The importance of covering one’s head while in the forest

I have this habit of always wearing my cap when out in the forest doing fieldwork. It seems odd considering I work under thick canopy and one would assume that I would feel more hot wearing it. But my cap keeps the sweat on my forehead from reaching my eyes and hence keeps the sweat bees at bay, prevents my hair from getting stuck/tangled against thorny branches and lianas and lastly, just keeps my hair in place.

Therese and I split up for the rest of the week to scout for Gambeya. I set off to the camp at Kongou Falls, Ivindo National Park to look for Gambeya in pristine unhunted forests, while she continued to visit villages and look for Gambeya in the hunted areas.  I headed out with the Duke University Tropical Ecology field technicians Ruby Harrison and Megan Pendred, Ruby’s sister Renata who was visiting, Monsieur Nicholas the botanist and our pirogue driver and boat aid- Lucien and Jeannot.

 There is a pirogue dock at Ipassa that allows researchers to travel to and from Kongou easily

There is a pirogue dock at Ipassa that allows researchers to travel to and from Kongou easily

The head of the majestic Kongou Falls on the Ivindo River is the site for the ANPN camp providing a camping site for researchers and tourists alike. The pirogue ride down the Ivindo to Kongou is about two hours and takes skill and good sight, as there are invisible rocky outcrops that might ground the pirogue. Like most tropical forests from around the world, the pirogue ride down is a great opportunity to see some great flora and fauna.  Personally, though I am not much of a water person, the pirogue rides down Kongou remind me of the reasons that got me interested in ecology and conservation.

 I was so amazed to see my first forest elephant in Ivindo that by the time I got my camera out, they were beginning to retreat

I was so amazed to see my first forest elephant in Ivindo that by the time I got my camera out, they were beginning to retreat

Halfway down the river, I had my first sighting of forest elephants in Ivindo. The group of four were in the water close to the banks probably drinking water and we watched them move away with their trunks up high trying to get at the leaves and branches around. It was a pleasant reminder of where I was for the summer and what I am planning to do.  We continued our journey down Ivindo but also stopped at transects five and six where I succeeded in finding five Gambeya.

After a good night’s rest at the camp, we started early the next day towards transect three. This particular transect is relatively further away taking about three hours. The route has relatively more ups and downs with thick marshy swamps that scarily suck one’s feet in. It takes a lot of strength to walk across these swamps, in most cases, tugging at the top of one’s rubber boots and simultaneously pushing toes in the upward direction.  Lately, I have realized that our guides usually run across really quickly without giving their feet time to sink in. Also, they almost always try to place their feet on stones and clumps of vegetation, rather than directly walk across the marshy swamp.

Despite all of the above, the hike is oddly more satisfying to me than the few other transect routes I have been on until now.  The most exciting part of the hike is the rickety ladder one has to climb to get to this huge fallen tree that one needs to walk across to get to the other side of this wide stream.  A little scary at first, the tree across this stream turned out to be much wider than it looked. But still, I distinctly remember thinking uneasily that I would have to walk back across the tree and somehow make my way down the rickety ladder again.   

 We were at the park boundary with me standing outside the park and Renata and Megan inside of it (Credits: Ruby Harrison)

We were at the park boundary with me standing outside the park and Renata and Megan inside of it (Credits: Ruby Harrison)

All along the way Monsieur Nicholas and I looked for Gambeya and continued to do so while Ruby and Megan along with Renata, did their work.  Duiker scat, pangolin burrows, strangler fichus and braided lianas colored our conversations of pygmies in the surrounding forests and previous sightings of chimps along the same route.  After finding four Gamebya and the girls completing the rest of the data collection, we headed back tired awaiting a cool bath in the falls and hot food.

An hour into the hike back, we stopped across this tiny stream (which apparently gets very high during the rainy season, not allowing the Duke field technicians to cross and thereby abandoning data collection on transect three) to drink water and rest for a few minutes, when suddenly Renata screamed “ouch” and smacked her neck with all her might. Almost immediately, within the following second, Jeannot screamed and started to run wildly in the opposite direction. At that moment I knew that something was wrong but didn’t really know what was happening. Frankly, I began running ahead only because I saw the rest run ahead of me. To our misfortune, we ran into a swamp and my feet kept getting trapped, completely slowing me down, in the midst of my confusion. This swamp seemed to never end and was followed by the tree that we needed to cross to get to the other side of the stream. That is the precise moment I realized this sudden sting at the base of my neck and knew that wasps were attacking us.

Again, I distinctly remember thinking about crossing the stream without falling into it. But by then, I felt as though needles were being inserted onto every part of my head. I literally flew across that fallen tree and to this day do not remember how I made it. By then I knew that there were wasps in my hair. By the time I made my way down the rickety ladder, I had realized that I had not been wearing my cap. 

The rest of the girls and guides thought that I was complaining about the wasp stings, that persist for a little bit after being bitten. Only when Ruby came closer did she see wasps buzzing around my head and realized that I was still being stung. She immediately started to hit my head to kill the wasps and plucked out around ten wasps that had already done a thorough job of stinging me.  Later on, I was told that it was as though I was wearing a wig of wasps as Ruby continued to smack my head and pull out wasp after wasp for quite a while.  I then dunked my head in the stream to drown out any remaining wasps and stopped for a bit as my head began to burst with pain.

Considering we were a good two hours away from camp, we started up again while Ruby asked if I was allergic to wasps or bees or any sort of insects. Genuinely, wasps in India have not attacked me; hence, I actually did not know whether I was allergic to them. And by then, since I had not shown any signs of an allergic reaction, we continued ahead.

After reaching camp in about two hours, the rest of the girls noticed swellings around my neck and shoulders. At first, I presumed them to be wasp stings as well and did not think anything of it. But when I showed the rest of the girls the swellings on my elbows and legs, we all realized something was wrong. I was having a mild allergic reaction and was developing hives all over the place. All we could do was to leave immediately- not only for my safety, but also because it would be getting dark soon and it would be terribly risky to drive the pirogue in the dark unable to see the rocky bed.

I didn’t feel sick but my head was still aching a lot. But, the swellings slowly subsided while we were packing the camp, which was a good sign. We then decided to stay and I continued to transect four the next day to look for Gambeya.

Recollecting the incident with the rest of the team back at Ipassa, we realized that Jeannot was the second person to be bitten the most on the head after me. Also, that Megan was bitten a lot around her shoulders. The one thing tied all this together is the color black. Jeannot and I have very dark black hair that was open when we were running through the marshes and Megan was wearing a black t-shirt that day.  This is just one of the many explanations to my misfortune. The other one being that somebody ahead of me or I had stamped the wasp nest causing all the wasps to attack me.

My head itched a lot for the next two days and I couldn’t run my comb through my hair as it hurt a lot. But the swelling has decreased ever since and now I know that I am mildly allergic to wasps.

If only I had had my cap on that day.