(See the bottom of this post for a slide show)
Like bookends to my seven-month Congo experience, I spent a wonderful weekend in the Ituri rainforest for the second time before leaving the country for good (maybe). During the first trip in April, Rosie, the Swiss caretaker of the Okapi Conservation Project, allowed me to sit for hours inside an Okapi enclosure where a male and female-in-heat performed their subtle courting dance (i.e. smelling her urine, sniffing his ass). Okapi are very shy and suspicious animals who are essentially loners, so entrance inside their personal space is rarely allowed. Rosie is very protective of her 13 Okapi.
On this trip, Rosie asked me if I would take photos of her oldest Okapi who she thinks is over 30 years old, their estimated lifespan in captivity. He was about 8 years old when Rosie and her husband first came to Congo in 1987. She wanted to document the signs of old age in an Okapi, and when I started looking closely at this beautiful animal, the signs of age were obvious: wrinkles, arthritic joints in his back legs, blotchy coat, and even some gray hair on his temple. He’s still shy like all the Okapi, but he likes Rosie and seems to enjoy her stroking his coat and petting his face. Surprisingly, he even licks her hand when she puts it up to his mouth – a very unusual thing for an Okapi, even one who has known their human since birth.
Rosie pointed out to us that Okapis’ poo is uniquely different in shape and size from each other. She can identify an individual Okapi simply by it’s poo. Tayari’s looks like round chocolate colored Peanut M&Ms, while Ikenga’s poo (the old sage) is pointed at one end.
The second day we took a walk in the forest with two pygmies as our guides and an armed ranger along for protection. Our group consisted of Jon, Walt, an Australian woman named Jenny and her son Ben, Bobby – an American doctor, and me (Cher stayed behind). Jon loves it when pygmies teach him how useful the forest is. He likes to say that the rainforest is a pygmy’s supermarket, hardware store, and pharmacy. They know every plant and animal – how it can be used, or which ones to avoid. At one point, one of the pygmies climbed into a thicket of large vines, cut off a piece at a specific point, and showed us how water is stored inside the branch. If you cut it at the exact right place, it’s like a bottle inside – closed at one end and open at the other. You simple pour it into your mouth from the open end.
They also showed us the plants used to make rope, leaves to make the sides of their igloo-style houses, and a variety of other useful plants. It’s as if these people have a Doctoral degree on the forest. We could die there, but they would thrive, simply from a wealth of knowledge passed down through the generations.
The day we left, I watched the daily ritual of food delivery for the Okapi, collected by pygmies in the forest. Up to 45 pygmies gather specific plants the Okapi like to eat. Even women with babies strolled in with a massive pile of branches and leaves on their head. They deliver their load to a large staging area where the plants are divided up into bundles to feed the Okapi twice a day.
We stayed in a small bungalow that sits a few yards from the beautiful Epulu river, watching the sunset casting an orange glow across the water, and the moon reflecting off the deep blue. The only downside to this place is the evil biting mosquitoes, gnats, and black flies. A week later now, and my legs still look diseased from all the red sores. (And no, you will not see a photo – don’t ask. I have some pride.)
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