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 art market, 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!

The Central African Republic, part 1

My PhD project – studying brain variation between lizard species in Australia – involved a lot of driving around Australia, gathering up lizards. As someone who loves to travel, particularly to wilderness regions, this was a very lucky gig for me. Most neuroscientists never get to work in the great outdoors, doing what biologists call “field work”. The time I spent in outback Australia I will never forget – and I am incredibly nostalgic for.

However, while I loved being “in the field”, I don’t want to be a “field biologist”, that is, someone who gathers data out in nature and uses that data to test hypotheses. The questions that interest me most are questions of brain structure and function, and these are not the kinds of things field biologists generally study. Even when I did field work I was never really a field biologist; I brought the lizards back to the lab, and only then did I collect data from them. 

As a postdoc I’m still studying the questions that interest me most, but I’m doing it in a more conventional way, and in a more conventional neuroscience lab. That means, instead of driving out to remote areas and spending months catching the animals whose brains I would like to study, I now fill out an online request form and send it to a laboratory-grade animal supplier. The animals are usually delivered within 24 hours. A much more civilized system, to be sure, but orders of magnitude less fun.

I now find myself just as intellectually satisfied as I was during my PhD, but with significantly itchier feet, to the extent that the ads showing up in my Facebook feed are almost entirely travel-related. No wonder people find Facebook depressing. In fact, I found life so depressing early on in my postdoc that I made a decision to spend a larger portion of my budget on personal travel, as a way of filling the void left by the absence of fieldwork. That is how, this past Christmas, I ended up spending by far the most money I have spent on anything, ever, on an animal-finding trip to the Central African Republic.

I saw an ad on Twitter looking for volunteers to work at a lodge in the rainforest of southwest Central African Republic (CAR for short), doing, among other things, research on wild pangolins. As far as I knew there was no place in the world where wild pangolins could be seen reliably, and yet here was Sangha Lodge, looking for people to go and hang out with them! Now I was not – and am not – in a position to uproot my life to go live in the African jungle, as tempting as that prospect may be. I did, however, immediately e-mail the lodge to inquire about visiting as a tourist. 

Arranging to visit as a tourist turned out to be quite easy; the lodge runs periodic “organized tours”, which are more organized plane-sharing than anything else. Since most independent travellers can’t afford the very expensive charter flight that is the only way to get to the lodge, Sangha Lodge organizes for people to come at the same time, making the charter affordable. One of these tours happened to fit perfectly into my schedule.

Arranging my life for a visit to CAR was another matter, though. CAR is not a safe place, by any stretch of the imagination. It is desperately poor and subject to ethnic, religious, and greed-based violence (and, if you ask me, the former two are just the latter in disguise). The travel warnings from places like Canada, the United States, Britain and Australia are the stuff of nightmares. My family read these warnings and freaked right out. My family is also relatively well connected and resourceful, and they picked up their phones. They got in contact with people like the Canadian high commissioner for CAR, the UNHCR representative for CAR, and a former Australian diplomat who had visited CAR. All very senior people, well informed and knowledgeable. They all had the same terrifying story to tell as the official travel warnings, and I came under intense pressure, up until the day I left, to abandon my trip. 

In my opinion official travel warnings tend to be exaggerated and can be hyperbolic verging on paranoid (not unlike the safety regulations dreamt up by universities). As for the officials, all the people my family talked to had two things in common: (1) they were all senior authority figures and (2) none of them were in CAR or had spent time there recently. With respect to (1), people in high places tend to be very risk averse because, for example, the Canadian high commissioner would get in a lot of trouble if he said anything that strayed from Canada’s official advice on visiting CAR, especially if something were to happen to me.

This is not to say that I was determined to visit CAR no matter what, but just that I wanted to make up my own mind. I did my research by looking up news stories (particularly those published by African outlets), reading online trip reports from people who had visited Sangha Lodge and/or travelled through CAR, and ultimately getting in touch with people living and working in CAR, where there is a large United Nations peacekeeping and development presence. The picture these sources paint is not necessarily different from the official one, as CAR is indeed poor and plagued by violence, but it is a tapestry. Parts of CAR are far too dangerous to visit, but other parts are not. For example, parts of the capital, Bangui, are controlled by the UN, and are relatively calm. The part of CAR where Sangha Lodge is located, in the far southwest corner, has never seen violence, not even during the height of the civil war in 2012. I am being honest here about the risks – visiting CAR is not like visiting Italy, or even Tanzania. I would not land at the airport without a fixer waiting for me and a meticulously pre-arranged itinerary. But with these things in hand I decided, and I remain convinced, that it is safe to visit CAR under the auspices of Sangha Lodge.

I mentioned having a “fixer” waiting at the airport. A fixer is someone who makes sure things run smoothly in places where there are “unofficial fees” for transiting through places like airports and checkpoints. In CAR you must know when and how to bribe your way along, or else you can find yourself in a lot of confusing trouble. (I feel compelled to note that the people demanding bribes in these situations are relatively low-level government employees and it is likely that they only rarely and sporadically get paid, if at all. Demanding bribes is probably their only way of keeping food on their tables). Sangha employs a fixer, William, who managed the lodge until moving to Bangui so that his kids could go to school there. The whole thing works relatively efficiently – if you know the system.

Bangui M’Poko International Airport is not very well connected. There are no daily flights anywhere, but there are several flights a week to Casablanca, Paris, and Nairobi. Sangha’s tours are timed to the Nairobi flights, so if you fly into Bangui via Nairobi you wouldn’t have to leave the airport. However, my trip took me to Bangui via Paris, so I ended up having time in Bangui on either end of the tour. This was perfect for me as I was quite keen to see the area, and through Sangha I arranged to hire William as a guide for my days in Bangui.

Hotel accommodation in Bangui is neither plentiful nor cheap. A friend of mine in Montreal put me in contact with his friends in Bangui, and when I asked them for accommodation advice they promptly invited me to stay in their guest bedroom. This was extraordinarily kind of them as they had never met me, and in return I brought them as much maple syrup as I could carry. They lived in the Skaiky Building, the tallest building in Bangui (at, if I remember correctly, 13 floors), and I had amazing views of Bangui, the Obangu River, and across the river to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The view over Bangui from my host's balcony in the Skaiky Building. I spotted a peregrine falcon perched on the cell tower to the center-right.

The view from the Skaiky Building over the Bangui River. The opposite bank is a different country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The haze visible in this picture (and, really, all the pictures) is not pollution but a dust cloud that seasonally blows off the Sahara Desert and is important for fertilizing the rainforest.

On my way to Sangha I had a spare day in Bangui, and I arranged with William to see the one Bangui-area tourist attraction I had been able to find on the internet – Boali Falls. The falls, about an hour north of the city, are impressive in the sense that they are big and loud. Unfortunately they are surrounded by the ruins of a resort complex, which in turn is surrounded by hydroelectric projects (both completed and under construction), so the whole thing together is rather underwhelming. The abandoned buildings of the resort are rather interesting, if you find postwar relics interesting. I was particularly fascinated by the ruins of the resort’s Cyber Café, a thing I think of as thoroughly modern but which has now existed long enough to be established, destroyed in a rebellion, and partially reclaimed by nature. 

Boali Falls is the only tourist attraction I could find in the Bangui area before my arrival.

A picture of the Cyber Café entrance, taken through the slats of a boarded up window in the abandoned luxury hotel at Boali Falls.

A gas station on the main road near Boali Falls. Gasoline is purchased in Bangui, driven up the highway in gas canisters, and partitioned into minuscule amounts in water bottles for sale to those unlucky enough to run out of fuel before reaching Bangui. The entrance to the restaurant where we had lunch is visible on the left.

The highlight of my daytrip to Boali was actually the side-trip we took. While driving to Boali I saw I sign at a turn-off advertising “Lac des Crocodiles, 10km” and I was very pleased we were able to visit the lake on our way back. At the turn-off, our driver Nestor pulled the car over and William negotiated the purchase of a live chicken, which was then bound and placed under the glovebox. When we arrived at the lake, we were greeted by a small visitor’s center painted with beautiful murals, and a young man eager to feed our chicken to the crocodiles. He stood on a platform over the edge of the lake and dangled the chicken by its feet, luring a small sacred crocodile (Crocodilus suchus) out of the water. Fortunately for the chicken, before we could get to the “crocodile lunch” part of the tour, we were attacked by bees. Yes, bees. At first all I noticed were bugs landing and crawling through my hair. Then I started to get stung, on the head, face, hands, camera (that last one didn’t hurt quite as much), and we took off running through along a path through the forest. The path led to a little campsite, where I noticed an odd contraption on the firepit. I asked William about it and he started explaining how the contraption is used to distill a local liquor, until the bees found us again and we had to flee. It was a short tour but I was immensely pleased to have seen the wild crocodile, and secretly also pleased the chicken got to keep its head. 

The sign indicating the turn-off to Lac des Crocodiles.

The Lac des Crocodiles...

...and one of its namesake residents.

This odd contraption on top of a fire pit turned out to be for distilling liquor.

The ten kilometres between the main road and Lac des Crocodiles are spectacular in their own right. The road is one of the few places where a habitat known as Forest-Savannah Mosaic is relatively accessible in central Africa. I took the opportunity to look for birds along this road for a couple of hours after visiting the lake, and returned just to bird here, without visiting the lake or Boali Falls, after my time at Sangha. The bird diversity here is quite different from that further south and west in CAR, and my hosts at Sangha Lodge said that other birders had reported that this location is an excellent place to find bird species unique to drier central African habitats. I would highly recommend a trip out here for any birders lucky enough to visit Bangui.

A recently burnt part of the Forest-Savanna Mosaic on the way to Lac des Crocodiles. Not all of it was burnt, but the grass was too high in the unburnt parts for me to get a decent picture.

When I returned to Bangui that evening, my hosts – employees of the UN peacekeeping mission – asked how my trip was, and I thoroughly enjoyed telling them that we were attacked… by bees.

Shake paws with the devil

One of the nice things about working in evolutionary biology (or any of the related, indistinguishable-for-all-practical-purposes Wild Thing Sciences) is that I was connected to a great number of cool people working on a great number of very cool creatures, in a great number of very cool places. Furthermore, the bureaucrats controlling modern-day Wild Thing Science are safety-paranoid enough that everyone doing "fieldwork" (working in the wild) must bring at least one buddy. That's one of the reasons I always brought volunteers on my trips, and why Wild Thing Scientists are constantly advertising for volunteers. If you're willing to work without getting paid there are many cool opportunities to work with a variety of wild animals worldwide. I know one evolutionary biologist who works solely on theory - all she needs to do her job is a working computer, essentially - but she travels the world going to exotic places and seeing incredible animals simply by tagging along with other biologists. It's actually an enviable system, as the "work" parts of fieldwork, like conducting experiments, collecting and preserving samples, and even just finding whatever animal you've decided you'd like to study, can be incredibly challenging, time-consuming, stressful and expensive. But tagging along on someone else's fieldwork? All the cool parts, none of the stresses!

This brings me to Dave. Dave is a friend of mine, and Scottish, which is why, when he got married, I got to wear a kilt. It was among the more exciting experiences of my life:

  Dave (L) and me (R) wearing kilts at Dave's wedding. This was my first (and only) kilt-wearing experience.

Dave (L) and me (R) wearing kilts at Dave's wedding. This was my first (and only) kilt-wearing experience.

Dave is doing his PhD on Tasmanian Devils, one of the coolest mammals around. I took the opportunity to be a volunteer during his fieldwork, and for a week I got to go out every day and see Tasmanian devils in the wild!

Dave is working in the far north-west corner of Tasmania, where the facial tumour disease is still spreading into healthy devil populations. If you haven't heard of the devil facial-tumour disease, and the destruction it has wrought on the world's last Tasmanian devils, check this out.

Dave catches devils by setting traps for them. Each trap is a big PVC pipe blocked at one end, with a door at the entrance and a piece of meat dangling at the back of it. Here's what a trap looks like set, ready and waiting for a hungry devil to come along:

Inside the trap, the meat is dangling by a string at the very back. The string is tied to a pin which is holding the door open. The devil enters the trap, grabs and pulls on the meat, the meat pulls the string, the string pulls the pin, the pin lets go of the door and the door falls, trapping the devil inside.

A view inside a set devil trap, with the meat dangling from a string and ready for a big yank by a devil.

To ensure that the devils spend as little time in the traps as possible, Dave and his volunteers get up before the crack of dawn and drive out to his field site to check the traps. This is what they hope to find:

There's a devil in there! There's a devil in there!

Sometimes the initial excitement about a devil in a tube is unfounded: devils aren't the only predators prowling Tasmanian forests at night, and Dave sometimes has to deal with bycatch. If the bycatch is a tiger quoll, that's just icing on the devil's cake. Tiger quolls are another spectacular Australian marsupial currently going extinct, and getting to see one in the wild is just as much a privilege as seeing a wild devil. However, sometimes Dave catches feral cats, which are harbingers of death to native Australian animals and destruction to the Australian wilderness. Dave takes cats to be euthanized by a local veterinarian.

Dave sometimes catches spectacular tiger quolls, like this one, in traps set for devils.

Sometimes traps are closed with nothing inside. I like to think this is the result of Tasmanian tigers, because they'd be so big that they wouldn't fit completely in the trap, which would prevent the trap door from closing on them. More likely than not, though, it's due to trap malfunction or some other mundane explanation.

If the closed trap proves to contain a devil, now, for better or for worse, you have a devil in a tube. This may seem like a challenge, and devils do have a reputation for being scrappy little balls of teeth and claws, but I learned by watching Dave that as long as you handle them with care and precision they're actually really calm. I watched Dave take measurements from a lot of devils and never once did one try to bite him or scratch him. This is as much to Dave's credit as a professional wildlife biologist as it is to the devil's relative docility: handling wild animals, especially ones with sharp teeth and massive jaw muscles, is not for the uninitiated.

The first step of processing a devil is, of course, to get it out of the tube. To do this, the tube is lifted and tilted, the door opened, and the devil slid gently into a burlap sack:

Due to the weight of the devil and the size of the trap, this requires two people: one of the many tasks for volunteers!

Once the devil is in the burlap sack, it generally stays pretty calm. Dave manipulates the devil-within-the-sack into different positions so that he can inspect it, determine how healthy it is, determine if there's any evidence of the facial tumour disease, and take various measurements:

Here's Dave measuring a devil. It'd be extremely cumbersome to both take and record the measurements while controlling and manipulating a devil-in-a-sack, so data-recording is another important task for volunteers.

Among the parts of the devil Dave inspects are its paws:

Cute little devil paw!

Dave also inspects the female's pouch to see if they're currently nursing:

Tasmanian devil pouches: the pouch on the left belongs to a female without pups, the pouch on the right to a female with pups.


Finally, Dave takes a look at the devil's business end: its jaws. Tooth wear is a good way to estimate the age of a devil, as it is to estimate the age of a lot of mammal species. And around the jaws are where any signs of facial tumours will turn up, though the population Dave was working on when I visited had never had any evidence of devils with the facial tumour disease. Here's an inspection of the jaws of a healthy devil:

Dave, and all Tasmanian devil researchers and conservationists, are very concerned about the potential for humans to spread the facial tumour disease between devils. Notice that Dave is wearing disposable latex gloves: those go into the garbage and are replaced in-between each devil. Dave and all the volunteers also use alcohol disinfectant gel in-between each devil just to be safe. A brand new burlap sack is used for each devil. And after the devil is removed from a trap, the trap is thoroughly washed and disinfected before being reset: another job for volunteers!

Finally, it's time for the fun part! After being processed, the devils are released into the woods. The process of getting them free of the sack can be cumbersome, and is an opportunity for pictures to be taken with a devil! Usually, however, the devil takes off like a bat out of hell:

But, there's that rare occasion where the devil pauses for the briefest of moments to say goodbye, and, if you're lucky enough to have a photographer (another volunteer job!) quick on the shutter, it can be captured for all eternity:

Photos by Connie Leon.

Helping Dave work with Tasmanian devils in the wild was an experience of a lifetime. And he's looking for more volunteers!

Backyard Frogpond

Last year, while still living in Australia, my partner and I went to northern New South Wales to visit her sister, Jo. Jo and her family live an enviable quasi-hippy existence in the rainforest. Their house is completely off the grid and powered entirely by solar panels, yet still has wifi. From their patio we watched a platypus forage in the creek below their house and I managed to find a snake and a rare bird within a day of arriving. So, it's pretty close to paradise. There aren't even all that many mosquitos! 

Jo and her daughter Ava investigating the blind snake I found on their property. When I arrive somewhere new my first reaction is often to flip any debris I find lying around the place. Snakes, frogs and all manner of cool creepy crawly critters are to be found under them. I like to think it's an endearing character trait.

Jo and her family had set up a frog pond recently before we visited, and while we were there we heard some frogs calling from it. Excited that their frog pond was attracting its intended residents, we decided to investigate. It turns out their pond had not just attracted frogs, but it had attracted a pair of tusked frogs (Adelotus brevis)! Tusked frogs are not very easy to find, and they're getting rarer all the time. They are listed as Near Threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. They also have weird, freaky little "tusks" that make them look like tiny, slimy vampires when they open their mouths.

A tusked frog in Jo's backyard frog pond!

What was even more exciting was not only was the male tusked frog calling, which is how they try to attract females, but he was also tending to a floating pile of foam, which means he had been successful. The foam protects hundreds of little eggs.

The tusked frog looking quite proud of his foam nest. 

Over the next year, Jo sometimes sent me pictures of the tusk frog family in her frog pond. The pond turned out to be quite successful in making more of this rare species! When I was a kid I used to buy bullfrog tadpoles that were imported accidentally in shipments of goldfish for $1 and watch them develop, so I loved seeing Jo's pictures. I asked Jo's permission to post them here, which she kindly agreed to. Then I lost all the pictures during my move to Montreal (I lost the USB they were on) and she kindly sent them all to me again! So here they are, one year in the life of the tusked frog family living in Jo's backyard frog pond.

Here's the male tusked frog with that dear-in-the-headlights look. He's waiting patiently for the humans to go away so he can resume calling to attract the female. The humans are waiting patiently with their light on the frog so that they can get a picture of him calling. There are many pictures (and videos) like this one.

This is a cute picture of the Mom and Pop tusked frogs together. It's quite hard to get them both in the same shot. Their eggs are in the foam nest in the background.

This is a young tadpole, which you can tell because it is small and not very developed. Basically it looks like just a circle with a line coming out the back of it.

Here are some older tadpoles. They are not quite so black, have a more complex body shape and thicker tails.

These tadpoles are even more developed. They're much bigger and more thick-set, particularly in the tail. Most are at the stage just before they start to grow legs. They grow their back legs first, and there is one tadpole, sixth from the front, that has back legs but no front legs. The two closest to that one have gotten to the next stage; they've grown both front and back legs. At that stage they also start developing the shape and colouration of of frogs. The one in the foreground is even further along than the rest. Its legs are a little more developed and it's starting to look more like a frog with a tail than of a tadpole. There are some much younger tadpoles in the background for comparison.

Here's a better look at a tadpole that's really starting to look like a frog. At this point the tadpole's gills are being absorbed and it's lungs are forming. This is a preteen frog!

This one is not a tadpole, not yet a frog. This is the transition moment, the frog Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Its lungs are formed so it can breath air, its tail is being reabsorbed, and its legs are almost developed enough to get around on land.

And here we have a froglet, a teenager frog that looks just like a mini version of an adult. Like human teenagers, it also think's it's an adult and is ready to leave the water and hop off to find its own pond.

And off it goes! Safe travels, little frog, the world is much more dangerous than you realise. Watch out for that boot!

Jo's frog pond has been really successful, not only with the tusked frogs. It has also attracted some other frog species:

Here is a calling striped marsh frog (Limnodynastes tasmaniensis) in Jo's frog pond. The tusked frogs and the striped marsh frogs both seem to be residents of the pond, but they've divided the territory. The tusked frogs hang out near the edges of the pond, while the marsh frog occupies the middle.

Here's the striped marsh frog's foam nest. The little black dots are eggs!

The frog pond has also attracted visitors like these green tree frogs (Litoria caerulea). They spend most of their lives away from frog ponds, in trees, mailboxes and toilets, and venture to the ponds on rainy nights to breed.

Backyard ponds can be really successful, not just for entertaining kids and providing ambience and aesthetics, but also for helping species at risk from urban development. Here's a guide for converting backyard pools (which are awful) into frog ponds (which are glorious).

Thoughts on leaving

Nothing lasts forever, not the process of getting a doctorate, and especially not the process of getting a doctorate in Australia. So recently I had to wrap up my research at the Australian National University (ANU), hand in my thesis, and find a new job. I’ve updated my contact page and my Twitter bio, and I’ll have to do the same with my about and research pages. I’ll get to that eventually, but at the moment I’m feeling a lot of mental inertia towards anything that cements my move or announces it to the world. I’m feeling rather down about my move. Moving cities, even countries for work is thought of as common, even normal, and certainly I hear about it a lot. My parents did it forty years ago. If the impression I’m getting from Facebook is accurate, just about all my friends are doing it now. However, in reality it’s really rare. The average American lives 30 km from their mother. And more people are homebodies now than in previous generations: moving cities during one’s lifetime is actually becoming rarer over time. Most people are born, grow up, live, work, and die in the same place. 

This is not true of academics. Generally, if you want to work in the Ivory Tower, you have to be willing to travel far and wide from tower to tower to tower. This is because even the largest cities generally have, at most, five or so academic institutions (towers), which are usually universities and colleges but can also include museums, government research organisations and even some privately-run research organisations. There is no such thing as a Jack-of-all-Trades academic, all of us have to specialise, and the longer you’ve been doing research, the more specialised you become. Each academic institution is going to have very few positions in any particular area of specialisation, and that makes it near-impossible to choose a place to live and then find a job in academia. Usually, the process is reversed: you have to scour the world for available positions, then go wherever will have you.

I was actually really lucky. I didn’t have to scour the world for positions, and I didn’t have to beg and plead, go through umpteenth interviews and continually update my CV. I was offered a position in a lab that I had worked in before. The lab leader wanted someone she knew and trusted, and I wanted a job doing what I love: trying to figure out why the brain is structured the way it is. Turns out she needed someone to ask just that question within the context of her overall research subject. Lucky me! That was the good part. There’s also a bad part: leaving.

My personal opinion, based on absolutely no research and incorporating many unjustifiable assumptions, is that humans are not made to move. We are pack animals, family-oriented and social, and have not evolved to easily change social groups and reintegrate. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t feel that way. There is a sense in academia that if you want to survive, to have a career, you must be so devoted to the research, to the questions, to the quest for knowledge that you’d be willing to give up everything else in your life to continue your pursuit. Wherever is best for answering your particular question, that’s were you have to move to, if you want to be a scientist. Being sad about it means you aren’t devoted enough to the work and you should probably quit now, before you’re denied tenure. The choice is increasingly move and have a chance at staying on the academic career path, or stay and get off the academic road. Giving up your career to stay in a place you love? In academia that’s the same as failing the profession.

In Australia the process of getting a doctorate is particularly fast-paced. You are expected to complete your thesis in three years, although most people take three and a half years, the maximum amount of time you can get Australian funding for. Four years is the absolute maximum time you can take to hand in your thesis, and that’s the amount of time I took. Funding from Canada allowed me to support myself those last six months. At the end of that time I handed in my thesis, but the journey to getting a doctorate was not over. My thesis was sent away to be marked, a process that can take up to six months, and rarely even longer. I was lucky, my thesis was marked in less than two months. Once the marking process is over, the university allows a year to make any corrections the markers demand and hand in a corrected thesis. So, the whole process can take up to five and a half years. In my case, it took four years, ten months. This was tricky for me because my Australian student visa was valid for only four years, so I had to leave the country and return as a business traveller just to finish the darn thing.

Maybe my move would have been easier if I had just up and moved, ripped off the bandaid the way adults always told me to when I was a kid. Instead I moved the way I ripped off bandaids when I was a kid, slowly, painfully, millimetre by excruciating millimetre. First, I moved from Canberra, where I’d lived for five years, to Sydney, where my girlfriend lives. This step involved the painful process of leaving my friends behind, as well as my academic mentor. The Department of Evolution, Ecology and Genetics at the ANU is a phenomenal place to work, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The group of people there is incredible. Not only are they amazing scientists who do an incredible array of very interesting things, but they are also all genuinely great people who quickly and easily became my friends. I credit this in part to building design: the department is housed in a building that makes sure we have many opportunities to meet each other. I’ve written about the courtyard before, but this also includes the phenomenal tea room where we have discussion groups, meetings, social events, and lunches when it’s raining or cold, and the first-year PhD office, which makes sure each new PhD student in the department has ample opportunity to be integrated into the PhD community. But it’s also the people themselves. The researchers in the department, from PhD students to senior academics, work hard to make sure newcomers feel welcome and comfortable. The result of this is that we form strong friendships, friendships that feel like they could last forever. And so it is difficult when friends leave, as they always do because this is academia, and are replaced with new people, who then become friends, and then they leave, and the cycle continues. Until, finally, I was the one who left, and it felt like all those friendships ended at once. Yes, there’s Facebook, Twitter, and Skype. If I’m lucky I’ll see some people again at conferences or by chance. But it’s nothing like being part of a tight-knit community.

Generally in our department when someone leaves there is a big farewell party. I’ve attended many and I’ve always left early because I find them too sad, and I can only mask that for so long (each drink brings it closer to the surface). When I moved away I purposefully avoided a farewell of any sort because it’s not really possible to duck out of your own farewell party early, and I didn’t really want to bawl my eyes out at some nice restaurant or the house of a well-respected professor. So I tried to go quietly. People still noticed and walked me to my car, and that was almost enough to set me off. Having “Boys of Summer” come on the radio during a particularly scenic part of the drive out of Canberra wasn’t helpful, but felt appropriate for the moment. It’s funny how the radio can do that sometimes.

The next stage of leaving was to spend five days in Sydney with my partner, to say goodbye to her and a few friends of mine who live in Sydney. Though my partner was there, she was living in a place I’d never stayed at before, with roommates I’d never met before, so I felt like I was mostly gone from my life of the past five years, and only hanging on by one thread. We tried to make the most of my short interlude between lives, but ultimately time goes way too fast. On my last day in Sydney, and in Australia, for the foreseeable future, we rented a car and went somewhere I hadn’t been in a very long time. When I was 18 I came to Australia as a backpacker. I stayed with some family friends in north Sydney for my first five days in the country, and the very first sightseeing I did was to the America Bay trail in Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park. I hadn’t done that walk since December 2004, so it seemed somehow fitting to bookend my time in Australia this way. My partner and I did this walk and found a nice, secluded place next to a water hole to have a picnic. A water dragon, a member of the same group of lizards I spent my PhD studying, tried to steal our food, something that is a regular occurrence in my department at the ANU. It seemed appropriate.

The America Bay walk is very short, and we spent the rest of the day further exploring Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park. We saw Sydney’s most spectacular lizard, the lace monitor, and even ran into an old friend of mine that I hadn’t seen in years. I went swimming in the ocean one last time, had one last dinner at a “modern Australian cuisine” restaurant and took one last opportunity to look for some of Sydney’s spectacular snakes. The pictures interspersed in this post are from that last, great day exploring the Sydney wilderness with my best friend.

And then I had to do the rest of the leaving. The following morning I had to get up early to get to the airport on time. I said one last goodbye to my partner, then another, and another, and another after that, and then I drove off with all my worldly possession that aren’t currently in a container somewhere on the Pacific Ocean. The Sydney airport, without getting into specifics, was a shitshow. Suffice to say that at one point I wound up being that guy running while pushing a cart of bags through the airport crowds yelling things like “Excuse me!” “Coming through!” and “Sorry!” I didn’t want to leave, and I almost wasn’t able to. But I did. I spent 14 hours on a plane over the Pacific, and another seven on two more planes over the continental United States. My total transit time, Sydney-door to Montreal-door, was 33 hours. When I left, I left home. When I arrived, I arrived home. It’s a strange feeling. Montreal at the beginning of March is a desolate, freezing place. The job I’ve arrived to is exciting, stimulating and exactly what I want to be doing. For that, I’m grateful. The city it’s in needs a couple more months to warm up.

Practical thoughts on leaving:

Leaving a country in order to apply for a new visa to reenter the country you just left (known as a “visa run”) is generally frowned upon, though it’s not illegal (and I personally don’t see the problem). Generally the way this is done is to drive to a neighbouring country, spend the weekend at a hotel, and drive back. Australia, being an island, is a little trickier. Flying to New Zealand, Fiji or Indonesia (particularly the resort island of Bali) for a quick holiday and renewing your visa while over there may seem like a good idea, but non-advertised agreements between Australia and these countries mean that if you don’t have a valid visa to reenter Australia, you won’t be allowed to enter any of these countries if you’ve got a return ticket to Australia. You won’t even be allowed on the plane! The best and most reliable way to do a visa run is to go back to your home country for your holiday. Your family probably misses you anyway. However, I was able to do a successful visa run to New Caledonia in March 2015. What other countries it’s still possible to do a visa run to from Australia, I do not know.

The things I packed with me from Sydney to Montreal included a 27-inch iMac. I had saved its original box from all those years ago, and I used that to ship the computer in. I used clothing to cushion it on all sides. Because Delta bans computers in checked luggage, I simply labelled it as “fragile” and had it wrapped in protective plastic. When airport employees asked me what was in it, I said “all my worldly possessions” and when that wasn’t good enough, “electronics”. The computer seems to still work fine, though if I’m not mistaken it’s louder than before. I'm curious to know if anyone has an idea of what could have happened to it so that it still works fine, but is louder.

Pack food in your carry-on. I never used to do this, but airlines have significantly cut back on the amount of food they give out. On the 14 hour flight from Sydney to Los Angeles we were only offered two meals: one right after take-off and one just before landing. Mid-way through we were offered a "snack". If you're lucky the flight will have a self-service snack-bar as well, but the snacks aren't very good. I was lucky enough to have fresh-baked cinnamon cookies made by my girlfriend as well as left-over trail mix from our Ku-Ring-Gai Chase adventures and some fresh fruit. It made a world of difference on that seemingly endless journey.

For the love of God, please please please don’t pee standing up in an airplane, especially not on a 14 hour flight. Also avoid peeing standing up on buses, trains and any other moving vehicles. It’s disgusting and completely avoidable. Sit down and pee, your sense of manhood will survive.