by Mike Loomis
Page 1 : 13-19 July 2012
|The journal below is based on the field notes Dr. Loomis took while working in the Mintom region. The journal is also annotated with photos and one videoclip. Dr. Loomis's daily diary entries, which are submitted to FieldTripEarth via satellite telephone, can be found on the Elephants of Cameroon: Field Diaries page.|
13 July 2012
We left Limbe at 0930. Our driver was Emanuel, from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) office in Djoum. We arrived in Yaounde at 1300.
14 July 2012
We left Yaounde at 1000. The road from Yaounde to Sangmelima was paved. The pavement ended at Sangmelima, but the road from Sangmelima to Djoum was in good shape. We picked up supplies in Djoum and drove to Mintom. The road to Mintom is in the process of being paved. The project will take five years to complete. The road work has improved the road quite a bit for the first half of the trip. It rained lightly off and on most of the way to Mintom.
We arrived at Mintom at 1930. We met with Louis Defo (the project leader for the WWF Tridom project), Desire Foguekem (a WWF wildlife and forestry advisor) and Andrea Drager (a Peace Corps volunteer who is working with WWF). Andrea will be going to the field with us. We had fish for dinner.
15 July 2012
We started arranging for the team. We will be entering the forest from the village of Alati, which is near where the borders of Cameroon, Gabon, and Republic of Congo come together [map].
We have learned that 42 elephant tusks have been confiscated in the village of Lele, not too far from Alati. I am very concerned about the possible high rate of elephant poaching in the site we are headed for. I was told that Lele is a common transfer point for elephant tusks illegally brought from Gabon and Republic of Congo. It is difficult to tell exactly where the tusks came from. Last week, two of our tracker/porters returned from the area we are headed for and said there was a lot of elephant activity in the area.
16 July 2012
We left Mintom at 0900 and drove to Lele to pick up four porters. It took awhile to round them all up. We drove on to Alati to pick up the rest of the team. Two of the team members from Alati were drunk when they arrived. One of them disappeared with one of the new machetes we bought for the trip. He came back without the machete. He claimed he didn't know where the machete was. Desire told him his pay would be docked for the cost of the tool.
We had a meeting with the villagers of Alati. They were not very receptive to our entering the forest from their village. They tried to extort hundreds of dollars worth of gifts from us. They were used to working with logging companies and sport hunting concessions that had given them gifts in the past. They did not understand the difference between for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations like WWF and the North Carolina Zoological Society. After two hours of discussion and negotiations, they agreed to allow us to enter the forest after we gave them some token gifts, which is our normal procedure.
It took a long time to pack up everything before we started hiking. Only one of the local team members had experience with elephant tagging operations, or with any other scientific activity for that matter. Desire had to do most of the packing because of this inexperience. We finally started hiking at 1600. A couple of the porters were slow hikers (especially the ones that showed up drunk). The porter that we suspected of stealing the machete left his pack along the trail and returned to the village.
We passed the last available water for the next hour and a half at 1730 and decided to camp in that spot to avoid hiking in the dark. We were only 1.5 miles from Alati! Desire sent two people back to Alati to recruit a new porter. Our team members did not know how to set up tents, so Desire and I ended up setting up all of them up. The new porter arrived in camp just as dinner was ready.
17 July 2012
We packed up camp, had breakfast and were on the trail by 0830. The trail from Alati to the Ayina River is used very heavily for commerce. It crosses nine swamps between Alati and the river. We are thankful that the rains have almost stopped in this area, as it made crossing the swamps much easier at low water levels.
There is a kind of “port” where the trail meets the river. Goods are brought to this port and then taken by motorized pirogue to Gabon and Republic of Congo. A lot of passengers are also transported by the pirogues. Apparently there are two trips per month.
We saw some signs of hunting along the trail. There were also a number of porters returning from the Ayina after having dropped off their loads. We arrived at the port at 1300. There was a large pile of goods covered by a tarp when we arrived. We hiked downstream to our camp site. Our guide lost the trail and we hiked almost in a circle. One of our head trackers, Jarel, left his pack by the side of the trail. Desire had to carry it the rest of the way. I carried both my pack and Desire's day pack.
We chose a site along the river where the bank was not too steep and set up camp at 1645. Then Jarel showed up a few minutes later with no explanation. Desire had a stern talk with him. It started clouding up as we set up camp. We hurried to get the tents set up, but it didn't rain. I took a bath in the river and washed my clothes before dinner. There was a lot of noise in camp during the night. I had to get up at 2330 to quiet things down.
18 July 2012
It rained lightly from 0000 until 0100. We were up at 0615 and had beans and rice for breakfast. We were on the trail at 0740. We hiked south along the Ayina then turned east. We came to a dense patch of Afromomum and found a set of relatively fresh elephant tracks; they were approximately 48 hours old. We followed the tracks for 30 minutes. Three people followed the wrong trail and ran into a gorilla. They dropped their packs and ran back to the rest of the team. They refused to go get their packs because they were too afraid of the gorilla. Desire ended up going to get the packs. One of the three frightened by the gorilla was Jarel—supposedly our head tracker and guide.
We continued following the tracks until they crossed the Ayina. We continued searching for fresh elephant tracks. Jarel kept trying to lead us back to camp. Desire had to keep correcting the direction. We came across a second set of relatively fresh tracks and followed them until they also crossed the Ayina. We returned to camp. I took a bath in the river and washed my field clothes. We had spaghetti for dinner, which was a welcome change for me from the usual dinner of fufu cassava.
19 July 2012
We were up at 0615, had beans and rice for breakfast and were on the trail at 0800. It started raining just as we were leaving camp and continued to rain moderately for three hours. We hiked downstream again today to the area where we found relatively fresh tracks yesterday. We continued further south and found an area that appears to be a major point for elephants to cross the Ayina. There were plenty of old tracks, but no fresh tracks; also, most of the tracks were headed across the Ayina. The crossing point is at a small tributary that flows into the Ayina from the Cameroon side.
We encountered a large troop of mandrills along the trail and stopped to watch them for awhile. We followed the tributary southwest to a larger swamp. We crossed the swamp but did not find any fresh elephant signs in the swamp. We continued north from the swamp to a second large swamp, which we also crossed. There were no fresh elephant signs in this swamp either. After exiting the swamp, we hit the main trail to the Ayina. We followed the trail west to the river, then turned south and followed it to our camp.
It appears that most of the elephants that were in this area have crossed the Ayina into Minkébé National Park in Gabon [map]. Two of our team members returned from Gabon recently and said that there were a lot of bush mango trees fruiting on the Gabon side and that there were a lot of fresh elephant signs there as well. Desire called the WWF Director of Conservation to ask for authorization to cross into Gabon. WWF authorized him to cross and informed the Gabonese wildlife authorities that the team would be in Minkébé tomorrow. Since neither Andrea nor I have Gabon visas, we decided to stay on the Cameroon side. I took a bath in the river and washed my field clothes before dinner.
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