by Ian Markham -- July 8th, 2014
So the question of the hour: How’s the rodent trapping?
The honest answer: Child’s Play.
Now on my honor that’s the truth. But given that each day I collapse at the end in a sweaty heap of bites, scrapes and bruises, its probably not true in the way you’d guess.
A more straight-forward answer would be ‘tiring as all hell.’ I thought I’d break myself in softly with the “closest” transect to Ipassa Research Station, the collection of white cement buildings which is my closest thing to I have to a home here. That turned out to be something of a questionable choice.
Transect one is the the only of Dr. Poulsen’s research sites that one can walk to from the station. However, the joy of doing things scientifically is that this transect was placed randomly. And that random chance did not put the study site right off the doorstep. No it put the center of the transect, where we needed to do our work about 4.5km away. Well given that we have to go there and back that comes to about 9km. Now add on 1 km of trapline to first cut and later walk and you get to around 11km. Eleven kilometers isn’t too bad right? It’s a nice jog really. I do that a couple times a week in the Duke forest for morning jogs (on a good week). Piece of cake, right?…Well maybe if that cake were filled with thumb tacks and driver ants.
Now for those of you who have not spent much time in tropical rain forests (and sorry but cloud forests don’t really count because they’re so bloody comfortable and pretty!) let me explain a good rule of thumb. For any given distance, how it feels to walk in lowland tropical rainforest is about equivalent to the double of a straight line road distance jogging if not more.
In equation form
Drf = or > 2 x Drd (1)
Where Drf is perceived rainforest distance travelled and Drd is measured road distance. So on top of that little axiom is the fact that 4.5km is as the GPS flies. There are no straight trails in the rainforest. Even with a compass trying your very hardest to cut a straight line you will zag back and forth and lengthen your trail (without a compass you’ll probably end up cutting in an arc that will ultimately return you to about 20m in front of where you started as we nearly discovered with the first trap line we cut). Then add the effective distance multipliers of swamps, grabby lianas, and sneaky tree roots. Not to mention this is not the flat forests of Peru to which I’m accustomed but a constant undulation of hills interspersed with mud-laden streams. And on top of that it was uphill both was through ten feet of snow!
Okay so I’m whinging a bit but that is honestly how the first few days felt. ‘Hellish’ may not be most accurate, but many adjectives remain further from the truth. My perception my have also been coloured to some extent by the fact that my feet hate my wells like Aaron Burr hated Alexander Hamilton (dates for the foot vs wellie duel to be announced when foot pistols can be located…). It turns out that was perhaps a tough choice to start there because the more seemingly daunting prospects of camping near the site as I will for the rest seems now actually a lot more pleasant (having just finished my first week camping). That said much of the hard work and hiking of that first week remains as evident from the fact that my two hardened jungle guides are both already sleeping like wee babes before 7pm as I write this as I scribble in my notebook.
Okay so you probably think that my first answer was bluffing. Maybe bravado. But its not. Trapping rodents in Gabon really is child’s play! I just don’t mean that figuratively. It is literally how children play here.
This was explained to me on my third day of rodent trapping by Rowjay. I had just been getting into the swing of things when of course I started getting a little sloppy. I emptied the 7th mouse of the day from the trap into the handling bag as normal. I then cornered her furry little face into one of the point to limit his movement with a hand outside the bag as with all the others. I then gingerly reached the other in to get the little orangey-brown mouse by the scruff of her neck by which mama mouse would have once carried her and I pulled her out. However I was a bit too tender, motherly myself it seems because using her hind foot for leverage and some extra neck skin for give, she wheeled around to try to give me a not so tender nip. Watching this happen I shouted surprise and released her.
No sooner had she hit the ground then Rowjay dropped the notebook and spun after her. Bounding up one of her scent up one of her scent trail, the little fur ball zipped along a low liana, up a buttress root and was within a foot of her hidey-hole. At that moment Rowjay caught up with her. Like lighting he tipped her off the buttress. With a snatch he had snapped the little mouse up off the forest floor by the tail.
As he raced off, I shouted “leave it! Don’t worry!” but it had no effect. He ignored me entirely and had done all with the adeptness and glee of a hobbyist. After taking our measurements and releasing her, I asked Rowjay ‘How on earth he’d done that?’
Rowjay smiled with a look of nostalgia. He explained first in the 1000 word per minute French and then repeated more slowly how, of course, like most village children in Gabon he had spent many a day catching rats and mice. He continued to explain a number of means of doing so. One included some kind of ‘natural trap’ that I couldn’t really understand. Another involved using a dog to flush them and then running them down and grabbing them by had (which is where he developed his very handy skills), and the third he explained with some painstaking effort was with a crossbow! Now that last one took more gesticulating that a mime circus for me to figure out but the dictionary per confirmed it to be true. I probably wouldn’t have believed the crossbow thing but a couple visits to the village spotting functional kites made by five years olds with plastic bags and sticks or the clever pushable model cars and trucks hewn from sticks and rocks by older boys showed no lack of craftsmanship. What’s more my advisor told me their pygmy guides in neighboring Congo did most of their hunting with forest-fashioned crossbows. He had even shown his class one of the devices in a shelf at his house in Chapel Hill amongst the masks and baskets.
I had assumed the kids killed mice from the same impulse as little boys burn anthills with magnifying glasses and were maybe encouraged to do so for pest control. But John had heard that they make a pretty tasty soup of them. I asked Rowjay and he made a finger licking gesture to while confirming his nostalgic enjoyment. He later explained to me though that this was very much a villager thing to do. I asked him if I could see one of the crossbows in Loaloa—the dusty, mud hut and galvanized tin roof village where he lives now near Ipassa— and he laughed saying no. Those were ‘city people.’ There’d be no crossbows there. They probably didn’t even eat their mice. It sounded as if the prospect was very much a thing of his past, before he was trained as a technician for IRET (the international centre for research of tropical ecology that founded Ipassa).
Regardless of the intentions of his early-life mousing, he needed no adjustment to the requirements of our research, namely unharmed, wholly intact mice. In that first week he delivered no fewer than three escapees to me unmaimed but doubtlessly winded. Were it not morally repugnant to do so I would want to let one go on purpose with video recorder on hand to show off just how impressive these chases can get. Instead I shout to him to let the little guys go while runs them down chuckling gleefully.
Perhaps fortunately I’ve gotten my act together since and no more of these performances have been made. So that was then and this is now…(he says wistfully to himself…)
Setting aside the subject of rodent wrangling, I am actually really loving these first few days camping. For now I should leave it at for I’m formulating another post about this time camping now at Transect 15 near the village of Etakanyabe and don’t have the time to finish today before I get my weekly shot at internet roulette. The forest has been challenging and is not child’s play in the figurative sense by any means. But the atmosphere is incredible, especially at night by the fire, immersed in sound. Hyraxes scream in the distance. Every rustle in the trees has the promise of a foraging Galago or a stalking genet.* Each night as sun sets and Rowjay and Moliere have already retired to sleep, the blanket of sounds wraps around me as I sit by the fire. Frogs call from our nearby water source, another species peeps from the treetops and everywhere the jungle throngs with the buzzes, chirps, blips, and crips of crickets and cicadas of a dizzying diversity.
So it may not be child’s play for me. But, damn, never have canned-sardines tasted so good. And rarely have I slept so soundly.
* (And if none of those animal names means anything, fear not, brave reader, with any luck I will have some future encounters with photos from which I can elaborate)