Next on our itinerary was returning up the stream to Bomassa. In Bomassa, we once again got into the uncovered motorized canoe for the long trip upriver back to Bayanga in the CAR. On this river trip, rather than a beating hot sun, it poured on us part of the way. This was actually kind of welcome as a relief from the heat.
On the way upriver to Bayanga, before we hit the rains, our group stopped for a pee break at a small fishing camp along the river shore. The camp was empty when we were there but was festooned with a number of fetishes. One fetish was hanging in front of the entrance to the main wooden hut and was designed to bring harm on anyone who dared to try to enter the building. Other fetishes were hanging on a tree by the water to bring good luck to the fishermen.
Bayanga is a medium sized town on the Sangha River and located next to the Dzangha Sangha Protected Area. This protected area, which includes the Dzangha Sangha National Park, is the CAR part of the Tri-State Protected area. We would stay in a jungle lodge near Bayanga for the remainder of the expedition and do day trips into the Dzangha Sangha National Park. Bayanga itself seemed to be a bustling town and trading center for the various small villages in the region.
Many of the villages around Bayanga are populated by displaced Ba'Aka pygmies. In a common theme in many places in Sub-Saharan Africa, they have been "persuaded" or outright moved, out of their ancestral lands in the forest, and live in villages on the edge of the forest. Their lives bear only a passing resemblance to what they used to be. One of the highlights for me on this expedition was the day we took a group of Ba'Aka people out on a hunt. It also appeared to be a fun and special occasion for the Ba'Aka that were involved, in that they got to do something out of their ordinary routine around their villages. In a separate short photo essay, Hunting with the Ba'Aka pygmies I tell about this.
We did more gorilla trekking and spent another day at a bai, this one called the Dzangha Bai. For the group I was with though, an entire day was wasted getting to the place for the gorilla trek. Our 4 wheel truck got stuck in the mud, and then the rear differential was busted trying to get out. In what dismally seems the typical Sub-Saharan African approach, the driver was not equipped with anything to deal with the emergency of being severely stuck in deep mud. He had no shovel, no winch, no rope, nor support base such as a wooden platform to set the jack upon. The tire jack did not even have a proper handle to turn it. Hence, without any proper equipment to extract the truck from being stuck in deep thick mud, 2 hours away from our starting point and in thick remote jungle, the driver just spun the wheels in a futile manner until the transmission differential was practically burned out.
Finally us "outsiders" took a more assertive stance and suggested various ways to get out of the mess. I suggested digging a trench around the tires through the mud using their machetes so that the wheels would not be buried in mud. An Australian with us suggested putting big pieces of wood, chopped up from some trees, under the tires to give traction. After an hour or so, we finally got free and moving again. Soon, however, we had to stop due to the rear transmission differential being ruined.
Our driver then proceeded to do a roadside repair as he did have a basic toolkit. He removed the rear differential completely, so that the truck could motor forward using only the front wheels to drive (risky in that we had a high probability of getting stuck in the ensuing 2 hour drive through the jungles in intermittent pouring rains). We made it out and back to the lodge, luckily.
The next day we made it to the Dzangha Bai. It was a beautiful sunny day and the Bai was quite busy. The Dzangha Bai is famous for being a major gathering point for forest elephants and is used by researchers as the primary place to observe forest elephants in the Congo Basin. The most notable part of the day's viewing was watching two elephants fight.
While at the bai, I also had the fun opportunity to meet the WCS forest elephant observer and expert, Andrea Turkalo. From East Coast of USA, Andrea spends 10 months a year in the area studying and monitoring the Dzangha Bai activity. She has been doing this for the WCS since 1991 and lives in a camp near the bai with 2 pygmy trackers/assistants.
She explained that the fight we witnessed, between two male bulls was unusual. Most of the "confrontations" or jousting between elephants are usually about establishing, challenging, and maintaining hierarchy (dominance for the dominant bull). Actual fights are rare as they are dangerous and can lead to serious injury or death for the participants.
Andrea was not optimistic about the future of the bai, or the entire forest for that matter. She explained that the bai is threatened due to logging by a French company 20 KM (12 miles) to east at the park's boundaries. There are the usual problems at times with poachers. A large bull was actually shot the previous year right in the bai (its bones were still visible in the distant middle of the field). The bushmeat trade as it seems everywhere in the Congo Basin forests, was a continual factor in the depletion of wildlife. And perhaps the toughest challenge was getting a cultural change to occur in the local people.
Andrea mentioned that the villagers may now wear modern clothes, but the minds are still primitive. Magic is a big thing for the Central and West Africans in explaining how life works. Exploitation of the forest and its animals has been a way of life for the local people since time immemorial. So the idea of "education" to instill modern concepts of habitat and species conservation is a very difficult proposition. Plus, the grinding poverty and day to day fight for survival of a growing population in the region adds to the pressure on the forest.
Even what would seem as very small amounts of money to rich world citizens, is of major import to the local people. To illustrate, Andrea explained the dilemma faced by the two guys working for her. They get swamped in their villages by people requesting and demanding money as everyone knows they received money from their work with Andrea and the WCS.
If even their modest salaries are considered riches to be targeted by many others in the village, imagine the temptations of poaching and the sheer survival needs involved in the bushmeat hunting.
For the last full day of our expedition, we did the hunt with the Ba'Aka pygmies. As mentioned earlier, I describe this in a separate very short story called Hunting with the Ba'Aka.
Early morning on the day after our Ba'Aka pygmy hunt, we were on our chartered bush flight back to Bangui. Looking at the vast and seemingly endless expanse of forest below, it seemed hard to believe that it is truly a "disappearing world". Yet, the trends of deforestation and other pressures from modern world development on this amazing ecosystem are relentless and seemingly unstoppable. Due to ever accelerating habitat loss, researchers estimate that by 2030, the population of lowland gorillas in this primeval region will be reduced by up to 90%. The jungles of the Congo Basin represent the first romanticized image that non-Africans think of when they imagine what Africa is like. How profoundly sad and ironically tragic it is then, that perhaps very soon, this romanticized image will be no more than a memory from the past.