TUTU BASIN PILGRIMAGE I have spent the last couple of weeks in the Tutu Basin in TL2 searching for signs of okapi and trying to find samples for my project on okapi genetics. I’m pleased to report that I have had more success than my last mission out in Sankuru! This mission started with a three-day, dugout trip up the Lomami River, one of the main tributaries of the Congo River which is also one of the most remote places left in the world! This was a fantastic chance to see one of the world’s last true wildernesses, along with all manner of incredible birds, primates, bats and insects. We arrived at our destination, a village called Obenge, and took a couple days of rest as we prepared for our trip into the forest – we would be miles away from anywhere so would have to bring everything we needed with us. The following are some extracts from my diary of our trip:
Rest stop. My knees are in the far back, next to John, on left side of photo. © Dave Stanton/ZSL-Cardiff University
Day 1. Today we set out on our expedition to try to verify and locate okapi presence in the Tutu Basin. John and I have planned a basic route on Google Earth that takes us past some edos, openings in the forest where tracks are easier to see. The TL2 project has a small research camp, Losekola (link), from which we launched and that is only about a three-hour walk from Obenge. We left about midday. The moment we started walking there was a big clap of thunder and it started pouring rain. It rained all afternoon and night. The camp is nice, though, and we spent a comfortable night. Day 2. “Didn’t leave camp until 9am because we were waiting for the rain to ease off. We stayed out until 6 pm though, making a long, tiring day. We found okapi tracks and dung at the second edo we visited, so really good!”
This was more like it — dung for the taking. © Dave Stanton/ZSL-Cardiff University
Day 4. “Another couple of really long days of walking. We visited a few more edos, but nothing there except a few buffalos, some pigs and stuff… We’ve seen characteristic signs of okapi feeding but only infrequently. My feet are really starting to hurt, and starting to get a bit of a pain in my tendon behind the left knee.”
Okapi were eating here…. © Dave Stanton/ZSL-Cardiff University
Day 6. “Couple more very tough days of walking. My leg is very painful, I think I have a bit of tendonitis. Limped into Losekola camp at about 5pm. Very relieved and enjoyed my night at the camp.” Once back in Obenge I have a look through what we managed to get from our mission; five dung samples and some information on okapi presence throughout the Tutu Basin from a week of hard walking. May not seem like a good pay-off, but this was actually more than I expected! It just goes to show how infrequent okapi must be in this area. With a few more samples I will be able to start using genetics to investigate questions important to okapi conservation. The first step is to get a unique genetic fingerprint, or “genotype” for each okapi individual. One of the things we can then investigate is how related the individuals are to each other, and see what features, such as rivers, villages and habitat-type affect this relatedness.
Look closely — there’s an okapi in this picture and quite close. No wonder they are rarely seen. This photo is from the Harts’ radio collar study in the Ituri Forest – late 1980s.
The genetic information can then be used to help advise the new protected areas as to how best to protect their okapi population – all this from a few piles of dung!! Our trip also brings home how big the task is ahead of me – I am trying to genetically characterise this species throughout its range and this expedition covered only a very small part of that area! Thankfully I am not alone – ICCN, the TL2 team and other project collaborators will be continuing to help me out by collecting okapi dung and skin samples during the course of their patrols and surveys…
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