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First month FAQs (Part 1)

After one month here in Central Africa, Eeva and I are both alive and well. Eeva’s viral infection has recovered fully and we are both settling into our new lives in the rainforest.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, we are are working as Field Assistants for WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) on their Primate Habituation Programme in the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, in the Central African Republic.

While some of you might understand that string of words straight away, I appreciate that to others it might sound a little convoluted. I have a series of blog posts lined up over the months which will explore all of the topics and will answer some of the questions that probably arise. What are primates? What is habituation? Where is Dzanga-Sangha? Where is the Central African Republic? What is the point of all this?

But for now, and because it is just the beginning and I know there will be family and friends out there who are interested in this stuff, I will just attempt to answer a couple more mundane, day-to-day questions. A kind of “FAQs” from our first month.

As this update has ended up being quite a bit longer than I first expected, I’ve spilt this over three posts which I’ll post over the next couple of days.

What does a Field Assistant do?

Our primary role is to collect data about the behaviour of the Lowland Gorilla. This includes what they do minute to minute, where they go, what they eat, who they interact with and what their health is like. No-one knows exactly how many Gorillas are here in Dzanga, but it is probably hundreds, possibly over a thousand. There are three habituated, or semi habituated, groups within an hour or so of camp (in a nutshell, habituated means that they will accept a nearby human presence) and so these three groups are the ones that we study. We pretty much watch them all day and write down everything that they do. This data is used to further understanding of their behaviour, their societies and their requirements. That advanced understanding can be used to better protect them in a increasingly dangerous world.

We also have a handful of other responsibilities that will be added to our job role as time goes on. These might be assisting with the logistics of camp management, working on special scientific research projects or helping out with the eco-tourism operation here – generally anything to support the WWF’s activity in Dzanga-Sangha.

Where do we live?

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), Lowland Gorillas live in extremely remote forest habitats in the Congo Basin. Just existing out here in the rainforest is a fairly challenging, time consuming process in itself. The National Park is located in the south western tip of the Central African Republic (CAR) near a village called Bayanga. CAR is arguably one of the poorest, least stable countries on the African continent, but more about that in future posts. For those of you who are a fan of maps, the forest camp that we live in is located here:

We live in a simple wooden hut in the camp. There around 25-30 other people here: 3 Field Assistants, 5 Research Assistants and 20+ Trackers (all from the local BaAka pygmy tribe, again, more about them in future blog posts!). We are the only non-Africans here. Our camp is located 30 km from the edge of the forest (around two hours drive). The small village just outside the forest called Bayanga is where our supplies come from and we go once a month for some down-time (and to use the internet).

Our forest camp is called Bai Hokou and is one of three camps in the forest. The Bai part of the name means a “forest clearing”. These are natural clearings and there is one right next to our camp. These clearings occur because of very high concentrations of minerals in the soil, which stop trees and other vegetation from taking hold. These minerals in turn attracts huge numbers of animals who come to mine the salts and drink the nutrient rich water. The most famous Bai is 10km away and is called Dzanga Bai. This clearing has featured on a number of nature documentaries (most recently in the “Congo” episode of the BBC’s David Attenborough series “Africa”), where hundreds of elephants can be seen in one go. We hope to visit Dzanga Bai in the next couple of months, so I will post photos etc. For now, here is a quick picture of Bai Hokou (this view is 2 mins walk from our door  – more pictures coming in the next week or so):

DSCN0793

The Dzanga forest is in a National Park called the Dzanga-Sangha National Park and is part of a “protected area” called the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas. This is part of an even bigger “protected area” called the Sangha River Tri-National Protected Area (TNS), which spans the borders of three countries, the Central African Republic, The Republic of the Congo and Cameroon.

The TNS is the second largest area of protected tropical rainforest anywhere in the world and has the highest density of mammalian forest life on the planet. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and can quite fairly be described as a natural wonder of the world.

Purely from the physical geography, the location of the camp is pretty damn remote, but this is made all the more isolated by the political situation in the Central African Republic. I’ll post more about this in future posts, but it is far to say that it is a very unstable country, having just emerged from a long and bloody period of sectarian violence last year. Depending on the measures that are used it is arguably the poorest, most corrupt and most unstable country in Africa. Needless to say this adds a number of security / logistical challenges to life out here.

What is the weather like?

We are 200 km or so from the Equator and so the weather is, as you would expect, tropical. It is hot (around 30°C) and it is exceptionally humid (about 90-95% humidity, which means that everything is damp, pretty much all the time: your clothes, your bedsheets, any paper etc. nothing seems to ever be properly dry). The weather is more or less the same throughout the year, but we are just coming out of the rainy season when it rains (heavily) pretty much every day. There are some cracking thunderstorms. We now get three months of dry weather, before it starts raining again.

Post continued in Part 2…

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Having an "office job" isn't so bad when occasionally your desk is a speedboat on a Congo river. Everyday wonders of the rainforest #4 Multi-coloured, giant grasshoppers. It's caterpillar season in the Congo Basin, which means that there is seasonal speciality on the menu. This photo was taken in a local market. Dinner anyone?
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