by Mark Gold
The trip was an eye-opener. I still wasn't over Yaounde's complete lack of sanitation or potable water and now we were venturing into a far more primitive part of the country. My hesitation turned to excitement when I got to meet the Baka tribe in their small village. They lived in mud and stick homes in extreme poverty. But they were so excited for their reunion with Dr. Tom. They absolutely revered him and I think half the village came out to hug him. Genuinely friendly and warm people that treated me like an old friend.
And they know the rainforest better than anyone. They know every tree, every butterfly, and every bird and mammal. And they know the Baka name AND Latin name for the plants and animals. I was awestruck.
Over the course of a couple of days, we spent time catching a species of butterfly for the NSF project on climate change and biodiversity. Also, we went on a barge like contraption to cross the Dja River and go for a 20 km hike into the reserve to the Petit Roche area – an elevated small rocky area that looked almost like a meadow on top of basalt. .
The hike demonstrated many things. I am woefully out of shape and way too tall to walk through overgrown rainforest (lots of cuts on the top of my head from spiny rafia plants). Also, the forest was nearly devoid of monkeys. I wasn't expecting to see chimpanzees and Gorillas. But I thought mangabys and colobus were a sure thing. We heard a couple of monkeys in the distance, but the seemingly healthy forest was eerily silent.
Was the silence due to the ongoing assault from poachers (we saw bushmeat for sale with monkey, pangolin and duiker at a number of places)? Or was it just because we were hiking from 10-4 – definitely not the peak time to see active primates? Perhaps it was also because we were still within 10 kilometers of the road, too close for frequent encounters with monkey troops There's no sure way to tell from just one day in the Dja.
Tom told me that seed dispersal in the Dja Reserve almost exclusively occurs through hornbills and monkeys. Without healthy monkey populations, the health and diversity of the reserve is in severe jeopardy.
Seeds from many trees can only be dispersed by monkeys and apes and one tree, the massive Moabi, has bowling ball sized fruit with seeds that can only be dispersed by forest elephant. The good news is that we saw tracks from a herd of forest elephant that the Baka estimated were 2-3 days old. A welcome site in light of the massive elephant slaughter that just occurred a couple of months ago southeast of the Dja.
However, the circumstances of the trip left me looking for hope. On the last day staying at a home 15 km from the reserve, we experienced the hardest torrential downpour of my life. It was raining so hard, I thought the roof was going to cave in. And the lightning struck and thunder crashed seemingly every 10 seconds. This was the second major downpour in the week I've been here – unprecedented for the little dry season in July. Climate change is having an impact in West Africa today – and hotter temperatures are not the issue as much as extreme weather events that are wreaking havoc with agriculture and nature, not to mention the prevalence of infectious diseases.
The obstacles to protecting the Dja Reserve are enormous; The growing scourge of the bushmeat trade and a local culture that still consumes bushmeat. Encroaching deforestation and a woefully underfunded Eco-Guard enforcement effort that is outmanned and severely outgunned also are major problems.. As a result, the future of large animals in the forest and the forest itself appears bleak. Tom, eternally optimistic about the reserve's future, is doing everything possible to protect the rainforest. He believes in nature's resiliency no matter the outlook.
And maybe he's right. When we drove on the long, muddy and bumpy dirt road back to the highway, we were stopped by an enormous fallen hardwooD that blocked our path. As we stood around waiting for someone to come with a chainsaw (we were in logging territory) Tom struck up a conversation with the driver of a different stranded vehicle. The driver shared with Tom that he had spotted a black leopard on the road outside Somaloma, the closest town to the reserve. Tom broke out into a grin because Leopards are rarely found in areas with low prey densities. If there was food for the leopard, there was hope for the Dja.