Monday, July 23, 2012

Nyungwe National Park

I spent the last week in the most diverse portion of Africa, in terms of flora and fauna. Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda is an afro-alpine jungle sitting at 7,500-9,000 feet elevation atop a mosaic of steep hills and mountains. Nyungwe is a part of the Albertine Rift and is one of the most well preserved forests in the world. It contains 13 species of primate, including chimpanzees, which accounts for 25% of all African primates. Additionally, Nyungwe is the forest where the Nile River begins. When I arrived, I had no idea how rich the jungle would be or how intriguing. It is an incredible place, a rare jewel in the center of Africa.

We stayed at the Kitabi College of Conservation in a guesthouse right at the edge of the forest. What a beautiful place. The row of houses sits on the crest of a hill terraced by bright green tea fields. The landscape beyond reveals a montage of majestic hills covered in dense jungle and shrouded by a thin blue mist. I counted 14 rows of hills that I could see from that hilltop.

Each day at Nyungwe was a different experience. Our first day there, we drove the steep and curvy road to the Uwinka Ranger Station. We tucked our pants into our socks due to danger of army ants and set out into the forest. Two guides led us down a precipitous dirt path through the jungle to a canopy walk 70 meters above the forest floor. The canopy walk is an aluminum structure composed of three different bridges about 1 foot wide stretched between 2 tall towers. We walked slowly along the walkway—a serious adrenaline rush looking down through the holes in the floor and seeing how far up we were. As we walked, the bridge began to shiver and dip with our weight. We stopped in the middle and you could see across the forest to the hills beyond. A spectacular view of a unique paradise untouched by humans. It looked so peaceful and so unknown. On our way back up the massive hill, we came across a troop of blue monkeys!

The canopy walk

For our second day in the forest, we trekked the largest troop of Black and White Colobus Monkeys in the world—a group of monkeys numbering more than 450 individuals! We bounced along on a dirt path in our truck for almost half an hour until the ranger who was with us told our driver to stop. I put on my binos and whipped out my little blue field journal. When I stepped out of the car, everyone was quiet. Someone nudged me and I looked straight up into the eucalyptus tree canopy. Balls of black and white fur stared down at us from every direction. We didn’t even have to chop through the jungle to reach the monkeys! It was surreal—hundreds of monkeys leaping through the trees with little regard to the group of us humans below. I was so excited seeing the monkeys it was hard to concentrate. I had never seen that many primates in one place and one time… They are kind of silly looking with white tufts of hair surrounding their black faces and they have no thumbs so they can swing swiftly through the trees. The babies of the Colobus were so cute with bright white natal coats. We spent two hours with the monkeys collecting data and observing behaviors.

Colobus monkey

After a day of lecture and visiting a cultural village to see how ancient Rwandans lived in the time of kings, we trekked into the jungle to see Grey-Cheeked Mangabeys. It was a six-hour excursion in some of the densest forest I have ever been in. I think we were on a path, although with the jungle encroaching all around us, it didn’t look like one. We tumbled down the steep hills, slipping on the leaf litter layer. It was so steep, you would be walking down and someone 50 meters in front of you would be just 2 meters below you. You had to duck down through the twigs and branches of the forest shrubs and walk sideways down the hill to avoid slipping all the way down. We were all clinging onto roots and trees to steady ourselves. I kept bursting out laughing it was so comical. When we stopped for lunch, it was so steep I couldn’t even sit down, so I ate standing up, bracing myself against a lichen-covered tree. After 3 hours of hiking, we finally found the Mangabeys. They were far up in the tree canopies and we watched the weird little monkeys for some time before marching back through the forest.
The steep hiking slopes of Nyungwe
Gray-cheaked Mangabey

The next day, I SAW WILD CHIMPS!!!!!!! Five of us woke up at 4:00, and you could still see the stars glistening in the dark night sky. After 3 hours of driving to the trailhead, our guide took us out of the car and we tucked our socks into our pants and began to climb. The path was steep. After less than a half hour we saw the chimp trackers. I looked into the trees to the left and saw A CHIMPANZEE. Stunned. Shocked. So excited. An exhilarating rush of adrenaline pulsed through me. The chimp was far off, but you could see his black body ambling through the branches of the tree. The way he moved was oddly human. Farther up the hill, three chimps were in the branches of the tree, feeding on the fig fruits. Not only were there chimps, but there were several Blue Monkeys and L’hoest’s monkeys and a large hornbill partaking in the fig feast. You could hear the loud chimp vocalizations from the rest of the group off in the jungle below. The trackers led us back down the hill, across the base of the hill, and back up the slope. I felt like Jane Goodall, tracking Chimpanzees in Africa and listening to their loud calls. We came to a large fig tree rising 70 meters above the ground. At least 16 chimps were high in the tree canopy. They kept making loud calls, which we were told were calls of excitement telling other chimps about the abundance of figs in the tree. Looking at those chimps was so different than the gorillas. They seemed so intelligent and so cunning it was almost eerie. A couple mothers with their little ones remained in the trees eating the figs while the rest of the family bolted off into the jungle. I wish I could see them again. I really love chimpanzees.  
L'Hoest's Monkey

King, Queen and Guard

Chimp eating figs

A blue monkey

The last two days in the Nyungwe forest were rest days consisting mostly of laundry, catching up on journal entries, and watching movies. Right now, I am in Ruhengeri again at the base of the Virungas. This week will be focused on studying the mountain gorillas and golden monkeys! Additionally, we get to hike to the original Karisoke Research camp on Mount Bisoke where Dian Fossey is buried. What an adventure this is turning out to be!

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