Chainsaws and gunshots in the Cameroonian rainforest


Every evening at dusk, the fireflies come out and display their green flashing light show. At night the turacos and occasional tree hyrax call with their haunting voices. Then there is a gunshot, and the poachers have possibly killed another monkey or  duiker to bring to market and sell the bushmeat. During the day, we hear chainsaws, killing in minutes trees that took hundreds of years to grow. This is the present state of the rainforests in Cameroon. I am here working with a team of scientists in a race against time, to catalogue the mosquitoes and bird diseases before the rainforest is gone. We know when and where the logging will happen, so we are taking advantage of a situation we can not stop: to learn as much as possible about the pristine rainforest before it is gone.

I arrived in Douala, and witnessed the terrible traffic that people encounter every day. People use all kinds of vehicles to move around, often 3-4 on one motorcycle. The bridge out of Douala is notoriously bad, and can create havoc for hours at a time. Then the police stop us twice along the road to Buea, blatantly asking for bribes. “Happy new year” are his words, delivered with a suggestive connotation. Corruption is just accepted, as is the poverty and lack of infrastructure. In short, life is not easy in Cameroon.

At the University of Buea, the professors and students are wonderful, dedicated and excited about learning and participating in the project. This will be an opportunity for them to learn about the diversity of the rainforest, and it is the first time for some of them to camp in the jungle. We have to pack up a lot of gear, and get organized for the 10-day trip. We drive past Kumba, and it is clear that the logging trucks are a priority. The road has completely changed since I was here last in the summer of 2014. We see Chinese workers beginning to pave the road, and one of my favorite spots along the way that had a tremendous view of a river and deep forest is now a gravel mine. This is “progress”, allowing traffic to reach the interior of the forest in half the time.

Manyemen is the village nearest to our point of entry. Incredibly small children play in the street, and women openly sell the bushmeat to the truck drivers. The bar blares Afro-beat music over big loudspeakers. We spend the night here in a less-than-clean guesthouse with the incessant noise of a generator before the morning hike into the forest. My vegan diet limits my food choices; there is only rice or plantains. It will be a starchy time in Cameroon for me.

We become a village of 18 people after hiking for more than an hour from the nearest road into the forest. We carry everything; the tents, food, cooking supplies, traps for mosquitoes and nets for birds. It is the very dry season, and it won’t rain at all. Our problem is that it means that we have a very limited supply of water because the stream is not flowing. We must conserve, and drink boiled water, with the smoky sediment that grows on the tastebuds with our increasing thirst. One bucket of water each day is sufficient to clean the sweat off our bodies. The stinky clothes never dry. We are professors, students, and 4 helpers, developing a working community. We all get along and become friends living in the bush. The bees attack us the first day, and hundreds enter my tent as soon as I open the fly. When I want to bathe, I am attacked by biting ants, piercing my feet with their jaws until I run to safety. The tingle in my feet lasts a few hours, and I start to think that perhaps this could be developed as a natural alternative to acupuncture. The ants are bad, but at this time of year, the mosquitoes are not. Still somehow, I end up with a lot of itchy bites. We dance together on Saturday night, accompanied by music on a battery operated CD player.

Every morning at dawn we open the nets to catch the birds. We take a drop of blood for our molecular studies, and make blood smears for microscopy. Most common is the Fire-crested Alethe, an orange-headed squawky bird. We get a lot of olive sunbirds, and some beautiful wattle-eyes. The diversity is still high in this pristine forest, but it won’t last long. By the summer, most of this will be gone. The mosquito group works in the tent trying to learn these obscure forest insects that don’t seem to bite humans, but may feed on frogs, birds or snakes. Nighttime is my favorite, and I go to sleep early, so that I can wake up in the middle of night, and listen to the sounds. One night a poacher walks through the camp, shining his light on my tent, but then quickly departs. Our headlamps are indispensable tools, allowing us to see in this dark humid place. We don’t need much. I don’t miss the computer or the internet, the soft beds or the dry towels. I guess I truly miss fresh green vegetables, and the occasional shower would be nice.

Now, back in Buea, after a shower, I contemplate what is happening in Africa. The students’ grandparents used to see chimpanzees, elephants and numerous monkeys everywhere. Now they are gone. In their place will be palm oil plantations, to fuel our thirst for Doritos. I tell the students the fate of the passenger pigeon and how hunting truly can cause extinction. On the hike out, the chainsaws have left their visible mark, and another portion of the forest is gone. The hope lies with the young Cameroonians who are inspired by the experience and have the opportunity to institute change.

Pretoria Fireworks: New Year 2016!

South Africa!

The New Year in Pretoria, South Africa, was marked by tremendous displays of private fireworks all over the city. Since it is more than 15 Rand to the dollar, everything seems cheap here. I got 6 huge fireworks, each one shooting 100 times, for about $2.25. This is the time to visit South Africa, because restaurants, movies, museums and food all are relatively cheap when thinking in dollars or Euros. It reminds me of being in Southern California, for one third the price. I saw Star Wars at a huge Imax theater, better than what we have in the USA. I must say, that I liked the original better, but that is probably because I was a kid when I saw it. Some of the mansions of Pretoria look like they could be in Beverly Hills, with 6-car garages, and massive windows overlooking golf courses in gated communities.

The Apartheid museum documents the history of oppression in South Africa. When you get your ticket, it states either “white” or “coloured” on it, and you enter the museum through different entrances, depending on your randomly assigned ticket. I got “white”, but I recognize that I would have been classified as “coloured” if I had lived in South Africa at that time. There are disturbing videos and photographs but also the optimism associated with the end of Apartheid. This is a thought provoking well-designed museum in the center of Johannesburg, and certainly worth visiting. There is certainly still racism, bit now the separation is based on economics; rich and poor.

I also got to see the Cradle of Humankind museum in Maropeng outside of Pretoria. This is the region where our ancient Australopithecus africanus ancestors were discovered. The caves in the area are still an area of active research and the Homo naledi was uncovered here recently in 2013. The museum teaches evolution effectively and has a fun boat ride through the ice age, and interactive games for children, including a talking dodo explaining extinction.

Now I am on my way to Cameroon. Flying Rwandair through the green hilled city of Kigali, and over the huge megacity of Kinshasa before crossing the mighty Congo river for a stopover in Brazzaville: finally to Douala. I will soon be in the rainforest working with Cameroonian professors and students studying the incredible diversity of birds and their diseases.