On our second morning at Lango we set off early into the bai. It was very misty which gave the place a mysterious feel. Everything around Lango is accessed by walking through the bai.
“The answer is simple. If we lose the world’s forests, we lose the fight against climate change. Rainforests are our Earth’s greatest utility – our planet’s lungs, thermostat and air-conditioning system.” ~ Michael Somare
This particular morning we set off towards Bongo saline in the hopes of seeing one or more Bongos and Red river hogs. Sadly our hopes were not fulfilled as we saw neither. The particular area of the bai we walked in was to find a rare antelope called Bongo. I am not sure why it was called a saline but I presume it had a geomorphological origin and was probably the more saline section of the bai.
The Bongo is an antelope of the genus Tragelaphus which are spiral horned antelopes. They are in the same family as the Greater Kudu, Mountain Nyala and Sitatunga. The Bongo is a large solidly built antelope not too much smaller than an Eland. The Bongo is a nocturnal ungulate and browses on leaves, bushes, bark, pith of rotting trees, grasses, roots, and fruits. Bongos require salt in their diet so come into the salines to eat the mineral rich soil for the same reason the green pigeons and parrots.
Our walk to the Bongo saline was along the waterways in the bai which the wildlife use. These underwater paths are firm underfoot from years of wildlife traffic. Although misty, it was warm and so humid. When we went for our walks around the Lango bai area we were accompanied by a Congo Conservation eco guide, Mathieu.
The mist was thick and only lifted quite late in the morning. It gave an altogether more mysterious sense to the place.
As you can see moving away from the game trails involved getting through thick mud, the kind of depth mud that wants to suck your shoes off your feet.
Ann got well and truly stuck on occasions and lost her shoes deep in the mud which Mathieu managed to find each time. Just as well because there were thickets of thorn bushes at the edge of some of these muddy patches. Getting stuck led to all sorts of comments and great humour.
“Bais are an inbetween place in the forest. Not forest, not savanna but rather swamp lands. This inbetween place reveals some of the forests secrets. It is a feeding and gathering place for many creatures in the forest community. It displays a blaze of greens, spiced with swirls of multi-coloured wings. You can wander through these bais along elephant boulevards. Here you are a visitor.”~ Mike Haworth
Once we got onto an “elephant boulevard” it was easy walking. Although you walked through the water it was firm underfoot. The “elephant boulevards” have been formed over hundreds of years of elephants walking in and out of the bai.
A bush lily on the verge of the elephant boulevard.
The “elephant boulevard” can be quite wide in places but sticks to the central sand paths. If you stray to the edges you are likely to sink calf or knee deep in mud. One of the things I love about the bush is that the locals come up with romantic expressions to describe some of the features of the area such as “elephant boulevards”, it is highly evocative.
The elephants seem to play a similar role in the Odzala rainforest that the hippos do in the Okavango delta. They create waterways and game trails which other wildlife follow. These game trails also seem to function like streams and help drain areas of the forest. These “elephant boulevards” also attract plant life which seek the sun such as the plant below which I think looks like an ipomoea or morning glory creeper.
“The more we urbanise, the more we grow out of touch with the natural systems and rhythms. The more we leave libraries of natural intelligence undiscovered. It is only in adventures back into the wilds we reignite our senses and become spellbound by the wonder and beauty of mother nature’s community.” ~ Mike Haworth
As you walk along these “elephant boulevards” you expect to see a forest elephant or forest buffalo or one of the antelopes any moment step out from around the corner. Like all game trails they do not follow a straight line but meander through the forest.
These Swamp lilies made a colourful display along the “elephant boulevard”, nature’s natural colourful garden.
For part of the walk we wandered through the close canopy forest. This was one of the immense African Greenheart trees which reach heights of 40 to 50 metres and have their characteristic large buttresses at their base. These buttresses can extend out over four metres. It is a sight to behold to look up into such a large old member of the forest community.
After walking through the dry closed canopy forest for a while we came to this waterway. This was the way back to Lango camp.
Later in the morning the mist cleared and the sun came out. The air was still and the reflection in the water was perfect.
“I see the day in our own lifetime that reverence for the natural systems, the oceans, the rainforests, the soil, the grasslands, and all other living things will be so strong that no narrow ideology based upon politics or economics will overcome it.” ~ Jerry Brown
We walked waist deep along this water way for about a hundred or so metres. It was exquisitely beautiful.
At the end of the waterway walk we disturbed a forest buffalo bull who was munching on some succulent vegetation below the water surface.
He stood and looked at us for a few seconds wondering what to do then bolted for the water’s edge at which point he stopped to turn around and have one last look at us.
Our morning walk did not serve up Bongos or Red river hogs but it was a fascinating and a beautiful, mysterious walk through the elephant boulevards, closed canopy forest, waterways and the thick mist and sunshine.
After exiting the waist deep waterway and short walk through the forest the path opened out onto the bai giving us a wonderful view of Lango camp and its surrounds. Lango and Ngaga camps could not have been more different and the experiences and walks could also not have been more different. The bais provide a very different view of the forest.
“The world’s forests need to be seen for what they are – giant global utilities, providing essential public services to humanity on a vast scale. They store carbon, which is lost to the atmosphere when they burn, increasing global warming. The life they support cleans the atmosphere of pollutants and feeds it with moisture. They act as a natural thermostat, helping to regulate our climate and sustain the lives of 1.4 billion of the poorest people on this Earth.” ~ Prince Charles
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.
On the third morning, after a special hour spent with the the western lowland gorillas close to the Ngaga camp, it was time to decamp and move onto our second camp.
“Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”~ Ernest Hemingway
Our trip to the new camp was split into two parts. The first stage was a drive by game vehicle to the Mboko camp where we were given a superb lunch. We had no idea what was coming next. After a short relaxation time, we started the second part of our journey to the second camp. From Mboko we drove down to the Lekoli river where we climbed onto kayaks. Daniella, our Odzala guide, took us down the river to exit some distance further down at the entrance to the Lango bai.
We had a wonderful hour gliding down the Lekoli river in peace and quiet watching all the wildlife along the river. The forest bulges right onto the river bank. We had fleeting glimpse of several kingfishers, Palm nut vultures, hornbills and a few Cattle egrets.
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”~ Saint Augustine
We paddled part the way up a tributary into the Lango bai until it got too shallow. We then beached the kayaks on a sand bank and started to walk deeper into the bai. All our kit had been taken by vehicle via a back route through the forest and along the edge of a savanna opening. After walking for about half an hour this was the view in front of us – Lango bai.
A bai is natural forest clearing which is unique to the lowland of central Africa. It is a swampy grassy like meadow in the middle of the rainforest. These bais have several important roles to play from a wildlife, forest and human point of view.
These bais are effectively swamps. To course your way through the bai you must follow game trails. You will walk knee deep in water, mud and decomposing vegetation. The marshy water has slightly sulphury smell due to all the rotting vegetation but its coolness is refreshing in the tropical heat. It was like walking into a Jurassic unknown. After some time we entered the main open area of the bai and there on our right hand side was a camp nestled on the edge of the bai in the forest.
“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself .”~ Viktor E Frankl
The Lango camp overlooks the Lango bai. The main area is an elevated wooden deck with a large viewing area, spacious dining and a very comfortable open air lounge. The building’s superstructure is made of natural materials with the roof made of interwoven local raffia palm fronds.
These areas in the camp need to be open because the rainforest is hot and humid. The elevated deck catches every passing breeze and in the evenings with a gentle sundowner in hand together gazing over this opening in the forest the experience is magical.
The camp has six separate rooms all connected via elevated wooden deck walkways
These walkways were elevated about 15 foot above the forest floor. This gives you an opportunity to see the resident birds and monkeys.
On several occasions I just stopped on my way to my room or back to the lounge area just to listen and take in all the sounds and the sense of being immersed in the canopy.
Several members of the Lango community came out to greet us. These nimble Guereza Colobus monkeys managed their way through the trees with breathtaking ease, stopping to pick edible leaves and ripe fruit. The forest is bountiful for these vegans.
The Guereza Colobus monkeys were as interested in us as we were in them.
My friend Ann contorting herself on the shoe drying rack to get the shot. After a walking session in the bai we took off our shoes and socks and left them to dry of the rack ready for the next walk in the bai.
After lunch we sat for a while chilling on the deck just gazing out over the bai and watching the world go by. This lone female bushbuck was quietly grazing on this side of the the Lango river when something spooked her and she skipped across the river and disappeared into the bushes on the far side.
I took this next image to illustrate the height of the trees in the forest relative to a forest buffalo bull grazing in the bai opening.
A view of Lango camp from the middle of the bai. The camp has been carefully built so as not to protrude into the bai.
Our group walking in the bai. The game paths that we followed were shallow and under foot the sand was firm compacted by years of nature’s traffic. Interestingly, if you ventured off these pathways you stepped into very soft bog like conditions.
The open bai is an swampy forest clearing which provides not only a gathering ground for animals and birds alike but also provides some important nutritional ingredients for animals and birds.
” It is you, inquisitive, in a wild world that is older than man, seeking greater understanding and finding not only an endless interest but a tranquility that comes, most of the time, to all nature?s wild creatures.” ~ Lee Wulff
I was very interested in seeing flocks of grey parrots and green pigeons which are a feature of the Lango bai.
We were not fortunate enough to see these large flocks of grey parrots land in the bai. Nevertheless, it was wonderful to see this flock of around 1000 wild grey parrots doing what they are supposed to do in the wild. I will never be able to look at a pet grey parrot the same way again.
Only once we were parked in the make-shift hide waiting for the grey parrots to land did Daniella start telling us of the plight of the grey parrots in the Congo Basin. Every year, poachers steal tens of thousands of grey parrot fledgings and chicks from their nests in Africa’s rainforests to meet international demand. Even more disturbing is that only a small fraction of those young grey parrots harvested from their nests survive. This practice started aggressively in the 1990s. The population collapsed as a result. The flocks of a thousand or so grey parrots that you can see flying wild in Odzala today is less than a tenth of what was seen 20 to 30 years ago.
While we only got to see the historically small flocks of grey parrots from a distance, our patience in the hide was rewarded and we were privileged to see a large flock of green pigeons. They landed in the bai to feed on the mineral rich soil for nutrients certain times of the year. This behaviour is called geophagy.
Geophagy has been found in a number of bird species, but its adaptive functions remain much debated. Avian species showing geophagy can be broadly divided into those feeding on grit and those feeding on clay.
There are two main hypotheses as to why birds practice geophagy — the intentional consumption of soil. The first is that clay is a natural detox treatment. Fruit eating birds such as parrots and green pigeons regularly eat seeds and unripe fruits containing alkaloids and other toxins which make the seeds and fruits bitter and even lethal. When food is limited and safer plants are in short supply, clay could help birds eat the more toxic plants that remain. Laboratory experiments have shown that clay could bind to toxins, keeping them out of a bird’s bloodstream.
The second hypothesis is that clay contributes vital minerals that a frugivore’s plant-based diet lacks. Parrot and pigeon geophagy is amply evident in moist tropical forests areas where sodium is flushed from the ecosystem, but retained in hard clay. Sodium is needed for nerve function and muscle contraction.
To see this enormous flock of green pigeons is spellbinding. When not breeding, African green pigeons gather in flocks referred to a passel of pigeons.
While the male and female of many bird species look different, both sexes of the African green pigeon wear the same colourful feathers. The juvenile birds are somewhat duller without the lilac carpal patches.
I only really began to understand why bais and wetlands are so important after watching a video by ornithologist Dr Steve Boyes and his research team who went in search of the source and course of the water that flows into Okavango delta to better understand its sustainability. Only then did I realise the vital role these wetland areas play in the ecosystem. They control floods and act as sponges allowing water to flow consistently long after the rain has stopped. They form a crucial component of the flow control and water purification of the hydrological system of water catchment areas.
These bais also provide an opening in the thick rainforest for animals and birds to gather. This gives researchers and tourists a chance to catch a glimpse beyond the ‘green curtain’ into the lives of the forest dwellers. In this regard, the forest elephants have a vital role to play. They create game trails in the waterways, romantically called “elephant boulevards’. These are paths ways created over hundreds of years. The sand under foot is firm, albeit underwater. If you were to step a metre to one side you would probably sink down to your knees or even deeper in bog like conditions.
Along the rivers and in the bai openings you will frequently see Palm-nut vultures. They have distinctive colouring and red facial skin quite unlike an African Fish eagle. They are large vulturine raptors but what makes them unusual for birds of prey is they feed mainly on the fleshy fruit-husks of the oil-palm and on the palm-fruits. These fruits make up over 60% of the adult bird’s diet. The balance of these diet varies from crabs, molluscs, frogs, fish, locusts, small mammals, even reptiles’ eggs and even carrion.
“To see a world in a grain of sand And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.” ~ William Blake
The fresh water is continually draining from the bai via the many rivulets and streams. The water in these streams is crystal clear.
Another first for me was seeing a small herd of forest buffalo which ventured out onto the bai to graze on the grasses in the late afternoon.
The African forest buffalo is the smallest subspecies of the African buffalo. Although related to the Cape buffalo, West African savanna buffalo and Central African savanna buffalo, it is much smaller.
The African forest buffalo is distinguished from the other subspecies by its reddish brown hide that is darker in the facial area. The shape and size of their horns are more like water buffalo that African buffalo and they have glamorous ear tuffs.
“My wealth is not measured in how much time I have to do what I want, rather, how much meaning I’m able to derive from the time I have.”
The forest buffaloes rarely venture from the forest into the open areas but they do so to graze on the grasses and sedges in the bai. They also like to wallow in the waterways.
At the end of our first day at Lango camp we were walking back to the wooden jetty which leads via a wooden walk way back to the camp. We had been watching the forest buffalo herd but we noticed they were progressively wandering in our direction. If these were African buffalo we would have got out of there quickly. Our Odzala guide Daniella and Andrew from Wild Eye suggested we stop at the jetty. The light was fading so we decided to sit waist deep in the water next to the jetty and see what the buffaloes did. The next image was of the matriarch who was very inquisitive. She brought the whole herd up to within 10 metres of us. We were very still and quiet and they seemed not to be able to figure out what we were. At no time did any of the forest buffalo show any aggression towards us. After a short while the buffaloes lost interest in us and wandered passed us upstream. During this encounter in the fading light with hot humid temperatures, it was if time stood still. It was a remarkable experience and one which I will never forget.
The more you get to understand the ecology and dynamics of these bais the more fascinating they become. They are a gathering place, a source of vital nutrients and a crucial hydrological feature of the ecology of the rainforest. Best of all they provide us humans get an opportunity to see the rare and unusual wildlife which is normally hidden in the rainforest.
“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimension.” ~ Wendell Holmes
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.
Odzala-Kokoua National Park sits in the Congo Basin in Central Africa and forms part of the second largest rainforest on earth.
“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.” ~Franklin D. Roosevelt
The first camp we visited in Odzala was Ngaga Camp which is located just outside the park boundary in the Ndzehe concession. The camp overlooks an open glade of marantacae within the primary forest above a forest stream. Ngaga is situated within the overlapping home ranges of several groups of western lowland gorillas, two of which are habituated.
There are two gorilla species, the Eastern and the Western. The scientific name for Eastern Gorillas is Gorilla Berinngei, and for Western Gorillas is Gorilla Gorilla. There are four gorilla subspecies. The two western sub-species are the Western Lowland (Gorilla Gorilla Gorilla) and the Cross River (Gorilla Gorilla Diehli). The two eastern subspecies are the Eastern Lowland (Gorilla Beringei Graueri) and Mountain (Gorilla Beringei Beringei).
The size and colouring of the two species is slightly different. The western lowland species appears slightly smaller but may be because the eastern species has much longer hair to keep warm at the higher altitudes. The western gorilla subspecies is also a brownish-gray, while eastern gorilla subspecies tend to be blacker. The two species live in Central Africa, separated by a vast swathe of rainforest.
Both species are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. The western lowland gorillas are more common than their relatives, the mountain gorillas. With the western lowland gorillas living in deep rain forests it is more difficult to estimate their population because they are harder to follow. They are known to exist in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
To give you a sense of how thick the rainforest can be, this was the main road from Odzala to Gabon. The track was wet because there had been a heavy afternoon shower a little earlier.
“Healthy rainforests absorb up to 10% of man’s carbon emissions each year.”
There are two types of forest structures in Odzala-Kokoua, the first being a closed-canopy forest with an open understory and second an open canopy with a very dense marantaceae understory. We walked through the second forest structure to find the gorillas.
Western lowland gorillas are the main species of wildlife and are the main attraction around Ngaga Camp. They are tracked on foot from the camp itself. There are no fewer than seven groups totalling 105 individual gorillas in the extended 30 square kilometre (11.5 square mile) Ndzehi forest area around Ngaga camp.
The Ngaga research team follow three gorilla groups every day. Two of these groups, Nepuno and Jupiter, are usually observed by guests while a third, Pluton, is a control group observed primarily for research purposes. There are also a number of unhabituated gorilla groups but they tend to be skittish and are not often seen.
The permanent research team at Ngaga has three highly skilled Mbeti trackers, Okoko Zepherin and Okele Gabin, and one other whose name I cannot remember. Our tracking expeditions usually ranged around 4 to 6kms on the out leg and lasted around three to four hours, including the one hour spent observing and photographing the gorilla group. Gorilla viewing is strictly permitted and follows IUCN guidelines, meaning the maximum viewing duration of any gorilla group is one hour. The gorillas may only be observed in groups up to four persons, and the maximum proximity is seven metres (we usually view from around 10 to 15m).
It was clear the the Mbeti trackers were highly skilled and finely tuned to the signs and sounds in the forest. They were able to interpret barely visible tracks and signs, and stopped regularly to listen for vocalisations. These trackers had an remarkable ability to anticipate the gorillas’ direction and speed through the Marantacae thickets. Each time they got us into good viewing positions.
As usual we assembled for coffee and a rusk at 5h45 to leave camp by 6h00. Our tracker led us up the hill and through a now familiar section of the forest. After our experience the day before we now knew what to expect. It was still a healthy walk along the forest paths and over fallen logs, enough to ensure that by the time we got close to the gorillas our clothes were soaked in sweat by 7h00 in the morning.
After the difficulties encountered during the first day of photographing the gorillas, the second morning held greater promise. For starters after some discussion, it was agreed that we could pull our masks down to just below our noses so as to cover our mouths. That way my glasses would not mist up as much.
“Rainforests are made of carbon. When the forest is destroyed, this carbon is released as climate warming CO2. The world’s forests store 638 gigatonnes of CO2 “
The movements of both groups are dictated by the seasonal availability of different forest fruits and other forage such as marantaceae leaves and stems.
Our tracker, Zepherin, beckoned us to stop and be still so he could listen for the gorillas. We could hear them moving through the marantaceae thicket. This time is was not just a case of waiting for them to cross the path. This time our guide set off into the marantacae with his panga and secateurs. We followed the troop through the marantaceae for what seemed like half and hour. Finally we got to an opening deep in the marantacae thicket. Sure enough the gorilla troop came to the opening and lingered there for about half an hour.
The open area had been cut by the research team to be able to observe the gorillas otherwise it would be impossible to see them and observe their behaviour and socialisation in the thick marantacae. The whole troop moved into and around this clearing. It was not long before we saw this female gorilla stand up and start walking.
Gorillas are able to walk on their hind legs but they are built to be knuckle walkers. The reason why this female was walking is that she had a broken or crippled hand so found it difficult to knuckle walk. Gorillas (plus chimps and bonobos) are specialised knuckle-walkers. This is not because they can’t carry their weight upright – they can walk bipedally when necessary.
We had quite a treat. While we were watching one group another group moved to join in, so we got to see the Neptuno and Jupiter groups mixing. As to be expected, the youngsters were effervescent and playful with each other. As one point, Jupiter, the one silver back, came thundering through the opening making an almighty noise which sent gorillas scattering. There was no overt aggression between the two groups just one silverback displaying his dominance.
An important plant species for western lowland gorillas is marantaceae – a shrubby plant that grows in profusion on the forest floor. It is also used by gorillas for cover and to build nests. Seeing the gorillas clearly through the marantaceae, even from close range is difficult. You have a better chance of witnessing different types of behaviour e.g. play and tree-climbing (especially when trees are fruiting) in clearings or up in the trees.
This species favours areas of marantaceae vegetation which is a staple food source. According to WWF, gorillas are mainly herbivorous; their staple foods are pith, shoots and leaves. Fruits are also an important component of western lowland gorillas’ diet and are consumed according to their seasonal availability. Over 100 fruit species have been recorded in their diet. In drier months, gorillas supplement their diet with roots, leaves and bark, and even termites and ants.
One of the most incredible displays of strength I have ever seen was when an adult female gorilla began climbing straight up an exceptionally tall fruiting tree. She put her arms around the tree’s trunk and climbed straight up for at least 50 feet to the first branches in one fluid manoeuvre.
“One tropical tree can store up to 30 tonnes of CO2. That’s around three times the amount one person emits in a year.”
The next image is of a mother and her baby. Looks can be deceiving she was not remotely as cross as she looked. Nevertheless she had a good look at us to make sure we were no threat. As you can see she had sweat bees all around her. They seek the moisture where ever they can find it, from your eyes, ears and mouth – anywhere. They are annoying but do not sting though they can mess up your photography.
With a mother like this I think I would be a placid child too!
“No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they haven’t experienced.”~ Sir David Attenborough
The young gorillas get a free ride but are also prone to climbing on and off their mothers to play.
The rainbows colours of fruit are actually a secret message designed to attract animals. For a long time, researchers speculated that the colours of fleshy fruits evolved to get the attention of certain animals, who carry them off and eventually drop their seeds on the forest floor. A new study found the colour of fruits has evolved to attract the animals that eat them. Fruit eaten by monkeys and apes tends to be green, while those eaten by birds is often red. Humans have three types of colour-sensing cone cells in the eyes, each one sensitive to different wavelengths of light, while most other mammals have only two types of cone cells. Birds have four, which helps them see a wider range of colours than humans. With the exception of a handful of other primates, no other animals on earth sees colour the way that humans do, according to a study by co-author Kim Valenta, assistant research professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.
One undeniable aspect of gorilla behaviour which becomes abundantly clear after watching them for a while is that they have many mannerisms and behaviours which are similar to human beings.
This female gorilla was looking up into the fruit tree where a female had just climbed to pick fruit. This tree did not have ordinary fruit. Each fruit was around 35 centimetres in diameter and when it was dislodged and fell to the ground all the gorillas scrabbled out of the way because it must have weighted at least 10 kilograms.
The abundance of food also has a direct effect on the density of gorillas in an area. The distribution of staple foods is thought to have a strong influence on gorilla social systems, while the distribution of seasonal foods (especially fruit) is likely to significantly affect the gorillas ranging.
It becomes clear how abundant the fruit and nuts are in the forest from the number of hornbills, turacos and barbets you hear calling in the canopy. Sadly we only got to see fleeting glimpses with no photographic opportunities.
We were very fortunate to have this female gorilla, with the damaged hand, come and sit in the marantaceae right in front of us about 10 metres away. Quite relaxed she happily munched away at the piece of fruit she managed to retrieve.
We only got brief glimpses of the silverbacks. They never seemed to sit out in the open but rather a few metres away from the clearing in the marantaceae. The aggression that we saw was more about display than any physical intervention. A silverback is typically more than 12 years of age, and is named for the distinctive patch of silver hair on his back, which comes with maturity. Silverbacks also have large canine teeth that also come with maturity. On maturity, both males and females tend to emigrate from their natal groups.
Our friendly female decided to relax a little in front of us and lay back to doze and contemplate.
There is a technique to photographing western lowland gorillas. Like all wildlife photography you need the first few sessions to get a sense of the animal or bird’s behaviour in order to begin to anticipate where and how it will move to get that interesting image. Our time with the gorillas was short. I guess you would need to be at Ngaga for a least a week photographing the gorillas each day to get top grade images.
An unexpected but welcome and unique aspect of the Odzala experience was the Ngaga Research station. Dr. Magda Beremejo and German Illera, and their research team were the first to habituate western lowland gorillas which has led to Ngaga becoming one of Africa’s most important gorilla trekking destinations.
“It is humbling to see the intellectual input and sustained research effort that goes into investigating and piecing together the sociology and dynamics of these gorilla troops. Without this understanding we would not fathom their value or connectedness with the forest, nor would we understand their movements and ranging. All these dynamics are needed to protect and cherish our close relatives.”~ Mike Haworth
Dr Bermejo and Illera have been researching great apes in Central Africa since 1991. Their dedicated efforts have led to two gorilla groups being successfully habituated to short spell human visits. According to Magda it can take up to five years of daily visits to habituate a gorilla group. Ngaga provides a unique opportunity to assess the effects of gorilla tourism on broader gorilla conservation efforts in the Congo.
“For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.” ~ Jacques-Yves Cousteau
Habituating the gorillas is an add-on to their research. The main thrust is to investigate the human-gorilla interface, competition from habitat overlap with chimpanzees and the potential for human-wildlife conflict.
“Nature, time and patience are the three great physicians.” ~ Chinese proverb
Odzala-Kokoua National Park is managed by the Odzala Foundation – a partnership between African Parks and the Congolese government. African Parks took over the management of Odzala-Kokoua in November 2010 under the terms of the partnership agreement with the Government of the Republic of Congo. The tourist concession is managed by the Congo Conservation Company, which operates a very low volume, high return tourism model.
‘Each person has a precious and personal thing to learn from the gorillas. It is the rarest of experiences, and one that makes conservationists of us all.” ~ Dr Magda Bermejo
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.
Our first trek to see the Western Lowland Gorillas started at six in the morning after a cup of coffee and a rusk at the main dining area. Daniella discussed what we were going to do and what was expected once we got close to the gorillas.
“Gorillas are brave and loyal. They help each other. They rival elephants as parents and whales for gentleness. They play and have humor and they harm nothing. They are what we should be. I don’t know if we’ll ever get there.” ~ Pat Derby
There were strict rules, and rightly so, about how to behave when you were close to the gorillas. No sudden movements, no talking, and you had to wear face masks. Gorillas are susceptible to all the human diseases such as tuberculous and ebola so face masks are a necessary preventative measure.
“Animals are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.” ~ Henry Beston
The walk to the gorillas took just over an hour. It was uphill along a maze of paths through the marantaceae thickets. Our Tracker took us to the area the troop had last been seen the night before. Gorillas are diurnal so they go to sleep at night. They make a nest of leaves and branches in which to sleep. This means that the trackers know where they slept during the night and were not likely to have moved too far by the time we got to the area just after 7h00. The paths we followed were through the forest and marantaceae thickets in the under-story and proved to be somewhat of an obstacle course due to the fallen trees. Gabon was our guide and he was incredibly well tuned into the sounds of the forest and knew where and in which direction the gorillas were moving.
“Chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans have been living for hundreds of thousands of years in their forest,living fantastic lives, never overpopulating, never destroying the forest. I would say that they have been in a way more successful than us as far as being in harmony with the environment.” ~Jane Goodall
After about a hour of walking, Gabon signalled us to stop. He listened intently and indicated that the troop was likely to cross the path some distance ahead. We put on our face masks and waited for the troop of gorillas to cross the path. Gabon accurately estimated where the troop would cross the path which was about 20 metres ahead of us.
As a photographer, wearing eye glasses, I was quite unprepared for the constant misting up of my glasses. By now we were drenched in perspiration, and the face masks forced our hot breath up, misting up our eye glasses to the point where I could not see at all, so had to put my camera between my legs and clean my glasses, repeatedly. This turned out to be a real problem and was very frustrating because I could not see what I was doing. It was exciting to see the gorillas…. when I could see them!
Guests are allowed to spend around one hour in the morning with the troop. As you can see from the images the light was low so the photography was challenging, but it was what we had been expecting.
“All sentient beings should have at least one right—the right not to be treated as property” ~ Gary L Francione
Members of the troop being naturally inquisitive, and not threatened, stopped in the path once they saw us. The youngsters played, while the older members sat and rested, being careful to watch where the others were going.
This was the first time I had ever seen a wild gorilla. I was mesmerised by their eyes. To me their eyes revealed great sentience. There seemed to be a distinct recognition of who we were and, due to a degree of habituation, they were relatively relaxed with our group.
Our group consisted of Gabon our Ngaga tracker, Daniella our Odzala guide, and Ann, Andrew and myself. One of the magical aspects about this sighting is that we are alone with troop.
“Gorillas are still wild creatures. That’s made very clear when you observe them in nature. They charge and perform other displays that are terrifying by design. But they don’t attack unless they feel threatened.” ~ Andy Serkis
Humans share 98.3% of our DNA with gorillas and around 99% with chimpanzees and bonobos. This makes me question why people kill gorillas for bush meat.
Apart from fleeting glimpses of the gorillas, another challenging aspect was the high contrast in overall low light. The leaves of the marantaceae have a sheen which reflects the available light expanding the dynamic range.
Our first hour with the gorillas ended all too quickly, especially as I spent most of my time with my camera between my legs cleaning my glasses! I was going to have to make another plan for the trek the following morning.
On our walk back to camp, Daniella showed us the incredibly varied and complex world of insects, fungi and unique flora along the path. Daniella was impressively knowledgeable and opened up a new world for me.
Daniella’s story about the Ghost butterfly caught my imagination. We found a male and female Ghost butterfly flying together. They are called Ghost butterfly because their wings are translucent so appear white in light and are see- through in deep shadow. When the female stopped to rest on a leaf the male would fly back and forth above her spraying pheromones over her to “hypnotise” her into allowing her to mate with him. Not only was he persistent but I was fascinated to see the male butterfly flying forwards and backwards over the female. I had never (before) seen a butterfly fly backwards.
Along the path through the forest we found several Ground Pineapples (Thonningia sanguine). They occur on the ground among the tree roots system and looked like little gems in the dark understory.
A climbing species of marantaceae in a fold of the tree which is covered in moss. The marantaceae is part of the Prayer Plant family of the Ginger order which comprises 31 genera and 550 species.
A Robber fly perched on a marantaceae leaf. This fly hunts flying insects.
After a wonderful lunch and some editing of the morning’s images we went for a walk around mid-afternoon. Every activity around Ngaga camp is done by walking. The paths through the forest are open and bordered by marantaceae thickets in the understory. Streams of sun light do find their way through the thick forest canopy but for the most part the light is low close to the forest floor.
Daniella explained the difference between ants and termites and showed us termite tunnels and termite nests on the trunks of many trees. Andrew was intrigued and put his Sony mirrorless camera to good use. The termites build their cities on the tree’s outer bark and do not kill the tree. It becomes apparent very quickly that there is at least as many fascinating smaller things close to or on the forest floor as there are large better known mammals and trees.
The termites are remarkable architects. They build their cities with perfect drainage employing overlapping protruding ledges to facilitate water runoff. The high level of moisture sustains moss on these ledges.
Termites, unlike ants, do not tolerate sunlight, so build earth tunnels up the tree trunk to provide highways to their elevated cities.
We found a patch of the forest, close to Ngaga camp, where the canopy opened up and allowed more sunlight through to the understory.
Instead of fighting the low light, Andrew encouraged us to play with our shutter speed and camera movement. This is an example of a low shutter speed with a partial radial twist of camera.
“Nature is so powerful, so strong. Capturing its essence is not easy – your work becomes a dance with light and the weather. It takes you to a place within yourself. ” ~ Annie Leibovitz
In the same location, with a slower shutterspeed and a quick vertical lift of the camera gave quite different look. The idea was to play and try to get different effects out of the same scene.
With a slow shutter speed and rotating the camera quickly creates an unique tunnel effect giving that enchanted forest feel.
Again in the same spot with a slow shutter speed and this time quickly zooming out gives the sense of high speed movement through the forest.
After playing for a while, time was moving on and what light remained was beginning to fade signalling it was time to begin heading back to camp. We walked down a steep path to a ample stream below Ngaga camp. To our surprise there, in the middle of the clear flowing stream, was a magical setting with Clem, the other Ngaga guide, in animated consversation with his family happily, enjoying sun-downers while sitting in the middle of the stream.
After a drink spiced with animated conversation, is was getting dark. We made our way bare foot back to camp which was only a few hundred metres up the hill next to us. The camp staff had put out paraffin lanterns for us to see along the path. It cooled somewhat in the evenings but was still warm.
Once we had freshened up we all met at the camp’s main lounge and dining area. There we were privileged to meet Dr Madga Bermejo. Madga explained the scope of the research efforts she and her team were undertaking. Magda also gave us some insights into the behaviour and social interaction of the three gorilla groups they were studying. Magda talked to us for about an hour. Not only was it fascinating but only then did I get a sense of how much sustained detailed effort her research team put in to better understand the gorilla troop dynamics and sociology.
“Our greatest human adventure is the evolution of consciousness. We are in this life to enlarge the soul, liberate the spirit, and light up the brain.” ~ Tom Robbins
The research was being undertaken to shed light on the social dynamics of the western lowland gorilla. Three breeding groups were being studied, one control group not exposed to people and the other two which were exposed to visitors. Magda’s team were exploring inter-group interactions of three breeding groups which were habituated to the presence of observers and were monitored daily in Ngaga Forest. This was one area where a dense population of gorillas still thrived and had not been affected by Ebola outbreaks in the last decade. The social structure and dynamics between groups is thought to also play a major role in spreading infectious diseases such as the highly infectious Ebola virus.
So ended a fascinating first day in the Odzala-Kokoua rainforest. A good nights’ sleep with the sounds of the forest all around would see us refreshed for another day of exploration and adventure.
“Seeing a gorilla for the first time in the wild was shock. I was like being in an evolutionary time warp. I was struck by the sentience in their eyes and their self sustaining way of life. My first encounter left me with more questions than answers.” ~ Mike Haworth
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.
In mid-February 2019, three of us, a long standing family friend, Ann Nichols, Wild Eye director and guide, Andrew Beck and myself went to Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of the Congo. None of us had undertaken a trip like this before although all of us are seasoned travellers throughout Africa.
We left Johannesburg on Sunday morning 17 February around midday and flew to Nairobi in Kenya. After a several hour stopover we caught a flight to Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo arriving around 22h00. It was hot and humid as you would expect. On arrival at Maya Maya international airport in Brazzaville, it was clear that the immigration officials do not see many tourists. The immigration officials only spoke French so it was wonderful to have Ann (who is fluent in French) with us to help facilitate and smooth the way.
The next morning (we were only scheduled to fly out of Brazzaville to the Odzala-Kohoua National Park later that morning) the three of us decided to take a walk on the esplanade along a section of the Congo river. At this point Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, and Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are separated by the two kilometre wide Congo river.
The Republic of the Congo is bordered by the Democratic Republic of Congo on its east side, Gabon and Cameroon on its west side and the Central African Republic on its north side. The next image is a view from the Brazzaville esplanade across the Congo river to Kinshasa.
“The earth is what we all have in common.”~ Wendell Berry
Walking along the esplanade we found it to be clean and we never felt unsafe, even with our cameras in hand. On the left hand side of the image was the mighty Congo river.
There is minimal unemployment in the Republic of the Congo and everyone seems to make a living one way or another. This was an example of a street vendor who had used some of the spare ground along the esplanade to create a nursery.
All of us were pleasantly surprised by what we saw during our short sojourn in Brazzaville. We left Brazzaville around midday aboard a Russian Let L410 Turbolet. There are about 40 of these aircraft flying throughout Africa. It was a no frills but comfortable aircraft which took about three hours to fly the 800 or so kilometres north to the Cuvette-Quest province where the Odzala-Kokoua National Park is located bordering on Gabon. We landed at the Mboko airstrip and were met by wonderful Odzala staff and our guide, Daniella Kueck. All three of us have undertaken many photographic trips throughout Africa, but little did we know it that this one would turn out to be absolutely unique.
The Odzala-Kokoua National Park, or Odzala for short, was officially proclaimed in 1935, making it one of the oldest national parks in Africa. The 13,546km2 of land, now protected by African Parks, is part of the TRIDOM Transfrontier Park which extends from the Congo into Gabon and the Central African Republic. Within this are some of the last tracts of contiguous rainforest ecosystems in the world. The rainforest in the Congo Basin is often referred to as one of the world’s lungs.
Daniella drove us through the rainforest for about an hour to get to the Ngaga camp. Around the Mbojko airstrip there are open tracts of savanna. There are open grasslands with bushes and small trees which is quite different to the thick vegetation of the rainforest. This is due to the poor quality of the soil which can only carry savanna vegetation. It was not long before we were truly immersed in the rainforest.
“Forests are the world’s air-conditioning system – the lungs of the world – and we are on the verge of switching it off.”~Prince Charles
All the roads are sandy tracks and they weave through the forest as if they have a life of their own. As we made our way to the Ngaga camp, the forest was still but for the sounds of many birds which we could not see.
“What an irony it is that these living beings whose shade we sit in, whose fruit we eat, whose limbs we climb, whose roots we water, to whom most of us rarely give a second thought, are so poorly understood. We need to come, as soon as possible, to a profound understanding and appreciation for trees and forests and the vital role they play, for they are among our best allies in the uncertain future that is unfolding.” ~ Jim Robbins
We finally arrived at the Ngaga camp. One aspect which impressed me immediately was that the drop off point was simple and unassuming with minimal invasion of the vegetation. After a short walk to the main camp area we were assigned one of the six available rooms. The next image shows the view from the balcony in front of my room. I looked out over a open area of marantaceae which after about 100 metres transformed into thick rainforest.
The rooms at the Ngaga camp were very comfortable with all the necessary amenities. Surprisingly, the ablutions were walled in sheet copper. I was astounded at the luxury of the camp given its remote location.
It was a short walk along sand paths to the main dining and lounge area at Ngaga camp. It was positioned high up on a wooden deck to provide an impressive view onto the rainforest. It was very comfortable as there were no walls in front and on the sides to allow any passing breeze through. There was a decked boma area which was a perfect spot to tell stories about the days sightings with a “bitterly” cold drink in hand.
The Ngaga camp has a unique atmosphere. Even the walk way to the toilet off the dining area was impressive. Anyone who has been to bush camps will know that there is a rope, or in this case reed chain, which is pulled across the walk way to signal that the toilet is occupied.
The inside of the Ngaga camp main dining and lounge area it was spacious and had a wonderful feel about it. The one side wall and roof were made of unbroken thatched raffia palm leaves, a method used by the local Ombo tribe. It looks like a work of art.
A view from the walkway next to the dining area looking down and out over the marantaceae and rainforest. It was verdant and alive with sounds of birds and monkeys.
“Silencing of the rainforests is a double deforestation, not only of the trees but a deforestation of the minds music, medicine and knowledge.”~ Jay Griffiths
In front of the main dining and lounge area at Ngaga camp is the boma with a fire pit made of worn brass with intricately carved wooden chairs positioned around it. Needless to say it was so hot in February that we did not need the fire but did need the chairs and ice cold drinks.
A view from the lounge area looking down onto the boma area and beyond were stairs which led down to the rooms.
Thankfully we did not come across many mosquitoes and it was very pleasant sitting out on the deck and chatting. There were surprisingly few bugs in the rooms and main lounge and dining room area considering we were in the middle of a dense rainforest.
Our first day in Odzala and Ngaga camp gave a sense that we were in for a real adventure with meany new things to see and learn about over the next week. The Ngaga camp is the point from which the guests trek to find and observe the western lowland gorillas. Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered. There are an estimated 22,000 of this species of gorilla in Odzala-Kokoua National Park. Ngaga also has a research station were Dr Magda Bermejo and her team are based. Dr Bermejo has been studying this gorilla species since 1991.
“Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.” ~ E. O. Wilson
The next day we were going to walk into the rainforest with a tracker and guide to see these critically endangered gorillas up close.
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than one seeks.”~ John Muir
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.
This is my last post from a wonderful trip to the western corridor of the Serengeti with CNP Safaris. A big thank you Lou Coetzer for showing us the way and when possible getting us into the right position. Your invaluable advice is always treasured.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~ Mark Twain
Rather the putting too many words to the images, I thought for a change the images can talk for themselves but I like the quotes so there is a sprinkling of quotes among the images.
The colour and light intensity was variable due to the overcast and sometimes stormy conditions on many of the days. There was also a green hue reflected off the grass which gave some of the images a slightly green tinge. Rather than trying to adjust each image to look the same in terms of the quality of light I decided to leave each as it was.
“I am forever chasing light. Light turns the ordinary into the magical.”~Trent Parke
“Out in the wilderness you adapt to the light, not the other way around. Do not fight it, rather use it. Look for new ways to take a photograph perhaps to show different, more subtle and more interesting nuances.”~ Mike Haworth
“You have to find what sparks a light in you so that you in your own way can illuminate the world.” ~ Oprah Winfrey
“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But. above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” ~ George Eastman
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” ~ Henry Miller
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” – Martin Buber
“Wherever you go, no matter what the weather, always bring your own sunshine.”~ Anthony J. D’Angelo
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” ~ Robert Louis Stevenson
“Ô, Sunlight! The most precious gold to be found on Earth.” ~ Roman Payne
“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” ~ Pat Conroy
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.
The Serengeti has many crowns. It is crowned as one of the most spectacular places on earth to see wildlife. It is also a place where you will see wildly beautiful creatures with golden crowns. These crowns of golden feathers adorn each Grey crowned crane’s head. While many birds have crests only two species have a crown of splayed golden feathers.
“Perhaps more than any other living creatures, cranes evoke the retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water and air upon which their species – and ours, too, though we learn it very late – must ultimately depend for survival.” ~ Peter Matthiessen
Cranes make up the family, Gruidae. They are large, long-legged and long-necked birds in the group Gruiformes. There are fifteen species of crane in four genera, but only three, that I know of , are classified as crowned cranes, the Grey and Black crowned cranes found in Africa and the Red-crowned crane in found in Japan.
I have had a special affection for the Grey crowned crane since my childhood. Multi-generational family friends, the Condy’s used to live down the valley from us in Harare, Zimbabwe. John Condy was the chief wildlife vet for the Zimbabwean Department of Veterinary Services at that time and his job regularly took him into the Zimbabwean wilds. On his wildlife ventures John would come across animals and birds which needed rescuing. Occasionally, John would bring an orphaned or injured animal or bird to be cared for at the family home in Harare. The Condys had a menagerie which ranged from a black rhino calf to an African rock python, and from African hawk-eagles to Grey crowned cranes. As a child I have vivid memories of two Grey crowned cranes striding around the Condy’s garden giving their characteristic “howuun” call.
“I wish to live a life that causes my soul to dance inside my body.”~ Dele Olanubi
I was entranced by the exquisite beauty of that pair of Grey crowned cranes, called Henry and Peebles, strutting around the Condy’s garden in Harare, Zimbabwe back in the the 1960s. To this day I remain intrigued by the beauty and elegance of the Grey crowned crane. To me, mother nature has put together such a provocative, eclectic mixture of colours and textures in one bird.
Its bland ornithological description, Grey crowned crane, grossly understates this crane’s beauty. It has many (not fifty) shades of grey, to which is added facial rouge, a velvet black forehead, sea blue eyes and a golden crown.
The general impression of size and shape (GISS) of a Grey crowned crane is similar to the Black Crowned Crane. The Grey crowned crane has grey neck feathers while the Black crowned crane has charcoal grey black coloured neck feathers. The Grey crowned crane has the red skin patches on the side of its head and on its throat whereas the Black crown crane’s red skin patches are much smaller. The Grey crowned crane has pure white cheek patches where the Black crowned crane’s cheek patches are mostly pink with a white patch at the top of the cheek.
There is much about cranes which make them intriguing subjects. They are some of the tallest and most stately of all flying birds. They have striking plumage, and they dance. They also have a unique and one of the most evocative calls among birds with only Ground hornbills coming close.
“When we hear the crane’s call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.” ~ Aldo Leopold
One distinguishing characteristic between cranes and herons or egrets is that cranes fly with the neck extended straight ahead, while herons and egrets fly with the head held back towards the body. This is for longitudinal balance. The Grey crowned crane has powerful flight with strong and steady wing beats , and is adept at using thermals. Being a large bird it has to run before taking to flight.
All cranes participate in spectacular dance routines involving head-bobbing, wing-fluttering, leaps and deep bows, running with wings flapping even for short, low flights.
Among adults, these elaborate dances serve as courtship rituals to attract mates. For young birds, dancing helps develop physical and social skills. Spontaneous dancing can occur anytime. In a flock of cranes, if one bird starts dancing, often all the others join in.
“Magic birds were dancing in the mystic marsh. The grass swayed with them, and the shallow waters, and the earth fluttered under them. The earth was dancing with the cranes, and the low sun, and the wind and sky.” ~ Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Another characteristic that sets cranes apart from herons and egrets is that many crane species have bright-red thick skin with an irregular surface covering parts of their head and neck.
Most species of crane have some areas of bare skin on the face but there are two exceptions, the Blue Crane and Demoiselle Crane. It is thought that this skin is used in communication with other cranes, and can be expanded by contracting and relaxing muscles, and change the intensity of colour. Feathers on the head can also be moved and erected.
Cranes are diurnal birds. Their sociability varies by season. During the breeding season, they are territorial and usually remain within their territory. Out of the breeding season, they tend to be gregarious, forming large flocks to roost, socialise, and, in some species to feed.
The great difficulty, from a photographic point of view, is that cranes usually will not let you get close to them.
Like many terrestrial avians, such as bustards and secretary birds, cranes tend to walk away from you when you are trying to photograph them. It is only on an unique occasion when they are down at a waterhole that you may get special photographic access.
The wings of the Grey crowned crane are long and broad, ideal for long flights and catching thermals. The feathers at the wing tips of most birds that soar over land separate both horizontally and vertically in flight to form slotted tips. Research has shown that the slotted primary feathers at the wing tips of soaring birds reduce induced drag. The separated tip feathers act as winglets and increase the span factor of the wings. ( Source: Journal of Experimental Biology: Article on Gliding Birds by V.A. Tucker).
“I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world.” ~ Sadako Sasaki
One of the things which has always intrigued me about the Grey crowned crane is that it is particularly photogenic, in an artistic way. It is a riot of colours shapes and textures.
The artistic palette with a muted background – perfect!
” You lure us in from afar with your worldly trumpeting call. Once our eyes fall upon you, the spell is cast. We are mesmerised by your beauty and exquisite golden crown. Then, to seal our attention, the bewitching starts with your glorious dance.”~ Mike Haworth
In the Serengeti you will often see Grey crowned cranes foraging in the grasslands. Occasionally we can even get clear backgrounds when they are down at a waterhole. Grey crowned cranes are usually found in open habitats but seem to prefer grasslands near water.
The Black and Grey crowned cranes are the only species of cranes able to perch in trees because of their long hind toe which enables them to grasp the branches. These cranes are often seen roosting in trees.
The Grey crowned crane’s bill is relatively short and grey, and the legs are black. They have long legs for wading through the grasses. Their feet are large, yet slender, adapted for balance rather than defence, or grasping.
The Grey crowned crane is the smallest in the crane family. It stands just over one metre tall whereas the Sarus Crane is the largest standing 1.8 metres tall. The Grey crowned crane has a two metre wing span. These wings have white covets, black primary wing feathers and chestnut secondaries with golden tertial plumes, all of which create an elegant appearance.
Crowned cranes stomp their feet as they walk across the grasslands. This flushes out insects and other potential prey which the cranes quickly catches and eats. These cranes are omnivores, eating plants, stripping seeds off grass stems. They will also feed on grain, insects, frogs, worms, snakes, small fish and the eggs of aquatic animals.
All cranes are noted for their loud calls that can be heard over a kilometre away. The crowned Crane has a booming call which it creates by inflating its red gular sac. Cranes have a long convoluted trachea that makes a loop within the sternum. This tracheal shape, similar to some brass musical instruments such as the trombone, makes it possible for cranes to produce a loud bugling call. Cranes share this tracheal characteristic only with swans.
The crowned cranes have shorter coiled trachea which produce the trumpeting. Their characteristic honking sound is quite different to the trumpeting of other crane species. The unique “unison call” of a mated pair of crowned cranes announces their presence in occupied territories and warns other birds away. The Grey Crowned Crane utters a trumpeting flight call “may hem” and low-pitched honks “howuum howuum” during the breeding season and the displays.
The male is the principal defender of the pair, calling a loud warning to other cranes in his territory. The male is also slightly larger than the female and both sexes have similar colouring.
A Grey crowned crane only reaches sexual maturity after about three years. The full adult eye color and face and neck coloration are not reached until 20–24 months old. The juvenile is grey overall with brown crown and nape. The body is grey to brown. The eyes are brown. The cheeks are feathered.
This was a pair of Grey crowned cranes displaying to each other at the Musira dam with two pairs of White-faced whistling ducks swimming away from the dance area. We managed to get surprisingly close to these cranes by sitting quietly for an extended period. They relaxed and started to walk along the edge of the dam and even displayed right in front of us.
According to Birdlife, the global population of grey crowned cranes is estimated to be between 17,700 and 22,300 individuals. In 2012 it was uplisted from vulnerable to endangered by the IUCN due to habitat loss and poaching for the captive trade market.
Black Crowned Cranes are found in eastern Africa, centered in Senegal and Gambia. There is a large population throughout Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya, with separate populations in Chad and Cameroon. Most populations are found within the Sahel region of northern Africa. Grey crowned cranes are found from Kenya down to southern Africa. The Grey crowned crane is found in East and southern Africa, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Kenya right down to South Africa
“Conservation is sometimes perceived as stopping everything cold, as holding whooping cranes in higher esteem than people. It is up to science to spread the understanding that the choice is not between wild places or people, it is between a rich or an impoverished existence for Man.” ~ Thomas Lovejoy
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.