Leaving Mondika

Three days ago we left Mondika. It wasn’t easy. The day before that, Julia and I went to see Kingo and family for the last time (in 2010- I like to say). We spent the afternoon following Kingo, then around 15:30 I started with Mbolo to go seeing all members, one after the other. First we saw Emilie, then we encountered Mama, who was difficult to find for the last days of work, and then we went to Ugly. She looked at us, and then continued to feed, with Kenga climbing up and down her. She was nice, no aggressive vocs, just looking at me. When I walked away, a mixture of feelings invaded me, among all sadness of not seeing her anymore and happyness to see her so much calm and not fearful anymore.
After that we heard a strange noise as a rhythmic tam tam. Knowing it was Kusu, but very curious to see how he was doing that noise we approached him. He was playing alone with a big Marantacee leave, putting it between his clapping hands. It used three different leaves, and then used the same leaves to make his napping nest. It was hilarious and put us again in a good mode. Coming back we went to see Mekome and Ekendi , who were sleeping close where Kingo was too. Then was Julia turn to see females and infants. When was the time to go back to camp, we both had the chance to see all members.

We then, went to Bayanga for the last time to see all tracker families. We slept at the Shanga Lodge a fantastic place on the river, quite and still “in the forest”. We visited BaiHokou where we met another gorilla group, Makumba. The visit was great, the gorilla group is extremely well habituated, and trackers and assistants well prepared. The forest is much more open than that at Mondika, and hillier I would say, it was extremely interesting to see how different can be the forest. We have been told that in the area there are also much more elephants.
After the morning at BAiHokou we went to say good bye to Andrea at the Dzanga Bai. There were many elephants, sitatunga and finally for Julia also same bongos. The same night a forest spirit was dancing in Moussapola and we went there to spend some time with our trackers, the dancing was amazing. The day after I bought some food and palm wine and we ate all together listening to music.

We are now starting the traveling back to Brazzaville to take our international flights. I want to thank all the people and organizations that made the collection data for this project possible. First of all, Diane Doran-Sheehy, my advisor, Richard Leakey, Leakey Foundation, Primate Action Fund, Wildlife Direct and Wildlife Conservation Society, especially Patrice Mongo, Mondika Director.

A special thanks goes to all our readers and donors of Gorilla Sound blog, who helped to increase the monthly salary of our trackers. As you know their work is essential in Mondika. They took great care of Julia and me in the forest, protecting us from any potential danger. They learn to use microphone, cameras and camcorders. They understood the importance of some specific data for me and they were always telling me if something interesting happened and we were not there. They shared their impressions on gorilla behaviors as well as their knowledge of the forest with us. I would like to name them all: Mangombe, Mamandele, Mongambe, Kete Mokonjo, Dona, Zomela, Mkpeta, Mbolo, Samedi, Bakombo, Zalague, Mopeto, Mapoko, Nye Buka, Kamo, Fini Samedi, Moyekele, Makiso, Mangua, Goli, Mbeko, Kenga, Bakanga.

Gorilla’s hugging

Hugging is used by humans to express love and concern for others. It seems gorillas use this behaviour the same way. The other day Mekome and Ekendi became separated from the group. The others were feeding over 200 metres away. It didn’t seem to upset Mekome too much but Ekendi began to call and call getting more hysterical. I’ve seen Ekendi do this before, he will be with one parent but will start hysterically calling the other parent, even though he can see Kingo or Mekome and they will respond to him so he knows he isn’t lost. Finally Kingo and Kusu came to “rescue” Ekendi and the first thing Kusu did was rush up and put his arms around Ekendi. And yesterday Kingo charged Mekome. Ekendi was with Kingo and when Kingo was standing next to Mekome with all his hair bristling and she was cowering on the ground, Ekendi rushed up to Mekome and, you guessed it, hugged her. It always amazes me when I see gorillas expressing behaviours that we as humans so readily identify with.

Know when to walk away . . .

. . . Know when to run. Kenny Rogers was talking about playing cards but its equally applicable to collecting data. Yesterday was one huge data collection disaster. The day started off fine, we found Kingo. Roberta went off with her tracker to find Ugly, the first female of the day. Since Kingo is so far away from camp by the time we find him in the morning we have to start data collection really quickly or we run out of time to do two hours for each follow. No females were close to Kingo. We saw Fini but she quickly ran away. Roberta found Mama. Then no one. Then she saw Emilie and Mekome but they were even further away. After an hour and a half they gave up searching for Ugly and started on another female, we’d only manage one data point for the morning. We eventually found Ugly far away from Kingo and far away from the other females who were feeding as a group. Part of my data collection is to record the proximity of the females. While going on a control I was following my tracker and suddenly there was this massive explosion of pain on my forehead. My tracker turns round and sees me and says run run, I was standing underneath a wasp nest and about to get stung by millions of them. Luckily all I got was that one because that was the most painful sting I’ve ever had. I spent the rest of the morning thinking “Is my tongue swelling up? Has the side of my face gone numb?” it was that painful. Or maybe I’m just a wuss. And then Kingo was acting skittish because the females were far ahead and going towards a bokoko fruit tree where Roberta and her tracker found traces of other gorillas. He charged Mekome. He charged Mkpeta and Roberta twice. He charged Mekome again so viciously that everyone was screaming and Mekome turned round and chased him back screaming and trying to hit him. Which actually looked hysterical, first we saw Kingo running after her in one direction then 10 seconds later he’s running back in the other direction being chased by her.

We were scheduled to do all day. Time is running out for data collection so we had this feeling “no we have to keep on going!”. After stopping for lunch the other team of trackers hadn’t yet turned up to relieve the morning team so we push on, the morning team starting to do the afternoon follows. The females were all ahead of Kingo again. When the afternoon team turned up we had to locate each other by calling since I was working with a female far ahead in the Ebuka. Roberta came on the radio and said “Stop calling, Kingo is getting mad again.” So we stopped calling but the afternoon team was still calling us but since we had no radio communication with them my tracker starts doing shut up come here whistles to them but it didn’t sound like they were hearing them. Then out of the corner of my eye I see a flash of silver and its Kingo charging through the ebuka and once again he charges Mekome. By this stage it was one o’clock and it was quickly clouding over with ominous thunder clouds. Stung, charged, behind on data collection, working with a silverback who was clearly very mad at everyone, about to get rained on, we decided to call it a day and head back to the camp.

Is Mekome jealous?

We have previously written about Ekendi being “best friends” with Emilie. The other day I was following Emilie in the ebuka thickets. Mama, Mekome and Ekendi were all close by. Then Emilie lay down to have a nap. Ekendi came and lay down next to her. Mekome was feeding maybe ten metres away. Emilie was sleeping on the side of one of the ebuka tunnels. I could see Mekome moving towards us. Then Mekome starts running towards Emilie and she grabs a large branch that was lying on the ground and swipes at Emilie’s head as she goes past. Emilie sits up. Ekendi sees what happens and gets up and follows Mekome. I have no idea what caused Mekome to do that, earlier on in the day she’d been charged by Kingo so it could’ve been redirected aggression; but I think she was sending Emilie a message: Stay away from my son!!!

Sexual politics in Kingo’s group.

Recently Kingo has been having sex with several of his females, but not, curiously, with Emilie. When Fini lost her baby she was having sex with Kingo within one week. It has been well over a month and since Emilie lost her baby and she still hasn’t had sex with Kingo.

Fini has been trying to have sex with Kingo. She has problems because in order to have sex with Kingo she has to be close to him, being close to him means being close to us and she’s still not too sure about us. She has only been in Kingo’s group for a year and half so she is self-habituating, but slowly. Anyway she spent some time unsucessfully soliciting sex from Kingo. He was really tired that morning so was sleeping. She started off lying down about two metres from him and slowly inched her way closer and closer to him and asking for sex but he wasn’t interested. Then later on in the day Kingo decided he did want to have sex with her and was asking for it and she decided she didn’t want to and ran away!!

Kusu and Ekendi are always fascinated when Kingo has sex. When Kingo finally did have sex with Fini, Kusu ran up to see what was happening. Fini was copulating face to face so her arms and legs were wrapped around Kingo’s back. Kusu runs up and was trying to pull her legs off Kingo’s back, then he reached right under Kingo to try and find out exactly what was happening!

Mama has been having sex with Kingo. We think that Mama may be pregnant but that doesn’t seem to be stopping her. Its all a bit speculative because female gorillas always have large stomachs due to their fermentation digestive processes. Gorillas in captivity are fed specially designed biscuits and less leaves so they often lack the large stomachs seen in their wild counterparts. So we have the dates she has previously had sex with Kingo – she could be just about to give birth or maybe only five months pregnant – the fact her stomach does look bigger than usual – and her behaviour. Normally Mama is one of the calmest females and lately she’s been not very tolerant of our presence. She can also spend four hours eating termites, which seems to us to reflect the food obsessions pregnant humans get.

Anyway the other day Mama was trying to initiate sex with Kingo and Mekome comes along. Female dominance hierarchies in Western Lowland Gorillas are subtle but they do exist. Mama is the top female but Mekome is hot on her heels, and one day, may manage to knock Mama off her perch. So Mekome very slinkily walks between Mama and Kingo waggling her behind in a most seductive way and “steals” Kingo off Mama. Later in the afternoon the couple had sex again, Mama was still close but this time didn’t ask for it and walked away when mekome and Kingo did it again.

Equipment review!

Our data collection is coming to an end. We are extremely thankful for all your support and help during all this time. We would like to give some advises and reviews of the equipment we used in the field to people who will start soon their own project.

Computer. There are many good computers that work perfectly for extreme fieldwork conditions. Unfortunately these computers are quite expensive and I couldn’t buy any of those. I choose Lenovo T400, with a long life battery (9 hours), which worked well for the first 9 months. My mistake, when I received it the screen sometimes was shacking strangely. If I turned off and on again the problem disappeared. Well, as you can imagine I receive it too late (grant related problem) and I was worry that if I send it back to be checked, then I would not receive it back in time. After nine months it crashed. It didn’t switch on anymore. I couldn’t send it anywhere, thus I tried with a local technician, who couldn’t do anything. I’m still protecting the computer in a dry box hoping to be able to recover the data and programs stored in the hard drive when I will be back. This was my mistake, be sure to have time enough to check all the equipment, and bring with you external hard drives (I did it and saved my life!) and why not another small computer (no more than $300) in case something bad happens to the other…

This wonderful software allowed us to record fast and precise behavioral data. The software is free, you just have to explain how it will be used. It is extremely simple to use, you can create your own database and your data collection sequence. At the same time other data are automatically associated to any data entry as, for example: GPS positions, bearings, time, date, observers, trackers, and so on. It can be installed in several models of PDAs or other Windows devices. You will also not loose any data, even if something happens to your computer or PDA’s. Cybertracker stores automatically your data, and backs it up as well.
Where you can find it: http://www.cybertracker.co.za
The people working for Cybertracker are extremely helpful, I contact them several times, since my knowledge of electronic stuff is really zero, and they answered me every time not only when I had serious issued, but also when I needed answer to very simple questions. A special thanks goes to Louis Liebenbergall and Carike Pepler

The biggest problem to use PDAs for fieldwork has been always the time of battery life, and preciseness of the GPS position. Well, Trimble Company has resolved all these issues. Trimble built several devises extremely precise and waterproof for any range of prices. I bought 2 Trimble Juno, since my budget didn’t allow me to buy the most sophisticated and accurate PDA-GPS of the same brand. Juno worked perfectly. It gave mostly less than 10m of error in GPS position (and if you have money you should absolutely buy the antenna, which will give the opportunity of reduce the error to 3meters, if your data need to be so precise). The battery last for 15 hours, thus not bad at all!! If you need longer life battery, for example if you do transect in the forest for weeks with no access to any power source, you should buy more batteries and maybe a portable solar panel for recharging them in the forest.
I bought them from Waypoint Technology Group, Jonathan Cobb, my seller person, has been very helpful, always present and extremely effective when I really needed help.

Imrasat BGAN terminal and Mackaysatellite provider.
We could send pictures and videos (at least until my computer crashed) and upload our blog, using the best satellite option, the BGAN. Yes, is a little expensive, but gave the possibility to send big files and work perfectly everywhere. At Mondika we used in the past several others satellite connections (Turaya, Iridium), but none worked so well as BGAN did. Under any sky condition, it was always perfectly connected. The transfer of data is exceptionally fast.

The only problem I encountered were dealing with the provider, that unfortunately, I chose.
1. They sent me the antenna without testing it. In fact when it arrived I tried and didn’t work. I contact them and with the help of the technician (very helpful person) we couldn’t figure out what was the problem. Well I sent back the unit, the technician discovered that they didn’t unblock the sim (how can you forget….they told me that they didn’t know that BGAN Imrasat blocked the new sims…..who should know if not them???). In addition, the unit that came back didn’t work properly anymore. The switch on/off power button didn’t work and since the unit came back 2 days before I was leaving for Congo, I had to leave like this, and for the entire year and more I had to close it taking off the battery. When I told them the problem, they just wash their hands saying that maybe happens something during the transportation……mmh.. who should be still responsible???
2. The problems didn’t finish. The person I made the contract with, left the company in the middle of my contract. When we talked at the beginning she ensured me that after 1 year of contract I could use the unit for other three months without signing another contract for a year and paying a monthly fee and the MB I will use. Well, the contract was going to end and someone else from the office sent (to an e-mail address that I couldn’t check regularly, when I told them to use a specific e-mail address for any important communication) that the 2 year will start automatically in a week. I became furious. After a week of exchanging e-mails, no solution seemed to be possible until they propose me what I agreed at the beginning. I have to thank Kate Lauther to find a solution that allowed us to use the connection for the last three months.

Generator Yamaha
Since at Mondika there is not electricity and for my project I had to charge a lot of stuff, I brought a generator I could trust and also transport from the USA. Yamaha EF1000iS is great! It weights just 12 kg, less noisy, very practical, it gave us hours and hours of power. The only problem is to find gas not mixed with oil in the part of Africa we are. Bring with you few spark plugs, buy in a big city good oil for it, and you should be fine. The other thing is the generator is designed to run on unleaded gas which isn’t available here. It works fine on leaded but the air filters go black really fast.

Marantz PMD671
To record the gorilla calls, we used one of the best field recorders. It’s not so small as the more simple models of the Marantz, but has several features that were very helpful. It runs with normal AA batteries, but also with rechargeable NI-MH batteries. The recharger worked very well, but it takes around 3 hours to charge them again. You can also use the actual recorder to charge them.
For microphones go for Sennehiser, they are really good in the field!

Bring with you enough silica gel and dry boxes to store everything, it will make last all your equipment for all the necessary time you will leave in a very humid and hot climate.

I hope this post will be of use for those are willing to start their projects somewhere. Have fun and enjoy the forest and its animals!

Gorillas and other animals (1. antelope)

Sorry for the delay of this post, we had few problems with the satellite antenna these last weeks!! Here is the Kingo story about encounter with other animals…
Few days ago, all members of Kingo’s group were sleeping after a morning of traveling around “gathering” bokoko and nguluma fruits. I was sitting close to Mekome with the microphone ready to record any vocalization of her or Ekendi, while Julia was close to Kingo. For the data collection, she control the activity of all members at constant intervals, so with Fini Samedi she start to look for Fini, who was not in sight as the others. They decide to go around 20-30 meters from the center of the group, in the nearby ebuka. Well, at one point Fini Samedi show a big antelope sitting in the thicket to Julia who wants to get a picture. The beautiful animal was surely resting too, and was extremely surprise to see those two biped primates coming close. He/She looked at them for a while and then, before Julia could take a picture, decided to run away. The poor animal ran towards Mpketa and me. Of course as soon it realized changed direction and headed towards Kingo, for then change again. In the meantime all gorillas stand up, scared by the sudden strong noise of a running animal. All in travel-pose, trying to get was going on ready to fly if it was an elephant or another more dangerous animal…but all still with sleepy faces…it was hilarious. After seeing the antelope, they stood few more minutes checking the area for then going back to sleep (the night before there has been a lot of rain, that I doubt they slept at all!!).
In other cases I saw Kingo bark, his alarm call, after specific calls of other animals. Many monkey species react in specific way to other species alarm calls (i.e. see guenon interspecific alarm calls), but react to other completely different species is quite rare. Humans, for example hunters and gathers societies have learn to find honey following specific birds. Some of the Baihaka associate danger to many other alarm calls, especially of birds which normaly call if they see snakes. This month we will try some playbacks to see if the reaction we observed is really caused from those calls, if the experiment works we will let you know more about.

Deliberate deception in gorillas???

Its starting to be the fruit season. Fruit is by far the preferred food of Western Lowland Gorillas. However, when it comes to fruit feeding Kingo is the definitely the mean one. He will charge and be aggressive to the females and the infants if they are eating fruit close to him. So you will often see Kingo sitting there with his arms full of fruit surrounded by females who are not eating. As soon as Kingo leaves the females will begin to feed.

However sometimes it looks like the females and Kusu and Ekendi will deliberately try to deceive Kingo. Of course we are in no position to speculate on gorillas thought processes but that’s what it looks like to us.

Mama will sit next to Kingo eating something else such as leaves but will be quietly gathering fruit and hiding it in her feet. Ekendi will run round Kingo doing little twirls and quickly picking up fruit and then sitting with his back towards to Kingo. Kusu will pick up fruit and then ‘hide’ behind us to eat it. That’s a technique that I’m not particularly happy with. Kusu isn’t really a subtle eater and I think Kingo won’t hesitate to charge us when he works out what’s happening. We’ve been lucky so far. Mekome and Ugly will eat fruit ever so slowly and quietly you can hardly tell they are doing it at all. Emilie, I think, has given up and will often be sleeping close to Kingo surrounded by fruit.

This seems to be a personality trait of Kingo. With our huge sample size of two, Buka, the silverback of the group being habituated, seems to be quite happy to let everyone eat fruit.

Kingo tries to land on my head.

So we were following Kingo and nothing much exciting was happening. He’d slept for about 40 minutes and now was wandering around feeding. At that point he was sitting up on a small hill and Kamo and I were at the base of it recording the data. Kingo went over to a small tree and climbed up it. He has this trick where he will climb up small trees and hold on to the top then ‘fall out’ bending the tree down. It looks really amazing when he does it. But this time we look up and we can see Kingo ‘falling’ out of the tree directly onto us. Seeing 200 pounds of silver back coming down towards you is quite impressive, but kind of scary. So we scrambled to get out of the way but of course we were still too close to Kingo’s food and he then grunted at us. Like it was our fault he decided to try and land on us! Then later on that day Kingo was sleeping on the ground next to a tree that all his females were up feeding. Roberta was collecting data on a female who was up the tree and was 10m from Kingo. We all thought Kingo was sleeping peacefully when thump! A female knocked a fruit down from the tree and it landed behind Roberta. And Kingo was up and on his feet and grunting at Roberta to get out of the way in one fluid motion that took about 1/64 of a second. It was pure poetry in motion but so quick that I’m sure it gave Roberta a bit of a fright. Anyway its always important to remember that Kingo is always aware of whats happening around him when he sleeps, especially if it involves food!!

There are no secrets in the forest.

Kingo has been using the far extreme of his home range recently. He doesn’t often go up so far. The paths are all overgrown with no marker ribbons and sometimes the trackers who have been here for 8 years even have trouble remembering which path is which and where it goes. We spent one afternoon when we were coming back switching between two paths as the trackers were discussing which one was the one that went back to camp. One day I was working with three trackers, two were going to stay and do all day and I was going to come back with one around 11.30. I was coming back with the newest tracker (who had just started working here a month ago). One of the other trackers took us to the start of a path and said ok go down Celio until it gets to old camp and then you go down old camp until you get to the camp site. So we go down this path and its quite overgrown and then there are some other paths crossing it and somehow we get off the path we were on and onto another and then we come across this marker ribbon that says Ndoki. Hmmmm. So we look at each other and Makesso says ‘Ok lets keep going this way and see if it crosses another path. So we keep going down the path but it doesn’t cross any other so we go back to the marker ribbon and try another direction and this ends at a swamp. So we go back to the marker ribbon again and try the other direction and get on a path and start walking. So we were temporarily misplaced. Not lost because the trackers will always be able to get you back to camp, we just didn’t really know where we were in relation to where we were supposed to be. But by this time we are walking parallel to the Mondika river so we are heading back to camp. We walk and walk and then suddenly Makesso sees a branch lying across the path blocking the intersection with another path. And he says “Oh I know where we are now, I put this branch here weeks ago when we were working with Kingo that path going off there is Banga this was the day when . . .” so we were on Old Camp and still ages from the campsite but exactly where we wanted to be. So we got back to camp and I didn’t say anything about us getting ‘temporarily misplaced’ because I was never worried about us actually being lost and it wasn’t his fault because he hasn’t been here long enough to know all the paths.

Anyway at about 5.30pm the other two trackers come back. As usual I asked them how the rest of the day went. One of them says ‘Kingo crossed Ndoki path today’ Uh-oh I think. ‘Yeah’ says the other. ‘And we saw Julia’s bootprints. What the heck were you guys doing on Ndoki?’ Busted!!!