To see the Kongo and not die. Part 3

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Africa » Central African Republic
October 8th 2014
Published: December 13th 2014
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Ba'aka Pygmies are known for their music and songs that are as old as the world. Four and a half thousand years ago, the Egyptians discovered this diminutive people in the upper reaches of the Nile and just as we are now had been fascinated by the beauty of the voices this ethnic group. Pygmies express their feelings and emotions in their great melodies. No wonder that Ba'aka were proclaimed one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Enchanted by the beautiful voices which sound like bird twittering or the wood elves'cooing, we're going to hunt.

Pygmies are known as hunters who succeed in capturing large animals. Not long ago they hunted forest elephants and lowland gorillas using a home-made bows, wooden arrows and woven grass network. Weaving a network is rather a time-consuming work, so that every member of the ethnic group goes hunting exclusively with his own net.

In the forest, all the hunters clearly and properly perform their duties, they work all together and very quickly. Soon, a large part of the forest is wrapped with nets like cobwebs. Now, creating a loud noise, Pygmies are driving animals to the snare, and we are patiently waiting on the edge of the forest. It does not take fifteen minutes, as little duiker antelope (blue duiker) got into a trap. With the height of 35 cm, it is barely four pounds in weight. Obviously it is hardly enough to feed even few people, but these days all the Pygmies rarely hunted for food. The poor animal was cut into small pieces and after that meat wrapped in "eco-packaging" (large plant leaves) and finally divided among the members of the tribe.

After the hunt, we're going to visit the tribe and their forest camp. The older generation ba'aka still often goes into the woods, but when the food, tobacco and marijuana are running out they have to return to the village. Forest Camp consists of several low huts woven from hard tree branches and covered with foliage. Houses are built in the same way as in other ethnic groups. The low entry that you can only crawl inside, protects the inhabitants of the hut from annoying insects and also prevents it from the loss of heat. Forest dwellers sleep on mattresses made of leaves. During the day women gather different products from the forest. Pygmies are true experts of forest resources. The forest isn’t only their home that gives a shelter and protection but a storage of medicinal herbs as well.

I can’t help but amaze Louis Sarno: he loves and treats ba'aka's children with such awe! Having arrived to the village the scientist immediately picks up on his hands half-naked, barefoot, emaciated bab on his hands. Then gently kisses him and hugs. He says that the child's mother was drinking alcohol during pregnancy and the boy was born sick and weak. Day by day the baby is getting better and better and Louis is very happy.

Meeting with lowland gorillas

Today we are going to the national park Dzanga-Sangha to meet the family of lowland gorillas. The staffs of the park are permanently watching these large primates and monitoring their movements. Gorillas need a lot of time to adapt to the presence of human. Gorillas have to get used not only to the smell of the human but also to his neighborhood. Thanks to the priceless works of Diane Fossey who has developed the rules of adaptation gorillas to the human presence. So we have the opportunity to watch these powerful and very dangerous animals too close to them. The meaning of this rule is that a person should spend more time among the primates, until finally you won't be accepted by them. Animals must trust this person and do not take him as a rival for the leadership in the family. Furthermore they need to be sure that people do not encroach on the delicious and juicy leaves and fruits that make up the main diet of gorillas.

Lowland gorillas, as well as the mountain ones live in small groups-families. Most of the time they spend on the ground. The leadership belongs to the male in the family. It is called Silverback for its grayish color of the fur. It is he who determines the route of the group as well as stops for resting and feeding.

The male defends a group in case of any danger, so when observing the gorillas you should strictly follow the definite rules. You are not allowed to come closer than seven meters and look straight at the gorillas' eyes. If the animal suspects that you are a threat to it, the gorilla starts to show its strength - to make loud noises, hit itself on the chest or break tree branches with a crash. In this case it is necessary sit down quickly and bow your head to show that you are much smaller animal and absolutely harmless. Before visiting the park every tourist passes the test as following these basic rules without any exaggeration can save your life. A similar incident happened to me in Uganda, but I'll tell you about it in one of my following articles later.

There is one very important rule - in no case visit the animals if you have any symptoms of the flu or other viral infections. The scientific research during the recent years has shown that gorillas are very susceptible to human viruses. Moreover these beautiful animals are absolutely defenseless against the malaria and even Ebola virus. According to statistics the number of lowland gorillas has declined by 56% and more than 90% of the animals were killed by he deadly Ebola virus in recent years. Actually the similarity of gorillas and humans' DNA is about 98%. And unfortunately, gorillas are vulnerable to all human diseases.

Accompanied by a few unarmed employees of the Park we start searching for the gorillas. As a rule, the Rangers carefully monitor the movement of animals and almost exactly know the location of the great apes. Time for searching the gorillas is not limited, but from the moment we find a group, we will have only an hour to watch it. One hour and not a minute more, no matter if gorilla is sleeping or spending the time on the tree. These are the rules established by the national park. This hour flies very quickly. Gorillas are in the motion all the time and we could hardly keep up with them.

Once again I go to seek the primates with the next group of tourists. This time we go to the marshes, and fortune favors us: a young male is resting in the sun. In general, watching gorillas is very funny. Despite the frightening size these animals are quite peaceful by nature, very kind to the kids and spend a lot of time in games.

Satisfied, we return to the lodge and in the evening sitting by the fire and drinking some wine we are sharing our impressions with Rod. I am very surprised that gorillas suffer from malaria and the mortality among them is very high. The scientists from the American Birmingham studied the stool samples of western gorillas and came to the conclusion that people have contracted malaria from these primates not from chimpanzees, as previously scientists thought. Rod says that a number of specialists study disease in gorillas in Dzanga-Sangha.
I must say that in this part of Africa the risk of contracting malaria is very high, so I can not advise the Central African Republic for a family traveling with children. Moreover, if you go here I highly recommend you to take the medicine that protects you from the terrible disease throughout the journey.

Meeting with forest elephants

In the Dzanga-Sangha and the Dzanga-Ndoki the scientists study not only primates. National Park Dzanga-Sangha is considered the best place in the world to observe the forest elephants. No wonder this park was inscribed on the World Heritage list of UNESCO. Forest elephant is an amazing animal that looks like his brother - Savanna elephant. The role of the forest elephant in the reserve is unique: it is not only the most important link in the distribution of seeds, but damaging the branches of the trees it promotes the penetration of light to the plants and bushes of the "second tier." And of course, these cute inhabitants of the rain forest are involved in the replenishment trace elements in the soil. On the sixth day of our stay we decided to visit the forest elephants. This event was both very dangerous and also incredibly fun, at least, I can't remember when I laughed so much.

Our goal is the observation deck on the large meadow, built by scientists to monitor mammals. The soil of this place abounds in minerals so necessary for the elephants. Usually after eating the soil, forest dwellers go to the river. Rod Cassidy advised us to wear light shoes like rubber sandals as we had to cross the river and maybe walk on muddy places. The fact is to meet the forest elephants by the water is more than likely and in this case we will have to bypass them in the swamps.

We have been instructed for 10 minutes on how to behave after meeting with large mammals. Practically it all comes down to one thing: When you see an elephant - run! Run as fast as possible! In any direction - up hill and down dale. And here we start our journey. The first is the ranger, one of the pygmies ba'aka, then Rod, after him goes our guide, an expert on Africa and my great friend Andy Alt, then me and Svetlana (my best friend), and the last one is my uncle Alexander, 64-year-old traveler.

Ranger goes forward to check the route. We are cautiously, but quickly moving behind him. The weather is such amazing! The sky is clear, that in this place is very rare, because it rains most days in the year in the rainforest. Multicolored butterflies are fluttering all around us, birds are excitedly chirping, the water in the stream is gurgling. It looks like a full peace around us!

Suddenly, as if in a slow motion movie, we see a ba'aka-tracker with rubber slippers in his mouth rushing at a very high speed towards us. Lots of dirt are rebounding from him in all directions... This picture is still standing before my eyes. Rod, the first who came to his senses, yells, "Run!" But I am so enchanted by the sight of the pygmy, stay standing rooted to the spot. Then I feel how strong Andy's hands grab me and turn 180 degrees and we come across the same hypnotized Svetlana, and followed her Alexander, and to top of it all I can see my uncle with a camera in a very curious pose staring in the direction of the alleged elephant. Here my highly strung nerves fade out and I burst out with laughter. Thanks God, the elephant did not pursue our guide and turned somewhere along the way. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a happy end for us.

Generally, that day we had to sweat and run a lot from the elephants. And as for the shoes they were not clearly suitable for the races. The place that we came to was fully filled with elephants, and I had the surreal feeling of what is happening on. It seemed like I was watching it on TV and everything was happening with someone else not with me and that I wasn’t a participant of this event. Hundreds of elephants were playing in the mud, digging huge pits and fighting for them with one another, some watered themselves with water, as if out of the shower. And at that very time forest buffalos and antelopes were scurrying among them. Some groups of elephants were diverging in different directions, the other coming. This observation deck is really the best place to watch the elephants. And that adrenaline rush that we experienced on the way there was worth that sight.

In general, despite the lurking danger in the forest and the threat to catch all sorts of terrible diseases, it was worth doing this trip. I will always remember the young, good-natured ba'aka, the sunsets on the river, great fishing, endless conversations around the campfire under the open sky, the centuries-old virgin forests and beautiful animals that inhabit these places. In addition to the incredible experiences this trip gave me a lot of precious things. It taught me to be kind and considerate towards the people, regardless of their nationality, religion or race. We are all equal in the sight of the Lord God, just someone like Louis Sarno or Rod Cassidy, could understand it earlier, and someone a little later. Our world is so fragile! Every day, every hour three species of flora and fauna disappear on the Earth. Annually more than 17 million hectares of forest are cut. Just think about these figures! We have no other habitat and our planet has no other "lungs".

The further existence of such animals as mountain and lowland gorillas, forest elephants is a huge question. After all, they live in areas of military conflicts, in the places where there is lawlessness reign, where poachers are operating, where animals are killed not for satisfying hunger but for the bloody money. Little Pygmies- the defenders of the forest - can not resist the aggressive-minded world, and the great Louis Sarno absolutely defenseless against the rudeness and callousness of people eager only profit. And I'm personally convinced that in our days there are heroes such as these brilliant scientists who stay there and try to attract the world's attention to the problems in the CAR, and I hope that the beautiful pictures of unique animals will not illustrate the book about the extinct species.

P.S. We safely back in Bangui, and then immediately and without passport control flew home to Russia. I regret only one thing, that in the confusion I did not have time to say goodbye to my faithful friend Andy.

Eighteen months in the Central African Republic was a chaos. Louis Sarno, Rhode Cassidy with his family and several other scientists have been forced to leave the country. But fortunately, a year later the rebels "selectivity" were driven out of the area adjacent to national parks. Life gradually returned to its bed. Although tourists are still worry to go to Dzanga Bai, Rhode Cassidy was looking forward to the future and implementing various programs to save animals.

There were killed 26 elephants in the park Dzanga-Sangha . Fortunately, the gorillas were saved. The current situation remains fragile in the CAR. To restore the order in the country France sent a military contingent of 1.6 thousand people. However the battles take place mostly outside the capital, and Rhode reports that the life is quiet and peaceful in Bayangea. And yet, if you’ll make a decision to go to the Dzanga-Sangha Reserve, which is located in the prefecture Sangha-Mbaere, in the southern part of the country, I advise you to get there through the Congo or Cameroon.

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