Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Field Update: a long awaited discovery in the Republic of Congo!

Our 2nd field update is from Mattia Bessone and Emmanuel Dilambaka from Conkouati-Douli National Park in the Republic of Congo. Mattia and Emmanuel are site managers for the MPI-EVA's Pan African Programme: The Cultured Chimpanzee's collaborative research site in Conkouati where we are partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society - Congo.

Mattia takes a mid-day rest in a gorilla nest
Mattia writes:
I open my eyes. Several bulbuls are loudly singing all around my tent. It is dawn, time to wake up.
I force myself out of my “house” and head to the kitchen where Olivier has already lighted the fire to prepare our breakfast. Emmanuel and Old Nita join us and we fill our plastic cups with boiling river water, powdered milk and nescafĂ©, Radio France International crackling the last news from Emma's old radio. Despite 10 hours of sleep, there is not much talking: we are all still very tired.This is the last day in the forest after three weeks of hard work, few rest and some thousands of trees visited, measured and, sometimes, identified for the habitat structure study. Tomorrow we will be back to base camp to transmit the results of the mission, my colleagues will have sometime to spend with their families and I will enjoy a proper bath and some good food. That gives us a bit of strength.
As we are all very tired, the plan is to only visit three camera-traps at the end of one of our transects, T3, the last ones missing. It won't take much and as we plan to be back around midday, we set off without food: we will eat back at camp.
We walk in silence, in single line, as we pass through the beach and enter the first patch of forest. After a 30 minutes walk we reach the savannah and eventually the path that will be our highway to the end of T3, a nicely fast shortcut.
The rainy season has started and the grass is wet with the night rains; it doesn't take long for our trousers and legs to get completely damp. Despite this unpleasant but familiar feeling we soon arrive at the entrance of the forest and the well known areas of our transect.
Making our way through a swamp we climb a little hill and we found ourselves surrounded by a large group of red-river hogs that noisily flee away, scattering in the forest.
Few hundred meters more and a familiar, unmistakable smell hit us: gorillas! We all start looking around and soon we found their fresh night nests, really close to our track, one of them even built on a tree we monitored for a year straight for the phenology study. That means good ape samples and it will be our job on the way back: there's still quite a long walk to arrive at the furthest camera and we want to be there before the rain.
When we eventually get to the spot “voilĂ ”, it rains. We wear our rain-coats and download the videos. Nothing particularly exciting though, just like the second camera: a few duikers, some elephants but no chimps. We quickly move to the very last camera which is actually quite an interesting one, placed in front of a big log chosen by some stingless-bees to build their hive.
Not far from Conkouati, chimpanzee in other population from Congo and Gabon are known to use tools for different purposes but, after 18 months of PanAf work here and years of monitoring by our collaborators, the WCS-Congo, we still have no clues about our group and we are really struggling to find out the reason why.We arrive on the spot and we freeze. If you wanted to imagine the scenario of a tool-use site you would have pictured exactly what we are seeing: the hive is completely crashed and a couple of sticks are laying on the log. 
We try to be cool and switch off the camera before approaching and make sure that it has not been some villager or well...who knows. But there is no doubt, this was done by a chimpanzee!
The hive has been crashed with a rather big branch, used to pound the entrance. This was found just  next to the hive, leaning against the log. On the other side we found a second tool, a stick, that has been clearly inserted in the hole and still has several wax remains attached. And in front of the log a third, shorter, tool with clear signs of wear: one of the extremities looks exactly like a brush. This is not simply a tool, but a complete tool-set for honey extraction!We hug each other, shake hands, release ourselves in laughters and all the tiredness is replaced by excitement. We did it! We eventually found tool-use in our population.
The “crime scene”: a) the original, untouched bee-hive; b) crashed bee-hive; c) the log and
two of the tools laying beside the hive (pounder on the right and first inserted stick on the left). 
All we still have to do is check the incredible videos the camera has recorded and we eagerly arrange a cover for the laptop with my poncho to protect it from the rain. 
And then again, everything changes and our excitement is replaced by dismay. The camera did not record a single video except those about the installation and the removal for the downloading.
Speechless we examine the camera, trying to understand what on earth could have gone wrong. The device seems working and it ironically records my impression of a chimp walking around the hive.
With no answers but loaded with irritation and frustration we collect the tools, put up the camera again, turn our backs and move back to camp. We stop to collect the gorillas faeces and hair we left on the way, then rush back on our savannah path. Not a word is pronounced in the route and the silence is broken only at camp, for the basic communication to prepare lunch.
With some foufou in our mouths, a good fish soup in our plates and the sun finally shining above us, we eventually decide to discuss the day.It is true, we failed to record the behavior, we have lost an amazing chance, probably the only one we have. But on the other hand, after months of work, thoughts, efforts and frustration, we finally have the first evidence of tool-use in our population. The bees are still in the hive and the chimpanzees now know the place and are likely to come back and visit it again in the next months. In addition, we are now confident that, maybe, even the other bee-hive we are monitoring will be visited and the honey harvested. There is still hope. After all, it is a day worth celebrating! 
And we all help ourselves with another generous portion of soup. 
The team back at camp, proudly posing with the tool-set.
From left to right Emmanuel, Olivier, Nita and Mattia.

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