David Stanton’s Adventures and Misadventures in TL2 – Part 4

Hi – it’s Dave, ZSL/Cardiff University PhD student again! I‘m currently at our camp at a place called Katopa, recovering from an exhausting couple of weeks.  My expedition started in a town called Kindu, where I met up with John Hart, scientific director of the TL2 project (for more information on the TL2 project, and to read my other blog, click here: http://www.bonoboincongo.com/). We talked through my project and John advised me on some of the places where okapi had been reported in TL2 - the first place I was to visit was a village called Yakunda. However, I first needed to pay a visit to a ‘Government official’, called the DGM (Direction Général de Migration). The DGM finds a problem with my visa, and I have to pay him a $100 ‘fine’ to sort it out, but not before he has spent two days riding around town with my passport in his shirt pocket!

The University in Kindu © Dave Stanton/ZSL-Cardiff University

The first leg of my expedition starts with a full day’s ride on the back of a moto, wedged somewhere in-between my moto-driver, our baggage and a live chicken. The moto driver expertly weaves his way along narrow forest tracks, crossing rivers either on dangerously thin bits of wood, or for the larger rivers, small pirogues (hand-made dugout canoes; see a YouTube video of one of the small river crossings here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45k-n4yqsPQ). We arrive safe at our destination (a village called Chombe Kilima), with the only injury to one of the motos, which the driver lost control of climbing a steep bank. The brake and gear snapped off, but the driver resourcefully managed to reattach them using a bit of old bicycle tyre! Chombe Kilima is the end of the road (literally) and from here, if we’re not on the river, we’re walking! We have a long day’s walk from Chombe Kilima to our first camp, Katopa, on the Lomami River. This walk is through an unusual savannah-forest mosaic habitat, unfavourable to okapi. There is thought to be a gap in the okapi’s range between the west of the Lomami River and the east of the Congo River. Hopefully my genetics project should be able to shed some light on why this is!

We have one day rest and then a gruelling 40 km walk the day after to a village called Esthuna. We managed to rent some Congolese bicycles (i.e. held together with branches and bicycle tyres) that took us to Yosenge, where - disaster – the chief of the village will not let us go any further, or into their forest, without consulting all the other chiefs in the area! We don’t have time for this and it’s not in our schedule so we’re forced to turn around and walk back… We arrive back in Katopa, exhausted and a bit disappointed that we were not able to get into the forest. None-the-less, we managed to get some good information about okapi presence from the villages. They are there, but a long way from Yosenge or Yakunda, and likely to be in low numbers. This area is one that I’m going to need the help of TL2 project staff to sample after I’ve left! The villagers have been fantastic, and have always let us stay with them, asking for nothing in return. Some villages were very small, basically a family living in the jungle, totally isolated from the outside world. At one, they let me string my hammock up to a ‘supporting branch’ of their hut. It moved alarmingly when I got in it and I thought I was going to bring the whole thing down (luckily I didn’t) – but they just smiled and shrugged!

Now, I need to start thinking about the next leg of my journey – a week-long trip on a pirogue, down the Lomami and up the Congo River to Kisangani, with an expedition into the remote Tutu basin. Hopefully this time to actually find some okapi samples! I can see our pirogue being readied from our camp – it’s going to be a cramped trip!

The pirogue © Dave Stanton/ZSL-Cardiff University

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