The legend of a rare, large, unknown herbivore that lives in the remote areas of the Congo River basin has persisted for two hundred years. Descriptions of this animal as having a stout body with a long neck and tail and small head have prompted comparisons to a small sauropod while other reports liken it to the body shape of an elephant or rhinoceros with a short thick neck and often described with horns on the snout. Known in Central Africa as Mokele-mbembe, the “one who stops the flow of rivers”, the animal purportedly prefers to live in rivers and eat the fruit of a local liana, the malombo. Most reports of actual sightings are from local inhabitants of the areas surrounding Lake Tele in northeastern Republic of the Congo.
There have been several expeditions to this area of Africa and some have reported close encounters but no strong physical evidence of this animal’s existence. But the persistence of stories and frequent convergence of descriptions certainly piques the curiosity about whether an unknown large animal is in fact at the root of these stories. The possibility of such a creature increases when one considers the inaccessibility of the rain forest in this very remote location. However, the chance of the beast being a relict dinosaur is infinitely small but large unknown animals do continue to crop up occasionally.
With this as background, it was with great interest that I received a call in 1996 from John Teichmann, the president of Busch Wildlife Productions, to discuss an expedition to that area. John had heard about my interest in this topic from Alex Chadwick of NPR Radio with whom I had discussed a plan to use a small dirigible to survey this remote area with imaging and biosensing equipment. The outcome of our discussions was a site visit to the Dzanga-Sangha reserve in the Central African Republic (CAR) on the Congo border to evaluate the feasibility of using such an airship. The other member of our small group was Thom Beers, at that time producer for Turner Broadcasting and executive producer of National Geographic Explorer series.
The plan was to rendezvous with John and Thom in Paris where they would be arrive from a film festival in southern France. After much planning and a decision to use a charter plane for the 3 hour flight from the CAR capital Bangui to our base at the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) camp in tiny Bayanga, my agenda was interrupted two days before departure by reports of a coup developing in CAR. Exiled self-proclaimed Emperor Jean Bokassa was attempting a comeback and the army had mutinied. Several people were killed in Bangui and the US State Department told me it was dangerous and to postpone my trip. Luckily, the WWF director told me to come anyway but to check with him before leaving. With great pessimism I called the next day but was told that no one was shot the night before, that taxis were running again, and that they would meet me at the airport.
The atmosphere at Bangui airport was tense but the airport and street corners were manned by French paratroopers armed with AK 47s. We scurried through customs and were gratefully met by the WWF who whisked us off to their office for debriefing and then on to our private plane. While we were skeptical of the airplane service record, the option to drive 11 hours over terrible roads in a seething country was not very appealing. The CAR is approximately one and a half times the size of France and with the southern part covered by several million hectares of rain forest. Though the population is estimated at about 3.5 million inhabitants mostly in bigger towns, parts of the country such as the Dzanga-Sangha are practically uninhabited. Once airborne, the urban troubles were behind us and the view from the low flying plane reminded me of the Tarzan movies from childhood. Bouncing down the dirt airstrip in Bayanga was a welcome change from the Bangui airport.
Our introduction to the ecologically rich landscape of the Central African rain forest began as soon as we had stowed our gear in the jeep. Our Bantu ranger brought us to the forest edge for a quick lecture before trekking to a game viewing area used by prominent elephant researchers. In broken English, he told us that “if you see elephant…stop. If you see gorilla….you look down. If you see buffalo….you run like hell.” Well we were not sure that he was not pulling our gringo city boy chains but immediately gained appreciation for his instructions when a forest elephant walked crossed our path 10 feet in front of us. You could not see or hear these large animals! Walking through small clearings created by elephants called “bais” filled with literally millions of butterflies flitting everywhere and arriving at a large clearing loaded with megafauna really gave one the impression of the Garden of Eden. Stunningly beautiful.
The accommodations at the WWF camp were much better than expected though we shared the rooms with several large spiders making us take extra care for tucking in the mosquito nets and giving us second thoughts about quick trips to the bathroom at night without being armed. When I asked the ranger if we should kill the spiders, he said “Why? Others will just come in.” Ah yes, good point. As for the food, remember this is former French territory so the cooking was quite good. I am not sure what we ate all the time but the sauces were great, the most important requisite.
Over the course of the next week we reconnoitered the area surrounding our camp on the Sangha River, a major tributary of the Congo River. Our “bar” sat on stilts over the water’s edge which had regular traffic by locals in small pirogues, frequently visiting areas where palm wine was made. This struck me as somewhat hazardous as 20 foot long Nile crocodiles were spotted along this area including right under our bar. The river itself was loaded with hippos, the animal responsible for the most deaths in Africa. Nontheless, we took a trip in a pirogue down smaller tributaries loaded with beautiful flowering water lilies and tons of diverse bird life, one eye open for swimming logs.
One of the unique aspects of this trip was our interaction with the pygmies in the area, true nomadic hunter-gatherers, and absolutely delightful people. Their small village home base consisted of igloo-like huts in which they could stand upright but we could not. Despite being exploited by other groups, the cheerfully friendly Bay ‘aka, as they are known, frequently engage in unique melodic singing. The invitation to hunt with them proved physically demanding because they use game trails much more suited to their size than mine. They must get fairly close to the prey to use their crossbows fitted with poisonous arrows so I was a detriment to them as I scrambled through the dense jungle. A different type of hunting that employed the entire village using nets and a game drive was more successful with small antelope known as duikers and porcupines making up the day’s catch. We politely declined the offer to dine with them, partly because of the fare but also because we did not want to take anything that would deprive other members.
An interesting side story was the presence of an American who lived with the pygmies and had taken a pygmy wife. This was quite amusing since Louis Sarno was about 6’ 4” and his wife was slightly more than half his height. Louie had been there for a few years after seeking out the pygmies to record their music. He seemed to be doing reasonably well despite being severely jaundiced from a recent bout of hepatitis.
The return to Bangui was uneventful flying in the private plane of a large French logging company which was very active not far from the reserve. This activity is a continuing source of friction today because of concern for destruction of this unique unspoiled rain forest area. Although we felt safer in this plane assuming that it has regular maintenance checks, this turned out to be a false sense of security which was revealed when the US ambassador was relieved to see us, stating that the plane we rode in had gone down twice in the last year. Hmmm.
The last few days in Bangui before our departure was spent with friends we had met from various countries, including a night at a bar that had strange music and a wide diversity of Africans and Europeans such that it reminded us of the bar in the movie Star Wars. Yet things were not really peaceful there as the tension among the locals was still palpable, so it was with some relief that we boarded our flight back to Paris under the watchful eye of the French paratroopers. Although the full expedition to use an airship never did materialize for several reasons, the rain forest, animals, and the pygmies made it a truly spectacular trip.