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16 August 2012

In Rwanda: 15 July 2012, the Mangabey hike

Journal 15 July 2012

Woke up with a hangover today, and still no electricity in the house. My phone, which I’ve been using as my camera here, had no charge whatsoever. So no camera for me today. A few minutes later, a little alka-seltzer, some breakfast, and a hard-boiled egg, and I was almost functional. We tried to have breakfast a little early so we could be gone by 8am, but the kitchen didn’t have the eggs done until just about 8:00. So we wrapped them up with some sandwiches, and took them with us for lunch.

On the way to Uwinka, where we were going to try to see the Mangabes, we had a close encounter with a L’Hoesti Monkey. We had slowed down to pass a road construction crew, then stopped because the monkey was in the road, right next to the crew’s truck. When we stopped, the monkey jumped right up on the hood of our car, and leaned over to peer into the passenger side window. It’s probably lucky that the window wasn’t all the way only, just cracked a few inches. It jumped off after determining that we weren’t so interesting, after all. Prof Netzin got some pretty good pictures of it.

When we got to Uwinka, we learned that the trackers weren’t sure where the Mangabes were, so we would have to wait. Sara had come prepared though, with a Frisbee in her backpack. Several of us and a couple of the park rangers played Frisbee while we waited. The activity helped settle my stomach, which was pretty unhappy again after the hour-long car ride. Finally, the guides determined that the best course of action was to start hiking in the general direction of the mangabes, and take more specific direction from the trackers once they found them. So we started walking out of the entrance to the ranger station – and stopped there while our guide consulted with the trackers via radio. A few minutes later, we were back in the car, driving to a trail that would take us to the mangabes. Half hour ride, one hour hike, he said.

The car ride really was about half an hour. Two and half hours of hiking later, we found Grey-cheeked Mangabes. It was actually one of the best hikes I’ve ever been on, so I’m not complaining. We met up with one of the trackers (the other was staying with the mangabes), and followed him off the trail and through the rainforest. We were climbing at some points, sliding down at others, and even crossed a stream with a small waterfall right behind us. At one point, Sara and Prof Netzin made themselves crowns of ferns. Around the same time, Prof Netzin said she thought the mulch we were walking on at that point smelled like mushroom soup. We decided that it was the earthy, fungal smell she was noticing. Thus, she and Sara were dubbed the queens of the fungal in the jungle. It’s probably true that being ‘in the field’ does strange things to your mind.

We stopped to eat a very quick lunch on the side of one of the mountains we were traversing, then continued on. We were rewarded on a steep slope, where we could see across the canopy where the mangabes love to stay. They were resting, which was lucky because following them would have been a real bitch. They’re arboreal, and could have leaped through those canopy trees and right out of sight in a few moments, if they had wanted. We stayed and watched them for about an hour. I got a rough demographic – there weren’t that many individuals in sight, so it was pretty easy to get a count and an idea of age, but they were far enough away that it was very difficult to tell sex, even with the binoculars. We saw some grooming behavior, and some territorial communications, and thought we may have heard some agonism going on, but we couldn’t see that so it’s hard to say. It was time to head back too soon. We had only three hours to find our way back to the road, where our driver was waiting, before the park closed. The trackers took us back a different, shorter way, and left us with our guide once we got to an actual trail. The guide got us safely back to the car. On the way back, our guide pointed out a grandfather mahogany tree – that was the oldest mahogany tree in the park, and all the roots that were visible for 40 meters around us (and there, but out of sight beyond that) were from that tree. The tree’s offspring were growing around it and from its roots. Prof Netzin took my picture with the grandfather tree in the background. It was so awesome seeing all the mahogany trees in that forest. My father liked using mahogany for the furniture he built, and I had always wondered what one would look like in person. I had a feeling that pictures wouldn’t do it justice. I was right. They were majestic, and they all had an energy about them that was completely patient, especially the grandfather tree.

At one point on our hike, we noted that the vegetation here had very little thorns or other sharp pointies, while in Akagera it had seemed like everything had spikes. It made me wonder if there’s a similar sort of selection in plants as there is in animals. Meaning, perhaps the plants in Akagera – which is primarily woodland savanna – have to expend more energy protecting their somatic investment because there’s fewer of them (due to the ecology of that place) and it’s more difficult to survive to reproductive age there. While in the rainforest, even a mountain rainforest like Nyungwe, it’s very easy to reach reproductive age as a plant because the habitat is overflowing with specimens of each species. There’s less likelihood that one species will be targeted to extinction by another species (be that plant, animal, or whatever) because there’s just so much of everything. Or, because the climate makes it easy to grow and reproduce quickly. It seems plausible, but I feel like there’s some part of this equation that I’m missing, and that could change the entire hypothesis.

So I also used the time hiking to think about this baboon problem. It seems to me that any solution must approach this from two angles; it’s not enough to just change the current culture of the baboons, we must also figure out why they began coming into villages and raiding crops/trash in the first place. Did they venture out simply because the crops are easy to get to? Easier than what they were already eating? Was it simply part of their exploratory nature? Or, is the problem what one man suggested: there’s not enough food in the habitat for a too-large baboon population? Another man mentioned that they didn’t even know how many baboons there are in any of the Rwandan parks. Perhaps, the problem is that their ranges are too crowded, and they have expanded outward as a result. If that’s the case, perhaps some sort of population control would be beneficial? With that thought, the hunting seasons and licenses we have in the States for various game came to mind, but I suspect something like that might be more detrimental than beneficial. It could, potentially (in my mind), confer some sort of legitimacy to the already problematic poachers. So maybe chemical castration? I don’t know what other forms of population control might be viable. Honestly I really don’t know what other forms even exist.

So there I am. The problem as a whole has to be solved on two levels. Also, each park will require different solutions to their specific, immediate problem, which is changing the culture of their baboons. I think that in each of the parks, the culture change can be accomplished by a multifaceted approach. They will need to tailor a plan for each, because each plan must account for and address multiple aspects.

For example, in Akagera, there is no trouble with baboons leaving the park. So a buffer zone surrounding the park might not be immediately important. More important would be containing trash and securing buildings so that neither is accessible to baboons (perhaps they could get guidance on this from zoos?), and some sort of taste aversion that makes the food/trash unappealing to the baboons. Though taste aversion should probably be chronologically placed before containment. Later, a buffer zone should be considered because being denied the food they’re accustomed to around the lodge may encourage the baboons there to start going out of the park in search of food. It does seem possible that a lack of resources or space in the forest is what drove them into human areas in the first place – and there we are back at the source of the problem. One thing I’ve noticed here in Nyungwe, though, is that the baboons eat the grass around the tea plants, but not the tea plants themselves – could they be useful in that sense as “weeders” for crops? Obviously it would have to be crops the baboons won’t eat, like the tea plants. Other crops would have to be grown elsewhere, perhaps beyond the buffer zone. Perhaps that’s also a way to encourage a more positive perception of baboons by locals.

As some point in this reflection, I got distracted by the more immediate problem of getting a fellow student up the hill and back to the car, so my musings stopped there.
We got back to our car, and then back to our houses, just in time to get ready for dinner. We were all pretty excited when our electricity came back on just a few minutes after we got home. We turned the water heater on and started the shower roster for after dinner. A couple of us followed up the after-dinner showers with a movie (Old School). I even got a call to Archer in. All in all, it was a great day.

L'hoesti monkey

gray-cheeked mangabey

I can't take credit for these awesome photographs.
Grace took them with her awesome camera.

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