In November of 2002 I travelled as a volunteer to the Democratic Repulic of the Congo to join in a bonobo (Pan paniscus) research project, run in the interior of the country by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. I didn't have any bird guides for the area, so I took the Svenson and Fanshawe Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa. Since it covers Uganda's rainforest species it was of good use in the heart of the Congo, too.
For most of the time, bird-watching was done opportunistically. My main work was on the bonobo feeding ecology project and the conducting of a monthly mammal census of the forest in the study area. Whenever I observed any birds in the forest, I would try to ID them as accurately as possible with the guide. I also made quite a few observations around the research camp itself.
Arriving in Kinshasa
The Kinshasa airport is a bit run-down, but overall is not too hostile to travellers. Most of the immigration officers checking passports speak only French. They don't make too much trouble, but take some time reading very carefully all the pages in your passport. On the return flight from the interior (which is also operated from this airport) one of the officers, quite fluent in English, hassled a Chinese member of the research project. He kept asking her nonsense questions, like 'So you're coming back from the forest? You must have been eating a lot of meat there! Have you brought something for me?' (All people in towns apparently love bushmeat.) After a Congolese colleague of ours spotted that she wass being kept so long for no obvious reason, he approached and kindly got her passport back from the immigration officer.
On arrival from an international flight, after passport control, yellow fever certificates are checked. I was told that if you didn't have one you could get one issued on the spot for a certain fee (although you wouldn't actually get the inoculation shot).
Collecting your luggage at the conveyor belt could be a bit of a hassle. People approached me trying to take the luggage tickets from me, pretending that this is standard procedure. They are just trying to get your luggage and act as porters before you even have a chance to get your bearings. When I collected my backpack I saw that the several layers of tape which I had put round the opening had been cut with a knife. Luckily, whoever had done that didn't manage to get inside my luggage, as I had also taped the plastic locks of the backpack under the layers of tape. It does make sense to secure all luggage when flying into N'Djili Airport.
Accomodation in Kinshasa
Apart from the top-end hotels in city centre, a safe place (used by many missionaries) is the CAP Hostel in the Gombe residential area. It is well guarded, not very expensive and in a more-or-less safe area (a lot of embassies and residencies are located in the Gombe area). This place is quite popular so it must be booked in advance. On the way out of Kinshasa, we couldn't get rooms there.
On the way back from the forest, we were put up in a place called CBCO (again to do with missionaries). The security situation there is appalling; the personnel are not used to having foreign customers and don't have the custom of offering food to their guests, although there are functioning cooking and dining facilities. Never go there.
Safety in Town
We'd been told that foreigners walking about unaccompanied are at some risk of being kidnapped or robbed. At all times in Kinshasa we have been either driven in a car or accompanied by a local. When we were on foot, the biggest nuisance was people coming at you and trying to sell you this or that. Virtually nobody speaks English in the markets or on the streets. Some people have commented that, on the whole, Kinshasa is a much safer place than, say, Nairobi (where I got mugged inside a car within days of arrival in the country). The situation in Kinshasa is really not as bad as it might appear in the media.
The Trip to Camp - Logistics
Internal flights from Kinshasa to the research area are operated by the Mission Aviation Fellowship. They have an office in Kinshasa and a base in Vanga village, which is in a rural area northeast of Kinshasa. There are weekly flights from Kinshasa to Vanga, but no regular ones to Ipope village, where the closest airstrip to the research camp is located.
The flight from Kinshasa to Vanga takes about an hour and a half, as does the flight from Vanga to Ipope. It is also possible to charter a plane to fly directly from Kinshasa to Ipope.
The airstrip at Ipope is located out of sight of the actual village, on a savannah patch. From there, it's about a 15-minute walk to the village. Transportation is also provided by local porters who meet flights on the airstrip, along with a crowd of onlookers. In December on my way in there was a military checkpoint in Ipope. They basically try to get something out of you by messing you about for as long as they can. Open all the baggage, show your passport, your travel permit, etc. However, on the way out of Ipope in June, the military post was no longer there and it was no longer necessary for foreigners to have travel permits.
From Ipope we go on to the village of Lompole. This is the village which owns the patch of the forest where the research on the bonobos is being done. Most of the project workers come from there. To reach it from Ipope you walk about 5km along an old road, surrounded by forest and cultivated land. In Lompole there is an overnight stop — bring tents.
On the next morning, the last leg of the trip to the research camp begins. It is 20km long and goes through forests, savannahs and rivers with some muddy bits inbetween. Depending on the speed of walking, this distance is covered in four or five hours. The trail goes south from the village until it crosses the river Lokoro. That's the biggest river on the way and it can only be crossed in a pirogue. Both of the other rivers can be crossed on foot. From the last river, the Lokoro, it's only a short way through water and mud (up to your waist in rainy times) to the research camp of Lui Kotal.
Lui Kotal - The Study Area
The study area is located on the southern side of the Lokoro River. It is at the very southwestern tip of Salonga National Park. It covers a section of forest stretching about 6.5km south from the river. The forest is generally quite dense. One volunteer who has previously working in the Tai Forest commented that the canopy at Lui Kotal is not as high as at Tai and is more open, which leads to denser undergrowth.
The trail system at the time I was with the project was about 30km long with one main 6km trail running along a ridge and 11km trails on both sides of it. In a few places some of the trails are steep and go down into little streams and muddy places, but most of them are on flat, firm ground (as is most of the forest around the trails).
Apart from bonobos, there are many other primates, such as the black mangabey, Wolf's monkey, Tshuapa red colobus1, Angola pied colobus, red-tailed monkey and dwarf crescendo galagos. Red river hogs are common, as are Peter's hogs and blue duikers. Elephants only frequent the most southern end of the research area near the clearing of Badzungu, but we once saw tracks on the main trail, 500m from the camp. Occasionally some of the local workers encountered the elephants briefly. Buffalo dung and tracks were only once seen in the clearing of Badzungu, some 6km from the camp. Large, poisonous snakes were seen several times by people in the forest. Green mambas and a large black snake with a bit of yellow around the mouth and the throat — presumably a black mamba and thus the more dangerous.
The Forest Clearing of Badzungu
Around 6.5km from the research camp, the 'ridge' along which the main trail runs goes down. If you follow down that path and into a little clear stream and then into a muddy one, you exit the dark forest and enter the forest clearing of Badzungu.
Places like this are locally called libekes. They are circular marshy clearings with a flowing river crossing from east to west. This particular libeke is in the most southern end of the research area and it is there that the most elephant tracks were seen. In the clearing itself there are many traces of elephants feeding. We also once saw the tracks and dung of forest buffalo. On one occasion we also found that a large area of the marshy vegetation had been used as a feeding ground by bonobos. It was clear that they entered it along the same path that is used by us when visiting the libeke. On the day we found the feeding remains in the clearing, we also saw bonobo foot-prints in the mud.
The Ntoka Forest Clearing
This is another clearing about 25km away from the camp. The clearing itself is immense — a shallow stream of clear water flows along its whole length. There are a lot of marshy grasses around it and elephants visit it often. There are at least 10 elephant trails leading away into the forest. I was told that the most recent ones were a day old, though there were some older than one week. Buffalo dung was also seen and one morning we found that a sandy patch next to the stream was covered completely in antelope tracks. They had been feeding in the clearing during the night. Among all the local people, Ntoka is regarded as the prime area to go and hunt or, in our case, see wildlife. Hunting there has been intense in the past, but in the five days that I spent there no hunters or poachers were present at all. The nocturnal visits of elephants and antelopes, however, show that indeed the animals have seen quite a few hunters over the years (years ago, animals used to go out in the clearing in daylight).
Birds By Location
On the way to Lui Kotal, I spent a weekend at Vanga, the village where the MAF pilots are based. I was still trying to get to grips with the fact that I was miles away from everything and didn't keep proper records, really. The only memorable birding experience was hearing an African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) calling loudly from the river.
Ipope and Lompole
The villages are close to the 'big forest' and yet are much more open, especially Ipope. There are also some savannah-type areas and agricultural fields close to them. In the villages I saw black kites (Milvus migrans) a number of times. On the last day, while waiting on the airstrip at Ipope, I watched a long-crested eagle (Lophaetus occipitalis) perching for quite a while on the top of a termite mound. In the villages themselves, some yellow and black weavers had nests in the foliage of palms, though I didn't really check them out in detail.
Towards Lui Kotal
One bird drew my attention when en route between the village of Lompole and the research camp of Lui Kotal — a palm-nut vulture (Gypohierax angolensis). I saw a pair once at the edge of a savannah patch, perching in the canopy of the trees, and then once more at the Lokoro river edge, flying above.
In the distant forest clearing of Ntoka, around 25km from Lui Kotal camp, I saw several birds that were not seen elsewhere: Hartlaub's duck (Pteronetta hartlaubi), the woolly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus) and Bohm's spinetail (Neafrapus boehmi).
Forest Around Lui Kotal Camp
It was really shocking for me to discover how hard it is to do birdwatching in a rainforest. Around the camp at night there were regular owls that would keep calling in a really spooky way. I saw them once as silhouettes against the darkening sky. I have no idea what species they might have been, but they were the size of a tawny owl and I was told that they are most likely African wood owls (Stix woodfordii). The local people call them efukulu.
At dusk, the amazing calls of great blue turacos (Corythaeola cristata) are heard, rolling above the canopy. On many occasions I could also watch these birds flying and feeding high in the fruiting trees.
Another rather noisy bird that we often heard and saw was the white-thighed hornbill (Bycanistes cylindricus). The sound of the wings really gets one's attention.
Some of the best bird-watching around the camp happened at a time when I was definitely not carrying my binoculars. I'm talking about the place known as the 'shower-river', a small creek where we would go to wash. One time I watched a couple of black bee-eaters (Merops gularis) whirring above me from a hanging vine. Even with my eyes only, the sight was mesmerising. I can't imagine how great it would have been if I had the binoculars, too! Another time when I wasn't really fully equipped (showering at the same place) I got yet another great new record, a white-crested hornbill (Tropicranus albocristatus), my favourite hornbill species ever! The crest looks so much better in real life than it does in the field guide.
Speaking of hornbills, there were some dwarf ones around the camp regularly, going in and out of trees. Once we even found a dead one, killed by a bird of prey on a trail in the forest. I think there might have been two species, actually: the black dwarf hornbill (Tockus hartlaubi) and the red-billed dwarf hornbill (Tockus camurus).
Lots of times I could hear whirring and see the African broadbill (Smithornis capensis). There were also loads of small olive-green birds — bulbuls, greenbulls or something, I presume, but those were really hopeless. Once I watched a helmet-shrike and I also had good views of a red-bellied paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone rufiventer) and a fork-tailed drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis).
I also saw African crowned eagles (Stephanoaetus coronatus) occasionally and once I got a proper look at one, perched up a tree above the trail. Of the ground birds the most common is the crested guineafowl (Guttera pucherani). Another nice ground species was the forest francolin (Francolinus lathami), a really cautious little bird. I only spotted it because I was sitting on the ground hidden in the undergrowth while listening for bonobos and was so still that the francolin didn't realise I was there.
In the winter, the best end to the day was sitting in camp and watching the circling alpine swifts (Apus melba) that were flying high above the canopy, hunting.
There was also this other bird. It was the size and general appearance of a guineafowl, but didn't look like the common species of guineafowl that we often saw scuttling away in the undergrowth as we walked the trails. The locals called the common guineafowl 'lokoko'. The other, similar-looking bird is called 'lopekele'. On the several occasions that I saw this species, I observed that some birds have orange-brown speckled plumage with a green sheen on the back. Others (I presume the other sex) have something of a crest on the head, but one markedly different to that of the common guineafowl. I didn't think much of this bird, except that it must be a typical Central African species of guineafowl, one which is not in my East African field guide.
Then, when back in Nairobi, I opened the big book on the birds of Africa and went for the ground birds. There it was — exactly what I've been seeing in the forest around Lui Kotal. The brownish looking bird was the female and the other, the one with the crest, was the male. It was the Congo peacock, Afropavo congensis!
Finally, one day as we were walking in the forest we came across lots of feathers and a dead bird. I collected some of the feathers and the trackers said that they belonged to a lopekele. Alan Root in Nairobi was able to confirm that the feathers I collected belonged to the Congo peacock. He had filmed this bird in the DRC some time ago and knew it well. Later, I got in touch with the Editor of the African Bird Club, who did some research that absolutely confirmed that I really must have seen the peacock. Not bad for a seven-month stay in the Congo that originally had nothing to do with bird-watching!
I thank Jean Hartley from Viewfinders, Ltd in Nairobi for the bird-watching inspiration and for getting me to the Congo; and Dr Gottfried Hohmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology for the opportunity to work as a volunteer on his bonobo project at Lui Kotal.http://www.birdtours.co.uk