Sunday, January 09, 2005

Tip-toe through the jungle

January 9, 2005
Main Camp, Gran Caldera de Luba, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.32972° E 8.47899° Elevation 1,713 feet. Temp: 76° F

We hiked about five miles today, descending more than 1,600 feet from the North Camp in the caldera to the Main Camp. We were the last group of our expedition to stay in the North Camp, so we left a group of porters behind to strike the tents and clean up the site. There was a little gasoline left over from the generator, so rather than bring it out we left it with the porters with instructions to burn the rubbish. I could see they were eager to carry out this chore. Young men across the world seem to share a fondness for setting fires.

Most of the members of the Arcadia University expedition to Equatorial Guinea have already left the caldera, the ancient volcano crater that has been the focus of this trek to save endangered wildlife. They have returned to the beach camp, where they are supposed to be conducting additional research, but we have heard reports of dancing on the beach. Good for them. If our expedition were an army – and sometimes this operation has a military appearance to it -- we are now involved in a phased withdrawal from the caldera, the dramatic crater surrounded on three sides by walls that tower thousands of feet above us. Tomorrow we will wrap up our camp here and move down to the beach, too.

We walked today at a pace that would make a snail seem fast. We conducted an animal census along the way, which means our group should average about 1 kilometer an hour. Much of our efforts in the past two days have been to try to get Barbara Johnston, the Inquirer photographer who is accompanying me, into a position to get more photographs of the endangered primates in this area. So Barbara was at the front of the line, right behind our guide. He carried her camera with its massive 500 mm lens over his shoulder, like a gunbearer holding a bazooka. Barbara, the white hunter, followed just behind and took over the monster camera when monkey business was detected. I followed way behind, along with Arcadia professors Gail W. Hearn and Wayne A. Morra, taking a count of the creatures we saw.

One of the main purposes of the expedition is to do a systematic count of the animals on a number of carefully measured trails that Hearn and Morra have established in this rainforest. Walking slowly and pausing every minute or so to look for signs of movement in the trees and brush, we progress much as hunters or commandos would cross the terrain. We make a great effort to be quiet so we don’t alert the animals. It’s like tip-toeing down a trail, walking softly, avoiding twigs that might snap. Though I try hard to walk carefully, I’m about as graceful as a rhino. I usually get put near the back of the queue, where I can cause the least damage. I don’t mind since my job is mainly to cover the people doing the census. But it means that by the time I hear about some animals spotted by the person at the head of the line, it’s only a distant rumor.

One of the big challenges Hearn and Morra face is to manage traffic on the trails because they want the animals calm and unbothered when the census teams walk the paths. It requires managing the groups of porters and expedition members on the trails much an Amtrak dispatcher controls traffic on the Northeast Corridor. Their general rule is that a census should be conducted at least two hours after the previous person has walked on the trail. So it means scheduling porters to move well before the census crews or just after the census is conducted. The porters, mostly young men who are in peak physical condition, are impatient to get their jobs done and prefer to carry their heavy loads at a blistering pace. Today it took us three hours to cover one trail at a census pace. It took the porters 30 minutes to cover the same trail immediately after.

We were in North Camp for two days. The camp is at a higher elevation and more open than the Main Camp, and it gets cooler at night. I think I might have been the only person who found the temperature exhilarating. Last night Morra complained that it was “freezing.” I took a reading at 4 a.m., when it was 62 degrees in the tent and 56 outside. Apparently many of us have become accustomed to the tropical humidity of the lower altitudes, so we’ve redefined what we think is cold. Wait until we return to the States in a week, and I suspect we’ll find 56 degrees will amount to a heat wave.

The North Camp also had more animals visible than the area around the Main Camp, where the expedition discovered many spent shotgun shells but few animals since we arrived more than a week ago. The census teams saw all manner of primates around the North Camp, including the drill, the large primate with a fierce face that Hearn calls Africa’s most endangered monkey. Barbara saw a drill yesterday, and I will leave it to her to tell you about her experience – I have been trying to get her to contribute to the blog for days, but many photographers need lots of encouragement to write. Barbara’s e-mail is, if you’d care to write her some encouragement.

On the census yesterday, which consumed most of the day, I took a different route with a different guide than Barbara and did not see as many animals as her, but it was exciting nonetheless. We crept up on three black colobus monkeys that were perched in a bare tree about 30 feet off the ground and were able to watch them for quite a while. A few minutes later, we encountered a group of red colobus monkeys, which saw us and began shouting alarms, so we had red and black colobus monkeys dashing to and fro in a tree as we stood below counting them. One of the black monkeys seemed to want to show us he was undisturbed by our presence, so he sat out front on a limb, carefully picking things from his long, coarse hair.

I’m planning to write a little more about the census process and the endangered primates for the newspaper in the coming days.

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