Saturday, January 8, 2011

Kenya Calling – Monkeying with De Brazza's Monkey


I am not a primatologist (I guess that’s what they call themselves!), not by far, even then I must write about primates in this post, and about a particular sub species of monkey. I don’t know anything about them but I am closely related to them as you all probably are. Those of you who aren’t, my apologies – this post may not be suitable for your consumption. But to the rest, who continue reading this, my heartiest welcome, after all who doesn’t wish to go back on family tree and discover things (even if they are not very flattering) about their ancestors. Well then what are my qualifications for writing about them; quite a few actually. I love monkeys and I love monkeying around and most of my friends say I behave like one as well – my climbs have often been compared to the elegance of a monkey slithering up and down a coconut tree, and I do love eating and am always eyeing the ripe yellow bananas and the pretty ladies in reverse order. And then being wild, unruly and cute like them, and equally uneducated (some of you will add), here I am the world’s greatest or rather highest authority on primates to tell you of a monkey that even few years ago did not exist on record. And my only qualification (if I need one), to my discerning readers, I have for writing about them is that I was fortunate to travel into their homeland deep in Northern Kenya in company of one of the top primatologists of Kenya (one who had actually discovered them in this part) and come face to face with few of the monkeys, and in close proximity I did find them handsome, charming, effusive, intelligent, naughty and superb climbers; all of which further confirmed my belief, that may not be all human, but I certainly descended from them.

De Brazza’s monkey (Cercopithecus neglectus) is often claimed as one of the most remarkable species in the group of Guenons (old world monkeys). I am not sure why, but when Google says so and is backed by people with funny titles and Phds, I do shut up (which is rather hard for me) and accept that as God’s gospel. They live in river side forests and those with flowing streams within the mid / lower levels of forests. What this means in short is that they love the water and are mostly tree bound, something to do with being arboreal. Again why would they be so, I have no idea like why do we have two legs? Being so close to the waters, naturally they are champion swimmers. Their main feed consists of fruits, seeds, leaves, flowers, mushrooms and arthropods. This species is primarily located around the area of riparian and swamp forests of Congo Basin, Southeast Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Angola. It is extremely rare and is found only within isolated pockets in parts of extreme west Uganda, western Kenya and southwest Ethiopia. These monkeys are extremely rare and severely threatened in East Africa. Again, why would these lovely little languid monkeys prefer to make their home in these parts, I have absolutely no idea.

The Kenyan De Brazza monkeys face excessive threats to their survival from extensive deforestation, loss of their feed (growing population leading to increasing demand for firewood, timber and farmland, cattle feed) which leads to loss of their habitation and increased competition from other species fighting for the same space. This has pushed them towards higher altitudes and are left in small isolated habitats where they are prone to poaching.

Now the interesting bit!

As late as 2007 a satellite group of De Brazza’s monkey was discovered solely due to the tenacity and resilience of one man, Iregi Mwenja, a Kenyan Primatologist on a personal mission and pursuit of his belief that these monkeys might be found in the remote and isolated Mathews Range Forest Reserve of Samburu Region in Northwest Kenya. He carried out interviews with the local Samburu people, and on ground survey for nearly 8 months and counted 162 monkeys distributed in 24 groups, scattered widely over an area of several hundred sq kms. Mwenja estimates the population of this isolated groups to be anywhere between 200 – 300.

Now the exciting bit!

This discovery of a new group of De Brazza’s monkey that was hitherto unknown, was a ground shattering event in the primatology world. These groups comprise of a colony that could well have been isolated from the rest for over half a million years and according to Dr Richard Leakey may show deviances of nature and habitability conditions enough to consider them as a distinct sub-species. Mwenja was hailed by Nat Geo and leading primatologists and naturalists across the globe. And till date no outsider, and only very few primatologists besides Mwenja and his team had ever seen these monkeys.

Now the adventurous bit!

The journey to the region itself is fraught with danger, adventure and perils to life. And I happened to be within striking distance to one of Mwenja’s main survey areas with the man himself. Lucky me! How did I reach there, can be read in one of my earlier Kenya Calling posts. This post is about what happened thereafter. So here we go again on another wild monkey chase, but this time with more sense of purpose and plan since I was being personally guided by the man who knows more about the De Brazza’s monkeys of this particular region than anyone else in the world dead or alive.

Our journey begins from the end of where a Land Rover can possibly go, and that is saying a lot since a Land Rover can go virtually anywhere, at least that’s what the company would want us to believe, and after journeying inside one for nearly a week across some of the roughest and verticalest (I know this word does not exist in dictionary yet) patches of land on earth, I will put my bet with the manufacturers. The team comprise of three plus one guide. I am led by Mwenja and his research assistant Natalie and a local Dorobo of the Samburu Tribes who know these forests the best since their livelihood depend on forest products. The name of the guide incidentally is Linda. I am sorely disappointed when Linda appears since she (as I hoped) is actually a sprightly man of indeterminate age, dark as the darkest charcoal with a smile bright enough to light a Boma. And in his right hand dangles a sinister and macabre looking machete. We would be camping in the deep jungle, at a location where Mwenja has spent over a month earlier. We pick up our light packs, some food and water and head off straight into a jungle that to me seemed impenetrable. But then I am a novice to African jungles.

We enter the Ngare Narok forest and are soon gulped by the sky reaching trees and vines and shimmering shadows beneath. Linda and Mwenja take the lead while I am happy to stay back taking odd pictures, scouting around and being out of the harms way in case some frisky elephant decides to head our way. At a place the trail dips and then spirals up, the sun when it hits us is scorching and unforgiving. I am amazed at the rich forest since the Samburu Region otherwise, of whatever I had witnessed so far, had been rather dry and arid. This happens since the forest is riverine and high on the hills; Mwenja explains. We cross several branches of the river and then arrive beneath the huge canopy of a gargantuan tree with branches and roots spread around like that of a mammoth octopus. I suddenly hear rustle over my head and I look up to discover my first batch of De Brazza’s monkeys.

These monkeys are shy, quiet by nature (unlike most of their cousins), maintain large inter-individual distances within groups, live in relatively small groups and rarely use any alarm calls, all of these make them very quiet and really hard to locate and identify. Mwenja claims I am lucky to have seen them at all. In one of his earlier survey trips he had to wait for nearly a fortnight in the area before he saw one. And I do it in less than few minutes of reaching the inner sanctum of their habitat. Hmm that sets me thinking, perhaps I am more closely related to them than I imagined, after all they had merely revealed themselves to me as they came to greet their long lost Indian cousin. Thus impressed and animated I stride forward purposefully and fall flat out on my face inside a waterhole filled with the foulest and stenchiest water conceivable. Linda laughs openly as I pick myself up and stare at my soaked clothes. Elephant’s water hole, he declares, and full of elephant poo and piss in that order, he adds. He is obviously joking I would like to believe, but the rancid stench confirms his veracity. If nothing else, I am now all vermin proof that the forest may contain.

We finally reach a clearing that is totally covered with grass and dead leaves beneath a grand canopy of several trees that makes it rather dark even in the day. Tents are erected, I alone in mine. The air is warm and the breeze is steady and strong. I pitch only the inner tent and forego the outer fly sheet. While Mwenja and Natalie pitch their tents and re-survey the area around, I depart with Linda for a round trip of the area to locate more of my cousins. Linda’s machete whirl like windmill in a raging cyclone chopping, cutting and clearing a path through the thick undergrowth and hanging foliage. But for that it would be impossible to advance even few feet in any direction. Linda cautions rather loudly, for me to stay quiet since elephants are all around and would hate to be hindered during their lunch or siesta, whichever is applicable. Till then, since this happened within my first week in Kenya, I hadn’t yet seen an African elephant up close. So the news excites me intensely. I start falling down, crashing and crying out in feigned surprise or pain. In brief, I increase my acoustic signature (totally unprofessional for a seasoned submariner like me). I expect reproach from my companion but he advances unconcerned since his own acoustic signature must be larger than mine. Either that bit about elephants and siesta is a Samburu joke or the elephants in these parts are stone deaf. Could be one of these or both since we do not encounter any of them though I stumble upon a complete skeleton. Remnants from the last drought, Linda supplies encouragingly.

The forest is magical and mysterious, intoxicating and unnerving in its vista. It embraces, it excludes, it allows, it objects, it tells and then it recedes, and shares with me its stories. I can hear them in the whispering leaves, within the chattering of its birds and within the sounds of their silence. I caress the branches, repose beneath the roots, talk to the stems and enjoy the journey even when none of my cousins reveal themselves. While I am lost in my thoughts and stories and make-belief world, Linda had disappeared into the foliage ahead. Suddenly he rushes back waving and swirling his machete like a complete lunatic over his head. I am not sure what am I supposed to do. None of my earlier readings or experiences has ever prepared me to face a mad machete marauding Samburu in the depths of Mathew Ranges Forest. So I do as Lord Buddha did, to stand completely still, stand my ground and all in complete silence. Linda stops and makes his eyes go all around inside the socket, while his hand and face follows the movement. My God! I am alarmed, the guy is having epileptic fits. The only cure for that which I can apply at the place is to push Linda’s face inside the smelly depths of my elephant poo and piss enveloped shoes. Then I understand his purport.

Linda had just sighted a group of sun-worshipping cousins of mine atop some tree ahead and wanted me to follow his gestures. I do. There’s a rushing river stream around the corner and right by its waters up a canopy I have my first close encounter of De Brazza’s monkeys. It’s a group of around 5, and they stay around long enough for me to enjoy their chatter and tell me their stories. The light is too poor for me to get a shot and I don’t even bother to uncase my camera. There are things that only need to be captured within the depths of your mind and heart; this is one such moment. Linda and I grin our best grins and watch the spectacle. I am happy that despite being a Dorobo, who must have seen these primates countless times before, Linda hadn’t lost the sense of wonder and amazement and to find his happiness within them.

Happy and merry we find our way back to the campsite, I carefully keeping a sharp lookout for elephant waterholes. We gather firewood, build fire in the centre of our tent area and partake a moderate meal of biscuits and milk. Linda keeps the fire stoking and raging. Apparently he isn’t going to sleep through the night to keep the fire alight and to keep the wild animals at safe distance. I enter my tent and stare at the dark forest through the net of my roof. The wind is nearly blowing my tent away. I love the feeling of being airborne and in such a remote place and glow within with satisfaction since I had indeed seen this sub-species that had been seen by very few before and I was certainly the first outsider to see them.

Next day morning I get up early to find Linda still alert and agile by the fire. He smiles as radiantly. We finish our biscuits and milk, pack our tents, and hit the trail. We cross the now familiar streams and overgrown roots and soon enough Mwenja disappears with a naked machete in his hand. He has gone looking for some more of the monkeys, Natalie reveals. We finally reach back to our Land Rover and our driver who by then had the lunch going. We gobble the half-cooked rice and gravy and get into the car to begin another journey that would drive us nuts in the days to come.

In all I have seen less than 10 of the rare and endangered De Brazza’s monkeys in few hours, but to view that as around 5% of what Mwenja had seen during 8 months of intense survey, it isn’t all that bad. Mwenja assures he is envious of my luck, but then I don’t tell him that it had rather been a family reunion between me and the monkeys. I am satisfied and more than happy though I don’t have a single picture of the monkeys. I carry their memories, smiles and smells in my heart. In all probability I would never return to those forests in my entire life ever, but then many times ‘once’ is clearly enough.

Note: Most of the technical information and much of the knowledge of the region came from my discussions with Mwenja and certainly this journey would not have happened without him. The picture accompanying is one that he had taken during his surveys. Thank you Mwenja.