9 June 2014: Kisangani, Democratic Republic of the Congo
A very long and bumpy ride was necessary to travel from Kasese, the town just east of the Rwenzori Mountains, north to Murchison Falls NP. Along the way, our Ugandan colleague Mathias Behangana showed off his skills as a freelance travel guide, explaining all the local customs, languages, and points of interest that could be seen en route. One of the more interesting anecdotes is repeated here:
Legend has it, Mathias explained, that long ago the road we were traveling on had been a great elephant migration route. Known as Kyenjojo (Ky’ Enjojo = of elephant), the route passed along the mid-elevation Albertine Rift forests from present-day Kibale National Park north to Budongo Forest, and further north to the savannahs of Murchison Falls National Park. Due to human encroachment, deforestation and poaching, the elephants no longer migrate along this route, but the road currently connects the major town of Fort Portal to the smaller village of Kyenjojo. I observed a landscape of burning trash, small villages, and agricultural fields, and I tried to imagine the rolling hills with endless forests that must have stood only a century ago. We passed through a tiny sliver of Budongo Forest Reserve, and were greeted by a small group of baboons who had become so accustomed to vehicles that they hardly moved when we drove by. Mathias explained that passing travelers often pitch a little food out the window for them, so they likely spend most of their time lounging around for free meals. Only a few minutes later, we were back in the human dominated hills.
I was looking forward to seeing the legendary wildlife herds of Murchison. Danny and I would spend a day being tourists with Mathias as our guide so that we could see the animals, the famous falls, and check out any herps that happened to cross our path. According to my map of Uganda (International Travel Maps, no date provided), the park was formed in 1952, because the local tsetse flies had infected most of the cattle with trypanosome parasites, making the area unsuitable for livestock. The British colonial powers moved local people and their cattle out of the area as a result. Indeed, many of the annoying inch-long black flies swarmed into our truck during our journey, but luckily, we never felt the sharp sting of their bite, and of course they don’t carry the harmful trypanosomes that can infect humans.
As a park ranger would tell me later, the place is about 4,000 square kilometers, or about the size of Israel. At least 14,000 elephants used to roam the park (now there are only 1200), but during Uganda’s civil war in the late 20th century, most of them were decimated along with the rhinos and many other groups of animals with any kind of value. However, all of them have started to make a comeback, with the regrettable exception of the rhino, which was probably a distinct species here and in neighboring Garamba National Park in Congo. Wiped out for the highly valuable rhino horn by poachers in only the last decade, the Murchison/Garamba rhino is now extinct in the wild.
By the time we reached the edge of Murchison, it was close to dusk, and we opted to stay at a modest tourist lodge called the Red Chilli. A seemingly tame family of warthogs snorted at us as we arrived, and Mathias pointed out the large numbers of South Africans with trucks and campers, quite similar to American retirees who use RV’s to travel around national parks in the US. He explained that these so-called “Overlanders” embark on epic, wide-ranging odysseys across Africa during their vacations. We also spotted tourists from other areas of the world, including a large group of American college girls. Quaint canvas tents afforded adequate accommodation, and following a nice meal of fried fish and fries, we settled in to sleep. We were just about to drift off when Mathias heard a familiar sound, pointed his headlamp at the tent next to us, and mentioned that a hippo was grazing on the grass nearby. Hippos kill more people than any other animal in Africa, and it was probably a good thing that the college girls in the hippo’s preferred tent were already asleep. The enormous animal quietly munched on the grass, and then moved off to return to the river from whence it had wandered onto land.
The sun had not yet rose when we drank our coffee the following morning, and our eyes strained in the grayish light of dawn when we reached a small ferry that took passengers and vehicles across the Victoria Nile River (so called because it is fed from Lake Victoria before ending up in Lake Albert). The river passes through the middle of the park and leads to Murchison Falls, the park’s namesake waterfall. I could see multiple flocks of white egret-like birds traveling along the northern bank, and a few hippopotami could be seen surfacing with a forced ejection of water spray. It was also impressive to see the great herds of foreign tourists, who were undoubtedly supporting the park and the local people with the great sums of money they were spending. We soon crossed the river, paid the requisite fee, and drove down a dusty track of a road that was flanked by some gallery forest, which was only along the edge of the river. A kilometer or two further, and the landscape changed to a savannah with scattered acacia trees and an interesting variety of palm tree that Mathias said could only reproduce when the seeds had passed through the gut of elephants. Looking around at the large number of palms, I could tell the elephant population was healthy.
Within minutes, we started to see groups of animals. At first it was just a few warthog and antelope, but then we saw a small herd of elephants from about half a kilometer away. We also began to see large black hornbill birds that waddled around through the grass with an awkward shuffle, Uganda kob antelope, Cape buffalo, more warthogs, and giraffe. Below is a photo of the landscape with a Uganda kob male in the foreground.
As the hours passed, we saw an increasing diversity of wildlife. Handsome Patas monkeys congregated in small groups at the base of trees, vervet monkeys screeched in alarm whenever something frazzled them, and countless giraffes dotted the rolling hills in every direction. We also saw meter-long Nile Monitor lizards walking with their dinosaur-like gait through the grass, several birds of prey, plenty of baboons, and cute little dwarf antelope with characteristic beauty marks near their eyes. During one turn in the road, a vervet monkey seemed to shriek in terror, and pausing to see if we could spot the source of the trouble, Danny thought he spotted a lion tail. I took out my video camera and started filming, and for a brief instant, a magnificent leopard (much more rarely seen than lion) passed in front of us. I had to replay the video to ensure I hadn’t been hallucinating, but the tell-tale spots were visible through the tall grass. Unfortunately the lions never made an appearance, but a ranger told us that the park has about 150 of the great cats, and there are plenty of places for them to hide in a place the size of Israel.
Another bend in the road and more elephants; this time they were only a hundred meters away. I took photos of them as they descended a grassy hill to take a bath at Lake Albert (see photo).
Fisherman could be seen just off shore, and it was astonishing to think that the entire local human population supports Murchison as a source of revenue from tourists. Very few people poach the animals here anymore, and most of the time they are foreigners who wander in from neighboring South Sudan or Congo. I realized at that moment that Murchison is a miracle. Surrounded by large human populations that have devastated other national parks like neighboring Virunga, Murchison is holding on in spite of the long odds. Because of its unparalleled wildlife populations and stunning natural beauty, it should be considered as a national treasure for Uganda. The future is looking bright for the park—animal numbers are on the rise, they just hired 450 new rangers and tourist guides, and recently established safari companies and tourist lodges are thriving.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, we turned another corner in the wilderness and came upon two young male giraffes engaged in a fight. The animals swung their heads down like a giant mace and whipped them up into the flanks of their opponent, battering each other with the two stubby horns on the top of their heads. These movements were relatively slow and deliberate, and each individual seemed to politely wait for a blow before starting the process of returning it. A warthog was right next to them, seemingly entranced by the battle of battering heads. I snapped a photo when a third giraffe joined the two dueling males.
Danny and I took a break to try to find some lunch at the ferry crossing before catching a boat ride to the falls. The only nearby hotel wanted to charge us the ridiculous white man’s price of $20 per person for lunch, so we scrounged what we could from a snack shop for the hotel’s employees and did some reading while we waited in the shade near the ferry. A man was washing a truck nearby, producing a fair bit of water that was trickling into the sandy soil nearby. Mathias spotted a frog that was burrowing through the sand, and I was delighted to see that it was a rarely seen Hemisus. These bizarre frogs are commonly known as shovel-snouted frogs because they use their pointy snouts to burrow head-first into the sandy soil they prefer. In their subterranean home they feed mostly on termites, and are rarely seen above ground unless there is a downpour of rain, which triggers them to emerge and breed en masse. The poor guy we found must have thought it was raining from all the water produced by the truck washing, and realizing that it was a false alarm, he was in the process of burying himself again when Mathias discovered him.
The small boat operated by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (ten dollars cheaper and less crowded than the tourist company boats) picked us up a bit later than planned, because it had become entrenched in a marsh near Lake Albert. We joined an American/Belgian couple who talked our ears off about all the places they had been traveling recently. They told us that they had sold their house in the US after saving up some money and had spent the better part of a year traveling around the world, with four months allocated to Africa. Everything they owned was in their backpacks, and I couldn’t help admire them for their carpe diem motto.
As we floated downriver, we observed scores of hippos, some of which seemed irritated by our presence, but not enough to attack the boat. Dozens of elephants, antelope, baboon, and aquatic birds could be seen feeding and reveling with reckless abandon along the edge of the gallery forest near the riverbank. To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt during his train trip through Kenya a century before, it seemed like we were taking a journey through the Pleistocene. Murchison was undoubtedly the most intact ecosystem I had ever seen, and would likely ever see again. It was a great privilege to see it, and I couldn’t help but think that Danny was getting spoiled by all the great luck we had enjoyed with our work and the wildlife in Uganda. I knew that things wouldn’t go so smoothly in Congo.
The only seemingly sour note was with the crocodiles. Everything I had read and heard about Murchison Falls suggested that the crocs were enormously abundant, but we spotted only two (see photo).
It is possible that they were hiding because of either the afternoon heat or all the river traffic (we weren’t the only tourist boat around), but at least we got to see a couple Nile Crocodiles in the wild. Because recent molecular analyses split Nile crocs into two similar looking species, I’m not exactly sure which one we saw (see my post from last year “Crocodile City” with further explanation about this).
As we approached the falls, we began to see brownish white clumps of frothy bubbles in the water, and the ranger explained that this was a result of some kind of biochemical reaction from floating vegetation after it passes through the churning action of the falls. One final bend in the river was traversed, and we were treated to a perfect view of the falls from a few hundred meters away (see photo below). I have to admit that because I grew up near Niagara Falls in Buffalo, New York, Murchison paled in comparison, but it was still the most spectacular waterfall I had seen in Africa.
We were all tired by the time we emerged from the park in the late afternoon, but we had planned a rendezvous with my Congolese colleagues the following morning at the Uganda/Congo border at Goli, so we needed to head west as far as possible. We reached the small town of Nebi just before dusk, and after checking into a modest hotel and grabbing some food, we decided to investigate the chorus of frogs calling from small puddles of water in a field behind the hotel. My Master’s student Adan Lara will be pleased to hear that we picked up a single male individual of Phrynobatrachus natalensis (the focus of his thesis), and a handful of other things. Below I provide a photo of one of the other frogs we encountered, which I do not believe has ever been photographed in color since it was described from Congo many decades ago at the close of the colonial era. Given the location (albeit I think Uganda is a new country record) and distinctive color pattern, I don’t think it will be too hard for my students to identify it for the cybertaxonomy project. I know the snake from the last post was very challenging, but I’m hopeful they can provide a more accurate ID for it before moving on to this one.
I was planning on including the eventful entry into Congo and what has happened since, but after writing up the story about Murchison, I realized I’ve written a small novel and Congo deserves its own post anyway. While Danny and I have been attending the conference on Congo Biodiversity here in Kisangani, Wandege, Aristote, our cook and driver doubled back to Batama (the type locality for Amietia chapini) to try to find some things and start the survey work in the area. Not too many photos yet, so will wait a few more days before updating again.