Central African Republic

IMG_2423

© Saba Douglas-Hamilton – Skulls of poached lowland gorillas in Dzanga Sanga, CAR

Bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo (previously Zaire), Uganda, Sudan, Chad, Cameroun and Congo (Brazzaville), it’s fairly unsurprising that Central African Republic has a history of unpredictable politics.  The most infamous of its dictators, Bokassa – who crowned himself emperor in the style of Napoleon Bonaparte (said on occasion to feed human flesh to foreign dignitaries) – is now long gone, but the country remains tense and at the time of filming rumours of a potential coup were rife.  We avoided the capital Bangui by flying straight from Douala in Cameroun, to a small logging town in the heart of the Central African forest, Bayanga, with a dirt strip that borders Dzanga-Sanga National Park in the southwestern corner of the country.

Here, two passionately dedicated researchers – Andrea Turkalo, who studies forest elephants, and Angelique Todd on lowland gorillas – hosted our visit.  Veterans of the jungle and committed conservationists, both amused us with horror stories of insect-borne parasites like filaria (which leads to elephantitus), or putze flies whose eggs, laid on wet clothing, hatch into infestations of larvae which burrow into your skin.  A tip on removing these revolting worms is to wait until they pop their heads out to breathe then roll out the rest of the body on a matchstick. Inevitably the most common cloth target is freshly laundered underwear, so ironing one’s clothes is a must – but beware of jungle coal irons which should be dipped briefly in to a basin of water to cool before being applied to clothing.  I managed to burn a massive hole in the seat of my trousers which didn’t help!

Returning to the theme of insects, one of my father’s favourite stories was of a Christian saint who’d pick up maggots as they fell from his suppurating wounds and press them lovingly back into his flesh, saying, “Eat what God hath given thee!”  Whilst I’m sure it had its medical upsides, and clearly delighted my father’s wicked sense of humour, I can’t admit to my love of maggots, mango worms, mosquitoes or filaria stretching quite that far.  There’s definitely an element of paranoia to one’s first days in the forest, but soon the discomfort recedes into a background of permanent itchiness and you just get on with life.  The Ba’Aka people deal with insects and the heat of the jungle by shedding most of their clothes, I often wished we could follow suit as the brush of rain droplets against skin was sweet relief.

The most interesting insect event we came across – apart from thousands of communal spiders in a palace of towering webs – was the slow motion horror story of an ant devoured from the inside out by the parasitic fungus Cordyceps.  It’s not a nice way to go, but does leave one in total awe of the day to day dramas of life in the forest.

2007-09-RM-CAR

© Rowan Musgrave –  Saba meets the mythical forest elephants of Dzanga Bai, CAR   

In one of the “Babar the Elephant” children’s books the elephant king visits a planet of alien pachyderms. Approaching Dzanga Bai and seeing forest elephants for the first time reminded me of his experience.  The burbling sound of these secretive creatures blowing air onto mineral salts in stream beds echoes through the forest until, suddenly, you step out of the tangled vegetation into a very private elephant world.  Their vocal range is sensational – ranging across ten octaves – and can slide six octaves in a single scream. Andrea has recorded infra-sound in forest elephants down to a record breaking 3Hz, which is far lower than the infrasonic range of 20-14Hz in their savannah cousins.

The most sobering fact we learned was that forest elephants are highly sensitive to any kind of human disturbance and thus are good indicators of the vulnerability of forest to human exploitation.  Any track cut into the forest leaves a swathe of human impact up to 50 kms wide on either side of it – snares, logging, gunshots, scarcity of elephants, and a forest that is rapidly emptied and silenced through commercial hunting for bush-meat.  We filmed a traditional Ba’Aka hunt of duiker with nets – which is how they’ve always lived in the forest – but I was shocked by the number of Bantu poachers that have invaded Ba’Aka hunting grounds, who use snares and guns and whom we saw daily with poached duiker strapped to their shoulders.

Rising demand for hardwoods leads to an increase in logging concessions that are now cross-sectioning the Congo forest, building roads into previously impenetrable areas.  Even selective logging has a negative impact, for on the back of increased commerce and access comes growing human settlement and a corresponding demand for bushmeat.  Conservation NGO’s are alarmed at the rate of empty forest syndrome where the commercial bush-meat trade is clearing the forest of animal life particularly in Cameroun and DRC, bringing a deafening silence to the great Congo ecosystem.  No animal is safe, and we found mangabey, antelope and even elephant meat in the markets.

Whilst some logging companies apply strict ethical standards, others have no qualms about clear-cutting forest and wiping out animals.  There is also an imminent “protein-crisis” looming due to the upward trajectory of a growing human population, and the forest fauna simply cannot meet the demand.

With global warming at the front of our minds, I would urge airlines or large companies needing to offset carbon emissions to buy up logging concessions as quickly as possible and conserve the trees in perpetuity.  The longer we can keep the Congo forest whole the better, for a sustainable future on our planet.

Part of the BBC series, Unknown Africa

Comoros Islands

IMG_3576

 © Liz White – the crater of Mt Karthala

We’re on top of Mt. Karthala – an active volcano dominating the largest island in the Comoros archipelago – filming Unknown Africa for the BBC.  It’s a long hike to get to the top but once you’re at the summit a sensational view spreads out across the islands and into the volatile depths of what is the largest live caldera in Africa.  We spent the night huddled close to the rim up in the crater, supposedly shielded from the wind and plummeting temperatures, but it was still bitingly cold and we didn’t sleep a wink.  Early next morning an explosion shook the ground beneath us and the crater floor was filled with snakes of cooling lava.

I’ve come here to find out what animals live on these little known tropical islands – strung halfway between the African continent and the island of Madagascar – like a necklace of jewels gracing the throat of the Mozambique channel.

The most famous of creatures found in the Comoros is the coelacanth, presumed to have gone extinct 70 million years ago.  In 1938 a most peculiar specimen caught off the coast of Mozambique was picked out of a fish pile by a budding museum curator, Marjorie Latimer.  In great excitement she sent it off to be identified by a famous ichthyologist, J.L.B. Smith, whose “remarkable feat of mental agility” recognized it as a modern coelacanth.  This extraordinary living fossil makes its home in the Comoros islands 200m below the surface, and being sensitive to light and pressure sleeps by day at depth in black volcanic caves.

IMG_3377

 ©Liz White – the rediscovered “dinosaur” fish, the Coelacanth

One of the great delights of the Comoros are the people.   Despite the islands being described as “trés tendus” (very tense), I spent wonderful time with a group of women who taught me how to use a paste of coral and sandalwood as a face mask to protect skin from the sun.  It was deliciously cool and felt wonderful.

Although the islands are geologically quite new, they’ve been colonised by a fair variety of different animal species, one of which comes to nest on the beaches.  Green turtles spend most of their lives at sea, but return to the shores of Moheli, the smallest of the Comoros islands, in spectacular numbers.  At night, with a silvery lit ocean and arcing star-scape, turtles drag themselves above the high tide mark to dig deep nests and lay 100 – 200 eggs each.  Hearing the sound of scores of turtles on the beach exhaling in rasping bursts as if they were still in the ocean was magical.  I loved being surrounded by these ancient creatures, knowing of the thousands of aching kilometers they’d swum to return to the very same beach on which they were born.  

Our interest in a local conservation NGO, Action Comoros, and the pterodactyl-like Livingstone’s flying fox (fruit bats) that live in the highest parts of the montane forest, intrigued local media enough to invite us onto a live TV chat show on Anjouan. They loved our close up footage of the bats and broadcast a half hour special.

Led by Mr. Mutui, Action Comoros are doing sterling work to protect the remaining pockets of primary forest, the last montane refuge where the bats can roost.  Deforestation on the island has led to the loss of most of its rivers, serious erosion, sedimentation of coral reefs, and loss of biodiversity.  Action Comoros explain that the Livingstone bat is a flagship species whose fate reflects the eventual fate of the islands and the inhabitants.

The end of each day in the Comoros is a gentle wildlife spectacle.  As the sun sets across the sea, Comorian fruit bats dip their chests into the surface of the waves to lick saltwater from their fur.  It’s a daily ritual as integral to the island as the Islamic call to prayer.

 

Part of the BBC series, Unknown Africa

Angola

 

 

 

 

 

IMGP5103

© Paul Brehem – magical, mystical Angola

Angola is a jewel of a country that’s been locked in a civil war for most of my life, but since a breakthrough peace accord in 2002 the country has opened up and there’s now a heaven sent opportunity to explore.  Sadly, the long years of war have resulted in massive depopulation of both humans and animals and there are vast sections of the country that are still impenetrable. Yet the interface between three extreme ecosystems – the cold Atlantic ocean, the Namib desert, and the Congo forest – is deeply fascinating, and I’ve longed to see how it affects the wildlife.

Our journey started at the Cunene river, which borders Namibia, and extended all the way up to Luanda in the north which is not far from the Congo river.  Unfortunately the diamond area in the East – where the giant sable is rumoured to be extant – was a no-go-zone as much of it’s still land-mined, so we kept to the west coast and drove on an endless white beach for about 300 km.

Racing the tides between dune cliffs on one side and Atlantic breakers on the other was highly exhilarating!  But our adventures didn’t stop there – a quick day trip filming marine birds on a deserted island, 10 km off-shore, turned into disaster narrowly averted when our rubber dinghy ran out of fuel only five minutes into our journey back to the mainland.  A strong off-shore current prevented us from returning to the island and with sunset approaching we were rapidly losing light. To make it worse, a howling wind was roughing up the sea to white water.

Nine kilometers from land and being swept out to sea at night!The sheer horror of realization paralysed us for a moment, but then our crew spirit kicked in and we scrambled for action as a team.  We found two ridiculously tiny, useless oars, but then salvation arrived in the form of a small tarpauline which by great good luck I’d brought to cover the camera-gear.  We quickly rigged it up as a make-shift sail – attached at the stern to the fully extended tripod, its length was cable-tied to ropes on the bow, and held high above our heads as we took turns acting as the main mast.   Progress was agonisingly slow, but our handheld GPS clocked a speed of 4.8 km an hour – it was pitch dark but we knew with certainty we were heading towards land.  And life!

IMGP4769b

© Paul Brehem – safe and sound, the crew re-enact the shipwreck drama

We sang love songs to keep up our spirits, each thinking of those we’d left at home, “how wooonderful life is now you’re in ma world”.  It could have been the start of a horror movie – “Angola Coast, where No One can Hear You Scream” – a small rubber dinghy in high seas, lost in the darkness, overloaded with seven people, no food or water, and drifting out to sea.  The stars were brilliant in the sky and we kept on going until, finally, we saw white breakers.  Sailing through them we hit the shore just a few kilometers from our camp.  Soaking wet and shivering with cold, we danced for joy in a delirious, hugging circle.  As the dunes sang around us that night I’ve never felt more clear headed, in love with my husband, and happy to be alive.  All credit to our crew who kept their heads and humour, to Tom and Seb who were masts of steel, and to that marvelous little tarp! 

Part of the BBC series, Unknown Africa

Rhino Nights

Rhino

© Frank Pope – black rhino, the unexpected social butterflies of the desert 

My first job in conservation was with Blythe Loutit in Namibia, who founded Save the Rhino Trust.  I was based with her in Khorixas, a small town in the hinterland of the Skeleton Coast, running a crafts for conservation project for the local communities. It became a crash course in desert living as well as a thorough introduction to the biology of desert-adapted black rhino, and certainly one of the most formative periods of my life.  Blythe’s enthusiasm was infectious and she knew the desert inside out.  One day she let me in to an extraordinary secret about rhino – something that she and her husband had discovered by chance.  Then, very sadly, Blythe died in 2005.  In her memory I decided to make a film that would record what she had witnessed.  I had no idea that it would turn into a four year obsession!  Blythe was the finest eco-warrior I’ve ever met, and I can only hope that I had her blessing.

Black rhino are solitary animals with an aggressive reputation.  But what Blythe had witnessed challenged all of my preconceived notions about them.  The key to unlocking her secret was to observe rhino at night, so we used a special low-tech “starlight” camera which amplifies moonlight yet allows one to be a fly on the wall.  The camera has tremendous depth of field and brings a beautiful silken quality to the images rather like a Chinese painting.  Buoyed up by the talents of my wonderful crew we set off to find a hidden location where Blythe had seen black rhino gathering at night to socialise.  Our dream was to film this private rhino world for the first time and learn more about them.

Despite their size finding rhino in the desert is much harder than expected, and without the help of Simson Uri-Khob and the team at Save the Rhino Trust we would have failed.  He took my crew under his wing and walked our legs off to find rhino!  It’s thanks to him, Bernd Brell and the SRT trackers that we found any rhino at all.  Desert adapted black rhino travel great distances in search of food and water – more than any other rhino in Africa – and when you do eventually catch up with them you’ve got to be on your toes as they have a rather ferocious tendency to charge.

There’s something incongruous about a beast as big as a rhino surviving in one of the most inhospitable places on earth, but due to the the low rainfall and unique geology of Namibia, desert plants are super-charged with minerals, so desert-adapted black rhino tend to be some of the fattest rhino in the world.  This iconic rhino picture below was taken by my friend and colleague Mike Hearn, Blythe’s deputy director until his accidental death six months before hers in 2005.  They’re some of the best pictures of desert rhino ever taken, and my film is dedicated with great love to the memory of both Mike and Blythe.

I often wished for Blythe’s guidance during my quest and missed her wisdom sorely, but when we finally found her secret spring and filmed the rhino interacting it felt like we’d discovered a completely different world.  Under the cover of darkness black rhino shed their solitary skins to become the social butterflies of the desert.  Completely in their element, with senses on full alert, rhino come alive in the darkness.  I must admit to there being a few hairy moments as we were working on foot – the first when I was approached by exceedingly curious rhino, and later when a pride of lions commandeered the water hole.  The lions slunk off to hunt zebra at the edge of the clearing, but they kept us on our toes all night.  It was one of the most extraordinary full moon experiences of my life and as dawn broke I realised I’d learnt one more lesson from Blythe – to peer into this world, learn from it, but then leave it alone so it has a chance to survive.  Under the cover of darkness we saw rhino in a completely different light.

 

An Animal Planet Special on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Rhino Nights

Known as, Saba and the Rhino’s Secret, in the International version.

 

Kenya in Flames

peace_meeting_kasarani_mail

© Iain Douglas-Hamilton – singing the national anthem in Naivasha at a peace meeting

We are utterly shocked by what has been happening especially in Naivasha where we have our farm.  Everything that we love is under threat and people have been slain in the most brutally savage way.  We never thought something like this could happen here, but it has.  The Nairobi slums have been vomited into our faces and all of a sudden we are meeting, dealing, talking, crying with people we would never have otherwise met.  Cars spin in panic and roar down the wrong side of roads at the slightest sign of disturbance.  Desperate emails and SMS circulate calling for help.  We do what we can.  Tourism has crashed, and flower and vegetable exports remain shaky as many farms have been blockaded, roads barricaded and neither workers able to get in nor produce out.  Over 1000 people have been killed, a quarter of a million displaced, and another half million could be jobless in the next few days if the violence continues.  It is sheer madness.

The only thing that keeps us sane and soothes the vertiginous pain in our hearts is to be involved, up to our necks, in trying to make things better.  My family have joined an extraordinary group of people, Concerned Citizens for Peace (CCP), led by an indefatigable, silver haired Ambassador, Bethwel Kiplagat, and three retired Generals.  Members of CCP work at every level to restore peace and justice to the land, from the slums of Kibera, Korogocho and Mathare, amidst the violent convulsions of the Rift Valley, to whispering in the ear of Kofi Annan.  There are new members joining every day, and it is peace initiatives like these that are holding the fabric of the country together.

Our personal efforts through CCP are focused on peace and reconciliation in a healing initiative through flowers.  With the help of scores of volunteers and truckloads of flowers from besieged flower farms we’ve built a monument of white roses – in memory of the dead, raped, displaced and wounded – displayed with thousands of other flowers, at Freedom Corner, Uhuru Park, where citizens can come to cry, mourn, pray, call for peace and justice, or simply pay their respects.  We had to jump through hoops to get it, begging permission personally from the Minister of Internal Security himself and the Commissioner of Police, but now that it’s up the response has been incredible.

Twenty women representing the ethnic, political and social diversity of our country launched the event by laying bouquets of flowers and calling for peace, reconciliation, and an immediate end to the killing.  Amongst them were Olympic marathon champion Tecla Lorupo, peace activist Dekha Ibrahim, Yvonne Owuor (winner of the Caine prize for literature), members of the Ishmaili community, and Jane Kiano and Rukia Subow of the largest women’s group in Kenya, Maendeleo ya Wanawake.

The area was heavily guarded by gun wielding riot police to each of whom the women handed out roses of peace.  After a moment of uncertainty, the men began to approach the monument one by one to lay a flower and pay their respects.   It was a brave, potent message, a brief respite from the onslaught of blood and guts in the media.  Many people have come forward to show their solidarity with the women, including 20 Government MPs.  The flower monument stood until Valentine’s day during which time hundreds of people in Nairobi came to lay flowers.

Flowers for peace is a novel concept for many Kenyans but it seems to have struck a real chord and opened up a window for reflection, sorrow and grief.  Some people break down in tears or fall to the ground in front of the monument, the horrors that they have seen pouring out of their souls.  The soft fragility of flowers symobilise all that was and that could be again.  Never before have the words peace, justice, truth, reconciliation and healing meant so much to me.  But then again, I never thought I’d hear of my own countrymen pulling each other from matatus and hacking each other to pieces on our doorstep.  Neither have women or children been safe.  The savagery has beggared belief.

Some members of the more affluent communities have hunkered down waiting for it to blow over.  I understand their fear of the dark void but I am shocked by their complacency.  After all that was learnt in Europe how is it possible to sit by and watch?  I always think of that line ‘… and then they came for me, and there was nobody left to speak out for of me”.

With the south side of lake Naivasha in flames, and hundreds of Luo fleeing into flower farms for protection, we joined the chief of our local village, Kasarani, in a peace meeting for the 6000 residents.  That same morning hate leaflets had been found strewn around this ethnically diverse community.  People were very scared and there was an incredible turnout of over 1000 adults.  On a small stage with a creaky megaphone elders from every community stood up to plead for peace, level heads, courage and solidarity.  Then it was my mother and my turn.  We made everyone join hands as we do at the start and end of each CCP meeting to sing the national anthem, which they roared out with one voice “oh God of all creation, bless this our land and nation, justice be our shield and defender, may we dwell in unity, peace and liberty, plenty be found within our borders“.

Since the new year and the start of the trouble we have taken refugees on to our farm from both sides of the fighting between Western and Central tribes.  Those most in danger have been flown out to safety.  Our farm is a small quiet sanctuary of peace.  The determination of the community to keep peace, so evident at the meeting in Kasarani, has given us all strength and courage.  We know that we stand united against those who incite violence and hatred.  To beef up local security the Chief has placed sentries on every hilltop to give early warning of unknown vehicles or intruding gangs of young men, and along with us other local farmers are funding the effort.  We  have come to believe strongly that successful peace keeping is merely a matter of who gets there first – the agitators or the peace keepers.  We continue recruiting to the peace effort as fast as we can.  It is the only way forward.   This is the time to stand up and be counted.

Yesterday I came up to Samburu Reserve on a 10 day shoot with the BBC.  With our economy imploding any work is a blessing, but I feel torn in two.  Up here it is completely peaceful, the Park beautiful beyond belief yet totally empty of tourists.  Normally I would celebrate having it all to ourselves but this is at such cost.  And in truth my heart and mind are in the south amongst my comrades in the peace effort.  Without tourist dollars our wildlife will soon be under threat.  We need everyone who loves Kenya to start coming back here as soon as possible.

Love and support from friends means the world.  Please keep thinking of us.  We value friendship more than ever.  May N’gai shower blessings on you and hide you from your enemies like the stars in the daytime!  Shomo na N’gai! (Go with God)

Honeymoon in Brazil

IMG_2851

© Frank Pope – exploring the southern part of the Amazon and loving the trees!

At long last we’ve gone on honeymoon in Brazil – two years late, but it’s heaven!  With the Amazon basin to explore, the madness of carnaval in Salvador and the possibility of riding on horseback with the indigenous cowboys of the Pantanal, this is the one place I’ve wanted to come all my life.  Yet for some reason my father took against it, and in my teen traveling days I was forbidden to go.  I think he was afraid that if I went to Brazil I’d never come back, and in hindsight he was probably right!  Then life and work got in the way … but now that I’m safely married with a wonderful husband as company, there’s no stopping us.

At the edge of the Amazon near Alto Floresta we took a small boat to Cristalino Jungle Lodge up a black water tributary, several degrees cooler than the milky tea “white” of the main drag – every second is a metre further into untouched forest – gusts of cool air, birds skimming the water surface, and trees cascading over the banks.   We’re told it’s safe to swim despite the piranhas!  Apparently they only attack if they’re trapped in small pools of water and are very hungry.  When you open your eyes underwater it’s like swimming through blood – an effect of the tannin run-off in the soil.  I resurface panting in fright, my mind running riot with things that will eat me – monster-fanged dorado, electric eels, caimans, piranha and those nasty little fish that swim up into your bladder.  But due to the alkalinity/acidity of the water this aquatic ecosystem is very different from the white rivers and curagiu aren’t found here.

DSC_0572

© Frank Pope – the black water river ecosystem is a paradise for birds and monkeys

Every day we ask to be dropped off way upstream and then float slowly back to camp in inner tubes, swimming in the black water for hours, and drifting silently to spy on caimans, saki monkeys, spider monkeys, red-handed howlers, brown capuchins, and colourful bursts of toucans and macaws that flash through the trees.  Definitely the best swims of my life.  On the last night we sleep up in a tree-hide, enthralled by the song of the forest, then hear the splashing footsteps of a tapir beneath us.  Pure magic.  The trees are magnificent – we taste edible saps and the bitter bark of quinine.

IMG_2995

© Frank Pope – the Pantaniero dinner special, fresh piranha 

The only piranha we actually come across are those served up for dinner in the Pantanal.  Our hosts, genuine Pantaniero cowboys, have set up the first indigenously-owned Jaguar Lodge, rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the best places to see jaguar.  But the mosquitoes in Nov/Dec are horrendous, so beware!

Mozzies aside, the area is redeemed when we explore the Cuiaba river and soon come across a beautiful male jaguar on the river bank simply watching the world go by.  What more can I say!

After the many years I’ve spent filming big cats in Africa, meeting this jaguar took my breath away.  It was the absolute highlight.

Jaguar1 copy

© Frank Pope – a male jaguar catches the breeze on the edge of the Cuiaba river

 

Lamu photo-shoot

Mirella_Bazar_Saba_3-424

© Mirella Ricciardi – frangipani flowers at the magical Moon Houses in Lamu

We’ve just spent four days in Lamu with a team from Harper’s Bazaar who are writing an article on my husband, Frank Pope, to publicise his book Dragon Sea (Penguin).  The hardback, first published in the USA, will be launched at the 2007 Hay Book Festival, UK.  The book will shortly be available in paperback.

It was a pleasure to work with my photographer aunt, Mirella Ricciardi, on the photo shoot.  She has an exhibition of platinum black and white prints of her 1960’s Vanishing Africa series at the Michael Hoppen gallery, Jubilee Way, King’s Road, London, and I highly recommend it.

http://www.dragon-sea.com

http://www.mirellaricciardi.com

http://www.themoonhouses.com