, and there’s no need for quiet. Those elephants get so many safari trucks rumbling by that they are completely habituated to human noises. These elephants see very few tourists and are not at all habituated to human presence. 

Dzanga Bai from the top of the observation platform.

Dzanga Bai from the top of the observation platform.

The view at the top of the observation platform took my breathe away. Elephants – dozens of them – scattered around a clearing, doing various elephant things. Some had their entire faces submerged in the mud, others used their trunks to delicately transfer the mud to their mouths. Huge males congregated around the deepest mud pit, where their long tusks could scrape up the best mud. Young elephants ran around, flaring up their ears and trunks in mock aggression: sometimes at each other, sometimes at an unlucky heron, and sometimes at nothing in particular. Baby elephants stuck close to their mothers, venturing only short distances to play before high-tailing it back to safety under mom’s massive torso.

A newborn (still pink) baby elephant finds safety and comfort under her mother’s massive body.

A newborn (still pink) baby elephant finds safety and comfort under her mother’s massive body.

The thing I enjoyed the most about the bai was watching new elephants arrive. Despite their huge size, elephants emerged from the incredibly dense rainforest seemingly by magic. One second there was nothing, and the next there was an elephant, without even the slightest sound or shake of a tree. Once the elephant emerged, other elephants would turn towards the newcomer and raise their trunks, seemingly sniffing the air to see who had arrived. The new elephant would amble forward, sometimes trumpeting or flaring its ears and trunk. Often it would amble towards what I perceived to be a friend, the two elephants would touch and entwine trunks, and then eat mud side-by-side. At the end of the day we left, creeping quietly down the stairs into the rainforest, where there was absolutely no indication that there were any elephants around, let alone the highest density of elephants in central Africa. The rainforest just swallows up the world’s largest land animal without a trace.

Driving on muddy roads through the park, we had one last fantastic encounter: a big silverback gorilla on the road. As our driver slammed on the breaks the gorilla arched his back, flexed his massive muscles, and then disappeared into the forest. We saw him for maybe a second, but it was an incredible moment: I was in a place where gorillas are still common enough that you can happen upon them accidentally on your commute.

The roads through Dzanga-Sangha National Park. Imagine this view but with a huge male gorilla blocking the road and flexing at you.

The roads through Dzanga-Sangha National Park. Imagine this view but with a huge male gorilla blocking the road and flexing at you.

Gorilla tourism, where you can visit a habituated gorilla group with professional gorilla trackers, is now relatively easy – if you can afford it. Uganda and Rwanda have really popularized this activity, and the habituated groups of mountain gorillas living in those countries are visited by tourists daily. Western lowland gorillas, despite being the most common of the gorillas, are by comparison much more difficult to see. Dzanga-Sangha National Park has two habituated western lowland gorilla groups that tourists are allowed to visit, and our second day’s activity was to visit one of these groups. Visiting wild gorillas is quite the experience: I was walking through the forest, turned a corner, and there was this huge, vaguely human, insanely muscular, hairy black beast sitting in front of me, maybe 50m away. Then I heard a crash to my left, a rustle behind me, and was surrounded by gorillas. These gorillas were not as habituated as the mountain gorillas. They snorted at us, gave us a lot of side-eye, and moved quickly through the forest. Spending an hour with them was unbelievably wild.

A female gorilla checking me out.

A female gorilla checking me out.

The silverback of the habituated gorilla group we visited.

The silverback of the habituated gorilla group we visited.

The third day’s activity was a hike to a waterfall to see some animals that, while not as well known, are weird central African specialties:  anomalures, picathartes, and porcupines. Anomalures are flying squirrel-like creatures endemic to Africa. There are only four species, three of which are found at Sangha. Rod has found a very old, very big hollow tree near the waterfall that is home to these weird critters. The tree is big enough that you can stand up inside it! 

Standing inside a huge, hollow tree, staring up at bats and anomalures.

Standing inside a huge, hollow tree, staring up at bats and anomalures.

The waterfall itself was beautiful in that way that rainforest waterfalls are beautiful (and Boali Falls was not), but I wasn’t there for the scenery. The limestone rocks behind the waterfall are home to brush-tailed porcupines and grey-necked picathartes. There are only two species of picathartes, rare birds that are restricted to the central and west African rainforest. They also look completely bonkers, like the bird version of a rodeo clown. The porcupines were home, but only our guide got a glimpse of them as they ran deep into the limestone rocks. The picathartes were not home, unfortunately, though we did get to see some of their (unoccupied) mud nests. Rod had warned us that our chances of picathartes were small: a poacher had recently camped at the base of the waterfall, scaring the birds away. Hopefully they return next season!

Unoccupied mud nests of grey-necked picathartes.

Unoccupied mud nests of grey-necked picathartes.

The fourth day’s activity was hanging out with the local Ba’aka. Ba’aka are the indigenous peoples of the area, and are are often referred to as pygmies because they are very short. Traditionally discriminated against by governments and other local peoples, the Ba’aka are poor even by Central African standards. Nonetheless, they are renowned for their knowledge of the forest, and much of the staff and guides at Sangha Lodge are Ba’aka. Whenever we ventured into the rainforest, it was a Ba’aka guide who would lead the way and keep us safe (elephants were a particular danger). 

Usually this tour involves going hunting with the Ba’aka but I, and the other guest with me, were not super keen on this activity. Instead we got to hang out with some Ba’aka women, learning how houses are built from forest materials, and which plants are used for food and medicine. The most fun part for me, though, was the sheer joy these women exuded at behind asked to show off their skills. They sang songs the whole time, had huge smiles on their faces, and taught us to sing along as best we could. I often find anthropological tourism rather depressing and exploitative, and I generally avoid it. However, in this case I felt that these women were overjoyed to be earning some money showing off the skills they’d developed throughout their lives. I had so much fun, and I think they did too. 

Singing with Ba’aka women inside a newly-built hut.

Singing with Ba’aka women inside a newly-built hut.

The last pre-planned activity was a walk through Bai Hokou. Like Dzanga Bai, Bai Hokou is a small clearing (actually a series of clearings) in the rainforest. Unlike Dzanga, however, Bai Hokou doesn’t have the special mud that attracts elephants, and so it is much safer to walk around. Nonetheless, elephants do regularly pass through Bai Hokou and we had, as always, a Ba’aka guide with us to keep us safe. Bai Hokou was beautiful, and our guides showed us interesting things like birds and an elephant skeleton. We also spotted a mother and fawn sitatunga: a rare marsh antelope with webbed hooves. Sitatunga do not visit Dzanga Bai, so Bai Hokou was our only chance to see them. Even here, though, they are not common, so we were very lucky.

Wading with bare feet through the creek in Bai Hokou. This is  not a recommended activity , next time I would bring water shoes or sandals.

Wading with bare feet through the creek in Bai Hokou. This is not a recommended activity, next time I would bring water shoes or sandals.

Me with what I think is an elephant hip-bone.

Me with what I think is an elephant hip-bone.

The last full day didn’t have a pre-planned activity, so I decided to go back to Dzanga Bai. Again the elephants were the central draw (at Dzanga Bai the elephants are reliable) but the ungulates are a case of luck, and this time I was luckier with the ungulates, My first day at Dzanga the the only ungulate we saw was a single forest buffalo (but we did well on primates: black-and-white colobus at the bai plus mangabeys and moustached monkeys on the walk in). This time I did much better. There were many buffalo in the bai, and some giant forest hogs (the largest pigs in the world) showed up in the afternoon. But right at 4pm, just as we had to leave, one of our guides pointed and whispered “bongo!” The bongo the largest Tragelaphusantelope, and considered among the most difficult of the African megafauna to see. It is also among the most beautiful ungulates in the world. Bongo inhabit only dense rainforest, and don’t generally come out into the open. Dzanga Bai is the best place in the world to see wild bongo, and yet even here they are only an occasional visitor. Seeing fifty bongo emerge single-file from the forest – from huge males with spectacular spiral horns, to cute little calves – was a spectacular sight. We watched them graze and intermingle with the elephants until we just couldn’t delay leaving any longer. Once the sun goes down the prospect of surprising an elephant in the dark makes walking back from the bai much more dangerous.

One of the most spectacular animal encounters of my life: elephant and bongo intermingling in Dzanga Bai.

One of the most spectacular animal encounters of my life: elephant and bongo intermingling in Dzanga Bai.

Between all the activities I did have some free time at Sangha Lodge. The area around the lodge is dense rainforest and Rod has set up a network of trails for visitors to explore. I was eager to get back to the lodge early after each day’s activity so that I could wander these trails. There are many animals to see around the lodge, the most enticing being the habituated pangolins. Rod employs pangolin trackers to monitor them from sunrise to sunset, and we got to hang out with the pangolins a few times. Pangolins are spectacular animals, and being scaled mammals are particularly enticing to a herper. It was immediately obvious why they are so hard to see in the wild, though, as even standing right under one, with an expert pangolin tracker indicating its exact location in the forest canopy, it was still very difficult to locate them. And it’s not like koala-finding; these things are constantly on the move, foraging for arboreal ant nests to rip apart. I do not envy the trackers’ job. 

A black-bellied pangolin foraging for arboreal ants in the rainforest.

A black-bellied pangolin foraging for arboreal ants in the rainforest.

The rest of my free time I spent wandering the trails on my own, trying to find as many animals as possible. During the day, it was mostly birds and monkeys, though my most memorable experience was watching a huge swarm of army ants march across the forest floor, preceded by a flood of terrified (and usually doomed) insects, and followed by a flock of birds gorging on the ants. I continually had to monitor my own situation to make sure the ants were not surrounding me.

I also wandered around at night. I treasured my nighttime walks because the wildlife, and even the atmosphere in the rainforest, changes completely. The easiest mammals to find were the night monkeys: bushbabies with their giant saucer eyes and swivelly, owl-like necks; and pottos, which look and act like right-side-up sloths. In terms of insects and other invertebrates, the night-time rainforest revealed a wealth of crazy colours, shapes, and sizes. Frogs were quite abundant, their eyeshine making them easy to find. And the occasional rare treat made each night special: an owl one night, a crocodile or a snake another. It was a challenge to drag my tired self to bed each night so I could get up early enough the following morning to go birding.

We had six full days at Sangha Lodge. On the seventh day our plane was late getting in, and I spent the extra time wandering around looking for last-minute critters. I was rewarded handsomely: searching the river’s edge produced a gorgeous baby ornate water monitor, and the alarm calls of a squirrel pointed me to a two-metre-long, bright yellow western green mamba basking in a patch of sun on the forest floor. Sometimes, delayed flights are the best!

I had two nights back in Bangui, during which time Nestor, William and I explored the university, the parliament, and headed back to the Lac-des-Crocodiles road for more birding. I also visited the craft market for some souvenirs, and the diversity and quality of handicrafts available, in particular masks and other wood carvings, was just incredible. It was like visiting a museum where every artifact had a price tag. Visiting CAR as a tourist is not common – a UN employee told me, apparently sincerely, that some people might suspect I was CIA – but it is an immense privilege. 

The Faculty of Sciences at the University of Bangui. I got to have some interesting, if brief chats with some biology and anthropology professors here.

The Faculty of Sciences at the University of Bangui. I got to have some interesting, if brief chats with some biology and anthropology professors here.

*Later, back in Bangui after the trip, I was invited to a party hosted by the pilot’s girlfriend and I got to ask him why he opened the manual to that page. He told me he’s used to flying over the vast grasslands of eastern and northern CAR, where if you have a problem you can land the plane just about anywhere and deal with it on the ground. However, we had been flying over continuous, unbroken rainforest and there was nowhere to land. Out of an abundance of caution, he wanted the steps to restarting the engines in the air available at a moment’s notice. Flying over the central African rainforest is truly spectacular. Deep green canopy spreads out as far as you can see in all directions, broken only by the occasional river. I just wish I had spent less of the flight blinded by panic!