Why everyone should care about African Grey Parrots

You do not need to convince me that the African Grey Parrot is a spectacular bird. I have walked through rainforest surrounded by their cacophonous vocalizations, and seen 100 parrots descend to the ground as a blurred grey and red unit in an isolated clearing. But surely, most of you will not. Most of you will never step foot in Africa, far fewer will ever come to Democratic Republic of Congo, and you may not even be remotely interested in birds. So why care about the African Grey Parrot?

I now write from New Jersey, and have said my goodbyes to eastern/central Africa for the fourth time. Having spent the last week separated from my morning “Bonjours,” as I was greeted every morning for the last five months, I have had some time to reflect on my experience from a separated, Western point of view. Here, I communicate some personal thoughts about why this “problem over there in Africa” is not just a problem over there in Africa.

My last night in DRC: a view of the Congo River from the Harts' compound in Kinshasa.

My last night in DRC: a view of the Congo River from the Harts’ compound in Kinshasa.

What is the problem over there that is also relevant over here? A ridiculous question, scratch it. I might as well ask, “Which object, on Earth, is taller than a chair?” To narrow down the field, therefore: my specific problem is also the most tangible reason to care about African Grey Parrots (AGPs): they are disappearing from their forests, from the wild. Why? The overwhelming culprit is capture for the pet trade.

Like any other wildlife trade, there is a network of people responsible for parrot captures, a capture/trade chain (which more resembles a web when you get into it). At one end of this chain are the climbers—the people actually setting the glue traps or plucking nestlings of the trees. They earn about $8 per parrot. On the other end of the chain are the wealthy consumers—the people really driving AGP capture. They will pay over $1000 for an AGP. It is extremely important to remember that the consumers drive captures in the wild; Materieaux, my friend and trapper from Lac Ndjale, would not climb trees to harvest nestlings if no one was interested in buying them. Reduce the demand, and we will reduce AGP captures.

At the same clearing, several people from the village ~25km away have started trapping AGPs. They built this large holding cage in late May, about 2 weeks before I arrived.

At at an isolated forest clearing northwest of the Lomami Park, several people from the village ~25km away have started trapping AGPs. They built this large holding cage next to the clearing in early June, about 2 weeks before I arrived.

But let’s back up even further. What if you don’t even care about species conservation as a concept? It’s not a crime, and you’re not alone. As I’ve mentioned, most of you will never see an African Grey Parrot in the wild, and whether or not their population is vigorous will not affect your day-to-day life. It doesn’t affect mine, either. I woke up this morning without depending on any wild AGPs to cook me breakfast, and I will again tomorrow. It is easy to be complacent with the population crash “over there,” and ostentatiously, nothing will change for us over here. So again, why care?

What sets people apart from every other species? Many things, which I will be more qualified to detail after I start my Biological Anthropology graduate program in the fall. But to start, humans place extraordinary value on our individuals, as opposed to our species as a whole. If we place emphasis on particular individuals of a non-human species—even go so far as to give individuals a name—that is a clear signal that the species’ survival in the wild is a significant issue. Wild mountain gorillas and black rhinoceros are under constant armed surveillance, as an extreme example, and I am sure that each of the 5 remaining Northern White Rhinoceros (August 3rd update: 4 remaining Northern White Rhinoceros) have a name. And remember, these AGPs are trapped for the pet trade—isn’t that the first step for every competent pet owner, to give the pet a name? Almost by definition, owning a pet places emphasis on the individual. Now, you could argue that if conservation awareness was proportional to the number of individuals of a certain species with a name, we would have billions of dollars pouring in every year for domestic dog conservation. I would argue that domestic dogs do not exist in the wild, so the point is moot. You could also argue that of most animals in zoos have names, regardless of their status in the wild. I would argue that although the North American River Otter is not a particularly threatened species, you can be sure that baby otter Oscar at the zoo will only attract more money for conservation support should otters ever need it. The message: people relate to individuals with names, because we stop thinking about them as general populations. This is a powerful example of anthropomorphism: the treatment of non-human animals as if they exhibited human characteristics.

Anthropomorphism is a dangerous road to go down in science because scientists are supposed to follow the creed of objectivity. When we start giving individual animals names, we start to associate them with other human characteristics (that parrot looks sad!), and we breach the holy objectivity barrier (there’s a poignant pun in there—perhaps the barrier is not quite so solid as scientists would like to think). But ultimately, anthropomorphizing can be a very powerful conservation tactic, in my opinion. If we are so obsessed with the limits of giving human characteristics to animals, why don’t we just consider the human characteristics of humans? For the past 3.5 months, I have focused on the issues that threaten wild AGPs, and one fact has become more and more obvious: the most effective tool for AGP preservation is to help the people living in places there are wild AGPs. The argument is simple: we, “over here,” would be average if we didn’t care about parrots, but we would be inhuman not to care about people.

There is a concept in biology called an “umbrella species”: essentially, a captivating species that will readily attract a lot of attention, and therefore money—money which will benefit many other species in the same ecosystem by default. Traditionally, the umbrella species for my work would be the AGP itself, but its charisma pales in comparison to the most charismatic species of all: people. Instinct tells me that considering people as an umbrella species is a sensitive tact: accepting the concept relies on humans just being basic biological organisms—which of course we are—and strips us of our elitist notions of evolutionary superiority. (Ironically, evolution pioneer Charles Darwin does just that in “On the Origin of Species,” where he introduces the world to the idea of evolution through natural selection.) In a modern context, I can confirm through personal experience that human superiority is neither universal nor unconditional. Although uncomfortable to talk or even think about, many captive animals in western homes are privileged to an all-around superior life than many people who live in villages around the Lomami Park.

Often times, a remote village is not a place I want to be. The time spent there is extremely significant, and valuable, but I spend many hours thinking about being somewhere else. I have to work to remind myself how valuable the experience is: I am fortunate to spend time in these remote villages, and consider my own privileges in very tactile contrast. I go there, and people literally cry out for help. I must be their voice, because theirs is as silent to the rest of the world as an African Grey Parrot’s—whose remarkable speaking voice, ironically, is what makes them so sought after as pets. So what do parrots, and people, say that most people will never here? Simply: we are here, and we suffer. Don’t forget about us.

Evidently, the “problem over there” with the African Grey Parrot population decline quickly expands into a human welfare issue. Just like the network of people who are involved in the devastating AGP pet trade, “problems over there” are a complex web when you start to worry about solving them. And this is intimidating: how can I make a difference, how can I penetrate the tangles and complexities of this web to tease out specific issues and define any tangible goal? By reading this (and for me, writing it), we have already take one collective giant leap forward: we are thinking about it, not ignoring it. Knowledge is power, and knowledge—not just knowledge, in fact, but access to knowledge—is a right most Congolese lack. DRC has no way to give it to them. Take advantage of our access to knowledge: read about the issues, and talk about them. Support a growing movement of international pressure that the Congolese are forced to respond to. In this Africa Geographic article on AGPs published last year, the author ends with a question: “…do member countries have the political will and control over the [AGP population decline] to take the necessary action?” Right now, the answer for DRC is no. There is no internal management of AGP capture and trade in DRC. The country needs help.TL2_20150515_38

Two primary school classrooms more resemble demolition sites in Bafundo (top) and Elengalale (bottom). The primary and secondary-level education in DRC is appallingly inadequate.

Two primary school classrooms more resemble demolition sites in Bafundo (top) and Elengalale (bottom). The primary and secondary-level education in DRC is appallingly inadequate.

Because many Congolese are so overwhelmed with managing their daily crises, they do not have the luxury to consider how remarkable their country is. The best thing that people around the world can do is to help convince the Congolese to take pride in their country. Sadly, their issues always boil down to what each person needs to do right now to make money. Right now, my Lac Ndjale friend Materieaux sees AGP nestlings as a resource available for extract, because that is how he earns money. This is generally how Congolese see their forest, their river, and any other natural monuments that should instill great national pride: a way to make money. Ironically, money is exactly how most people see AGPs everyday without thinking about it: as the background figure on their 1000 Franc bill. But with enough international support, the Congolese can change their natural monument paradigm from one of exploitation to one of protection.

With international pressure to protect comes pride, and with pride will come a drive to preserve—and to show off. That is where tourism can really benefit DRC. As it stands, the average remote, impoverished village is not a travel destination you will find in a brochure. Except for Virunga and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks (both adventure tourist destinations in eastern DRC), in fact, this is not a country that has any sort of infrastructure to accommodate foreigners. Lac Ndjale, for example, should be nationally (and internationally) revered, and flocks of people should travel from continents away to visit. You should be able to rent kayak to paddle up the Kasuku River (Kasuku is the local name for AGPs), and you should be able to take fishing trips on the lake. There should be cultural tours in the villages, followed by a sunset dugout canoe ride. DRC has an incredible wealth of natural and cultural attractions, but no feasible way, at present, for people to go experience them. In short, by supporting the conservation of AGPs, we will support the preservation of DRC’s natural and cultural heritage, and directly benefit Materieaux and all other destitute Congolese living there.

A flock of more than 70 parrots visits a remote forest clearing northwest of the Lomami Park.

A group of more than 70 African Grey Parrots visits a remote forest clearing northwest of the Lomami Park.

The world is a big place, full of wild and wonderful things that intrigue our eyes and stimulate our imaginations. How lucky we are, that the unknown world is still big enough to leave room for imagination! And yet, sometimes we know where the wild things are, and choose to forget they are there. Until the brilliant day we discover there are dinosaurs at the center of the earth, let us focus on what we know is there, and we know is struggling. Wild things often live in tandem with people who cannot afford to appreciate them, and people, lest we forget, are not wild. They are people.

If African Grey Parrots are extirpated from DRC, just like elephants, tigers, rhinoceros, and every other disappearing charismatic species, it will not be the end of the world. But it will wound both our eyes and imaginations. Each morning the sun will still rise, but the following day may seem a bit more dull, a bit more dreary, and a bit more grey.

Rather, less Grey. TL2_20150623_147

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The Heart of Africa “unfiltered”: A Lac Ndjale case study

This title is immediately misleading, so I immediately set to clarify it.

Unlike many other countries, it is not possible to live in an “American bubble,” in DRC: to select my accommodation, food, and activities to avoid real inundation into Congolese culture and avoid actually being somewhere different. By and large, the difficulties of living here do not discriminate, and there are no “get out of jail free” cards (it is well understood that “get out of jail” cards are for sale, only). Still, to whatever extent I can access the DRC “cheat codes,” I have, because of the internal support provided by John and Terese Hart. It would be remarkably difficult to operate at all in DRC without significant internal support (at the most basic level, foreigners need a letter of invitation from a Congolese institution to even obtain a visa), and it would be impossible for me to be productive without the TL2 framework John and Terese Hart have been building since 2007.

Setting up a program in DRC from scratch is an enormous task, and I will do a poor job of putting it into context because it is still completely over my head, but at the very least: they needed to establish a network of local connections, evaluate and hire staff who can actually operate somewhat reliably, set up base camps, establish partnerships with provincial and national administrations, and somehow wade their way through the endlessly frustrating and nonsensical, comprehensively corrupt, inept, inefficient, and overall debilitating DRC paradigm. I have been the beneficiary of their trailblazing ever since I started work in DRC, and by rights things are easier for me here than they should be. Do not misconstrue this to mean my exposure thus far has been particularly “filtered,” and I certainly do not imply that living and working here is easy! But the complexities have been somewhat watered-down, and I am fortunate enough to see much of what’s best in Congo without being exposed to the worst.

Lac Ndjale was different because is not connected to the Lomami Park at all, and TL2 has no infrastructure or contacts in place there. My visit to Lac Ndjale was not my first experience working outside the Lomami Park (indeed, there are no villages inside the park) and breaching the “filter effect” it produces, but to-date it was my most significant non-park trip, and most exhausting. I relate a small number of the events of this 5-day trip below (believe me, this post is only the tip of the iceberg). I will also note that John and Terese would never send me to a location that they considered a threat to my personal safety, and I did travel with a TL2 staff member who had been to the site before. Perhaps this case-study, then, is more accurately characterized as “80% unfiltered,” but I’ve taken artistic license with the title.

Lac Ndjale is about 60km south of Kindu, where the Kasuku River dumps into a shallow basin (the lake) before continuing its serpentine flow northward. Although quite distant from the Lomami Park, it was important place for me to go in the scope of my African Grey Parrot (AGP) research: TL2 received reports early in 2015 that the lake was a significant nesting site for AGPs, and a site where parrot captures were perhaps incredible and escalating. I needed to document the site and assess the parrot capture activities there as accurately as possible. This trip was also important because it was TL2’s first attempt to coordinate with the Maniema Provincial Administration (Kindu is the capital of Maniema province, therefore where the office of the Maniema Ministry of the Environment is located). Maniema province does have its own legislature to regulate the legal AGP capture season, and then there are the national AGP export regulations imposed by CITES. But can the provincial government really enforce its own AGP capture and trade regulations? Up until now the answer is no, and TL2 hopes to improve that—or at the very least evaluate the Ministry’s potential to enforce restrictions in the future.

I was accompanied to Lac Ndjale by a ministry official named Lambert, but my difficulties with the Ministry started before I even met Lambert. Initially the Minister delegated an official named Tambwe to accompany the trip. He had several meetings with John while I was away from Kindu, and I met him personally on a Thursday (I wanted to leave the following Sunday). We had a nice meeting: I outlined the trip to Lac Ndjale, and I described a subsequent trip he would take to another parrot trapping site near the village Shopo. We parted amicably, and he said he would return the next day to continue our logistics planning. No word from him on Friday or Saturday morning, until finally Salumu (TL2 Kindu programs manager) reached the Minister who relayed that Tambwe had decided not to go. He never wanted to spend five days outside of Kindu in a more remote village, and certainly did not want to continue onto Shopo. Why didn’t he tell me this, or John even earlier, instead of fabricating interest and watch us chase his Ministry windmill over a few unnecessary days of meetings? Because a recurring Congolese instinct is to avoid dealing with a problem until you are actually, physically, confronted with it. It makes complete sense that Tambwe would not tell anyone he had no intention of going, until it was actually time to leave. Regardless, after much more difficulty, this other official Lambert was identified. We could still not leave on Sunday, however, as I had hoped…why? Because no one told me Lambert lived 40km outside Kindu across the river, and had no dependable capacity to arrive in Kindu on his own. I sent someone to get him, met him at the TL2 office briefly, and we were ready to leave for Lake Ndjale on Monday morning.

On Monday morning, we were not ready to leave for Lake Ndjale. Lambert lacked his Ordre de Mission (see my description below) from the Minister. When Lambert finally arrived at the TL2 office at 11am, Ordre de Mission in hand and ready to go, he was not ready to go. As I mounted my motorbike, he rubbed his stomach and explained very slowly, in patronizingly-simple Swahili, that he had not eaten anything yet that day. This was the first of several occasions I was completely taken aback by Lambert’s ineptitude, and reminded him that he was a grown man who needed to display some ability to take care of himself. I will spare everyone the laundry list of Lambert’s numerous complications during our trip, but to summarize: he is a government official of the Ministry of the Environment and Tourism who has not worked in “the environment,” and this is very apparent after he walks in the sun for fifteen minutes. This speaks to the Ministry’s limited capacity to train staff as much as it speaks to Lambert personally.

Anyway, at about 11:30am, Mustafa, Lambert and I departed Kindu for Lac Ndjale. After a very uncomfortable 2 hour motorbike ride (it should have been 3), we arrived at one of the villages on the lake. DRC is not a country that has any sort of social infrastructure to accommodate foreigners; indeed, it is difficult enough for Congolese to move around, because almost any sort of “system” for local movements will be ill-managed, unpredictable, and unreliable. Most people here do not move around at all, and are often surprised to see someone from the outside come in—even a Congolese they don’t know. There will always be questions asked about why they are there. This complication is magnified tenfold for me as a white person (mzungu).

One manifestation of this “infrastructure” for internal DRC travel is the Mission Order, or Ordre de Mission (OdM). The OdM is a document that every person, Congolese or not, needs to travel outside of their home territories (essentially, anywhere). The origins of this document trace back to Congo under Belgian rule, when some Congolese would migrate among territories to evade tax payments. The Belgians instated this OdM as a way to restrict local movements, and that’s exactly what this vestigial, synthetic certificate continues to do today. Any local authority can demand that you present your OdM, and there is almost always something “wrong” with it. A predictable argument ensues about the “protocol” we’ve avoided to obtain the “correct authorization,” and this will usually continue until the authority figure is bribed. In truth, I always travel with my OdM but avoid showing it whenever possible. It’s easier just to skip to the bribe.

All of this I knew before I left the TL2 office in Kindu, and we had to deal with it continually throughout our trip. We spent hours discussing our mission with local authorities, most of whom have no real respect for the Provincial administration that has no real impact on their day-to-day lives. They could not actually prohibit us from passing through, but they could publicly proclaim their disapproval by not signing Lambert’s OdM. The chief of the village where the AGP nesting site was, on the other hand, presented a more significant barrier. To some extent, I anticipated this as well: local village chiefs ostensibly own the forest around their villages (not actually), and it is common to spend some in discussion with the chief (i.e. negotiating how much $$ to give him) before we are allowed to access “his” forest.

I did not anticipate the extent of this challenge at Losoma, the village that “owns” the AGP nesting site.

Crossing a savannah en route to Losoma. Lambert is behind me, somewhere.

Crossing a savannah en route to Losoma. Lambert is behind me, somewhere.

Village chiefs are like spoiled toddlers: they know how to ask for what they want, and do not recognize any limit for what is reasonable to get. The difference is that there is no responsible parent around to tell the chief that they can’t get what they ask for. As I’ve mentioned, if traveling with the “sufficient” authority is a problem for Congolese, it is magnified tenfold for mzungus. Everything I do will be scrutinized, each step I take judged, and everyone assumes I have an endless supply of money. Indeed, I put particular emphasis this trip on telling people not to just call me mzungu, which is what usually happens. Often mzungu is not meant to be derogatory (sometimes it is), but regardless the word carries a certain weight and implication—a remarkable relevant implication on this trip, as I later found out. A “mzungu” in the implicit sense, is necessarily out of place in DRC and has only come to buy something. On this trip, and ever since I have been in DRC, I am not this ubiquitous mzungu. I have a name, and I expect people who interact with to ask for it. I’m happy to say that now I’m well known around Lac Ndjale as Papa André.

Lac Ndjale. Water lilies all the way across = shallow lake.

Lac Ndjale. Water lilies all the way across = shallow lake.

We had to cross part of the lake via small dugout canoe. It looks small in the picture, I agree, but the perspective does not do its size justice...this dugout was not designed for three people and gear.

We had to cross part of the lake via small dugout canoe. It looks small in the picture, I agree, but the perspective does not do its size justice…this dugout was not designed for three people and gear.

When I arrive in the more remote villages, I am usually surrounded with a group of gaping, disbelieving children. In Mopa, my small welcome party was much more energetic and social.

When I arrive in the more remote villages, I am usually surrounded with a group of gaping, disbelieving children. In Mopa, a village on the shores of Lac Ndjale, my small welcome party was much more energetic and social.

Our initial discussions the first evening with the Losoma chief went almost as usual: why are you here, you can’t be here, give me money, that’s not enough so you can’t go into the forest. Why can’t we go? Not enough money again. Why can’t we go? Not enough money, and you will bring death to our people because those who climb trees will now fall from them. Why can’t we go? Not enough money. OK. Meeting adjourned. Of course I still planned to go the nesting site the next day, because having the chief “prohibit” access at first is expected. I would just give him something the next morning, and we’d be all set. Congolese business as usual. Still, I say this discussion went almost as usual. There were two notable distinctions I discerned (and remember, I always have to deal with the language complication—I am in no means fluent in Swahili): first, the chief’s demanded sum for us to visit the nesting site was $50,000. This is astronomical, even by ridiculous mzungu standards. Five hundred dollars would be a more common ridiculous asking-price, which we’d negotiate down to maybe $20. The second big difference was a comment the chief made about wazungus (more than one mzungu) who came in 1936, and that the people in the village were afraid.

I did not completely understand what the chief meant by this until right before we left Losoma, two days later. Throughout my three days in Losoma, we solicited the help of Materieaux, one of the prominent AGP trappers there. As I’ve mentioned, this is a AGP nesting site, and rather unique for parrot trapping sites because trappers are climbers who simply collect chicks from the nest before they can fly. Most AGP trapping locations congregation points but not nesting sites, and the adults are targeted with other trapping techniques. At Losoma, climbers leave the adults alone because they are necessary to produce the chicks, which are more valuable on the AGP market. Materieaux ended up guiding me in a dugout canoe along a portion of the nesting site, and even installed a camera trap about 50 feet up a tree. This guided nesting site visit lasted about one hour: save for a few cumulative hours of AGP observations from the village itself in the early morning and evening, all other time in Losoma was spent arguing with the chief, arguing with other villagers, resting, waiting, eating, and waiting.

Materieaux was in fact one of the nicest people I’ve met in DRC outside the TL2 organization, and almost everyone in the village was opposed to Materieaux showing me the nesting site except Materieaux himself! Still, during day-and-a-half after he did guide me through a portion of the nesting site, he continued to ask me not to leave him in Losoma. I heard this plea often from a woman who identified herself as Materieaux’s sister, as well. He elaborated quite a bit on his reasons, but all I understood was that he did not want to stay in Losoma when I left, and he was afraid to go to prison in Kindu. I assumed he thought I would bring military with me to enforce parrot regulations he was breaking (he was not aware of any regulations, in fact), and at the same time go to Kindu and look for better work there. This was the wrong assumption.

I did eventually understand the actual reason he was afraid, right before I left Losoma, but to relate this I rewind to our first discussion with the Losoma chief when he asked for $50,000. The chief—and other villagers—incorrectly assumed the objectives of our mission from the get-go: they feared I had come to buy the forest and the Kasuku River. The chief’s reference to 1936 was to the Belgian colonization, when taking the forest was exactly what they did. So serious was this fear, that soon after my team arrived in Losoma a party traveled to the sector chief (a sort of Territory chief, a chief of chiefs), several days’ distant, to round up a posse of local police. These local police were summoned not to arrest our team members, but to arrest Materieaux. Although completely irrational, I had to assume this put Materieaux in very real danger. Terese confirmed this later, who said the local police would have very likely tortured Materieaux until he paid them off (with money he did not have). It has happened to TL2 staff in the past. For his safety, Materieaux traveled with us when we left Losoma. I made it clear to the Losoma chief that we were not hiding Materieaux: the chief was to tell the police, when they arrived, that we took Materieaux because there had been a serious misunderstanding. We were traveling to the sector chief to relate these events, and inform him that our only intention this visit was to observe the nesting site. When we did arrive at the locality where the sector chief resides, he was not present, nor were any acting intermediates. We were forced to leave Materieaux at this village after a big argument with his older brother, without ever clearing up the situation with the sector chief. I hope we left Materieaux in a better position than if he had remained in Losoma, however I have no way to confirm his current situation. He is someone I think TL2 should strive to cultivate a strong relationship with, and his well-being is something that has weighed heavily on me ever since.

As we left Losoma, Lambert was anxious for a TL2-Ministry cooperative handshake, proof of our outstanding field partnership. I was less enthusiastic.

As we left Losoma, Lambert was anxious for a TL2-Ministry cooperative handshake, proof of our outstanding field partnership. I was less enthusiastic. Others pictured are the Kinshasa chief (next to Lambert), our guide/porters, and Materieaux on the bottom right.

All I’ve related here in brief is not by any means an exceptional set of circumstances. John and Terese didn’t throw up their hands after I told them and say, “That’s it, we give up and leave Congo forever.” They’ve certainly seen far worse than this. There are only a few real criminals here (with some notable exceptions). Most people just live in a constant crisis- mode, and every day struggle to sustain themselves by doing what they know how to do. Materieaux knows how to fish and climb trees to collect parrots. It is not a coincidence that many current conservation crises with charismatic species are in impoverished countries: the people are not as efficient in eradicating them, so some hang on. John and Terese—and me, to some level—are conservation scientists, and DRC is a place that needs conservation scientists. We deal with the accompanying difficulties because we are here, and we have to.

I am write for the first time from Kisangani, Orientale province. It is my first visit to this metropolitan epicenter of DRC (e.g. multi-story buildings look less out-of-place, and the electricity flows perhaps 10 hours on an average day versus 1 in Kindu), and I traveled here by commercial barge up the Congo River. It was a three day trip, and a fantastically genuine experience to see the single most important natural feature of central Africa. The boat itself offered a full brunt of customary Congolese travel: a slow-moving and ill-maintained vehicle, with too many people and continuous delays for no reason at all. I am glad for the experience, but was happy to arrive in Kisangani without any serious issues. And, I am gearing up for my final trip to the forest, which will probably not even take me inside the park. I will leave tomorrow, and when I come back to Kisangani in roughly three weeks’ time, I will have only one week left in DRC before I return to the US.

Old Man (Congo) River has taken quite a toll on our barge, which I lived on for three days while traveling north up the Congo to Kisangani.

Old Man (Congo) River has taken quite a toll on our barge, which I lived on for three days while traveling north up the Congo to Kisangani.

There were other people who had the same idea.

There were other people who had the same idea.

We often had fisherman who paddled up to the barge, and clung to the side as they sold passengers fresh fish.

We often had fisherman who paddled up to the barge, and clung to the side as they sold passengers fresh fish.

The quintessential Congo River sunset.

The quintessential Congo River sunset.

In the meantime, life and work in DRC progress rapidly and I am unable to summarize even half of the events here as they happen, let alone my activities, impressions, other commentary…I will have to write and reminisce about DRC while I prepare to start graduate school in the fall. I do hope to write one final update from Kinshasa in one month’s time.

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Kindu and Katopa, 2011-2015: Three and-a-half years distinct

In the region of the Congo where the Harts have established a provincial park, soon to be upgraded to an official National park, the makeup of the landscape is intimately connected to three rivers: the Tshuapa, Lomami, and Lualaba (another name for the Congo River south of Kisangani). They refer to the general landscape in and around the park as the TL2 landscape. In the three and-a-half years that has passed since my last TL2 visit, much has changed in Kindu and the park. Right as the Compagnie Africaine d’Aviation (CAA) plane landed in Kindu, the new tarmac airstrip was apparent; the tarmac even continued onto a few of Kindu’s main roads. This construction was all through Chinese contractors, of course, completed in 2014, and in no way connected to a centralized DRC government effort to improve its abysmal country-wide infrastructure. The Chinese are interested in Congolese resources—particularly minerals—and  in a “gesture of good will” might offer to build a road for a small price. They convince the Congolese they will benefit from this road, and forget to mention that the tarmac quality is terrible and the road will collapse without any maintenance within a few years. In actuality, Kindu has no need for tarmac (it’s not a big city, ca. 200,000 people), and the majority of important transportation is via the Congo River anyway. A growingly-common case of international extortion and local naiveté, unfortunately, and a clear indication that the Chinese are interested in planting a foothold here in DRC for future resource extraction.

Other new construction I find more appropriate is underway on the Harts’ compound in Kindu. Several months ago they acquired the vacated property adjacent to their own, and since my end-March arrival there have been numerous renovations in progress. This includes a new property fence, improved electricity, and maybe even plumbing (I saw a sink carried into the house a couple days ago, which implies running water, but I’ll believe it when I see it). Whereas in 2011 I slept in a tent next to the house, this new building has more room to accommodate visitors so I now have a room with a bed. Of  course construction in DRC is not very timely, and workers often leave for the evening with everything they disassembled—like the entire bathroom—still disassembled. Following, I have not been able to open my bedroom windows the past couple of nights due to the open septic tank nearby. But TL2 work in the property’s “office space” progresses nonetheless: whereas in 2011 the only internet access in Kindu was at a single public internet cafe, we can now use USM modems through cellular provider Vodacom and access internet right from the Harts’ house. This is the same sort of internet setup I used in Uganda, and it works pretty well.

My comparison with 2011 doesn’t stop at Kindu: although the route to access the park is the same—6-hour motorbike ride to village Chombe Kilima and 40km walk across park to Katopa—the process runs more smoothly and deliberately now. Following a severe accident in 2012, everyone wears helmets on the motorbikes. The Kasuku River crossing (where my motorbike fell into the river in 2011) is also more methodological: the heavy bikes are leaned on opposite sides of the dugout to balance it, and they usually make two trips so some people cross after the bikes. John and I arrived in Chombe Kilima at about 8:20PM on April 14th, and crossed the park in 11 hours the next day to arrive in Katopa late evening.

TL2’s Katopa camp, right on the banks of the Lomami River, was a welcome and largely familiar sight, although the camp itself has seen its share of changes since 2011 as well. First, to reach the camp, we need to cross the Lomami River. The camp (and namesake village next to it) are on the western bank of the river, and our walk delivers us to the east bank. The Harts own two large dugouts with motors, and one of them is now based at Katopa, so this time we could cross the river by power of machine. The immediate obvious difference at the camp was the number of people. Currently the Harts have four different projects with operations in Katopa: surveillance, botany, camera traps, and now parrots. The botany program in particular requires many staff members, so at its most crowded there were about 15-18 people at camp. When compared to 3 or 4 people, as was usually the case in 2011, a large group presents some significant logistical problems: most notably, food and water.

Most of the April Katopa team, including TL2 staff from 4 different projects. For the botany project, TL2 also hired several Mbuti pygmies from the Ituri Forest, North Kivu (4 of them in this picture, front and center). They are extremely capable tree-climbers, and the project depends on them to collect samples from the canopy.

Most of the April Katopa team, including TL2 staff from 4 different projects. For the botany project, TL2 also hired several Mbuti pygmies from the Ituri Forest, North Kivu (4 of them in this picture, front and center). They are extremely capable tree-climbers, and the project depends on them to collect samples from the canopy.

When I arrived at Katopa in 2011 I asked John if they boiled the drinking water, and his answer was a casual “Mm, I think so.” Good thing I had iodine tablets with me at the time. Since then, they are devoting much more attention to water quality, and all drinking water goes through a two-stage purification process: boiling, to take care of biological contaminants, and filtration, to remove the silt and all other particulate matter. Well, there is quite a bit of particulate matter in the water, which clogs up the filters and significantly slows the filtration process. With 15 people drinking filtered water, this is a problem. The solution? Fill up when you can, and wait when you can’t. Likewise for meals, it is very challenging to organize the amount of food required for 15 people in such a remote location. I didn’t realize just how challenging, in fact, until I attempted to organize an overnight trip for myself and Max (a German intern with whom I overlapped at Katopa for a few days) to the Lomami rapids, a 3-hour hike upstream. I thought it would be easy enough to pack up some food our cook would prepare at Katopa, and leave the camp early-afternoon. After some frustrating back-and-forth with the cook and the camp manager, I finally understood that this arrangement would not be possible because the food for dinner would not even arrive in camp until early evening. With 15 people eating and going in all different directions for different amounts of time, the food stock isn’t even day-to-day—it’s meal to meal. As it turned out, we took a small amount of rice with us, and bought some fish at the village Badinga next to the rapids.

We had a long discussion with the chief of Badinga about whether or not we could pitch our tents right along the river; he was strictly against it unless we paid an exorbitant fee of $35. (By American standards, $35 is rather minimal, but a small fortune for a single payment to a remote village chief. The fact that we objected to was not due to the amount of money per se, rather the precedent it sets for how TL2 is represented: we do not just want to hand out significant lump sums for no good reason. The chief may think he owns the forest, but he does not.) So, we opted to sleep in the village and paid the chief about $3.5 for his “hospitality.” Fortunate for us, it turned out, not to have slept deeper in the forest, because that night I experienced one of the most severe thunderstorms I can remember. The next morning a very large tree, at least 100ft tall, had fallen about 50ft from my tent. Walking down to the rapids that morning and, later, back to Katopa, we had to scramble and hack through/over/around numerous large tree falls. It was the sort of storm a tropical rainforest experiences only once in a great while, and is responsible for most of the clearings in the canopy which allow enough sunlight for ground regeneration.

A large tree uprooted and blown over about 50 feet from my tent, and almost on top of several houses in Badinga.

A large tree uprooted and blown over about 50 feet from my tent, and almost on top of several houses in Badinga.

The rapids were a great place to visit, in part to see the specialized fishing traps designed to catch fish as they swim upstream against the formidable current.

The rapids were a great place to visit, in part to see the specialized fishing traps designed to catch fish as they swim upstream against the formidable current.

Much of the forest in TL2 is secondary rainforest characterized by dense undergrowth that makes bushwhacking difficult under normal circumstances. Add other factors on top of that, like new windfalls and seasonal swamps, and trekking through the forest becomes very slow exhausting work. Before the overnight at the rapids, I had spent 4 days traveling on the Lomami River and bushwhacking through the forest on an exploratory mission to find new, potentially important parrot sites. Essentially, I would look at satellite imagery through ArcGIS and/or GoogleEarth, identify possible locations based on what the aerial appearance of the forest composition, mark those points on my GPS unit, and then navigate to those points. I began my trip with 12 sites to visit, but time restrictions allowed access to only 6 of them. Overall it was great to spend time traveling on a dugout, in the middle of a tropical forest to boot, and we discovered several sites which are likely very important for parrots and other park wildlife.

There were many recent elephant paths inside this clearing we visited, which is inside the Lomami park boundary. These would be forest elephants, taxonomically distinct from the more widespread savannah elephants. Elephants are an exceptional species to observe and monitor because of overwhelming targeted poaching operations. Especially here in the southern sector of the park, where there are fewer elephant observations, clearings like this one are extremely important to document.

There were many recent elephant paths inside this clearing we visited, which is inside the Lomami park boundary. These would be forest elephants, taxonomically distinct from the more widespread savannah elephants. Elephants are an exceptional species to observe and monitor because of overwhelming targeted poaching operations. Especially here in the southern sector of the park, where there are fewer elephant observations, clearings like this one are extremely important to document.

Wading through a flooded swamp forest (no pictures of the deep sections--not going to risk my camera!)

Wading through a flooded swamp forest (no pictures of the deep sections–not going to risk my camera!)

A peaceful ride downstream on the Lomami River.

A peaceful ride downstream on the Lomami River.

All romanticisms of 4 days on the river aside, it was pleasant to return to Katopa for a bit more substantial food (again, relatively) and a set of dry clothes. Obtaining dry clothes/shoes at Katopa is now easier following the advent of TL2’s botany program, for which John and Terese built a dedicated dry room. This dry room is a brick building, and seems very out of place situated perhaps 100s of kilometers from the next brick building. Although it was designed to dry out plant specimens, the hot, moisture-free interior also begs to accumulate sopping field gear, and I was happy to oblige.

A goliath tigerfish, straight from the Lomami, that a fisherman brought into Katopa camp the day I walked out. Quite a different size than the one I caught on rod and reel in 2011.

A goliath tigerfish, straight from the Lomami, that a fisherman brought into Katopa camp the day I walked out. Quite a different size than the one I caught on rod and reel in 2011. Mine was maybe 1 pound; this one they estimated more than 60.

TL2_20150504_581

Unlike 2011, when I spent a continuous 2 months based in the park, I am doing more back-and-forth for the parrot project. This past trip lasted for 3 weeks, and I have another park visit loosely planned for about 10 days. Later on, I hope to travel to a significant parrot trapping site south of Kindu before leaving Maniema province and heading north to Kisangani. Even with these shorter periods away, however, the first cold drink in town still tastes pretty good, the resurgence of various loud-noise producers is still grating, and it’s still a joy to open email and see how popular I am among spam generators. Even with these more frequent (relatively speaking) periods I have access to email, I will not have time to describe my adventures in a comprehensive way, and I have not even mentioned many of the events occurring over the past few weeks. Still, I hope to keep these updates as current as possible, and look forward to my next opportunity to write!

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A huge milestone for GRACE, years in the making

In a final note about GRACE, I wanted to pass on the announcement of a monumental milestone for the ogranization: the opening of their new 24-acre forest enclosure. I was incrediblely fortunate to be on site for this event, and the chance to photo-document it as well (the press release, and accompanying slide show, features many of my gorilla/site pictures!). I hope you can take the time to read about this landmark “ribbon-cutting” and the multi-year process which led up to it.

http://gracegorillas.org/2015/04/28/new-forest-enclosure-opens-for-gorillas-at-grace/

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The complexities of great ape reintroduction (abridged)

The second half of my term at GRACE has ended, and I now write from Kindu, Maniema province. As you might expect, my last week was somewhat hectic wrapping up everything I’d hoped to complete (which of course I did not), and there was not much extra time to compose an update. For now, however, I rewind to mid-March and recall some particular points about the gorilla sanctuary in Kasugho, North Kivu.

Overlooking the village of Kasugho from the GRACE compound, with the eastern-most stretches of the Congo Basin visible beyond the hills.

Overlooking the village of Kasugho from the GRACE compound, with the eastern-most stretches of the Congo Basin visible beyond the hills.

For the majority of my 1.5 months there, GRACE was home to three wazungus (i.e. white people): myself, Luitzen, the DRC Director, and Caitlin, a graduate student conducting behavioral research. Mid-March, however, saw an influx of three more: Sonya Kahlenberg, GRACE executive director, and Katie and Rachel, two research/animal husbandry consultants from Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The Congolese staff were ecstatic to have so many visitors. A most special moment was our visit to the local primary school, where the several hundred students gave us a joyous welcome reception unlike any I had received before.

Walking through a sea of singing, smiling students!

Walking through a sea of singing, smiling students!

Unfortunately their visit was cut short to three days, after the airline which provides service from Butembo to Goma decided to cancel their Tuesday flight, necessitating a Saturday departure from GRACE (such airline cancellations are common here…indeed, one never knows if and when a flight will actually go until the plane actually lands on the runway). Sonya, Katie, Rachel, and Luitzen all traveled to Goma for a Conservation Action Planning (CAP) meeting, hosted by the Jane Goodall Institute. The focus was great ape conservation in eastern DRC, and of course, reintroduction of Grauer’s gorillas was an important topic of the agenda.

As I alluded to before, reintroduction of great apes is a tricky business, and there is no rule book to follow. One requires a comprehensive knowledge of their complex social structure and behavioral dynamics, and there are several levels of these dynamics that are relevant: 1) general knowledge of Grauer’s gorilla wild behavior; 2) knowledge of the specific group into which individuals will be released; and 3) knowledge of the individuals to be released themselves.

Even within these three categories there are sublevels: within specific individual group/individual dynamics there are both behavioral and genetic considerations. What are the personality traits of the gorillas you hope to reintroduce, and how will they interact with specific individuals in the proposed wild group? Will the wild group welcome new individuals, leave them behind, or even kill them? Do the candidates for release have the necessary skills to survive in the wild, or are they too accustomed to life in captivity and proximity to humans? These are questions we ask of each gorilla at GRACE, and why it is necessary to closely evaluate their individual and group behavior before deciding which ones are most likely to survive in the wild. For genetics, the most important consideration is heterogeneity, or variance. This is especially a pertinent consideration for captive animal populations, where breeding is a commercial business. When a population is limited (e.g. a captive breeding population, or if there are very few individuals left in the wild), it is important to determine which individuals can provide the most new genes to a wild group, and therefore allow for a higher chance of survival and proclivity of future generations.

And, I should mention, on top of these three categories that deal with the gorillas themselves, especially pertinent in a place like DRC are people: politics, security, and social stability. For all the great recommendations scientists and conservation practitioners can make, what matters most in the end is whether or not the recommendations are actually feasible. This touches on the huge issue of relating academics and theory to practical conservation. I will not spend much time commenting on this personally, but just want to note that it is a relevant topic of discussion and one that is all too often taken for granted. Many conservation initiatives fail because all allocated effort and money is spent on the ecological systems without regard for the local people, whose cooperation is essential to any project and who are indeed part of the system itself. It is pointless to pursue conservation of a system without an approach that integrates the people who are themselves part of the system. In this respect, I am extremely fortunate to have worked at GRACE for many reasons, but a primary one is the exemplary Congolese staff the sanctuary employs.

The wonderful staff of the GRACE project.

The wonderful staff of the GRACE project.

I will end my reintroduction overview by reporting a case study of a reintroduction attempt in the early 2000s; this serves as a reminder that something unexpected will always happen, and regardless of the meticulous preparation involved you can never account for everything. As some of you who have studied Biology might be aware, fruit flies (Drosophila spp.) are a popular model organism to use for genetic studies at universities. Their demand at universities was so great, in fact, that in the mid-1990s the two sole researchers worldwide concerned with declining urban Drosophila populations were worried. They resolved to bolster two important wild populations in the northeastern US, known colloquially as the Capulet and Montague groups. These two populations were somewhat proximate to each other within Boston’s Red Line, yet completely geographically isolated on either side of a hot dog stand. There was no recorded transmittance of genes between the groups. The researchers chose two individuals—Romeo and Juliet—for release after a rigorous genetic selection process, both of them specifically identified for their ability to contribute genetic variability to their respective groups. Romeo, of course, was most closely related to the Montagues, and therefore would be released with the Capulets to provide the most effective genetic variation (and vice versa for Juliet). Completely coincidental was Romeo and Juliet’s tendency to eat off the same rotting banana inside the laboratory, and scientific objectivity forced the researchers to write off any anthropomorphically-influenced hesitations about what effect separating Romeo and Juliet might have. When the day of the release came, the researchers arrived at the Red Line site and were shocked to find the hot dog stand was gone, and the Montagues and Capulets had completely decimated each other, an event previously prevented by the hot dog barrier. Further, as the researchers had forgotten to label their vials, they had no idea which fly was Romeo and which was Juliet. They resigned to the unfortunate realization that Drosophila reintroduction was a fruitless endeavor, packed up their laboratory and matriculated into a local university as English majors.

I have left the altitude of the Albertine Rift and entered the vast Congo Basin, currently on the banks of the river itself. Here, the humidity is high and the mosquitoes are vigorous. Yet, I am looking forward to the next few months of work, which I will devote to the conservation and management of African Grey Parrots…here’s hoping their tenure in the wild outlasts their current bleak potential.

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DRC 2015

It is with an air of stimulated familiarity I find myself once again in the Democratic Republic of Congo, several weeks into an extended period abroad and wondering where the past few months have gone. These aforementioned months have been spent largely in NJ, and amidst the enjoyment of being home I was busy with grant writing and graduate school applications; following, this current adventure will probably be my last before delving into the intricacies of a PhD program.

My grant writing efforts were largely focused on an African Grey Parrot (AGPs) conservation project. Working closely with John and Terese Hart (with whom I worked before in DRC in 2011), along with several other collaborators including the NGO World Parrot Trust, we are initiating an long-term effort to monitor AGPs in the Hart’s park. I will begin this project in earnest in a couple weeks’ time, when I will fly to Kindu in Maniema province from Goma in North Kivu province. In order to do that, however, I will first need to fly to Goma from Butembo, a densely-populated, sprawling city several hundred kilometers north of Goma. Finally, to arrive in Butembo, I will need to take a slow 6-hour jarring car ride from the remote village of Katoyo where one can find the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center, where I currently reside.

My presence at this sanctuary is almost 100% courtesy of Sonya Kahlenberg, a former professor of mine at Bates who is now the executive director of the GRACE non-profit organization. I am very lucky to spend about 5 weeks time here in this mountainous region of North Kivu, where political and social insecurity can make travel difficult at times. Fortunately now is not one of those times, and I am free to enjoy mountain scenery, as well as the company of a great local staff and 13 magnificent Grauer’s gorillas.

Looking out over the mountains proximate to GRACE, which is itself on a mountainside at 1900m.

Looking out over the mountains proximate to GRACE, which is itself on a mountainside at 1900m.

Some of the  gorilla caregivers and maintenance/security prepare their welcome ceremony for incoming international visitors.

Some of the gorilla caregivers and maintenance/security prepare their welcome ceremony for incoming international visitors.

Grauer’s gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri), the eastern lowland gorillas, are one of four definitive subspecies of gorilla, and one which can only be found worldwide in the eastern DRC. They are critically endangered throughout their now restricted range, mostly due to habitat destruction, poaching, and general mal-effects associated with human encroachment. GRACE is a center for orphaned Grauer’s gorillas who have been confiscated from airports, inside backpacks, and whatever else smugglers can think of to sneak young gorillas out of DRC to sell and make money. I highly encourage you to visit the GRACE webpage (www.gracegorillas.org) to learn more about the organization and its 6-year history, its extensive community involvement, and the gorillas’ rescue and rehabilitation.

While at GRACE, I have been helping out with photography, gorilla behavioral research, and putting the finishing touches on the hotwire fence which encompasses the new 24-acre forested enclosure for the gorillas. This new enclosure will be the largest for captive gorillas worldwide—a significant feat, no doubt, but one which somehow pales in comparison to the real reason the enclosure was built. The gorillas here are captive, yes, to the extent that their movements are restricted and they are largely cared for by humans, but the real goal of the GRACE project is to reintroduce individual gorillas to wild populations. The forested enclosure is an aim at an “intermediate” stage in this process, to help ensure that the gorillas here can function as real wild gorillas and stay healthy on their own. Reintroduction is a conservation tactic which will probably pick up steam and publicity as more and more pressures are put on the very survival of different species worldwide. Why is reintroduction relevant and perhaps necessary? With wild populations of Grauer’s gorillas numbering in the low thousands and decreasing, there may not be enough individuals to ensure the survival of the species. It’s that simple.

Female Ndjingala shows off her striking eyes, a feature which makes her one of the easier gorillas here to ID.

Female Ndjingala shows off her striking eyes, a feature which makes her one of the easier gorillas here to ID.

Pinga, the matriarchal leader of the GRACE group, eats the interior pith of a stalk of elephant grass, a staple food for this ca. 200lb. vegetarian.

Pinga, the matriarchal leader of the GRACE group, eats the interior pith of a stalk of elephant grass, a staple food for this ca. 200lb. vegetarian.

Well…the ultimate logic may be that simple, but the process certainly is not. There are many complications with the reintroduction process—one of which is that the idea is new enough for there not to be a real process yet—and I will write more about this in my next update.

Unfortunately I cannot make this post as detailed as I’d like to with many more pictures, however I’m restricted by the rather limited bandwidth of our internet here. Still, I’m happy to write a short update (with a couple photos to boot), and—recalling my 3 months in DRC in 2011, when I had no internet connection for 2.5 of those months—hope to bring everyone up to date as often as is realistic. For now, I wish everyone a happy spring, and hope to hear from you!

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Photo ID on the Dolphin Explorer

I finally went on my first hike in NZ in early March. A small group of us went to the coastline west of Auckland, in the Waitakere Ranges, to hike the Pararahas Gorge. The trip was originally slated for early February, with the only potential postponing factor being heavy rain the day before—the gorge floods. Of course, the night before the trip, Auckland saw the more rain than it had the whole month previous. But we did eventually go, and it was certainly worth the trip: a great downhill walk through forest dominated by silver ferns, Kauri trees, and native palms, emerging along the marshy coastline, and regained our elevation via the steep and narrow Pararahas gorge.

There were some fun stretches where we could traverse the rock wall along the stream if we wanted to. I did. (photo credit: E. Hooper)

There were some fun stretches where we could traverse the rock wall along the stream if we wanted to. I did. (photo credit: E. Hooper)

The weather also seemed to affect my field days rather disproportionately: for my first 2 months working on the project, I was only out on Auckland’s dolphin watching boat for perhaps 5 or 6 days. This is not due to rain, but to wind: this year’s summer season on the North Island was an unsettled one, with frequent trip cancellations due to average wind speeds greater than 30 knots (the limit for the boat). The de facto wind limit was even less than that, around 15 knots; any higher, and the rougher water surface made taking clear pictures of fins very difficult. All in all, we needed very good weather to make a boat trip productive, and there weren’t that many good days this season.

Still, after 3 months of working on the project, I probably managed around 12 or 13 days total on the Dolphin Explorer (DE). Massey University has an agreement with the Explorer company allowing research volunteers for the Hauraki Gulf Common Dolphin Catalogue Project (H.G.C.D.C.P.) on for free, so we didn’t have to pay the $NZ160 (about $140 US) ticket every trip. We did need to pay our own bus fare, which at about $NZ12 round trip downtown does accumulate over time. Still, 4 hours on a catamaran was worth the trip every time.

The memorable Auckland skyline, dominated by the Sky Tower in the middle.

The memorable Auckland skyline, dominated by the Sky Tower in the middle.

One day we rode past a sailing regatta, which was fun to watch. Several yachts seen here with Motukorea, one of Auckland's 40+ volcanoes, in the background.

One day we rode past a sailing regatta, which was fun to watch. Several yachts seen here with Motukorea, one of Auckland’s 40+ volcanoes, in the background.

There were several captains on the DE, Andy and Rob, whom I got to know pretty well, along with the few rotating crew members. And, after several days spent familiarizing myself with Beaufort Sea States and general cetacean behavior, I felt welcome on the bridge like an old salt. As researchers aboard, we were expected to help the crew locate the animals during the trip; I am no stranger to long days spent looking through binoculars, but it can get difficult to stay concentrated when battling a swell and lots of seasick Chinese passengers (sorry for the stereotype, Allison, but I’d now have a hard time disproving it). Days which passed without seeing any marine mammals were the most difficult to stay concentrated, but there was always something interesting to look at out on the water.

The researchers were also asked to distribute a questionnaire for the Auckland University of Technology on the trip back to the harbor. I didn’t like handing these out, and was pleased when I had a good excuse not to, e.g. the boat didn’t find any whales or dolphins, the sea was too rough, everyone aboard was Chinese and didn’t speak English (sorry again Allison). But I recognize that the surveys contribute to the Department of Conservation’s growing knowledge of the Gulf’s marine mammal population, tourist’s perception of them, and therefore a body of information useful for making informed conservation decisions.

As the skippers always joked, we rarely looked for whales or dolphins on the DE. For some animals found in the Hauraki Gulf, such as hammerhead sharks, killer whales, and bottlenose dolphins, looking for the animal itself is indeed the most effective; this is the case when there are fewer other associated species which may indicate an animal’s presence. But in the case of the Common Dolphins, the target species for our research, spotting a dorsal fin twenty centimeters tall while it’s above water for a fifth of a second in a 1.2 million hectare search area is much too difficult. Instead, we were constantly scanning the horizon for seabirds. The About one third of the world’s 300+ seabirds are found in the Hauraki Gulf, including our favorites, the Australasian Gannet. Gannets and Common Dolphins feed on the same kind of baitfish, and dolphins are extraordinary hunters when it comes to efficiently and effectivdly gathering fish together. Every day gannets go looking for dolphins, and every day we went looking for gannets.

Australasian gannets are also one of the world’s fastest animals—they feed by diving into the water after fish, capable of reaching speeds just shy of 100mph. So how did the gannets help us find dolphins? The best case scenario was when lots of gannets gathered together in a “work-up”: from a distance, we’d see tens or even hundreds of gannets tightly circling a small patch of water. Many of them would be diving in, and this is very visible to us. Often, tight diving from gannets signified that dolphins were gathering up lots of fish underneath the surface, making it easier for the gannets to fish for them. Once the boat got close to the work up, we could tell soon enough if dolphins were there because a few would usually come racing over. They would recognize our boat via ultra-sensitive physiological acoustic capabilities and were often excited to ride our bow wave; the bow of the boat slicing through the water creates a pressure wave which literally pushes the dolphins along. Bow-riding dolphins were the easiest to photograph for fin identification: being a catamaran, the DE had two hulls, so it was easy to stand on the bow of one hull while photographing the dolphins bow-riding in front of the other one.

A small work up with gannets diving into the water after fish.

A small work up with gannets diving into the water after fish.

Common Dolphins are one of only several 3-toned species worldwide.

Common Dolphins are one of only several 3-toned species worldwide.

A common dolphin exhales as it comes to the surface.

A common dolphin exhales as it comes to the surface.

January through March, the summer season in the Hauraki Gulf, is the slowest time of year for spotting marine mammals. This makes sense: dolphins have the same body temperature as humans, and require a thick blubber layer to insulate them against the colder water temperature. In the winter, the water temperature goes down, and the dolphins need to eat a lot more to maintain their insulating blubber. Eating more requires hunting more, which means attracting more birds, which means they are much easier to find. Nevertheless, I was treated to some exciting and memorable encounters. One trip, we had a Bryde’s Whale—a resident species in the gulf, but one of only two I saw on the DE—just 30 feet or so off the bow and swim right under the boat. And my final trip on DE, we saw a group of bottlenose dolphins (the “Flipper” variety), a coastal species famous for their aerobatics and violence. Contrary to popular playful perception, bottlenose dolphins are one of the most violent creatures in the ocean.

A bottlenose dolphin riding in the wake of the boat.

A bottlenose dolphin riding in the wake of the boat.

A bottlenose dolphin shows heavy scarring from rake marks, or the teeth of other dolphins. These were seen on most of the bottlenose we saw, and although present on common dolphins as well, not nearly as densely.

A bottlenose dolphin shows heavy scarring from rake marks, or the teeth of other dolphins. These were seen on most of the bottlenose we saw, and although present on common dolphins as well, not nearly as densely.

A day’s work of pictures added up to anywhere between zero and 6 or 7 thousand, depending on the success of the day’s encounters. The majority of my time in NZ was spent on the next tedious task: isolating, organizing, and cataloging all of the fin photographs. Beginning with the raw photographs, we sort different categories of pictures into different folders and identify each individual seen each day. Fortunately, I was able to draw on my experience using Adobe Lightroom software to make the sorting progress relatively rapidly. The best picture of each individual on each day was then added to a smaller matching “pool,” where it would be compared to a picture of each distinct individual the project has identified. Some individuals are quite distinguishable, due to scars and notches on their fins. Others have distinct pigmentation that do not seem to change over time. Others, however, have very few telling markers, so we have a large “unmarked” folder for all of the fins we haven’t been able to match yet. To date there are around 1300 cataloged individuals, although that number is growing every day.Dolphin_Explorer_NZ_20140130_237 Dolphin_Explorer_NZ_20140130_71 Dolphin_Explorer_20140227_187

Scars, notches, lesions, and deformities are some of the identifying markers that allow us to distinguish between individual dolphins' dorsal fins.

Scars, notches, lesions, and deformities are some of the identifying markers that allow us to distinguish between individual dolphins’ dorsal fins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As may be evident, I’ve now left NZ and returned home to New Jersey. I was able to travel around the North Island for a week before leaving the country, seeing many majestic places peppered with a few high-octane thrills…this will be the subject of my next post.

 

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