Wildlife watching in the CAR

A week’s holiday in the Central African Republic may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but I’d spotted a trip going deep into the rainforest, based at the wonderful Sangha Lodge, and decided that a week there might offer some great wildlife encounters.

The most famous wildlife there are the lowland gorillas. Three of us went to see them, with local trackers, on the first day and after not much more than an hour of walking through the forest (sometimes ankle deep through little sandy streams) our trackers found one of the two habituated families: a silverback, his females and a number of juveniles.

It takes around seven years to habituate the gorillas to human presence, and even then the encounter is not as interactive as the encounters with their cousins the mountain gorillas. They turned their backs on us a lot, and were very mobile so we had to keep moving to follow them around. This kept the trackers busy locating them; it’s amazing how easily such enormous creatures can just vanish into the bush!

The other wildlife spectacle that this part of the world is known for is the gathering of animals in the forest clearings known as ‘baïs’. The formation of these clearings is linked to geology, their being doleritic intrusions in the surrounding granite, and as they tend to be quite low-lying so the streams that run through many spread out into marshy areas. They are maintained and further developed by the elephants who come to dig in the mud for the many minerals (calcium, potassium, magnesium, sodium, manganese and phosphorus) and also eat the clay itself to help rid themselves of the tannins and alkaloids contained in the leaves they eat in the forest.

I spent two days at Dzangha Baï and at any one time there were between twenty and forty elephants, plus visits from forest buffalo (very different from their savannah counterparts), sitatunga and a number of birds – on the second morning I was greeted by a cacophony of squeals and squawks from several hundred grey parrots in the trees surrounding the baï. Some days you can also see giant forest hogs, and bongos, but I wasn’t lucky with those.

The main attraction though is the elephants, and being mating season they were particularly interesting to watch, with various cranky males trying to assert their dominance over the others.

We also encountered one of these cranky bull elephants on the way to the baï on the second morning. The walk from the nearest road goes through forest but also through another much smaller baï with a 300m-long knee-high stream running through it which has to be waded through. Some elephants like this baï and so the tracker always goes ahead, to bang his machete on the water and generally make as much noise as possible to scare off any elephants in the path. On the first day this approach had worked, but on the second day the noise just aggravated the elephant, who charged at us. The guide turned and ran which we took as signal to do the same!!

The elephant gained on us (running through knee-high water is not easy but elephants run much faster than humans in any case) but thankfully didn’t want to catch us, just to make us run away. We finally got to the baï by a different, longer route, through even deeper water.

The birdlife was great too. I managed finally to see a flufftail, specifically a white-spotted one – an elusive little bird I’ve wanted to see for a long time, this one a bright orange on the upper half of its body and black with white spots on the lower half.
The bird star though was the red-necked picathartes, the only relative of the yellow-headed picathartes that I posted on in December 2009. We made two attempts to see this bird at a nesting site beside a waterfall in the forest; on the second attempt I got a sighting although not a great one, but it had got too dark to see anything much so we picked our way back down the path.
Then, on a hunch, the guide shone his torch on an old nest we’d seen earlier, that we’d thought was abandoned – and there sat on the nest was our
picathartes! Mesmerised by the torchlight it just sat there staring at us so I was even able to get a photo (in which you can't see the red neck - but it's behind the blue head...).

Time out in Grand Popo

I have been too busy for some time to post anything to the blog, but having planned to draft something on last week's trip to the UK I found the following, drafted last December but for some reason never posted (with apologies if a photo is inserted in a random place - blogger tells me I've added it but it doesn't show up in the draft):

After a period of pretty hard work I took a long weekend to rest at the village of Grand Popo in Benin. Formerly a grand colonial town, apparently, the majority of the ‘grand’ stuff has long since been swallowed up by the sea, with not even the spire of the old church now visible above the crashing waves. What is left now is a typical African fishing village squashed between the sea and a web of mangrove creeks, but leading to it a 4km-long road lined with little guest-houses, bars, art galleries and the like.

I followed a recommendation to stay at the grandest of the guest houses, in some restored old buildings next to the sea, although by the final day I was taking my meals in the cheaper places down the road. I slept a lot, walked a bit, took a drumming lesson, and also a couple of excursions around the locality (a pirogue trip among the mangroves and a walk around a village full of voodoo fetishes).

On the latter I was taken into a house to be shown two turtles in a sadly small tank, but also two old rice sacks now full of sand and, apparently, turtle eggs which had been rescued before poachers could steal them to eat. However when I took a closer look at the sand, I saw that there was a baby turtle on top and several parts of other baby turtles emerging from the sand! The guide asked if I minded helping, and basically set me to work digging out all the turtles while he went off to fill some big basins with sea water. It took a long time but by the end we had several basins containing some 120-odd baby turtles swimming about in the water (besides ten or so that had not survived.

Apparently they would be released into the sea that evening. I’m not sure if this is the best way to conserve turtles (isn’t the process of digging their way out of the sand an important part of their development? & a way of their ‘learning’ where they come from so that the females will know where to come back when they need to lay eggs of their own?) but at least the will is there.

I also ended up in a fascinating conversation with one of the hotel waiters. He was a part-time musician (I had already bought a CD of his!) and very knowledgeable on the history of African rhythms.

I learnt that (according to him at least) salsa originates from Benin – from the slaves of the Beninois Agossa family taken to Cuba. There the women beat out the rhythm on metal gongs to help their men to get through the work in the sugar plantations. The word salsa is apparently a corruption of Agossa.

The metal gong in the story is a commonly used instrument in West African traditional ceremonies, although only in Benin is it a part of regular music. He told me it originated in Benin a long time ago, when a group of women needed a way to stop their king from carrying out a public execution. They commissioned a blacksmith to make a metal gong in shape of a breast, so that they could present it to the king as a symbol of the strength of their feelings against the execution. How could he who was suckled at his mother’s breast, put to death another man, also suckled at his mother’s breast? So they each had a gong made in the shape of one of their breasts, beat the gongs loudly to get the attention of the king and presented them to him with their pleas. The man was saved and the gong became a regular part of ceremonial life.

Unfortunately, with the tendency to go bra-less and have lots of children, I can confirm that many African women do indeed have breasts the shape of the gong.