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!





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!