O Kameleo, Where Art Thou?
15 August 2013: Kinshasa, DR Congo. Two days ago, we finally emerged from the “walls of green” in the great forest to the east of Mbandaka, and I was treated to a delicious but expensive meal of chicken with frites (French fries) and mushrooms with two cold sprites. I am now in the relative lap of luxury in Kinshasa, where simple things like a cold glass of water and fresh bread are energizing me. Because I was able to get ahold of a decent internet connection today, I am posting photos into the two previous posts below so that everyone can see some of the sights I experienced, and for the cybertaxonomy project.
Let me again pick up where I left off, in Watsi Kengo. Before we finally left over a week ago, Watsi Kengo had one final surprise in store for us. We decided to stay one extra day, and it was well worth it. In the late afternoon, the shriek of “nyoka!” rang out near the river encampment, and Chifundera and Aristote sprang into action and ran to the place to find a bush viper (Atheris squamigera) having a siesta in some vegetation about 1.5 meters above the forest floor. This was the first one we had encountered on the current expedition, and only the 3rd one we have ever found in Congo, so I was very pleased to see it. Below is a photo.
During the long journey back to Mbandaka, the team and I had a discussion about the animals we had seen, and those that we had expected to see, but seemed to be absent. One of the most common lizards in eastern DR Congo is the chameleon (known as kameleo in Lingala and Swahili), for which there are multiple species in the mountains of the Albertine Rift. In some places, one can see a dozen of them moving about through bushes within an hour. But during the current expedition in the lowlands of western DR Congo, we hadn’t seen even one. Here and there someone might have said that they had seen a chameleon the day before, or the week before, or even years ago, but despite our intensive efforts to look for them for 10 weeks, we never found any. I have three hypotheses that could explain why this happened, and they are not mutually exclusive. First, perhaps the chameleons in this area are just rare. Before leaving on this expedition, I recalled looking at an opus on Central African chameleons published by the Belgian herpetologist de Witte in the 1960’s. He provided detailed maps showing where each species occurred, and I remembered that there was almost nothing from the area south of the Congo River where we had spent our time during the summer. The few records that were there were of a species called Trioceros oweni, which we had found only once before at Epulu in northeastern DR Congo in 2009. It is a relatively large chameleon with three horns projecting forward on the head in males (the females are hornless). I had a faint recollection of seeing an illustration of a subspecies of oweni in the paper called Trioceros oweni unicornis. Somebody had thought that a one-horned chameleon (as opposed to the 3-horned oweni) deserved its own scientific name, but it was probably described as a subspecies because they reckoned it wasn’t distinctive enough to be its own species. Either that or there was only a single specimen, and they couldn’t be sure it wasn’t an aberrant individual. [UPDATE: 3 September 2013: After checking up on this, it turns out unicornis was described as a distinct species over a century ago, but it is now considered to be a synonym of oweni. Such are the perils of a complicated taxonomy when trying to remember all of it in the middle of the jungle!] All of this would support my first hypothesis that chameleons are just rare in this area. The second hypothesis is that they are seasonal, becoming active only during the rainy season, and aestivate during the rest of the year. Perhaps we hadn’t seen any because we were working in the height of the dry season. And finally, my third hypothesis is that perhaps the chameleons are living in the canopy, only occasionally descending to the forest floor. The single teenaged boy who had claimed to see a chameleon during our work said that it was in a tree and heading upwards, so perhaps we hadn’t found any because we weren’t able to climb the trees to look for them high above the forest floor. Indeed, some of the treefrogs we had collected seemed to spend a lot of time in the canopy, only coming lower rarely. It would be up to future workers to figure out which of my ideas, if any, were correct, because we were almost out of time.
As we continued west, we passed by some familiar villages, including the infamous Bomputu, where we had been horrified three weeks previously to see the locals killing one of their pet dogs for meat. This time I was again disgusted when we stopped there for about an hour to buy some bread and other supplies. Close to the bank of the river was a large wooden structure with an enormous amount of bushmeat being smoked over a fire. Aristote said it was a bongo, one of the rarest and most beautiful of Central Africa’s antelopes. Once again, the precious wildlife was reduced to cheap food. If you’re not familiar with bongo, I highly recommend that you google image them to take a look, because they are truly spectacular. Someday I hope to see one in the wild, but I will have to be very lucky.
As we moved on, here and there we picked up a few frogs until eventually we had so many that we had to stop for a couple of days in a remote fishing village called Bomponga to work with all of them. It was at that point that I really started to notice how difficult things had become for myself and the team. We had been on expedition so long (10 weeks) that our equipment was beginning to fail, and morale was starting to decline. When I set my tent up in the forest at the edge of the village, I didn’t notice until it was too late that I had pitched it right next to a place where someone had recently defecated. Some of the food I had brought with me from the US to keep up my strength had to be thrown away when I discovered mold growing on it. In fact, there was mold on a lot of my gear, including my decrepit sleeping mat, inside the lining of my tent’s rain fly, and even on my camera bag. And then I awoke one morning to find that my sleeping mat had become an island in the middle of a large puddle of rainwater that had leaked into my increasingly damaged tent during a heavy downpour. I had to assert my authority more than once when Wandege and Aristote disappeared to socialize or drink beer instead of working, and exhausted, Chifundera was spending an increasing amount of time resting during the day in the miniscule one-man tent he had insisted on using the entire summer. I had started a course of antibiotics to get rid of an annoyingly persistent stomach infection, but thanks to the fact that none of my clothes ever completely dried in the dank forest, I noticed another problem that required a second medication a few days later. After I thought I had finally vanquished these annoyances, a bad batch of bananas caused a third, especially painful one to flare up. It was definitely time to go—multiple health problems are a warning that the body is weakened, and it was clear I needed some R&R to recover.
But we had another problem related to time. If we left right away and dashed back to Mbandaka and then on to Kinshasa, I would have too much time on my hands sitting around doing nothing before my flight home, but not enough to mount one final jaunt into the forest southwest of Kinshasa. And so in the end, I decided to take a chance by exploring one more nearby river to see if we could find anything else interesting before wrapping things up and returning to Mbandaka. I chose the Momboyo River near Ingende, about one day’s journey east of Mbandaka, because we hadn’t done any work in that vicinity, and Chifundera’s old tourist map of the area had “PYGMÉE” written in large letters along the course of the river. The pygmies on this trip had certainly been very helpful to us in many other places, and I thought maybe we could get their help one final time.
After picking up a little food in Ingende, we motored southeast up the Momboyo, and I quickly realized that my gamble likely wouldn’t be a good one. The forest had been cut down in many places, and many fires burned where multiple people were clearing away the brush to grow crops. When we reached the town of Boteka, I saw the remnants of an enormous colonial-era palm plantation. Several rusted ships slowly decayed on the shore, a broken crane idled on the side of a large dock, and enormous metal tanks that were two stories high must have once held incredible quantities of the oil decades ago. The plantation was still in operation, however, and I saw a new truck sitting beside a renovated colonial-era house, which now had power lines and a satellite dish attached to it. I was told that it was now being run by Canadians. Much of the damage I had seen in the nearby forests was likely caused long ago when the plantation was at a much larger scale than it was now.
Then again, the continuing operation of the plantation has not allowed the forest to regenerate, and for the animals to come back. In general, palm plantations are bad news, because the forest must be cleared, which forces all the animals to either move away or die. Many of the badly paid plantation workers are forced to resort to hunting for bushmeat in the forests around the plantations to get enough food to eat. As time goes on, an increasing number of people make permanent settlements around the periphery of the plantation, which leads to forest clearing for subsistence agriculture. Palm oil is used in many products that Americans eat every day, including various junk foods, including chocolate, cookies, cooking oils, and many other foods and food-related products. Recent studies have shown that some biodiversity is preserved in some cultivated areas, but in my experience in Congo, the amphibians and reptiles that are present in plantations are also present in other human-disturbed areas such as villages and even cities. Such species are called “trash species,” because they literally live among the trash of human civilization, and they are not of special conservation concern. So if the rarest and most endangered species are lost when a forest is cut down for a plantation, should we give the plantation owners kudos because at least some trash species persist? Nonsense! The Girl Scouts of America, who are famous the world over for their delicious cookies, have recently stopped including palm oil as an ingredient because of the environmental problems the plantations cause all over the tropics. I applaud them for their decision, and frankly, the cookies taste better than ever in my opinion.
We traveled as far away from Boteka as we could before darkness forced us to choose an encampment at one of the small pygmy villages along the river, which turned out to be a place called Bolondo-Buleme, about 5 kilometers east of Boteka. The forest looked pretty good from the river, but after we had established our base camp and explored more carefully, we found that the forest had been damaged long ago, and was only beginning the first stages of regeneration. The vegetation was also especially thorny, including many spiked vines that easily caught on clothes, boots and belts as we tried to move through it, which was doubly discouraging. I almost lost my mind one night when we got lost in this painful jungle for over an hour. I heard plenty of rainforest birds, including hornbills, turacos, and other species that are also present in more pristine forest. But for frogs, we found only three species, all of which we had found several times before on the western portion of the Salonga River. A few snakes of a very common species popped up (Natriciteres olivacea), but only at the river’s edge, which is outside of the forest anyway. The only positive note was with the treefrog genus Cryptothylax. For some unknown reason we had found only females the entire summer, but here we managed to get a handful of males, which was better than nothing. But again, these frogs were found in reeds at the river’s edge, and not in the forest where the rarest species make their home.
My depression at finding such a poor place for our last worksite in the forest continued into the next morning, when Chifundera woke me at dawn with a question just outside my tent.
“Eli, can you guess what I have?”
“Sushi and chocolate truffles?” I responded, half awake. As my mind started to function, I realized that the tone of my voice was pitiful. The fatigue of two infections coupled with the misery of the thorny vines in the forest the night before had demoralized me badly.
“No I have a chameleon!”
In seconds I had forgotten all my troubles, and I was wide awake, rushing to get dressed. I was in such a hurry I nearly forgot to slam my boots together several times, a habit I had picked up in Bomputu to ensure that scorpions (we had found a nasty one in the bamboo leaf litter just outside my tent there!) hadn’t sought refuge in them overnight. When I emerged breathless from my tent, I saw a smug pygmy sitting with Chifundera, who had a medium-sized, one-horned chameleon perched on his hand.
“It’s unicornis!” I gasped.
My exclamations prompted Aristote and Wandege to come running moments later, and we all stared at the rarest of Congo’s chameleons with reverent awe. The pygmy told us he had caught the animal the previous day when he was walking down a forest path. Apparently the chameleon had tried to cross the path on the forest floor when he was discovered. Once again the “people of the forest,” as the pygmies are widely known, had come to our aid. Not surprisingly, the place where the chameleon had been found was a whopping 10 kilometers southwest of Boteka in pristine forest. I was amazed that word of a strange white man looking for reptiles and amphibians had spread so far so quickly, but word travels fast in Africa, even when communication to relatively distant places seems impossible.
I couldn’t resist touching the animal myself, and when I took it from Chif, I immediately felt strange vibrations emanating from the animal’s body, along with a low humming buzz. I had felt this several times before with a completely different kind of chameleon called a dwarf chameleon (Rhampholeon boulengeri) in the Albertine Rift, but never before with a Trioceros. I believe it is an adaptation for a last-ditch effort to avoid capture by a predator, and the behavior must be successful sometimes if it has been passed on genetically from generation to generation as it has in these chameleons. I looked at the head carefully to see if there was any evidence of other horns, but it was clear that it had only a single, prominent horn. It was considerably smaller than the oweni I had found six years previously in Epulu, and the tail seemed unusually long for this group of chameleons. I can’t wait to see what the DNA says, but I already think that unicornis will end up being its own distinct species, deserving of its own targeted conservation efforts. Below is a photo of the animal.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, a fisherman brought us another unicornis, this time a hornless female, which he had spotted three meters up in a tree. The forest gods certainly smiled on us that day, and reinforced our strategy to enlist the help of local indigenous people to find the rarest of the animals that we seek. The good feeling was reciprocated the next day when a small group of pygmy women from the village where we were staying passed by my outdoor laboratory as I was working. They told Aristote that before when people from other villages came to see them, they were treated like they were less than human. But because we had come and stayed with them, they now felt very important, perhaps the most important village on the river. When they returned from their brief foray into the degraded forest to look for edible vegetables and mushrooms, they presented me with a harmless mudsnake that they had found near some water. I am not sure which species it is yet, but it is identical to some snakes we found at Lake Mai-Ndombe. Again, I can’t wait to return to the lab so that I can research what this animal might be, and how it is related to other snakes in Central Africa.
The day before we left, a passing fisherman let us photograph a turtle he was taking to sell in a local market. He had caught it very far away in Orientale province to the east, but presumably this species occurs in rivers and lakes throughout the Congo Basin. I was quite excited to see it because it was the first time I had encountered this type of turtle. Less exciting was when we saw the same exact species in a fish tank at a Chinese Restaurant in Kinshasa yesterday! I provide a photo below for the cybertaxonomy project.
Despite the hardships, I felt energized when we left the tiny village on the Momboyo River, and the pygmies, as they had elsewhere, gave us a very fond farewell.