I have just had a pretty tough few days. I went out this week to investigate some rumours of okapi presence, taking off from the base camp of John and Terese Hart near a small forest village called Katopa. Just to get to Katopa in the first place was a motorbike ride followed by a very long day’s walk from Kindu.
The okapi population in TL2 is incredibly important to investigate because it is on the west side of the Congo River and disjunct (or geographically distant) from the rest of the range on the east side. Okapi here are in very low numbers compared to elsewhere in their range, despite low hunting pressure, so it is important to find out why, if we want to conserve this species effectively. I am hoping to get some clues using genetics, but first I need samples!
The arrows are approximate okapi distribution with questions around the margins and the mysterious area of absence between the Lomami and the Lualaba.
For our mission we were on a tight timescale and had a lot of ground to cover. The first day we had an exhausting 40 km walk across an unusual savannah-forest habitat. Could this unusual habitat be one of the reasons that okapi are in lower numbers on the west side of the Congo and Lomami?
I had started to get blisters on my heels from our walk a couple of days earlier – this was certainly not likely to help me with plenty of walking left to do! We arrived in a village called Etshuna late, put up our tents and passed out. We had a storm during the night and my hammock (great in the forest but not suited to villages) leaked. I had a very uncomfortable, wet night with little sleep. An early rise the next morning – we still had ground to cover.
Drying the socks, to then slip on over the blisters, yet again. © Dave Stanton/ZSL-Cardiff University
My friend and assistant, Kaghoma, who works for the Zoological Society of London, managed to rent us some bicycles to make the next leg of the trip a little easier – things were looking up! But not for long… We arrived in a village called Yosenge and were required to meet with the chief; a man sporting an all-blue Adidas tracksuit, leopard tooth necklace and leopard-skin hat. We were told that we could not go any further without a meeting between this chief and the chiefs of six other villages of the region. This meeting would decide whether we were allowed to proceed or not and would take weeks to arrange – totally unfeasible with our schedule! This was a huge disappointment. Without any alternative, we had to turn around and go back to our camp at Katopa… Gutted!
Source of frustration…a chief with complicated protocol. © Dave Stanton/ZSL-Cardiff University
We set off the same day and arrived in Katopa the day after. A total of 80 km in three days and everyone (especially me) exhausted. My blisters had got progressively worse and by the time we arrived back at camp, my feet were in shreds and I could barely walk! On top of that, I had managed to get Giardia (not serious, but a very unpleasant intestinal illness…), probably from the water in Etshuna. All-in-all I was feeling a bit low…
Source of pain…. © Dave Stanton/ZSL-Cardiff University
However, all is not lost! We gained some valuable information on locations of okapi from the villagers at Yosenge that we should be able to follow-up at a later date. At some point I am hoping that we will even be able to collect some okapi skins from hunters in the TL2 region. Skins are valuable sources of DNA as it is usually of a higher “quality” than dung DNA. This may allow us to study genes within the okapi genome that relate to habitat, perhaps help us to understand why okapi are in some areas but not others. It will also give us a better idea of how different okapi in TL2 are from okapi the rest of their range. The Congo River is an important barrier limiting the range of many species, and it may be that okapi either side of this huge river differ more than we thought.
Thank goodness for Kaghoma’s good spirits, competence and great endurance. © Dave Stanton/ZSL-Cardiff University
We are currently loading up our dugout (traditional Congolese canoe, hand carved from a single tree trunk) for our descent of the Lomami River. I’m starting to feel a little better, and very excited about the trip ahead and our mission into the Tutu Basin!
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