Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Hi guys

Tomorrow is the first and likely the last chance I get to send emails out of
the forest. You will get them, without doubt with some delay. After a
longish but nice boat trip along the rivers here of the Congo we arrived at
the site. Bit pressed for time and all, so just a brief outline of some of
my personal highlights so far: lovely sunsets and huge double rainbows over
the river on the way in; little kids screaming racist greetings at you
everywhere you go; people staring at you most if not all the time;
caterpillars the size of small sparrows being cooked for dinner (I passed);
extremely powerful lotoke ­ a kind of local alcohol that probably in the US
might be used for peeling paint off walls (but here is administered orally
in profusion);being in the centre of a small village rebellion of sorts
aimed at preventing me from entering the forest to see the bonobos (long
storyŠ all down to local politics and petty squabbles over bags of saltŠ).
But all is well that ends well. Bonobos are great, even managed to identify
three of them yesterday. I know that its really bad of me to say so but I
was really pleased to see that those animals had some very characteristic
deformities on their hands making them absolutely distinct from all the
other individuals in the party. By the way ­ another useful feature you
should look out in wild bonobos if you want to tell them apart, as far as
the males go, is the colour of their balls. Some have pink, others have
darkish. Then again, I¹ve heard that some can also be bi-coloured. On this
educational note, I leave you until, probably, January.

Yalokole village, DRC
October 3rd 2006

PS: By the way, it¹s very irritating, sitting here in the evening, to have
more than 30 tiny flies crawling all over my laptop screen as I write this.
No doubt the glowing light of the screen is a major of their otherwise
boring day but I wish they get a life and leave my laptop alone!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Its Tuesday morning. We are still in Mbandaka. The boat is almost full to the roof with luggage and provisions so much so that my ...bed for lack of a better word is very close to the roof itself. Hence I cant strech much there. I spent the night on the boat. i thought it will be a bit cooler there than in the stifflingly hot and humid house we are staying. It was a bit cooler but not as much as I hoped for. Presumably once we are on the move there will be a fresh breeze coming through the sleeping compartement.
Speaking of which the sleeping compartment resembles an obstacle course for training of soldiers - to get to my bed, I have to crawl over several other beds and then squeze onto mine by carefully trying not to ram my head or limbs into any ot the supporting pieces of wood that make up the entire construction.
The most interesting observation from last night was on the night-time boat traffic. There were many small and large dug-out canoes travelling on the river, some of them with no lights on them at all, only their silhouettes visible against a distant flickering of light on the other shore. Lots of noise and people arguing accompanied the departure of a largish vessel loaded with people. Then after they were gone it was quiet.
At the head of our three boats (that tied together coprise our BIG boat with the word Bonobo written on it) there is room for some camp chairs. At the very rear there are lots of provisions and also barrels of fuel. And since my own bed is somewhat close to those barrels I had the distince feeling I am sleeping in a petrol station. Again with the breeze of travel I hope this will be taken care of. I also hope that we dont have a leaking petrol barrel since our boatsman smokes while driving. I dont want to think what can happen if our boat suddenly blows up big time.
Oh, we also have plenty of inflatable life-jackets.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Cash flow

With no ATMs in the forests ahead of us, cash is the way to go. And lots of it. It is not as much as it looks like, though. The Congolese Franc is not one of the stronger currencies on the market - this bag, I am told, contains about 5,000 USD.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Curious facts

Did you know that Mbandaka was founded by Stanley in 1883 with the name of Equateur?
Find out more about this town in Wikipedia.

Sunday - luggage day

Earlier today people were busy packing lots of luggage. You have to imagine the heat, humidity and copious perspiration that goes along with the pictures below...

Me and most of my stuff.

Bienvenue and Sally.

Packing and re-packing.

Can we get all this back into the bags?!

Sunday evening on the river

Here are some pictures from this evening - our boat is getting ready for departure and to demonstrate it Le Blanc took me for a quick spin on the river. Then more than 20 sacks of salt were taken on board. Looks like we might leave Mbandaka tomorrow.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Boat trip update

Sally Coxe from the Bonobo Conservation Initiative arrived today in Mbandaka from Kinshasa. It is her organisation that had started working to protect bonobos in the Kokolopori area several years ago and was now helping me go there and conduct my pilot study on the apes.

Unfortunately there is still some cargo that we are waiting to arrive on a plane or collect it from the airport or something...

So the long boat journey to the bonobos is postponed until Monday morning.

Our boat(s) on the bank of the Congo river at Mbandaka -
the one on the left with the white roof.

Gallery: river life

Gallery: getting the boat ready

The three boats are tied together for greater stability. The little shelter built over two of them should provide protection from storms.

There are three motors for each of the separate boats. It was this morning that the crew attached two of them to the construction.

The motors are quite heavy and it took a while to get them to the boats.

For the next six days the engines will not be stopping, day or night until we reach our destination.

Once the motors were in place the boat had to be moved to a new location.

We travelled a little bit upstream.

Le Blanc was in charge of all the work with the boat since he is the main boat person ( I still cant find the appropriate term for his job...).

Group photo after the job is done.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Chimp attack: Kanyawara update by Kyleb Wild

Here is a recent message I got from a colleague of mine, Kyleb Wild, who is still with the Kanyawara chimps in Uganda. He is a student at UCSD doing his field research with the Kibale Chimpanzee project on the way females react to male aggression.


From: Kyleb Wild
Subject: Stout

So, the Stout attack. I didn't see it but it happened on Sunday when the stranger chimps were seen around the Karambi-Butanzi area (deep insideKanyawara territory). James saw unhabitutated chimps chasing, and being chased by, our chimps. On Monday the field assistants found Stout, and he was all ****ed up. Damage to his ears, forehead, hands, arms, and feet were visible. He spent most of the day on the ground, was not seen to eat, and some ofthe other chimps peered at him and groomed him. Somehow the FAs lost him before nesting.

On Tuesday they found him in a Mumisops tree. I saw him that day. He ate fruit for less than five minutes, then spent the rest of the day in a nest trying tokeep the flies off. There were lots of flies around him all day.

On Wednesday I was with Francis when Stout came downfrom the tree and walked for about 20 minutes on theground. He walked slowly but at an OK pace, and all downhill towards the water. We noticed during the walk, and when he was resting at the stream that he smelled really bad - which is why the flies were attracted to him. He drank water and sat swatting flies for a couple hours. Then it started to rain and he moved into very dense THV. We lost him in the combination of huge THV patch and over two hours of heavey rain and hail. He has not been refound yet.

Today (Thursday) the chimps heard the strangers calling from the same area again. They all rushed out of the tree they were in and sat on the ground silently for about half an hour; then they went back to feeding. If Stout is still alive, and the strangers find him, then he is finished for sure.

In other news Aunt Rose and Big Brown dissapeared last week traveling together in a consortship. A couple of days ago Mandella (her son) showed up alone in the big party. I don't know what this means other than: 1) Mandella has finally grown up, or 2) Aunt Rose is dead. Only time will tell.


Gallery: more photos

Bienvenue is the person working for the Bonobo Conservation Initiative in Mbandaka. He has spent the last several weeks here, organising this trip: from purchasing provisions and fuel, sorting permits, sweet-talking local police and other authorities, picking people and luggage at the airport and, most recently, making sure I learned where all the local *pubs* are. Which was terribly nice of him.

Le Blanc AKA The Pastor (he really isnt a pastor, it is just a joke I was told). He is our boat manager or captain or whatever you call the person on whom we will depend for our lives in the waters of the Congo river over the next week.

The guy seems to know a lot about boats and how to drive them on the river. He is doing all the prep for journey as far as sorting the engines for the boats and choosing the right kinds of boat to take- they are three separate canoes tied together into something looking too exotic to be true; in a good way.

In the mornings bread vendors take to the streets of Mbandaka. The baguettes are really yumm but it still beats me how one can balance a load of them topside like that...

If you are into meat though - this is the butchery. It doesnt look like it but within half an hour of this picture being taken the cute little goats were hanged by their hind legs and their throats slit open. For foood.


This morning I got to see our next mode of trasport. The nautical vessel that will be our home for about 6 days starting probably this Sunday. Three large dug-out canoes are moored at a quiet place on the bank of the Congo river. One of them has a rickety shed that covers about half of it. That will be where we will huddle together when storms unleash tonnes of water on us. Given it is now the rainy season, this might happen quite a few times. It did happen yesterday and there was so much water that the streets of Mbandaka looked very much like that famous Italian city with lots of boats and water in it.

The composite boat we will be travelling with looks stable enough. There will be beds on it under the shed for everyone to sleep in. Some long chairs to relax in and do bird-watching from; a little kitchen area where food and hot drinks can be prepared. Doesnt look bad, at all. Couldnt get photos to upload though since the place the boat is now is rigth in front of a military base. It is generally a good idea not to play around with cameras near places like that here.


Wednesday, September 13, 2006


It is a reasonably sized town on the river Congo, north of the capital Kinshasa. I didnt really know what to expect of it so I was sort of surprised by the city-like athmosphere of the place. But I should have thought it was not that run down since there was a large commercial flight going there from Kinshasa. OK, the check-in experience for this internal flight was one of the most chaotic things I have ever seen to take place in an air-port but still they did give us ham and cheese sandwiches at two times during the flight.

Even compared to Kinshasa here in Mbandaka is very, very hot AND humid. Something like Boston in August.

On Tuesday, when I arrived, I met the team who have been preparing the boats, provisions and all, and who on Sunday, if all goes on schedule, will take me and Sally Coxe from the Bonobo Conservation Initiative to the remote site of Kokolopori. The journey, according to the guy who is in charge of navigating the boat up the river, will take us 6 days at best. Non-stop. I was told I will be notified of the rest-room arrangements once we start the journey.I cant wait.

Life here pretty much is going peacefully and slowly. Gone is the hassle of Kampala and Kinshasa. People are going around their business, whatever that may be, and for a visitor like myself it is surpisingly easy to blend in. At least, even in the market area, I am not assaulted by scores of eager to sell their stuff vendors. It is very laid back here. Especially so in the evenings when the main pass time seems to be drinking beer in local bars

OK I was gonna write some more but a guy just walked in to tell me I am using too much fuel so may be I can call it a day. Not in these same words but I managed to get the point even in Lingala.

More tomorrow.


Darkness falls over Mbandaka - 13 Sept

Some images, I have heard, speak more than words. Lets hope the images bellow fall roughly in that category coz I really cant be bothered to write anything now....

Same sun, looks so much better in Africa...

Fishing at dusk, Mbandaka

Landing at Mbandaka 12 Sept

Sunset over the Congo at Mbandaka - 12 Sept

Kinshasa 11 September

It’s still dark outside but the birds are already chorusing. At 5.30 am in Kinshasa it is relaxing and cool. I have fallen asleep while watching a DVD again. When I woke up just now, I realized it would have taken my one small final push for my laptop to crash down on the floor of the room. Good I woke up before that happened.

Yesterday I finally made it to the Congo. While flying across the country, there wasn’t much to see – clouds were covering most of it and when the plane started descending over the capital there was even a little lighting that struck the wing. Obviously if didn’t do anything, there was just this flash and an odd metallic smacking noise.

The airport was more or less crazy as usual but I was saved the immense hassle of picking up my luggage in a room full of anxious porters trying to grab anything they can get their hand on so they earn some money. Outside it was drizzling and soon it was raining torrentially. Everything got wet.

Kinshasa is a surprisingly large place. From the airport it took us probably more than half an hour to get to the office of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, where I met Sally Coxe. She had just arrived to the country the day before from the US. While driving around the streets I was shown some of the ‘landmarks’ of the city – the office buildings and residences of the two main presidential candidates and the tomb of the former president Laurent Kabila, shot some years ago (after which his son took over). On the streets there were places where UN armored personnel vehicles stood on guard, soldiers on and around them, some of them younger then myself, looking decidedly bored. Sundays seem to be slow, calm and peaceful days here. And everyone speaks French. Even the menus in the restaurants are in French (naturally). It certainly makes ordering food for myself a tiny bit more hazardous endeavor.

Today there is some shopping to be done. Then if we keep to the schedule, tomorrow we fly on a commercial flight to Mbandaka. Which hopefully means I will be able to take the entire luggage, that I dearly paid for in Entebbe airport, all the way to the forest with the bonobos. It wouldn’t have been that easy if we were using one of those tiny little planes. There they even make you stand on a weighing scale before you board.

My nearly non-existent French speaking skills and sort of basic Lingala ones are slowly coming back. I am still a bit jumpy in traffic though, since cars here drive on the right side and in the past few months I got used to the left-side roads in Uganda.

Other than that, all is well, and although there is a large number of men with guns around the place, none of them are actively using them at this point. Which is so much better than what apparently happened here a few weeks ago…


Saturday, September 09, 2006

Well...I am still in Uganda

Since the last blog update several things happened, one of which being that I changed again my flight out of Uganda to the DRC. It's a long story but it involved several visits to the Congolese embassy in Kampala, among other things.

Saturday morning is here. I am now in Entebbe, the town on the shores of Lake Victoria near which the international aiport is. With most of my last minute shopping for the several months in the Congolese rainforest done, I am now virtually set for take off. I think I still need to buy a bottle or two of shampoo, though. Tonight should be a sleepless night. My checkin time is at 3 am and I am quite sure that I won't be able to go to sleep at all before then (for fear of not hearing the alarm clock if I nod off and also for trying to finish watching as many of the DVDs that I have before I go to the place of no power grids).

Have one day left here in Uganda and probably a large part of it I will spend making a mental check-list of things that could still go wrong and trying to figure out how best to try and avoid or manage them, if they do happen. Like, what do I do if the taxi driver I will need to come and take me to the airport at around 2.30 am doesn't actually wake up on time and I am stuck in the middle of the night in one of the more distant from the airport parts of Entebbe, which from what I saw last night is quite deserted from 10 pm onwards? Provided I manage to get to the airport, there still might be things that could severely test my patience - like someone trying to actually charge me the appropriate amount of money for the mountain of excess luggage I will be bringing with me. Or someone noticing that may be my Ugandan visa has expired (although, there definitely is no expirity date written on it, honest). Or security getting paranoid about all the weirdly shaped items I have in my bags? And that's just the airport here in Uganda. The one in Kinshasa, and the things that could go in an unwanted direction there, I don't even want to think about now.

But provided somehow the end of the world doesnt happen at either airport, things will start getting exciting, in a nice way. And by that, I mean getting closer to seeing bonobos in the wild again, just over 3 years since last time.

Oh, and I do love flying. Especially when at take off and landing everything goes funny inside you like you're actually free-falling!

OK, I've obviously had too much coffee this morning because this is not making much sense now....I better go and take a walk or something.


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Two days to the Congo

It now looks that I might just about manage to get finally to Kinshasa - the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I have 2 more days to spend in Uganda before my flight. Last-minute shopping, making flight changes and getting cash out of the bank take up most of my time right now.

Having spent some 3 months in the most western parts of Uganda - I could alsmost see the Congo. Well, not really, but I could imagine where it was. As the sun would set over the Rwenzori mountains, to the west of Kibale forest, the evening would travel further, over the rainforest of the DRC, just across the border with Uganda. Ironically to get there, I traveled East to Kampala, then on Thursday I will board a plane taking me even further to the East - to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. From there on another plane I would sort of back-track my journey - flying west over Uganda and after a few hours, enter the airspace of the DRC. Several more hours and the plane should hopefully land in Kinshasa - which is in most western part of the country, on the shores of the Congo river. And there another jorney would begin - by small plane and boat, taking me back to the East. The destination - Kokolopori community reserve somewhere in the middle of this vast, road-less and French-speaking (among many other languages) country. The only country in the world, where the close relative of the chimpanzee, the bonobo lives.

Until the middle of January I might not be able to send any emails so this might be the last blog update for quite a while.


More about the bonobos at Kokolopori at www.bonobo.org
Latest news from Kinshasa: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/5315448.stm

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Friday, August 18, 2006

Election watch

Well, I am still in Uganda. Now, I was supposed to have been travelling on a boat up some river in the Democratic Republic of Congo, on way to a bonobo research site to start the second part of my pilot research season.

Things got postponed a bit, though. The DRC is having its first (democratic) elections since time-keeping began and generally speaking, things are a bit unsecure. Hence our trip to the 'heart of Africa' is now on hold, awaiting to see how the situation in that country turns out to be when this Sunday the results from the first round of the polling are announced. Fingers crossed, if all is more or less well, or at least is not blatantly wrong, in a few weeks I will be leaving Uganda and flying to Kinshasa.

It's such a pity that a fascinating species like the bonobo goes with a country as disturbed as the DRC....

Leaving you with the latest BBC news from the Congo,


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Rain rant

Greetings from the RAINforest. It has been RAINING here for the past 5 days or so more than you would expect for the so called 'dry' season.

There was drizzle, there were clouds as far as the eye can see, there were storms with lightning and water coming down in buckets. And one morning the temperature in the forest under the chimp nests plumetted to 13 degrees Celsius. To put it in short - this made some of the most uncomfortable weather conditions I've experienced ever in Africa.

You could get rid of the palms, the exotic birds, the monkeys, the chimps, the noisy insects and frogs, the bad roads and you could be in Nothern Germany in October , for all I know. To make my analogy even more complete, the nearby town of Fort Portal these days seems to host an amount of lovely German tourists that perfectly matches the recent rainfall patterns. So there you go.

Yeah - and I am now having on and off bouts of cold, temperature, some shiverring and nasty reaction to cold water whenever it touches my skin. Hence today I had to skip going to see the chimps. They are very much like us when it comes to the diseases they are susceptible to, only they apparently are less well used to coping with them (no Coldrex and stuff like that, not even a warm blanket, they just have to sit out the cold showers coming down on the forest). Hence it's not just that going to the forest with cold-like symptoms is very bad and umcomfortable for me but I could actually infect the chimps. Something to be avoided.

On the plus side - there's a bit of sunshine today so hopefully I get better quickly.


Saturday, July 15, 2006

At the end of the day...

The sun is setting over the hills and fields not far from the town of Fort Portal. The big mountains in the back are the Rwenzoris. They do bottled mineral water there, apparently.

Looking for feeding signs

For the past few days I haven't been actually watching the chimps. Instead, I spent 4 days with Christopher (C.M.), my field assistant [picture above], searching for feeding signs that indicate the apes have been eating plants on the forest floor.

It might sound a bit of an odd thing to do but it was a thoroughly planned and randomized survey of the forest that aimed to establish how often we would come across chimp feeding signs. In particular, we were searching of THV feeding signs. THV means terrestrial herbaceous vegetation and this category of ape foods roughly includes anything which is a plant, is not too tall to be called a tree and is eaten while the apes travel on the ground. Most of the THV plants are, as their name indicate herbaceous. Some, however have woody stems. These details aside, THV plays a major role in the scientific debate about the differences in the social system of chimpanzees and bonobos. Not much time to go into that now but as a rough guideline: the chimpanzees are said to rely much less on THV foods than bonobos do. Also the bonobos seem to have access to much better THV foods in their moist forests. Which is proposed as a key element that underlies the differences in the social lives of these two closely related apes.

Having spent the last days going up and down through the range of the Kanyawara community looking for THV remains, it does look like the stuff that the chimps here have is nowhere near as nice as what I've seen in the Congo - where bonobos live. How exactly that affects the behaviour of the chimps and the bonobos is yet to be definitively established but some interesting suggestions and contra-suggestions have been made by primatologists. Again - not much time now to go into all this in detail...

Back to our census. We had to do ten 100 m each - transects in 3 areas, or a total of 30 transects. By definition a transect has to be done in a straight line and in places this was really, really irritaing thing to do. The thing about randomization is, that it's randon. So you have no control over where you will do your transects. As a consequence we (mostly my field assistant, C.M., really) had hack our way through dense undergrowth in quite a few places. As a side effect C.M. suffered lots of ant bites, while he was going infront of me, cutting the path. I was lucky to just get a few of those nasty little insects on my neck, under my shirt and in some other places I am not going to specify.

The good news is that we're done, as of yesterday. One part of my work here in Kibale is finished and even though, it's just a tiny bit of my 'to-do-list' it still feels surprisingly nice. Considering the lack of power and shower water (cold one, at that) in camp and the irritating moments when I fight with the special padlockon the door of Chimp House at base, in very early morning hours, not being able to get into the room where our filtered water is stored, things here are still going quite good.

Oh, there was the thing with the nasty scratchy plants today which got my arms to burn and itch horrendously and losing the chimps at one point and then getting lost for about an hour or more in the logged area of the forest...But I'd rather not talk about this now.

Will try to upload some more photos now.