by Sylvain Lemoine, Mona Research Coordinator,
My work trekking all day in the rain-forest can already be rather extreme, so the idea of spending three days and three nights in the middle of the deep forest seemed like a big adventure.
During the weekend of the 11th of October 2009, I undertook a preliminary survey into the Research Area and adjacent Community Forest with Osam, one of our Rhoko Camp Patrol, an ex-hunter now converted to the CERCOPAN cause. The aim of the trip was to map the existing trails, streams and rivers in the area and to gather information about human presence and disturbance, wildlife, and monkeys in particular. The Research Area is an area of about 3000ha set aside for research into ecology, botany, zoology and geology, and it is contiguous to the Cross River National Park, Oban division. Farming, logging and hunting of endangered species is not permitted in the research area, but the community forest is close to another communiy and is not patrolled by CERCOPAN. Previous surveys carried out in both areas have indicated the presence of forest elephants, buffalos, and chimpanzees among other mammal species such as mona and putty-nosed guenons.
The first day was rather uneventful in comparison to the ones that would follow; we spent all day trekking across easy trails and reached Agbor Iyamba, a hunter shed, without any problem. With an evening cooking, resting and chatting about local beliefs, we passed the time before bed and then were lulled to sleep with the sounds of the forest. Little did we know we had been lulled in to a false sense of security on what the days to follow would hold in store…….
Osam preparing food in a hunting shed
The second day started interestingly since it took us 45 minutes to find the first trail to follow, with the junction being heavily obstructed by recent fallen trees. It seemed that the trail wasn’t regularly walked, or only by a few ambitious hunters. We followed it fairly easily when found, guided by Osam’s great memory and our sense of direction when the trail disappeared into impenetrable vegetation. We trekked at a good pace, but stopped regularly to listen to the forest, trying to detect animal sounds and movement. It was on these stops that we managed to see red duikers on two occasions. The first one fled on our approach but the second we watched for several minutes, silhouetted by the river behind it whose noise kept us from being detected. We continued our way across rivers and hills, occasionally following forest elephant trails unnervingly.
Elephant trails look like human trails and it can be very confusing for somebody unable to distinguish between them. Elephant trails are often contiguous or mixed up with human trails and this encourages local people to beleive that powerful village chiefs can take elephant form when desired. We could see elephant footprints, luckily a few months old, but still visible. Following these paths we finally reached our first destination, a shed called Lokpui Iyura, named after the Lopkui river. Tracks of hunters were present, with pangolin scales scattered on the floor and a strong lingering odor of death, but the shed was empty.
We continued our exploration towards the East and eventually found a couple of fresh fruits on the ground. Five minutes later, a noise in the branches attracted our attention and we stood and watched carefully while a single red-eared monkey moved away by jumping from crown to crown, then finally disappeared in to the vegetation.
Red Eared Guenon
We were pressed on by the time since it was already close to 3pm, and the weather was starting to threaten rain. We left without further investigation and eventually reached our furthest East destination; a shed called Ikpobokbai where we stayed just enough time to take a GPS point. That was the moment the real adventures began…….
The rain arrived suddenly, falling in large drops that quickly flooded the soil and trails. Our plan had been to complete a loop along Lokpui river and return to the previous nights shed, Agbor Iyamba, where we had left all our camping equipment. We couldn’t go back by the same trails than we had used to arrive; otherwise it would have made the journey too long. We took a short-cut across the hills, following a trail that Osam knew only from an explanation by another ex-hunter, since Osam had never been to this area before. This trail was easy to find at the start, but the more the rain fell, the more difficult it became to understand the logic of the path. We lost the trail several times, but always found something that looked like it again.
We passed a large river running which was running quite fast due to the heavy storm and then clambered up the next hill….at that moment it finally dawned, we had been following another elephant trail! We found elephant dung, one a few months old with its contained seeds starting to germinate, and another just a few weeks old alongside vegetation broken aside by the recent passage of this massive animal. Osam kept reassuring me that the elephants were not around during this time of the year, due to the increase in human presence caused by more collectors of wild salad, but these fresh tracks made me increasingly dubious – with forest elephants being so aggressive, more so than savanna elephants, an encounter with one had not been on my wish list for this trip…….
Elephant dung found on one of the trails
We followed the elephant trail for a while before Osam could find a decent human trail leading us to another river which was completely flooded. We cut sticks to help to cross, and fought against the powers of the current. Once on the other side, cold and wet, we couldn’t find the path and so we had to make a decision to follow the river. I started to worry because we only had one more hour of light, and we were not sure of our position. We crossed this stream again, climbed the hills on the other side, and reached yet another river. All these streams were very confusing; I was never sure if we were following the same one as before. I tried to use the GPS to locate our position, but the bad weather didn’t allow anything technological to help in this wilderness. We had to follow our common sense and our single compass. We passed several others torrents, climbed more hills, walked down into another river bed, and attempted to follow it but the water was just too powerful. All the dust and earth from the forest drained into the river, making the water brown, so we couldn’t see the bottom and where we were able to step to reduce the possibility of being dragged downstream. The night was falling fast, as well as the rain, and we were still looking for our way…
Long after the darkness had absorbed us into its hostile atmosphere, Osam finally recognized a junction between two streams. We had actually been too far on the South and had crossed the major river without ever knowing it. We then followed a small stream, walking through the centre of half-flooded areas of land. Osam was using my head-light as he was in front of me, but this left me struggling with a wet torch-light. Eventually, Osam stopped abruptly and stepped back: a green tree viper was coiled on the ground, waiting for any frog (or toe) to pass in close proximity……The nightmare of finding snakes in the forest at night got realized, and as we passed and continued downstream, the darkness seemed to get denser……..
Finally, after half-an-hour more trekking and zigzagging between hills and streams, we reached “home”. It had taken us more than 5 hours to find our way, and we were completely wet and exhausted, but we were seriously relieved. After all these efforts, the dilapidated shed appeared much more comfortable. I figured out that we human beings only need shelter and a dry place around a warm fire. The hot meal and deserved rest was very welcome and we slept well, even if a little more uneasily than the night before, anticipating the following day……….