Three times a year park officials and the PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) perform a large mammal survey. Eric, Tony (the other volunteer in Tapoa), Boubakar (the driver), Sadu (a guy who spoke only French), Kaku (a hilarious little old man with more gaps than teeth in his smile), and I went out for two days and drove around the park looking for animals.
We took a Land Cruiser nicknamed “God”, and the moniker was well-deserved. The roads wash out every rainy season and the park can’t afford to treat the problem (lay down better roads that won’t wash out), so every year they treat the symptoms and just scrape and flatten the roads as best they can. Our survey ended after two days because the roads were just too bad. It was really amazing that we made it two days- we came to some incredibly uneven ground, sometimes with little canyons where the rainwater flooded out the road, and each time I thought “there’s no *way* we can make it over that-” and each time we did. (A few hours into the park I found out we had no radio or way of contacting anyone if we did get stuck… It added to the excitement, at any rate.)
Boubakar and Sadu rode in the cab of the truck while Eric, Tony, Kaku and I stood up in the bed (there was a cage frame that we held onto, or clung to, in some cases) and we drove along slowly looking for any animal within 100 meters of the road on either side. When we saw something we knocked on the roof of the cab and Boubakar stopped, and then Eric or Tony recorded the species, number of animals, sexes, approximate ages, habitat, distance from the road, and the reading on the odometer at the time of the sighting. Later they would extrapolate animal populations in the park based on our observations.
Tuesday December 15
We’re on the large mammal survey now. We didn’t make it to our intended campsite because the “roads” are really bad, so last night we just camped out in the bush, built a fire to keep the carnivores away and slept on some darn hard ground. I freaked myself out quite a few times thinking I heard animals right outside the tent, but I guess it was just the wind. Yesterday we saw warthogs, baboons (at left), waterbuck, buffon’s cobb, gazelle butts as they bounded away, buffalo, red monkeys, and elephants. The elephants were the coolest- I tried to get a picture but there were too many trees in the way. One of them started to charge us but as soon as she crashed through the first line of bushes she stopped. She was flapping her ears and huffing and it would have made a great picture, but when she starting charging, Boubakar slammed on the gas so she wouldn’t ram the truck and I had to grab onto the truck instead of my camera. Dang.
We also almost got caught in a brushfire- that was pretty thrilling. We lost the road quite often because it was really overgrown, so Kaku and Sadu would get out once in a while and walk around, looking for the road, and then they and Boubakar would argue and discuss which way to go. Eventually we’d start driving again but since we couldn’t see where we were going exactly we occasionally crashed into a ditch or downed tree. (Since we were standing up in the back of the truck, that kept us on our toes; we got knocked around quite a bit.) One time we stopped and Kaku was walking around for about ten minutes. (He’s in this picture, but you have to search pretty hard- look about an inch left of the photo’s center).
He got back in the truck and we’d started to inch forward again when Tony turned to look behind us and his jaw dropped open. “Fire!” I turned around and about 20 meters behind us a small fire was quickly spreading across the extremely dry grassland.
Eric shook his head and said that Sadu must have started it, and Tony and I, assuming that the man would not start a fire in this big dry field while we were still in it, thought he must have thrown a lit cigarette out the window. Nope. He threw a lit match out to start the fire so that it would burn away the grass and we could find the road… It spread really fast, and I would have been pretty scared if Eric and the others had seemed more concerned. Tony was flipping out, and I was harboring some doubts about the intelligence of the plan, but everyone else sort of ignored that big wall of fire and the black smoke billowing into the air behind us. Sadu started quite a few fires, and each time I thought, “Oh man, this one’s going to get us…” but we always managed to find the road and get the truck unstuck fast enough to keep one step ahead of the flames.