Oakland Zoo Veterinarian, Dr. Goodnight travels to Uganda to help lions!
by | February 20th, 2015

IMG_6012Oakland Zoo Veterinarian, Dr. Andrea Goodnight, and volunteer veterinarian, Dr. Sharon Gottfried, are working with the Uganda Carnivore Program (UCP) in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda this February. They will be assisting UCP veterinarian, Dr. Ludwig Siefert, in his daily conservation activities, while also conducting a study to evaluate stress hormone levels in African lions in the park.

 Days 1-2

 Getting There…

Dubai

Dubai

We left SFO on Thursday Feb 12 at 4pm, to arrive 15 hours later in Dubai on Friday Feb 13 at 7pm. The astute among you may wonder about my math…nope, it’s not wrong – we’re just time traveling! During the long layover we learned some history while viewing the highlights of Dubai: the Al-Faruk mosque, Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world at 1820 feet), lavish hotels (rooms from $500 – $35,000 per night), and finally stopped to dip our fingers in the Arabian Sea at Jumeirah Beach! Dubai is a city of lights – strings of lights engulf entire buildings, drip from palm trees, and dance on top of towers, leaving us to wonder if Dubai’s residents ever experience stars twinkling in the night sky…and how different Uganda’s nights are likely to be…

Days 3-4

Still Getting There…

Back to the enormous, ultramodern Dubai International Airport for the second leg of the journey. Six hours later we arrive in a different world, complete with only one small paved airstrip, a simple airport terminal, and friendly Ugandan faces and voices. “You are most welcome!” we hear as we make our way through immigration. It is too late in the afternoon to drive to QENP, so we stay in Entebbe, a modern African city, for the night. Our guesthouse is comfortable and

Dr Gottfried with a village child.

Dr Gottfried with a village child.

welcoming, the back garden a mecca for multitudes of songbirds, geckos, and mosquitos!

Village children who climbed into the driver's seat of our van and the chaos that ensued as they explored the van!

Village children who climbed into the driver’s seat of our van and the chaos that ensued as they explored the van!

Day 4 begins before sunrise, as we meet our driver, Peter, to begin the 8-hour journey through the Ugandan countryside to QENP. Today is Sunday, and people are headed to church services, walking along the side of the road, the women wearing their finest dresses – the brightly colored fabrics are a sharp contrast to the general tan haze that hangs in the air. We pass villages with names such as Mbarara, Bushenyi, and Ruburizi, each consisting of dusty red dirt streets, homes, shops, and lots of people on motorbikes. I feel a long way from home…

Typical Ugandan village

Typical Ugandan village

We make a final stop in a village just outside the park gates where Dr. Siefert will meet us. As if they have specialized radar detection, the village children appear out of nowhere, tapping at the windows, holding our hands, and asking for sweets. They are infatuated with our pale skin, earrings, Dr. Gottfried’s tattoos, and my toenail polish! Lucky for us, Dr. Siefert soon arrives, the driver shoos the children away, and we are ready for a conservation adventure.

 

(Still) Day 4

Work begins…

After a quick check-in to our simple hostel accommodations, we sit down with Dr. Seifert and his research assistant, James, for a briefing about the current situation in the park: these are the real African conservation dilemmas.

QENP is located in the southwestern corner of Uganda, covering an area of approximately 764 square miles of the Rift Valley Floor, including Lakes George and Edward. Most of the parkland is grassland savannah, with stunning views of the Virunga and Rwenzori mountains (on clear days). Featuring one of the highest biodiversity ratings of the world’s national parks, QENP is home to approximately 100 mammal species and over 500 bird species. Sounds like paradise, right?Ele dust bathMongoose in lodge

Unfortunately, this biodiversity is in severe distress. There is currently a drought in the park, huge sections of the park are burned, the lakes are overfished, and many of the apex predators have been poisoned by people in the surrounding villages.

We head out to track one specific lioness that needs her radio collar replaced. The changes in the park since I first saw it almost 4 years ago are shocking. The land is black underneath dry remains of grasses, with minimal new vegetation. A heavy gray haze hangs in the air – smoke from nearby fires. A few Uganda kob and gazelle stand amidst the charred area, quickly darting away when our research vehicle nears. Dr. Siefert remarks, “They never used to run away like that. They are more worried about us since the fires.”

We continue through the park, James, Dr. Gottfried and I on the top of the truck, antenna in hand, hoping to hear the lionesses’ signal. Ultimately this evening, we don’t find her, but we do see a few promising signs that not all is lost. A group of at least 20 elephants stops our progress down one section of road! Apparently, the elephant population has not been as affected as others by the changes in the park.

This first evening is a sobering reminder of why we are here. There is much work to be accomplished: change human actions, reverse the damage, and repopulate the park. As we debrief after tracking, Dr. Siefert reveals that these changes may be almost impossible to make in time to prevent complete extinction of many of the parks’ animals; however, he will continue the mission tomorrow – as long as tomorrows keep coming.

Tuesday Feb 17 (morning)

It’s another tomorrow…

Unfortunately, there’s very bad news this morning. A young male lion crossed the border from Tanzania yesterday afternoon and entered a village. The residents surrounded the lion and pelted it with stones. The lion retaliated and a villager was killed. At that point, the wildlife ranger had no choice but to euthanize the lion. Dr. Siefert had been called, but we simply could not get to the village in time to intervene and relocate the lion.Papa

In a somber mood, Dr. Siefert, James, Dr. Gottfried and I must take some tourists on a morning game drive to track lions. We drive deep into the northeastern corner of the park. On the way, our mood lifts a little…I spot a creature with a distinctive loping gait far across the savannah. It’s a hyena, returning to its daytime resting spot after a night of hunting! Hyenas are so critically endangered in QENP that Dr. Siefert knows of only 1 female and 2 males left. Maybe this sighting is a good omen?

For the next several hours, we partially forget the conservation challenges and enjoy the natural beauty of the parklands and the animals. We visit 3 groups of lions. Sharon’s group usually consists of 10 animals, both females and cubs. Today we see 3 females, lounging in the grass. The Uganda kob call out alarms while we observe, clearly nervous about the lion presence. The second group contains the three large males: Papa, Omukama, and Rudi. While Rudi keeps out of sight in the brush, the others lay in the sun, bellies bulging from the kill they must have made overnight. Finally, we move into a wetland area and find another group of 8 females and cubs, hiding from the midday sun in the brush, waiting to ambush any stray kob that ventures too close. Lions on the savannah can be difficult to see: Dr. Seifert points out another cub in the tree that even James missed while radiotracking!

Omukama

Omukama

It’s midday and the sun is beating down, heating up the savannah. We must leave this amazing place for a while, but today there is more positive energy. Despite all the challenges, some animals are thriving. Now we must press on to our next engagement…convincing the locals that this mission is worthwhile.

Next installment: village visit and meeting with the Uganda Wildlife Authority!

 

 

 

Oakland Zoo ZooKeepers to Madagascar!
by | February 18th, 2015

Madagascar

Madagascar.

When you see that word, what do you think? I will guess most of you will say “that DreamWorks cartoon!” King Julian!” or “I like to move it, move it!”

As a keeper at Oakland Zoo, I care for two species of lemur; Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) and Sclater’s lemurs (Eulemur flavifrons) and I think of the word “Madagascar” a little different than most. I immediately think of lemurs as well as orchids, chameleons, rainforests, fossa and many, many other unique and endangered species.1

There’s no place in the world like Madagascar. Formed over 88 million years ago, it is the world’s 4th largest island and 90% of its animals are found nowhere else on the planet! Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be able to visit such an amazing destination, but, indeed I did!

In November of 2014 my supervisor Margaret Rousser and I were invited by the director and founder of Centre ValBio, Dr. Patricia Wright, to visit her research center in Ranomafana National Park and assist in the capture and data collection of the park’s Milne-Edward sifaka’s (Propithecus edwardsi).

After a 27 hour flight from San Francisco and a 10 hour drive from Antananarivo, the country’s capitol, we finally reached the rainforest and Centre ValBio. Beautiful. Breathtaking. Mysterious. Downright awesome. These are the words that went through my mind as we arrived.

After resting up overnight after our long flight and equally exhaustive drive we were ready to see the park.

Elizabeth holding a recovering adult

Elizabeth holding a recovering adult

Along the length of the eastern Madagascan coast runs a narrow and steep escarpment containing much of the island’s remaining tropical lowland forest. Ranomafana National Park is located on this escarpment. The terrain is extremely hilly and trekking through the forest is challenging as the majority of the time you are ascending or descending these hills. My favorite areas were the ridge trails. Once you reach the ridges, you get a break from the extreme climbing and get to enjoy the views on either side of the hills.

On our first visit into Ranomafana Park with Dr. Wright, Margaret and I were able to see 5 different species of lemurs! To say we were lucky is not enough. Dr. Wright has been studying lemurs in this location for 30 years and was pleased and surprised at seeing so many lemur species on a single visit. We capped our perfect lemur day with an interesting evening, observing students collect data on the world’s smallest primate, a mouse lemur.3

After a few days waiting for the government to finally approve the permits required to capture the Milne-Edwards sifaka’s, we were on our way back into the forest! After a grueling 5 hour hike to one of the park’s most remote sites we arrived to find the lemurs, ready for their exams and new collars. The trackers, who spend much of their time in the forest observing the whereabouts of the different lemur groups and know the individuals intimately, had anesthetized a group of three adults, one male, two females and two infants!

Putting on new ID collar (Photo Joan de la Malla)

Putting on new ID collar (Photo Joan de la Malla)

Margaret and I jumped into our roles immediately! Margaret led a group of graduate students, instructing them on obtaining body measurements along with hair, ectoparasite and fecal collection. I helped the vet with physical exams, blood collection and removal and replacement of new ID collars. This was a most amazing experience. The adult lemurs are given anesthesia to avoid undo stress as they are wild animals unused to being handled by humans. This ensures their safety as well as the humans’ handling them. The infant lemurs are not anesthetized and stay on their moms until the physical exam is performed. The babies are then held by a human until their mother is done with her exam and they are quickly returned to her. It may seem this is too stressful for the animal but the babies seem to feel secure as long as they have an adult primate to cling too. They contentedly sat in our arms, looking at all the things happening around them with no struggling our stressful vocalizations.

We stayed that night camping in the rainforest, which was an adventure in itself, with the lovely pit toilet and cute little leeches!  The next morning we awoke to the sounds of black and white ruffed lemur groups vocalizing around us. The Milne-Edwards sifakas were checked by the vet to ensure they all had recovered fully from the previous day and then the trackers returned them to the same location they had been captured so the lemurs could resume their normal daily life.

The rest of us returned to Centre ValBio’s laboratory where we began processing samples taken from the animals.

The second group we helped with a few days later was just as exciting but luckily only a 30 minute hike to the site instead of 5 hours! We had one adult male, two adult females and one infant. Again, all went well, and once recovered, the animals were returned to their original location.

Once done with our Ranomafana animal captures Margaret and I had a few days to see a little more of Madagascar when we traveled 4 hours by car to visit a village which ran their own lemur sanctuary. This was very exciting for us because at this location they only had one species- ring tailed lemurs!

Anja Community Reserve covers about 75 acres and nearly 300 RT lemurs call it home. It is completely operated by the villagers, who protect the forest, serve as guides and perform administrative tasks.

Mama and baby ring tailed lemur at Anja Community Reserve

Mama and baby ring tailed lemur at Anja Community Reserve

We arrived at dusk and could hear the lemurs calling to each other in the forest below our hotel, I got goose bumps as I immediately recognized the calls as they are the same vocalization I hear from my lemurs at Oakland Zoo! Early the next morning Margaret and I along with a guide and a tracker, headed into the reserve. I was soon choked up with joy as we encountered our first wild lemur group! These lemurs have all been desensitized to the proximity of humans and Margaret and I were able to get quite close. It was amazing to sit in the forest as 100s of lemurs meandered, scampered, jumped, vocalized and foraged all around us. Our guides had a vast knowledge of the area’s flora and fauna as this was their own backyard. They could spot a tiny chameleon who looked like a little twig to me, or another one that was the same green as the leaf he was sitting on!

November was the perfect time to visit Madagascar as there were many babies to be seen. So many cute little guys were riding their moms, daring to be brave and jumping to the ground only to be surprised by a blowing leaf and running back to the safety of momma’s back! It was interesting to see the large troupes of lemurs of all different ages combing the forest together. The older animals were much more interested in foraging for tasty fruit while the youngsters played tag through the trees!

Margaret and Elizabeth with Veterinarian Hajanirina Rakotondrainibe at Centre ValBio

Margaret and Elizabeth with Veterinarian Hajanirina Rakotondrainibe at Centre ValBio

Overall, the trip to Madagascar was an unforgettable journey. Seeing the country, its animals and people was a life changing event. I can’t wait to return to the beautiful Island and continue to see more of the amazing and unique things it has to offer!

Zoos Aren’t Just for Kids: Two New Adult Events
by | February 12th, 2015

Looking for an exciting adult-themed event to attend with your special someone? Check out “Birds, Bees & Brunch” at Oakland Zoo. You may recognize the theme from previous years when we hosted the “Animal Amore” events around Valentine’s Day. This year, the program is updated with a new flair. Our first event of the season is scheduled for Sunday, March 2. Here’s what we’ve got planned for you: first, we’ll gather in the courtyard of the Zoo’s Education Center at 10:00am. Enjoy a tasty continental brunch, which includes a mimosa bar! Then, you’ll get the chance to create some fun items for our animals—their favorite food treats will be hidden inside recyclable packaging. You’ll get a kick watching the animals unwrap your creations. Afterwards, you’ll have a choice of two activities. You can chooseharry santi speaking to accompany one of our experienced docents on a special guided tour of the Zoo, where you’ll learn about all sorts of amorous animal behaviors. Or, you can opt for a self-guided scavenger hunt through the Zoo, using clues to locate various animal exhibits on your own. Either way, you’ll have fun learning about the colorful love lives of our exotic animal residents. The fee for “Birds, Bees and Brunch” is $20 for current Oakland Zoo members and $25 for non-members. It’s easy to register online. Just visit the Zoo’s website at www.oaklandzoo.org and download the request form. Then fill it out and FAX or email it back to the Zoo. You can also look forward to other BB&B events throughout the year, so keep an eye on our website calendar.

And, while we’re on the subject of adult fun, there’s another Oakland Zoo event that you may not know about. It’s called “Parents’ Day/Night Off.” Drop the kiddos off at the Zoo while you get away on a date with your loved one, or just enjoy some time for yourself. Your kids will be well cared for and will have a great time. Here’s what we’ve got on the agenda: First, they’ll get served a pizza dinner. Then, we will grab our flashlights and take them on a special walking tour of the Children’s Zoo, where they’ll get the opportunity to see what the animals do after dark, when the zoo is closed. After the tour, your kids will get to participate in an Animal Close-Up where they’ll meet, touch, and learn about one of our Animals Ambassadors, such as a hedgehog, ferret, or lizard. Then, we all play a game or Acacia LF & Rose RTparticipate in an animal-themed craft project. And to top off the evening, we gather in our auditorium to watch a fun, kid-appropriate movie on the big screen.

As the name implies, “Parents’ Day/Night Off” is being offered both days and evenings. For instance, coming up on Valentine’s Day on February 14th, we’re offering this event during the evening, so you can be free for a special night of romance. On March 15th, we’re offering the program during the day to coincide with March Madness, freeing you up to attend that game day party you want to attend. We also have more events planned, if these dates don’t work for you, you can look forward to lots of opportunities later this year.

To participate in Parents’ Day/Night Off, kids need to be aged 4-10 years and be potty-trained. The fee is $45 per child and $30 for each additional sibling. Pre-registration is required. Simply download the Parents Day/Night Off Request Form, complete it and FAX it to 510-729-7324. Or you can email it to our Education Programs Associate. So if you need a little “away time” from the kids, give Oakland Zoo a call, and leave the babysitting to us!

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper: Coming Back Home
by | February 11th, 2015

Just when I’ve started to feel I’ve found my place here at Lola ya Bonobo, it is already time to depart. I truly miss my pets and the animals I care for at Oakland Zoo, but I really wish I had a little more time here. Particularly since I don’t really speak any French, it was hard to get to know people initially. However, after a week or two, we all became comfortable enough to fill in language barriers with hand gestures. Plus, I’ve picked up a little more French during my stay. It’s more than enough to build friendships. I’ve also become more comfortable to jump in and offer help when I can.

Here I am giving medical treatment for worm prevention.

Here I am giving medical treatment for worm prevention.

On grounds, there is a never-ending supply of bamboo, I can’t believe how big it can get! The diameter of the bigger stalks is too large for me to reach both of my hands around and have them touch. In the past at Oakland Zoo, I’ve cut bamboo and drilled holes into it to hide peanut butter and jam for the sun bears and siamangs. The cost of these food items is very expensive in DRC, it is not realistic for me to suggest that. However, the bonobos do receive a daily supply of peanuts. I suggested making peanut puzzle feeders with sections of bamboo. Raphael (veterinarian) and Emile (keeper) help me to do this.

Feeding bananas to Group 2 bonobos.

Feeding bananas to Group 2 bonobos.

While the sanctuary does have a drill on hand, there is no saw. Emile takes a machete to cut the bamboo sections. I want to offer to do it, so Emile can get back to his work and not have to baby-sit me. Raphael asks him in French if I can do the chopping. Emile’s translated reply is, “Sure, if you want to cut yourself, no problem.” He’s teasing…a little bit. I think. It’s also definitely a cultural issue, women don’t use tools like machetes here. I want to protest, but I am pretty accident-prone anyways. I’m just going to let this one go.

When we have seven bamboo sections of different sizes, Emile leaves and says it is okay for me to drill the holes. There are several other keepers in the area and I am uncomfortably aware they are all watching me drill, which isn’t easy. The dull bit isn’t big enough to make a good size hole for the peanuts, so I have to drill several times for one hole on the curved surface of the bamboo. Sometimes the power button on this ancient device gets stuck and the drill keeps going at full blast, all on its own. When I finish and Raphael and I are inspecting the holes, Nsimba, one of the women who prepares the bonobo diets here, says, “Strong!” and points to me, flexing her arms. I thank her and try to be cool about it, but I’m secretly giddy, hoping I’ve inspired female empowerment. If only a little bit.

Untitled3Raphael and I take the bamboo to the juvenile nursery, after filling them with a lot of peanuts. The reaction varies quite a bit. Some of the juveniles immediately use the bamboo to display or as a ladder to climb. A few immediately find something better to do, but four are all about them. It’s pretty amusing to watch when they accidentally get several peanuts to fall out, as you can see them realize what it’s all about. Singi spends a good 25 minutes with his (an eternity for a juvenile bonobo mind). This young male is referred to by the Mamas as being “cray cray,” some American slang they’ve picked up. Before the adult female, Kisantu (mentioned in an earlier blog), was put into the juvenile enclosure to recover from illness, it was safe to go in with the juveniles. Well, sort of. These bonobos are around 4-6 years old and are not only getting really strong, but also *realizing* how strong they are. They’re relentless and Singi is the roughest. I only went into the juvenile enclosure once before Kisantu was moved there- Singi gave me quite the run for my money. Anyone who thinks it is a good idea to have an ape as a pet should have to spend one hour with Singi. They’d opt for a goldfish pretty quickly.

Singi, figuring out the objective of his puzzle feeder.

Singi, figuring out the objective of his puzzle feeder.

Now, to see Singi thoughtfully turning over the bamboo, poking at the hole where he knows the peanuts could come out, he is a different animal. After the first minute or so, in proper bonobo fashion, he has sex with it. After that, his entire focus is on turning it over and over, at different angles, to get the peanuts.

My last full day at the sanctuary is a Sunday, which I’m happy about because it is bread and butter day. During a time when the sanctuary was getting charged astronomical prices for produce (see previous blog post that talks about the seed distribution program), they needed a way to make sure the bonobos were getting enough calories. The bonobos were supplemented with bread rolls and butter. By butter, I mean a very soft margarine that comes in bulk tubs and is produced in Kinshasa. The bonobos *love* it. Now that the sanctuary is getting a better deal on produce, they still offer the bread and butter one time a week as a special treat. Similar techniques are used in zoos as well. For example, at Oakland Zoo the sun bears get a treat mix sprinkled throughout their exhibit that contains peanuts, dried fruit, plain popcorn and cereal. This encourages foraging behavior and makes it worthwhile for the bears to put forth the effort to seek it. Also, who doesn’t like getting “fun food” every once in a while?

Bread and butter day!

Bread and butter day!

11

A Group 1 bonobo hits the jackpot on the bread treat.

Here at the sanctuary, the bonobos definitely go a little nuts on bread and butter day. When the media talks about bonobos (which is pretty rare), they love to refer to them as the “Make love, not war ape.” This is very much an oversimplification based on bonobos using sex to diffuse social tensions, but no one would use that phrase on bread and butter day. While there still are a few bonobos having sex and no serious violent aggression breaks out, it is mostly every bonobo for his or herself. The most dominant bonobos can be seen carrying handfuls of the torn-up rolls. The keepers try their best to make sure there is enough for everyone and spread it out as far as they are able, but there is still a lot of displaying and loud vocalizations. The human equivalent would be someone sprinkling a large amount of money over a busy city street.

I can’t put into words how grateful I am for my short time here. The Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t for everyone. There are a lot of political issues, cultural tensions and frequent violent outbursts in the country to protest the government. The U.S. government travel warnings’ website continues to advise Americans not to come here. You also have to worry about illness, like the multiple strains of malaria found here. One form, cerebral malaria, attacks the brain and kills you in days if not caught and treated properly. Even smaller things, like sitting on the porch at evening to eat dinner means you have to be okay with bugs the length of your hand possibly flying blindly right at you and bouncing off your head. However, I feel I’ve only become a better person for being exposed to a style of living very different from the country I grew-up in. Also, at least for me, the benefits of being here far outweigh the costs or risks.

Untitled11The conservation status of the bonobo is bleak. Their remaining range is only one section of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is estimated there are 5,000 left, but no one can say for sure as it is too dangerous to complete a wildlife census in parts of their range. While hunting or keeping a bonobo comes with a severe punishment (10 years in prison and/or an $8,500 fine), it’s a big country with a lot of other issues going on to deal with. Bonobos continue to be actively hunted and slaughtered for meat, witchcraft practices and to capture young infants to sell on the black market. Being the only sanctuary available for orphaned bonobos to go to, Lola ya Bonobo is truly a place worthy of recognition and support. If you would like to learn more about the sanctuary or find out how you can help, please visit: www.friendsofbonobos.org.

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper “Lola ya Bonobo” Paradise of the Bonobos
by | February 4th, 2015
One of the many beautiful Congolese plants.

One of the many beautiful Congolese plants.

A fledgling we found water-logged in the water filtration pool, he was unable to get out. He sat very calmly on my finger, until he had preened his feathers dry.

A fledgling we found water-logged in the water filtration pool, he was unable to get out. He sat very calmly on my finger, until he had preened his feathers dry.

I’ve been here almost two weeks now and still have not really established a daily routine. The nursery bonobos are always in need of some socializing and that’s pretty much my favorite thing I’ve done in my life thus far, so I always make time for that. However, seeing how the keepers manage the adult bonobo groups is also a great learning opportunity. Bonobo society is so complicated, the behavioral signals they send to each other are so subtle. From a glance, you are just watching a group of bonobos lounging after a feeding and it looks like they’re lazily hanging out together. Watch them more closely and you will notice a male is several feet outside the inner group and that he looks up quickly whenever someone approaches him. He is low-ranking and is never sure when someone will come to remind him of this. Towards the center of the group, young bonobos play wrestle with each other, but all of a sudden it gets too rough for the little one and she cries out in protest. An adult female picks her up and they have sex. It is still weird for me to see bonobos use sex in this manner, regardless of gender or age, to calm tension. Next one young bonobo picks up a plastic bottle (used by the keepers to hand the bonobos water through the fence when they want to draw them in for closer observation). The bonobo leans on the plastic bottle and runs right by the group, pushing it against the ground like a child pushing a toy car. This is a display to show-off and it makes a really loud noise. Some of the bonobos look, but none react. They’re all taking note though.

A species of egret found all over the sanctuary

A species of egret found all over the sanctuary

The path surrounding the perimeter of the sanctuary.

The path surrounding the perimeter of the sanctuary.

Another perk of walking the 1.5 miles around the sanctuary to observe the adult bonobos is seeing the other wildlife that lives on the grounds. Lizards, bugs, birds and amphibians are everywhere. One of my favorite species of snakes, the Gabon viper, can also be found here. They are very shy and usually hide under forest brush, camouflaging perfectly. In ecology, the usual rule of thumb is that the larger the individuals in a species are, the fewer there are and the more spread out they are. Another reason seeing a Gabon viper is unlikely, as they are a large snake and therefore more rare. They only get up to around 3 feet in length, but have a very thick girth, as do other terrestrial snakes.

One species that I would say is as socially complicated as the bonobos, just in a different manner, are the army ants. When I spent three months in Uganda, they were there as well and I honestly didn’t care for them much.

One of the many butterfly species found here.

One of the many butterfly species found here.

Some mushrooms growing through the crack in a bench.

Some mushrooms growing through the crack in a bench.

We would usually find a place to sit and watch the chimpanzees, but if you didn’t notice the army ants marching through, they would be climbing up your legs and before you knew it, you were getting bit everywhere! Here at the sanctuary, the grounds have well-kept paths and so the ants’ presence is much more obvious. When on the move, the ants form a long line and the workers stream by. To protect them, guards are posted all along both sides of the line, with huge pinchers poised and ready. It’s easy enough to jump over the line, but even walking within a couple feet of it will cause the guards to break away from the line and fan out to charge the intruder.

An African millipede.

An African millipede.

A small frog, the size of a dime.

A small frog, the size of a dime.

A skink, hiding in the leaf litter.

A skink, hiding in the leaf litter.

Besides critters, you also see some crazy looking plants in DRC. I would never describe myself as a “plant person” per se, my repeated disastrous attempts at my balcony garden back home confirm this.Here though, some of the flowers look like they are straight out of a Dr. Seuss book and should have names like “Snarfalamdoodle.” They’re bright, beautiful and crazy! Competing with the flowers are the caterpillars. They come in every neon color, with insane hair designs, signaling to predators that they are toxic to eat. Seeing a neon orange caterpillar with a black mohawk, you think, “I get it: No touchy.”

Depending on the time of day, walking the perimeter can mean seeing many bonobos or none at all. In the afternoon, they usually go into the forest to rest where it is a bit cooler. I have yet to consider the walk a waste of time though, as the local wildlife never disappoints.

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper Day 8
by | February 3rd, 2015

It was another quiet day at the sanctuary. I went down to the daily morning meeting with all the staff, as a sign of respect mostly. The meeting is in French, so I don’t get much out of it. I sort of notice the director, Pierrot, has a lot to say this morning, but I don’t catch any of it and today no one offers to translate. Not that big of a deal.

From left to right: Claudine Andre (founder), Fanny Minesi (manager), me and below: Raphael Belais (veterinarian). The poster is in Lingala and is stating that being convicted of killing a bonobo is punishable by 10 years in prison and a $8,500 fine (a new law instated two months ago).

From left to right: Claudine Andre (founder), Fanny Minesi (manager), me and below: Raphael Belais (veterinarian). The poster is in Lingala and is stating that being convicted of killing a bonobo is punishable by 10 years in prison and a $8,500 fine (a new law instated two months ago).

I head to the nursery for a little bit, but then decide to be present for the Group 1 feeding. I sit on the bank of the large pond that runs alongside one perimeter of the enclosure and watch the bonobos interact. They’re all hanging out and waiting to be fed, but no keepers come. I’m not entirely sure what is going on, but it probably is not note-worthy. Nothing really happens at a set time in Congo. Pasha, the head groundskeeper, comes up and says hello. He knows about as much English as I do French (aka basic phrases), but he always comes to talk to me anyways. With the help of hand signals, we exchange a little back and forth about the bonobos. He then asks when I am going back to America, I tell him in one week. He’s quiet and then says, “Congo, Congo, Congo.” I reply, “J’adore Congo!” (“I love Congo!”). His face is very serious when he says, “Problems. Congo est difficile.” Congo is difficult. I nod empathetically, but I’m not sure what to say. It seems like he wants to discuss something, but we have no way to do it. It’s frustrating, because I’m dying to know what’s on his mind. Is he just referring to the turbulent history of the country? We’re both quiet for a minute or two and watch the bonobos, then he tells me he is leaving and we say goodbye.

Later that night, Gaspard and I are talking before dinner and I ask if he knows if Fanny is coming back from Kinshasa that night still. He says no, she decided to stay in town with her daughter and keep her home from school, because of the demonstrations. “Huh?” I ask, feeling like a ditz. Then Gaspard tells me what Pierrot had been telling all the staff that morning.

As mentioned in a previous blog, President Kabila is under strong international pressure to step-down at the end of his current term, which ends in December 2016. He’s not happy about this. On Sunday, there was supposed to be a vote in Congress on a new law that states a nation-wide census must be completed before the next presidential election. The Democratic Republic of Congo is huge, the second largest country in Africa, and a census has not been completed since the 80’s. To organize and complete a census will take years and only then would the campaigning for the presidency be able to start. Students in Kinshasa were planning to protest during the vote, but the government quickly did the vote on Saturday instead of Sunday and it passed. Today was Monday and people are angry, there have been protests. So far, it hasn’t escalated too badly. Several protesters were shot with rubber bullets and sent to the hospital, one police officer was stoned to death and one grocery store was looted. Traffic in the city is at an all-time high, most public transportation isn’t running (the reason why there was so few staff in the morning). All in all, it sounds pretty similar to protests that were happening all across the U.S. when I left, but being in a country that I haven’t lived in and having it happen somehow makes it seem worse. However, the sanctuary is far from Kinshasa and in a rural area. It’s safe here.

After dinner, Gaspard and I decide to walk around the perimeter of the sanctuary to look for wildlife that comes out at night. In particular, I really want to see a snake. We head off with head lamps and flashlights, but the night guard stops us. They speak in French for a long time, I don’t have any idea what’s happening. Finally, I learn that because of the tensions in the city, the military that are in the area are on high alert. The sanctuary’s guard doesn’t want us to walk along the perimeter, he’s worried we will run into one of them. He’s referring to the same military that we passed on our way to the lake a few days before. Apparently, they haven’t actually been in this area for very long and no one knows why they are here. Most of them come from eastern DRC, where a lot of people speak Swahili, not French.  These guards also don’t speak Lingala, which is the local language in this area that all the Congolese use to converse. I suddenly feel pretty stupid for saying, “M’bote!” to all the guards the day before, the Lingala word for “hello.”

We head back to the cabin and decide to ask the director about it the next day. I’ve learned that no matter how many people you ask about the conflict, you always get a different variation of the answer. Some are very nervous and full of warning, while others shrug it off and say it isn’t a big deal. I’m not sure if the situation is being blown out of proportion or if people are desensitized to the violence, because this happens every time there is any type of vote. I think it at least in part comes from no one knowing what will happen. Things can change so quickly or it can all blow over just as fast as it started. In some small way, I’m grateful to be exposed to the uncertainty, as I think I will be a better person for it. That being said, if my mom is reading this, I’m playing it on the safe side and staying in my room tonight.