Three or four varieties, about a hundred all told, all in their little packages, ready and waiting. For what, I’m not quite sure. One wonders what the boy was expecting…
But enough of that. On to the next installment of the Congo Memoirs….
…. I stood absolutely silently, not even moving when one of the five babies stepped on my toe, or when another tugged on my shoelace thinking it it to be a savory piece of grass. I assumed that if I moved the tiny warthogs would make an alarm call of some sort and bring the large male, who was just out of sight in the brush but less than 15 feet away, into action. You don’t want that to happen.
Have you ever been dramatically startled by something totally benign? Try this. You are by yourself on the African savanna. It is a particular savanna known to have the highest density of so called super predators in the world .. these would be lions and hyenas, but also lots of leopards and 20 foot plus pythons and a few mid sized crocodiles and so on. And you are walking along very quietly, trying to not be noticed, always thinking of the predators. But really, even more dangerous than the lions and hyenas may be the lone male cape buffalo hiding out in a bushy patch or the lone male hippo sleeping in a mud puddle (also hidden in a bushy patch). These are considered very dangerous animals, these males driven from the herd by younger and healthier, but no less aggressive, upstarts. These are large badly behaved males with an attitude and nothing to lose, and they are usually blind so when the get upset the run in random directions.
So this is what you are thinking about, and suddenly BAM!!! You hear loud pounding, an unearthly guttural noise, and the bush you are about to walk past shudders violently, and something comes out of the bush patch at 22 miles an hour straight at you!!!!
And misses you by inches as it runs by.
That was a warthog. The big males back themselves into dens, sometimes with their family behind them, and when something dangerous comes along they are supposed to be in there to fend off the danger (like, for instance, a leopard). But most of the time it is just the male himself, and instead of defending the brood he gets scared as you unwittingly approach and he decides at the very last second to make a break for it. But in the mean time, you get startled. I don’t know how many times this happened to me while I conducted my survey. Dozens of times. But every time I jumped ten feet in the air (figuratively) and assumed the end was here.
In truth, when the lion comes, you do not hear a thing, and it is said, you do not feel a thing. The few who have survived a lion attack say this, anyway.
Six people in our study area, in the Semliki, did not get away from the lion. Over the few years prior to the present field season, six people were killed and dragged off by a pair of male lions who had taken to eating people. That happens sometimes. The local people often attribute a special kind of demonic power to lions that turn to eating people. This could be in part due to the tendency … and I am not making this up … for the lions to leave behind one or both eyeballs when they kill a human. They drag the rest of the body off and leave an eyeball or two.
You see, the eyeballs pop out of the head at the moment of the killing bite, which is to the head. To understand this fully, go to any natural history museum with a “Touch and Learn” display and get a horse, cow, or even better, wildebeest skull and put it next to a human skull. (They may not have a touch and learn human skull, so you will need to bring your own). Look a the thickness and distribution of the tissues, bones, eyeballs. The horse is much more typical of the lion’s prey than the human, and the lion will kill this animal by either biting down on the neck and holding on for a long time or biting down on the snout and holding on for a long time. Neither bite is close to the eyes.
Now, imagine the lion trying to do that same move but with a human. You can’t miss the eyes, and the skull is small and the bones thin. The eyes, bits of brain, etc. will go popping right out of the tiny and thin-skulled human head every time. If the cat drags the body away, the eyes stay behind. If the cat does not drag the body off, the eyes are licked up as hors d’oeuvres.
Anyway, I had been startled so many times by these damn warthogs that I started to have evil thoughts as these little baby warthogs fed on the grass around where I had been standing silently using a transit to sight in some mapping point or another. Maybe drop kick one into the river, or pick one up and twist it’s tail or something. But I was not sure if the mom and dad would just run away or if they would come after me.
But really, I was content to let them not notice me standing there right in the middle of them and watch their behavior for some time. After about 15 minutes, though, it became boring and I wanted to move on, so I did my best rendition of a leopard cough. Suddenly, there were seven perfectly still warthogs standing all around me. And I was standing perfectly still as well. Then, a second leopard cough and suddenly there were seven grayish brown streaks of fast moving mammal all heading off in roughly the same direction (away). That was fun.
You might ask why I was wandering around in the savanna by myself so much. There were armed park guards, and it would have been possible for me to have one of them accompany me. Or I could have used a vehicle more, or brought along an Earth Watcher or two, thus slightly increasing my odds in the event a leopard or something wanted to eat. Well, I had a lot of reasons, including money (I’d have to chip in for the guards or the fuel) overall resources (the guards were busy guarding other people) and annoyance level (if I needed resources, I’d suddenly be in the position to grovel for approval from the big bosses, and that is not a relationship I’m good at).
All that was true, but the main reason was these warthogs and their animal friends. I wandered the savanna alone to experience moments like this …. moments when some critter or another would fail to notice me, and bump into me, or just hang around behaving, while I stood there and watched. It was just like watching a really good nature film, but more up close and personal, you can smell it, and it can eat you. That’s fun.
When we moved to Kenyatsi, the day to day relationship with the wild animals of the savanna become even more intimate. For one thing, I was now surveying more remote areas of the wilderness and the animals were more unaccustomed to seeing a human. This was actually a different pride of lions and totally different hyenas. Also, at Senga there were no hippos passing through camp. The hippos simply avoided us. At Kenyatsi, there were more hippos, and there was no way for the hippos to go around us, so they passed through our camp every night.
One of the hippos was a big male who hung out right where we camped. The water is shallow for about 300 feet (100 meters) out, no more than three or four feet deep with a hard substrate (one of those ‘laterite’ fossil layers I’d mentioned before, actually). So the big ol’ male would be out near the edge of this shelf barely visible in the water when a small group of us would show up to bathe.
We would get in the water knee deep and get wet, and get soaped up. The hippo would stand up and grunt. We’d dunk in the water once or twice to rinse off. The hippo would open his jaw and make some noise. We’d start putting on shampoo. The hippo would jump up and down, let out a hippo-yowell, and start running through the 3 foot deep water right at us. We’d dunk in the water to get the last of the shampoo off, and when coming up for air we’d already be running towards shore not even looking back. Grab the clothes off the beach and keep going into the bush. He wouldn’t come more than 20 feet out of the water most of the time.
Another hippo that was there was a smaller female who had calved a stillborn. Hippos are not that smart, and figuring out that her baby was not alive wasn’t really an option. She kept the baby up on her back or snout, or tried too nurse it, but if it was ever alive we saw no evidence. Mother hippos and their babies defy the rule of getting near a a wild mother animal with her babies. The mother hippos with small ones are the safest because they won’t charge. They stay with the baby. If you got too close she would probably bite you in half, but charging seems not an option.
Then there were the resident hyenas. Ive already mentioned their taste for salty snacks. They also liked all other human foods. The hyenas in the area are famous for raiding garbage dumps, and it is fun to find the steel cans that they’ve bitten through with their awesome teeth. The tooth marks in the cans look like 38 caliber bullet holes.
One set (two or three) of hyenas would visit us now and then when we cooked dinner. We were in an area where we could not fish very easily, but pirates could come by now and we would jump them and take their fish. You see, no one was supposed to be in this part of the lake, but we were not far from Pirate Island, so the pirates would come by now and then an illegally poach fish by netting from the shore (strictly prohibited). So we would jump out of the bushes (with our guards) and yell “Arret! Simama! Armee! Tunapata niye! Rudisha samaki ku lac! Ile iko contra ya doit!” And they would let the fish go except a small number which we would take as a bribe.
I’m sure the pirates found that very annoying.
Anyway, I would cook the fish on a fire built on one of the hippo paths through the brush towards the lake from our camp. The idea was to discourage the use of this path by hippos and other creatures. But the fish cooking on over the fire was too hard to resist. We’d have a little grill set up with the fish sitting on it, slow cooking, dripping in hot pepper and palm oil sauce to die for. And as I and anyone else sat there watching the fish, on the other side, on the path, in the dark, would be four or six eyes watching from the other side. If we’d step away from the fire for a moment, a fish would disappear and satanic noises would emanate from the bush for a time, and we’d throw a rock into the darkness in the general direction of the eyes. Then we’d all settle down again and watch the fish, the big primates on one side of the fire, the big hyenids on the other side of the fire.
Speaking of fire: As I’ve mentioned before, Biker was working on fire. Without going into technical details, he would build fires and then use special instruments to record data from the burning fire and later from the burned sediment. One of these projects entailed lighting a fire on the beach down by the lake at Kenyatsi… on the other side of the bushes these eyes lived in, down near the big male hippo and the female with her deceased offspring, and the pirates, and whatever else might be down there. This fire had instruments built into it, and it had to be kept going, with certain variations in fuel, for something like six days. I volunteered to help Biker out, so we would go down there together in the early evening to refuel and check the instruments and have a beer on the beach, and then later in the evening we’d take turns.
One night something funny happened.
I’ve mentioned before that when you work in the African bush, you learn the value of being able to walk along at night with no light. So, I was doing that, walking down the pitch black hippo trail with my flashlight, turning the light off, waking twenty feet, turning it back on, then off, walk twenty feet, and so on. The path was a well entrenched one, almost six feet deep, meaning that the land surface was at eye level to my left and right, and that level, in turn, was covered with thorny bushes somewhat arched overhead.
Off with the light, walk a ways, on with the light. Off with the light, walk a ways, on with the light. Off with the light, walk a ways, and suddenly… Bump!
Flashlight goes on. Oh, I had no idea hippo wiskers were so stiff and long.
Next thing I know, I’m in the bushes up above the path. Teletransported. Like I’ve told you before.
The hippo (this is the female with the baby, a few days after the baby disappeared) has somehow turned a 180 in this restricted space, and is running fast in the opposite direction. At the moment, she was already out of sight but I imagined her cartoon like with her legs spinning for a while before she takes off … and now I’m up in this bramble holding on to a tree branch and I can hear the thundering of her feet as she heads back to the lake. Then, suddenly, silence. Total absolute silence and I realize she’s jumped off the bank straight at the lake and is at this brief moment a hippo flying through the air. Maybe I can hear the whooshing sound of the flying hippo, I’m not sure.
And then. Splash. Whopping. Big. Splash. Like that tire. That I told you before about.
And all the hippos up and down the lake start up with their sardonic laughter. Well, three or four of them anyway, most are inland feeding and have missed the show. And I slowly extract myself from the brambles, and dripping with blood and sweat, continue down to the lake shore and check the fire, it’s fine, check the instruments, they’re fine, and head back to camp.
“What was that noise?” someone asks.
“Nothing,” I reply, feeling stupid.
[The Next Congo Memoir is Here.]