Some stories from Conkouati-Douli National Park
IntroductionCentral Africa, an unknown and unreachable area for most of the people. Locals call it “the heart of darkness”, the dark tropical forest. This second largest forest of the world is spread over the countries Cameroun, Central African Republic, Democratic republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Republic Congo. We don’t know much about this forest because it’s little studied. But everyone probably heard about mountain gorillas (Rwanda), forest elephants (Dzanga-Sangha national park) or lowland gorillas (Odzala national park). Just recently scientists started showing interest in this fascinating area.
I lived in a little part of this forest for four months, a part called Conkouati-Douli national park. Supported by the Congolese organisation H.E.L.P.-Congo (Habitat Ecologique et Liberté des Primates) and his French partner H.E.L.P.-International, I had the opportunity to explore and photograph this extra-ordinary environment. A privilege because it’s the first time a nature photographer was allowed to take pictures of wild animals in this area. It turned out to be a very difficult challenge.
I started my project with help from a very useful local guide. I knew practically nothing about the forest, his habitants and the environmental conditions. It took several weeks before I was able to do my work on my own. When possible, I used equipment and information of H.E.L.P.-Congo, e.g. a little motorboat.
Most of the time the “jungle-camp” was my starting point. It’s situated in the north of “le triangle”. Sorry, did I explain already where to find this area? Well, Conkouati-Douli national park is situated in Congo- Brazzaville (Republic of Congo, Central Africa), some 100 miles north of the town Pointe-Noire. It’s a huge park of more than 5000 km2. Two little pieces of the park are under supervision of H.E.L.P.: “le sanctuaire”, three islands where sick and wounded chimpanzees can rehabilitate and “le triangle” where the chimpanzees are set free in their natural habitat. Read more about their work.
I had two goals. First shooting pics of all the food of the chimpanzees. Therefore I used the digital camera Nikon Coolpix 5700 (borrowed from Nikon). The second goal was far more interesting: shooting pics of wild nature and animals. For that I relied on my own traditional equipment (with 250 films sponsored by Metropolis Antwerp). I assure you it wasn’t an easy job. If I wanted to photograph animals... I had to find them first. The conditions weren’t perfect at all. It rains a lot in November, so it was hot and humid all the time. And moving on through this forest is a hell of a job. And don’t forget I had to carry lots of heavy equipment, imagine!
Tropical rainforestHalf past five, the first sunlight colours the fog orange, a beautiful moment but you have to get up early to see it. It’s also the perfect moment to see a lot of animals. The early hour may be romantic, it’s not pleasant at all: everything’s still wet and it’s impossible to avoid touching wet leaves and branches. A raincoat? Even at this moment of the day, it’s too hot to wear one. Later on you dry a bit... if there’s sun! Otherwise you stay wet all day. And speaking of humidity, you have to cross a lot of rivers and it’s not always possible to avoid marshes. Briefly, you’re wet most of the time but luckily it’s never cold. It’s certainly not like having a safari holiday in Kenia; it’s more like a labour camp.
This environment attracts me though. There’s always so much to discover and to photograph. The biodiversity is so enormous that you can keep on photographing endlessly. The biggest problem for photographers like me is that most of the animals live a hidden live. Even an elephant walking through the forest is difficult to see!
I’ve explored only the forest on the ground till now, but there’s so much more to discover in the canopy. I sincerely hope to do that another time...
MammalsAlthough I permanently searched for mammals for 4 months in this huge rainforest, I wasn’t able to take many pictures. During the first 2 months I searched actively for them and almost every day I saw an animal... but taking a picture of them was very difficult, sometimes impossible. The little antelope called blue duiker for example can only be spotted very early in the morning. He’s not bigger than an ordinary
dog and moves constantly in the thick bush. But when you see him, you can be sure he has seen you so he disappears almost immediately: no time for pictures. The only time one of them didn’t see me, and on top of that he almost posed for me, I hadn’t carry my equipment with me. Bollocks!
Another type of antelope is the sitatunga. It’s a very shy animal and almost impossible to spot in the wild. They spent most of their time in the marshes. I was extremely lucky to take a picture of a female, but I forgot my flash was still on. You can imagine I haven’t got a second chance. Unfortunately the result of that one picture is bad because of red eyes. A bizarre moment was when a female sitatunga came quickly in my direction. She stopped a few meters in front of me, looked up very confused and stayed approximately 5 seconds before running away. This time, you won’t believe it, she stood too close to me for taking a picture with my 400mm. It was a nice experience though: only a few people worldwide have seen a sitatunga in the wild!
It was also very difficult to take pictures of little monkeys like cercopitheques and colobus. They live high in the trees and the enormous contrast between the dark rainforest and the bright sky made it quite impossible to shoot good pictures. With a lot of luck you can see them coming down occasionally but they’re very shy because of poaching. It was difficult to come closer.
Also the very popular chimpanzee is hard to find because of his shyness. I’ve seen them regularly and managed one time to take a few pictures, while a male was eating high in a tree.
But one time is not enough: my work must be continued.
Forest elephantThere are two different kinds of elephants in Africa. Everybody knows the savanne elephant: there are plenty of them in east and south Africa and in zoos all over the world. On the other hand, forest elephants live a hidden life in the tropical forest of Central Africa. Recently scientists observed forest elephants
on the “baais” of Dzangha-Sanga national park: forest elephants are smaller, have smaller ears, smaller
and straighter tusks and are much more aggressive. Nearly every day I’ve seen elephants in the forest of Conkouati: forest as well as savanne elephants. Weird? No, sad...there’s still a lot of poaching in Congo, so savanne elephants hide themselves in the forest.
Some exciting encounters with elephants:
Today Edouard is my guide. We follow the Ngongo-river. It's early in the morning, there's a lot of fog and it's very humid. I ask Edouard if it's possible to walk first. No problem, but you have to pay attention, he says. We try to walk through water reaching just above the knees. Due to rain in the mountains, the river inundated. It's not easy to walk with filled rubber boots. Suddenly I see some movement at about ten meters in front of me. A great dark silhouette is approaching rapidly. It's an elephant and he doesn't like our company, so he attacks. Edouard and I run back as quickly as we can. But running in deep water isn't easy and on top of that I'm carrying an expensive tripod with F100 and 400mm on my shoulder, so I really don't want to fall. Luckily the elephant only did a shaw attack. We continue our way... but Edouard goes first now.
It gets more exciting when you're alone in the forest. You decide yourself what's the best thing to do when you see or hear an elephant. Once again it has rained in the mountains. The river inundates again. Today I plan to go to my platform in the primary forest but therefore I have to go through some marshes. Luckily I can avoid them because the little motorised boat of H.E.L.P. is free to use today. But still I have to walk through water. I get out of the boat and a few minutes later I see an elephant coming my way. He's relatively far away. No problem, I walk away in the other direction. But a hundred meters further another elephant comes right to me. He starts running towards me through the water. As quickly as possible I run back, also through the water. Unfortunately the other elephant is still there: I'm stuck between two elephants. I try to hide me behind a big tree, but the water reaches my belly there. In order to protect my equipment and in search of balance, I grab a liana but that wasn't a good idea. Ants start to bite me. Meanwhile the elephants are passed by. The danger is over. Still trembling of this adventure, I arrive at my platform, but an elephant stands right under it. After ten minutes a fruit falls of the tree and the elephant moves to it. Finally I can take place on my platform.
Today I'm going to my platform again. After a one hour walk, I smell the strong scent of a male elephant. I go on very carefully, searching him in the thick bush. There he is, behind several big roots. It's a big one with amazing tusks. I wait until he passes. A few hundred meters further I smell him again. He passes in front of me. I go further but a few steps later I notice he isn't alone. A female with a little one are following him. Now I have to get very careful because when there's a little one involved, the parents are much more attentive and therefore dangerous. They will defend the little one at all times by all means. So I wait and look where they're going. After a while I don't see them anymore because of the thick bush. Suddenly I hear them, just behind the bushes, not more than ten meters from me. I freeze and hope they don't smell me. When they have passed, I walk quickly and silently in the other direction.Confrontations with elephants are not always terrifying. There's an elephant visiting regularly our campsite. He likes the fresh green grass. A few days ago he annoyed me a bit. That night I had to go to the toilet very urgently. He was blocking the way and I had to pass him very closely. I forgot a bucket of water to flush. So I had to pass him again... luckily without disturbance. I've seen an elephant crossing a river several times. They have to do that in search for food. You won't expect it, but elephants are very good swimmers. Also observing elephants from my platform was very interesting. I saw one taking a fruit out of the mud and washing it first in a little bit of water before eating it. Elephants passed me that close under my platform, so it was possible to jump on their back, imagine. It was always amusing to observe them. I remember a frustrated, I guess, and aggressive one who took a little tree and smashed it on the ground. Afterwards he crushed it under his paw. At the same place I also saw a female with baby. Not that special? When you see a little elephant drinking milk from his mother... that's really fascinating. I cherish these moments with my big grey fellows.
Chimpanzees of H.E.L.P.During my first weeks in Congo the volunteers of H.E.L.P. Congo showed me their working area in the rainforest and of course 'their' chimpanzees. Before their release in the wild, the chimps spent some time on three islands in the lake of Conkouati. On one of those islands, called 'le sanctuaire', the chimps follow a rehabilitation-program. Several volunteers keep a close eye on the chimps and give them extra food twice a day because the variety of food over there is far from sufficient. H.E.L.P. Congo has the intention to set all the chimps free in their natural habitat, like the area called 'le triangle', but for some of them it's simply impossible because of a handicap or high age. All the others have a chance to survive in the wild and to live free again. When the chimps are released in the wild, the job of the volunteers is far from done. They observe the released animals as much as they can and help them when it's necessary.
I present you a day in 'le triangle':
Five 'o clock in the morning, it's still dark. The volunteers get up and prepare themselves for the job. They put some stuff in a little backpack like a transmitter, antenna and a torch. Later on some local guides arrive. At six 'o clock they leave the camp to search for chimpanzees. First they go to the place where the chimps have made their sleeping-nests the day before. When lucky, they're still there, but most of the time the volunteers have to search them with a transmitter. When the chimps are found, the volunteer and guide will observe them: every ten minutes they write down where the chimps are and what they are doing. It seems an easy job, but it rains a lot what is not very pleasant. It's also not easy to follow the chimps when they move in search of food, especially in secondary rainforest and in the marshes. Sometimes you loose them, so you have to search again with the transmitter. Obviously chimps climb in trees when they find fruit in it. It's not uncommon they climb more than 40 meters high in the tree... not easy to observe them, even when you use binoculars. At noon, a second team search the first team and relieve them. They continue the job until the chimpanzees make their sleeping nests. This work goes on every day without exception.
Western lowland gorillaAfter two weeks of holiday in the camp 'le sanctuaire', I felt ready to track down lowland gorillas. To be honest, I preferred to search them on my own, without a guide. At those moments, all my nerves were tightened and I was very focussed on details. All the noises I heard were frightening me because I simply didn't know what I was hearing. I always followed narrow paths through the bush. On one of my expeditions my heart literally stopped beating: at less than 30 meters I saw a male 'silverback' (gorilla) coming straight to me. He looked up, made a loud cry and ran away. I forgot to make a picture (quite normal, isn't it), but it was one of my most exciting moments in Congo. Although it was the second time I saw a gorilla in the wild, it still is quite frightening.
My very first encouter with a gorilla was totally unexpected. My guide Edgar and I were walking through primary forest. After crossing a one-meter deep river, Edgar heard something. He thought it was an elephant having its meal. We waited until the animal was gone, but we never saw it. Then it became very quiet in the forest and we continued our way. Suddenly a big gorilla jumps out of a tree while making a lot of noise, at approximately 30 meters from us. Luckily the gorilla ran away. In a glimp I saw two other gorilla's in another tree. Although my camera was ready for use, I forgot to take a picture in the excitement of the moment. After one and a half months in the rainforest, this was the first time I saw a gorilla in the wild.
The first three picturesAfter several encounters with gorillas, I still didn't manage to take a picture. So I decided to try it otherwise. Fallen trees over the Ngongo-river are useful as natural bridges for primates like chimpansees, mandrills and gorillas. They use those 'bridges' because they can't swim. On 30 meters of one of those bridges, I made a sort of hide in the marantaceae. The hours waiting passed rapidly because there's always something interesting to see. But unfortunately no sign of primates on the bridge... Meanwhile, I got some company of little sweatbees. They don't bite, but they crawl into every hole in your head. The sun also warmed up my hiding place, so it started to feel like a sauna. At last I saw some movement in the bushes on the other side of the river. I took my camera and waited patiently. But then I saw it were the volunteers Luisa, Erik and the little chimp Louzelo. I didn't know they also use this bridge. My hiding proved to work well because they didn't notice me. The next day I looked up my hide again. The day started with a lot of sun, but several hours later, a few short but heavy thunderstorms passed. Luckily I had tightened my poncho very well so it resisted the rain. After the sun arrived again, it has been very quiet for the rest of the day and still... no movement on the bridge. After three days in my hiding place, I was getting a little bit tired. It was extremely hot and humid. A lot of sweatbees and mosquito's annoyed me all the time. At 4 o'clock in the afternoon, I woke up abruptly. A gorilla was standing on the bridge. He looked around to see if it was safe to cross. I succeeded to take my first pictures of a gorilla crossing the bridge. I had no more than 10 seconds to do it, because he disappeared rapidly into the forest.
More gorilla'sI wasn't satisfied with only three pictures of a gorilla. Carmen told me that the moabe-tree had fruits at the moment: delicious food for gorillas and other animals. She told me where to find such trees: I had to walk two hours to reach them. I decided to make a hiding place on the ground. While waiting, an elephant searching for the same fruit passed me at less than ten meters. He didn't see me, but nevertheless it was ￼￼￼￼ so scary that I started to construct a platform in a tree with a little bit of wood and rope ten meters above the ground. Not that easy because I had to do it alone. It was worth the effort... during my first day at the platform I saw six different elephants. It was a pleasure to see them eating without any disturbance. These were unforgettable observations. The third day in the morning, I saw some movement in the bushes. I though it had to be an elephant again. It wasn't an elephant, but a wild chimpansee, followed by five others. They moved slowly to the right spot for me to take perfect pictures but suddenly they stopped and ran away. A few minutes later a big elephant arrived, he probably scared the chimps. One hour later a big gorilla passed behind me. During hours I heard regularly the sounds of chimps and gorillas. I was sure I chose the right place. At three o'clock pm a male gorilla arrived silently under 'my' tree. He took a fruit, sat down and started to eat. He was only about forty meters away from me. I took a first picture, hoping he didn't hear the shutter. He didn't react, so I took some more. After having his meal, he went away. I was already very excited but it wasn't over yet. Half an hour later, another one arrived. This time it was a big male 'silverback'. Very impressing and scary too, it was the first time I was able to observe this fascinating and huge animal at close range. Unfortunately he sat partly behind a tree so it was impossible to take good pictures. When he moved in search for more fruit he came very close to me. He gave a loud cry and ran away. Probably he had seen or smelled me, I'll never know. The fifth day on the platform, I heard a gorilla beating his chest from time to time. They were still in the neighbourhood. At 3 o'clock, two female gorillas showed up with little kids on their back. I got very nervous, especially when the father, a huge 'silverback' arrived too. But I took a lot of pictures and had the opportunity to observe a gorilla-family during half an hour at close range. It was unforgettable, too beautiful to describe.
BirdsWhoo, whoo, ... I looked up and saw two big birds flying over. They chose a place high in the trees and started to make lots of noise. I took my binoculars and saw two hornbills. A fascinating animal in the beginning but when you see them daily, they become common. On the other hand I nearly failed to photograph them because they're always high in the trees. But one time on one of my platforms, I heard them coming. They landed on a dead branch, not very far from me and through an opening in the leaves I was able to take a few pictures. Another big and fascinating bird is the turaco. It's more beautiful and is blue-coloured. They like to eat fruits, so they also live high in the trees. The forest is full of other interesting birds like kingfishers and hummingbirds. Also birds of prey, like the palm vulture and fish eagle, are present here. I've seen and heard the grey parrot very often, but I haven't had the opportunity to photograph them: too shy and too fast. The pictures I took of birds are all made with a lot of luck. I didn't make hides and as a result I haven't had many opportunities to make pictures. But when you want to work with hides, you have to know where to find all these birds. Not easy, believe me.
ReptilesYou expect to see a lot of reptiles in this hot and humid environment. Two possibilities: there are not as much reptiles here as I thought or they hide themselves extremely well. I had some encounters though.
One day in my hide on the border of the river I was waiting until a primate passes over the bridge. No movement over there but suddenly I saw something crawling in the bushes on the other side of the river. It started to climb a tree. On first sight I thought it was a big snake. After seeing the head of the animal, I hesitated, but then I saw clearly the body with paws: yes, it must be a big lizard. I turned my camera very quickly towards the lizard and took several pictures. He stayed for the rest of the day in that tree. Even after seven years in the jungle here the responsible of the camp never saw a lizard climbing in a tree, she heard about it though. Now I can prove it. The next morning the lizard is still there. He came down the tree, followed the border of the river for several meters and traversed it right in front of me. Lucky me, shooting a reptile in the wild was never easier.
Another interesting but very dangerous reptile is the black mamba, one of the most poisonous snakes of the world. My guide and I were actually following quietly a group of mandrils, when a snake crawled quickly in front of us towards a hiding place under a trunk. I decided to look for him. First I saw a little piece of his body, then he moved a bit and I saw his head. He looked viciously at me and I withdrew a bit.
I took a picture but my guide pulled me back. He told me which snake we're dealing with and that he was ready to attack. I was happy to have my guide with me at that moment. We went on searching for mandrils. Afterwards I was disappointed to notice that the picture of the black mamba failed and unfortunately I never encountered another one.
Another very poisonous species is the "Bitis Nasicornis", a kind of viper. After a day on my platform I went back to the camp and suddenly I heard some noise. It sounded like someone breathing. Because I'm not familiar with the sound, I stopped walking to search the animal first. It was a well-camouflaged snake at about 3 meters away from me. He was more than one meter long and as thick as my leg. I took some pictures but very carefully, because I immediately knew the snake was poisonous. He had a triangular head, a clear characteristic of poisonous snakes. Later on Carmen told me I had seen a "gabon viper", very rare and difficult to see in the wild. I'm glad I worked very carefully because now I know one single bite of this cutie is mortal for a human. Afterwards a specialist told me it wasn't a "gabon viper", but a close relative and equally mortal: the "bitis nasicornis".I also encountered turtles living only in primary forest.