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...).

1 comment:

Philip Hurst said...

Once again, and as always, a fascinating account that I greatly enjoyed reading.