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Stripy duikers, forest goats and phantom hippos - a month in Tai NP


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Pictus Safaris organised two back-to-back tours to Cote d'Ivoire's Tai NP in Feb/Mar 2022 - and what amazing tours they were! With 52 mammal species recorded, including some of the rarest mammals on the continent, as well as some of the finest birding in Africa, we are so pleased to be a part of opening up this last vast tract of primary rainforest in West Africa to ecotourism. Much more detail to follow on a wonderful few weeks....

 

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~ @Pictus Safaris:

 

Thank you for posting the above information.

 

The night image is especially appreciated.

 

That Côte d'Ivoire is a gem deserving greater interest is underscored by your February and March, 2022 visits.

 

Making the wildlife of Taï National Park's rain forest accessible to visitors is a major service.

 

May your future safaris there be enjoyable and productive for all who travel with you.

 

      Tom K.

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Posted (edited)

Well, let's dive in, shall we?

 

Abstract:

 

I'm sure many forum members are familiar with Tai, or have at least heard of it. For those who haven't, Tai is the largest single tract of protected primary rainforest in West Africa, with over 4,500 sq. km under, at least nominal, protection. Give or take, that's two Luxembourgs. There are certainly many other pockets of forest in the region that are worth exploring; Ghana's Kakum and Ankasa reserves, the numerous sacred forests of Benin, the expansive Sapo and Grebo-Krahn of Liberia and Gola and the nearby Tiwai Island of Sierra Leone. But, for scale of contiguous forest alone, Tai cannot be matched by its neighbours.

 

We first set out to open up ecotourism in Tai for a number of reasons. Firstly, the park had been woefully under-visited for several decades. The occasional birding group had wandered through, and solo travellers did occasionally make the trip, but aside from the expats who frequently visit to track chimps, the potential here lay largely untapped. Secondly, there is an awful lot of species that are better seen here than anywhere else. The primates, in particular, offer superb viewing, even if they are often frustratingly skittish. Sooty mangabey, western red colobus, olive colobus, Campbell's monkey, diana monkey, putty-nosed monkey, spot-nosed monkey, king colobus and, of course, chimpanzee is a list that should leave most primate-aficionados salivating. The list of forest duikers is equally impressive, and the duiker-viewing wildly exceeded our expectations. But the main draw for us was certainly the pygmy hippo - this magical, elusive creature is restricted to the forests of West Africa, and over half of the populations resides in Tai Forest. Sightings of this exceptionally rare animal are extremely hard to come by, but there is no doubt that Tai is the place to see them.

 

The Geography of the Park:

 

File:Parasite140080-fig1 Gastrointestinal parasites in seven primates of  the Taï National Park - Map.png - Wikipedia

 

As you can see above, the park is located in the far south-west of Cote d'Ivoire. Access is generally restricted to the west of the park. In the north-west, you have Camp Mangabey, run by WCF, which is accessed from Tai city. The south-west, where we base ourselves, is accessed from Djouroutou. Game-viewing is generally conducted by boat, on the Hana River, or on foot. We used a camp set up for us, Hana Camp, near Mt Nienokoue, as well as more established research and touristic camps during our stay. Low water levels prevented us getting quite as far up the Hana as we would like, but we still managed to explore a significant area of the 'Djouroutou Sector'

 

Access:

 

Access is neither terribly difficult nor easy. Abidjan is well-served by international airlines - I used Air France, clients used Brussels Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways. We then arrange a domestic flight to San-Pedro in the south-west with Air Cote d'Ivoire - we have several private clients chartering a helicopter direct from Abidjan to Tai next year, so that is a viable, if expensive, option. From San-Pedro, it is an eight-hour drive to Djouroutou. It's not comfortable, but it is manageable. For those who like their travel with an adventurous and bone-shattering flavour, it is possible to reach Tai city by bus from Abidjan from Man. I'd recommend avoiding this if at all possible.

 

Key targets:

 

As above, pygmy hippo were our single priority, but we did hope to run into the following species:

 

  • Primates - sooty mangabey, olive colobus, diana monkey
  • Forest duikers - zebra duiker, Jentink's duiker, black duiker
  • Anomalures - Pel's anomalure, Lord Derby's anomalure, Beecroft's anomalure
  • Carnivores - Pardine genet, Liberian mongoose, leopard
  • Forest elephant
  • Giant pangolin
  • Birding - yellow-headed picathartes, white-crested tiger-heron, Shelley's eagle-owl

 

Overall, 52 mammal species and 96 bird species were recorded - tomorrow I'll dive into a day-by-day of what we saw and how.

 

Tom

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I am really looking forward to this trip report @Pictus Safaris - though it may add another place to my bucket list!

 

 

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@offshorebirdertook the words right out of my mouth...:)

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Looking forward to this one!

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I'm fascinated to learn more about this park. I've barely heard of it previously  

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@offshorebirder- isn't that always the problem? Lists of 'must-visit' places never seem to get any shorter, no matter how much travelling one does.

 

@Atdahl- Tai is a tough place, but definitely one for the bucket list!

 

@ForWildlife- so pleased to have you on board.

 

@lmSA84- as with so much of West Africa, Tai certainly flies under the radar. This has always struck me as odd, as it does have so much that can't be easily seen elsewhere. I hope you enjoy the report!

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And so it begins...

 

Day 1

 

As above, the journey to Tai is not as nightmarish as some of the odysseys we undertake elsewhere on the continent, but it's not altogether easy either. I met up with our first two clients in Abidjan - a slight paperwork mix-up meant our first client was only issued a transit visa, but this was resolved quickly the next day. After a night in Abidjan in a modest hotel, we continued on to San-Pedro on a forty-minute flight with Air Cote d'Ivoire. Be warned, booking flights with Air Cote d'Ivoire is straightforward but amendments, as were necessitated by the ever-changing COVID-19 protocols, are very difficult. Changing flights can only be paid for via MTN Money, an app only available in specific African countries, and the only advice the airline provides for those outside of Africa is to 'turn up on the day and see if seats are available'. Naturally, this doesn't really reassure me in my line of work. We eventually got it sorted with a local fixer. The flight itself was eventful, with the PA system being seized by a passenger shortly after take-off so he could propose to his girlfriend - she said yes, and we all benefitted from a glass of Champagne as a result. It still strikes me as odd that one would propose to one's partner before you have even arrived at the beach resort you are heading to, and I can't imagine the flight would have been much fun if his missus had said no, but it certainly kept me entertained.

 

We overnighted at a decent beachside hotel in San-Pedro, and there are a few accommodation options dotted along the coast. For those wishing to spend extra nights in this area, there are a couple of excellent spots for viewing sea turtles here for those in the know - sadly, we didn't have time for such an excursion during this itinerary. The following day, we embarked on the eight-hour drive up to Djouroutou. It's a long stint, made longer on this occasion by regular stops to bemoan a rock that the driver had lodged between the engine and chassis for reasons unknown. He wasn't happy with this particular rock, and we stopped all passers-by to request they assist us in banging the rock deeper into the engine, or to request a new rock. All very bemusing. We did at least spot common slender mongoose near Grand Bereby.

 

Eventually, though, we made it to Tai. The approach to the park, as it is in many forest reserves, is a little dispiriting. There is no functioning buffer zone, and the plantations extend right up to the forest edge. But, my oh my, what a forest it is once you reach it. Our accommodation offers a superb view of the canopy extending into the distance, and the birding here (as in fact it was everywhere between San-Pedro and Tai, with the exception of the palm oil plantations) is superb. We arrived mid-afternoon, so enjoyed a late lunch before heading on a short walk before nightfall to a dried-up swamp just inside the park. First, we crossed the Moa River by boat, which forms part of the border of the park - this is a thirty second crossing at most. We then continued on the main track towards Camp Chimpanzee, a research camp, but quickly branched off to see what evidence of wildlife we could find. The first impression was that the birding was excellent, with hornbills being conspicuous throughout the forest, which is a great indicator of the health of the forest itself. The yellow-casqued hornbill were cacophonous in particular. 

 

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How things seem to work in Tai is that several species of megafauna retreat deep into the forest during the dry season, migrating to the forest edges when water levels force them out in the wet season. This was borne out in the tracks we found on our brief walk this evening - sign of forest elephant, buffalo and bongo was all relatively easily found. We also nabbed red-headed malimbe, audio of diana monkey, and our first forest mammal, fire-footed rope squirrel, on the walk back to the lodge. This evening, we were treated to a presentation on pygmy hippos by our local guides before a well-deserved early night.

 

Day 2

 

Our forest adventure begins! It was a 5am start this morning, taking us upstream on the Hana River in darkness. For several kilometres, the Hana forms the western boundary of the park, separating primary rainforest from plantation. At Point 16, the Hana veers east, bisecting the park. Before reaching Point 16, and in fact not far at all from the lodge, we were treated to a brief view of a long-eared flying mouse and superb views of a West African potto dangling upside-down high up in the canopy on the riverbank. The red eyeshine of slender-snouted crocodiles was everywhere. But perhaps the most exciting moment of the morning occurred before we had even left the lodge, when a large owl was spotlit directly above the kitchen. Initially dismissed as a wood owl, some nagging doubts took us back to the lodge from the riverbank, and it soon became clear that this was no wood owl. In fact, despite being on the small side, the barring on the chest and beak colour were an exact match for Shelley's eagle-owl, which has been recorded here often, but not photographed, by local guides. The jury is still out, as the size is not quite right, so I'm currently liaising with a few experts to get a final ID.

 

Around Point 16, the beaches along the river began to show signs of activity from several species. Large herds of buffalo were clearly using these beaches regularly but, most excitingly, several beaches had fresh tracks from pygmy hippo. At several points, the river was too low for us to stay in the boat, so we clambered out onto the riverbanks or logs to allow our boatman, Babu, to force the boat upstream. At these points, we regularly saw fresh sign of pygmy hippo, and our expectation that this was the place for pygmy hippo was being born out. Quite simply, nowhere else are sightings, fresh dung and tracks recorded nearly as regularly as we began to record them today in Tai. The birding was, in a word, stunning. The number of species was not overwhelming, but the quality of said species was - in just a few hours, we spotted brown-cheeked hornbill, yellow-casqued hornbill, black-casqued hornbill, black-and-white casqued hornbill, African pied hornbill, piping hornbill, white-crested tiger-heron, shining-blue kingfisher, malachite kingfisher, African pygmy kingfisher, African dwarf kingfisher, palm-nut vulture and much more. Another fire-footed rope squirrel was spotted from the boat this morning too - this one exhibiting its striking orange coat as it scampered along a log.

 

Then, disaster struck. On one of our forays out of the boat, the Velcro strap on one of our clients' cameras came loose, and with a horrifying 'plop', his prized camcorder dropped into the river below. A few seconds of stunned silence followed, before three of us ended up swimming in the Hana desperately trying to fish out the camera. After a few, very wet, minutes, Babu emerged with the waterlogged camcorder - given what a keen videographer this client is, this was unquestionably a bit of a nightmare. Not only that, but this very expensive camcorder was brand new - literally not a single video had been taken on it yet! Fortunately, our client had a spare back at the lodge, and a plan was hatched to transport the new camera to Camp Chimpanzee where it would sit in a tub of rice for a week or so, and to have the replacement camcorder portered to Hana Camp from the lodge tomorrow. Not the start we had in mind!

 

We had no choice but to continue on, and we quickly spotted a large group of sooty mangabey that has just crossed the river - like many species away from the research camps, this group was extremely skittish and did not hang around long. We were dropped off about two hours' walk from our custom-built Hana Camp, and it quickly became apparent that visits to Tai should not be taken lightly. The forest is not impenetrable, but it is very dense and, in the heat and humidity, the walking is very tough. I was glad of my swim earlier in the morning. As we made our way through the forest, a loud cry of 'hippo!' went up from Kevin, our local guide. I nearly wet myself in excitement, as the animal in question crashed through the bush past us. Alas, it was not a hippo, but the truth was almost as good, as Kevin and one client got a brief view of the ultra-rare Jentink's duiker sprinting away. Jentink's are generally considered amongst the most difficult species to see anywhere in Africa, so to spot one on our first full day in the forest felt like a minor miracle! As our walk continued, we were also thrilled to get good views of the near-endemic and odd-looking white-breasted guineafowl in the undergrowth, as well as a pair of Maxwell's duikers and a troop of king colobus, high above in the canopy. The birding away from the river was noticeably less prolific, but we still got good views of the beautiful yellow-billed turaco near the base of Mt Nienokoue, just a short distance from camp.

 

King colobus, one of the most common primates in Tai

 

After lunch at the very basic Hana Camp, we spent the afternoon checking out several spots identified before our visit as being heavily-used by pygmy hippos. One spot, a likely-looking pond, was disappointing, with no fresh tracks. But the far bank of the Hana held several spots where hippos had crossed the river, as well as old tracks from forest elephant and a handful of other species. Sadly, there was also significant evidence of poaching and fishing, which had apparently spiked after two years without poaching patrols due to COVID.

 

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A sense of how dense the forest is

 

This evening, we embarked on an exceptionally challenging night walk in dense forest along the riverbank. Plenty of scrapes and bites later, we did manage superb views of a Beecroft's anomalure and chocolate-backed kingfisher, but a short stake-out in a swampy area revealed very little. With most of the group falling asleep, we decided to head back to camp for some very well-earned rest.

 

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Supercool report, a really fascinating trip! Looking forward to more very much.

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Wow!  I’ve never heard of this park and had heretofore decided a pygmy hippo 🦛 would likely never be a reality but…that’s why I love SafariTalk!!! Thank you and I look forward to the rest of the report with great anticipation!

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Great to have you along @michael-ibkand @gatoratlarge!

 

Probably the rarest animal I've ever seen...

 

Day 3:

 

After finding so much sign along the river the previous day, we agreed so spend the early hours this morning quietly sitting on the riverbank opposite some of the freshest tracks we had found. Unfortunately, things didn't quite pan out as planned - as soon as we had silently settled down, our local guide wandered downstream to go to the toilet, and called us over as he had seen 'hippo eyes' in the water below. When we arrived, after a few minutes of crashing through the forest, there was nothing to be seen, and there was no doubt any hippo in the river would have been spooked by our traipsing through the dense forest. We didn't see much this morning, as a result. It is worth highlighting that a key goal for us when opening up an area for ecotourism is to empower, educate and work with local guides, to the point where we have no intention of tour leaders running these tours for any longer than they have to. The local guides in Tai are exclusively focussed on chimp-tracking, all day, every day. What this means in practice is that many elements of their bushcraft are truly superb, but that some of the nuances required for hunting down wildlife as elusive as pygmy hippo still require some refinement. That's fine, and we are keen to be a part of that process of development and improvement as much as possible, but it is certainly something to bear in mind when arranging travel to Tai.

 

After lunch, which was brought in each day on foot from Camp Chimpanzee, the group split this afternoon. One client headed to the nearby Mt Nienokoue, a dramatic, towering inselberg that is well worth a visit for the vistas alone. The reason for this visit was to check out the known yellow-headed picathartes nests high up on the inselberg. Sadly, it looked like we were a little late for these beautiful birds, as the mud on the nest was fairly well-set, and no sighting was forthcoming. However, the walk up to the nests was very productive. Our guide, Clem, stuck his head into a log, flushing out a black tree cobra from the other end. Several species of primate were also recorded, including king colobus, diana monkey and Campbell's monkey

 

Meanwhile, I headed off deep into the forest with another client to focus on primates. Good views were gained of king colobus, diana monkey and spot-nosed monkey. However, they did prove challenging to video, and the effects of unfettered poaching are certainly noticeable away from research camps. As soon as primates realise you are present (away from Camp Chimpanzee) a chorus of alarm calls go up, and they generally flee in short order. This is slightly strange, as the densities of primates in Tai are as high as anywhere else I have been on the continent, so poaching hasn't yet had a devastating impact on primate populations - it seems very likely that poaching pressure has increased significantly in the last two years as anti-poaching patrols were scaled-down during COVID. We heard gunshots on a nightly basis in the park, and there is no doubt that more needs to be done to ensure the wildlife populations in Tai survive this relatively nascent increased pressure. The other highlight of this afternoon walk was undoubtedly a great view of a huge African brown water snake as we were stalking king colobus, a real beauty.

 

Our night walks around Hana Camp were hugely productive by and large, and tonight was no exception. A giant African snail was a good spot, as was a great look at Lord Derby's anomalure - this species is black-and-white here, which can lead to confusion with the much more localised Pel's anomalure, so special attention should be paid to the tail. We also got good views of Thomas's dwarf galago and Demidoff's dwarf galago, which are almost impossible to distinguish in the field without hearing their calls. Fortunately, both call pretty much constantly in Tai, so a trained ear can tell them apart quite easily - both did a good job of keeping us up when trying to grab some sleep in our hammocks!

 

Demidoff's dwarf galago

Undoubtedly the highlight tonight though was waiting for us back in camp - a stunning genet who scampered past and could then be seen posing on a nearby branch. This individual was so relaxed I could only conclude it must frequent poaching camps in the area, as no ecotourists tend to overnight in the area. Theoretically, pardine genet should be the more common genet species in the park, but I know the pardine very well from elsewhere in West Africa, and the rosettes simply weren't right for pardine. Whilst our clients and guides began to debate the nuances of the facial and tail markings, I concluded quite quickly from the markings on the body that this could only be a Johnston's genet, a species known almost exclusively from museum specimens and only described from a live specimen for the first time in 2000. A really stunning animal, and one we would see regularly during our stay. As above, this is probably one of the rarest mammals I've ever been fortunate enough to lay my eyes on. We're currently in the process of sharing details with the IUCN, and the ID has been kindly confirmed by Chris and Tilde Stuart.

 

Johnston's Genet

Day 4:

 

After a few discussions the previous day, it was decided that returning to the river would give our clients the best chance of grabbing a video of the elusive pygmy hippo. As such, we left Hana Camp very early this morning, walking the two hours back to the river without too many sightings. Kevin briefly spotted an anomalure, but we couldn't get close enough to ID it properly. Once back on the river, we had excellent views of diana monkey, with their peculiar high-pitched alarm call, as well as spot-nosed monkey and a lone Campbell's monkey. Again, the banks were lined with pygmy hippo tracks, and it was clear that several individuals were crossing the river on a regular basis. The local guides explained that the hippos were crossing the river when coming and going from the swamps around Camp Chimpanzee, often leaving these swamps to crop-raid in the plantations outside the park - a plan was hatched to focus on the river and Camp Chimpanzee going forwards. The boat journey was again simply superb for birding - half a dozen kingfisher species, four white-crested tiger-herons, olive ibis and shining drongo were all spotted without too much effort.

 

We agreed to spend the night at the main lodge tonight and head out onto the river again this afternoon. In the heat of the day - oppressive thanks to the humidity, putty-nosed monkey were easily seen at the main car park for the lodge - this seems to be a favourite haunt for them. Our afternoon on the river was again punctuated by near-constant views of kingfishers, hornbills and palm-nut vultures, and it was also a great trip for primates. Spot-nosed monkey, diana monkey and both galago species were well seen, as was another West African potto. Tomorrow, we would stick to the river once more, and what a long day it would be!

 

 

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The rarities keep on coming

 

Day 5

 

What a mammoth day this was! In total, we spent fifteen hours boating up and down the Hana River. How Babu managed it I'm not quite sure - at some points, he was pulling a fully-loaded boat whilst swimming upstream. The logic behind these laps on the Hana downstream from Mt Nienokoue was to maximise our chances of intercepting a hippo as it crossed the main river. We were increasingly confident that the chances of a sighting of a hippo was best deep in the swamps around Camp Chimpanzee (an area we would check out in the coming days), but as our client was such a keen videographer, the river offered the best chance of a clear line of sight to a hippo should we come across one. A hippo had been well-seen on the river just before our arrival, and the best photographs of hippos to come out of Tai in recent seasons had come from the river, so this is certainly the most reliable tactic for those who need a photo or video of the hippo.

 

The riverbanks were absolutely laced with fresh hippo tracks today, generally slightly further downstream than where we had found them around Hana Camp. This was just as well, as the river level had dropped, and we weren't able to get quite as high up as we had previously. The river had been largely cleared before our arrival, but we of course could not remove many logs, particularly those used as bridges by the chimpanzees in the forest.

 

Our first pass upstream this morning offered up good views of diana monkey, but sensational birding also. Again we got good views of white-crested tiger-heron, olive ibis, shining-blue kingfisher, giant kingfisher, white-bibbed swallow and much more. We got as far upstream as we could, destroying fishing nets and cutting fishing lines as we went. En route, we encountered a huge slender-snouted crocodile sunning itself on the bank and, a few hundred metres on, we came across a smaller croc hooked on a fishing line tied to a branch. Some wrestling and quick thinking allowed one of our clients to unhook the croc, but this was certainly a sobering reminder that fishing and poaching are very much prevalent in and around the park. Throughout our stay, we probably cut over fifty fishing lines, removed half a dozen nets and destroyed five or so poaching/fishing camps.

 

Diana Monkey

 

Our first downstream pass rewarded us with African finfoot, our first distant views of the stunning western red colobus, spot-nosed monkey and king colobus. The birding remained consistently excellent even during the heat of the day, even if the primates remained skittish. We found that significantly better views were gained when drifting downstream without the use of an engine, but even then the monkeys would scarper as soon as our presence became known to them. As I've mentioned before, those looking for a primate to stay still for a photo in Tai need to visit Camp Chimpanzee and nowhere else.

 

We paused high up the river for a few beers this evening, spooking a gymnogene as we did so. Our long evening drift downstream revealed both species of galago, several West African potto, and a beautiful rufous fishing-owl, which was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening, and added to a couple of Pel's we had seen up around Hana Camp. By the time we got past Point 16, Babu was clearly exhausted after a full day on the water, so we headed back to camp, hippo-less but happy.

 

Day 6

 

Early this morning we left the lodge behind, and headed the two hours into the forest to Camp Chimpanzee, a long-established research camp. There was a bout of illness in camp, which wasn't ideal, but spirits were lifted by some excellent sightings even on the dawn walk to camp. King colobus, sooty mangabey and putty-nosed monkey all put in an appearance, and were significantly more confiding than their counterparts deeper into the forest. We reached camp just after first light, and were pleasantly surprised by the facilities - safari-style tents, a flush toilet and cold drinks etc. Perhaps I should have been a chimp researcher.

 

In camp, Cassin's hawk-eagle, long-tailed hawk and white-crested hornbill were recorded this morning. The team then headed out after a brief chance to settle in, and the primate species really began to roll in. Diana monkey, sooty mangabey, spot-nosed monkey, olive colobus and western red colobus were all seen in the space of 2-3 hours. All of the primate species in Tai are attractive in their own way, meaning that primate-focussed walks can be hugely rewarding. The striking black faces and orange legs of the diana monkey render perhaps the most striking, but there can be no doubting that the deep-russet coat of the western reds are stunning also. The rather adorable white noses of the spot- and putty-nosed monkeys are also particularly endearing. 

 

A hot lunch in camp was well-received, and our afternoon walk today was superb. The primate-viewing was again excellent, with diana monkey and olive colobus well seen. The key focus was to track down the semi-habituated group of sooty mangabey that hangs around camp (a fully habituated group can be seen further north near Camp Mangabey) and, despite several hours of viewing them, they remained frustratingly difficult to video. We did eventually get a bit of footage of these deeply elusive animals.

 

Sooty Mangabey

 

The rarest species were yet to come though - the group stumbled across common cusimanse, probably the most common diurnal small carnivore in the forest, referred to as 'brown mongoose' in French by the locals, but then came across something truly special. Foraging along one of the many channels that surround Camp Chimpanzee, three Liberian mongoose were disturbed and spotted scampering away. Known only from the forests of Liberia and Tai NP, this is one of the most range-restricted predators on the continent and a truly remarkable sighting - our clients are amongst the very lucky few to have ever seen this species in the wild. A lone Brooke's duiker was also picked up on the way back to camp.

 

This evening, after a full-on few days, the team stayed in camp to catch up on rest, with an all-out assault planned on the local hippos in the coming days.

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Posted (edited)

A whisker away

 

Day 7

 

This morning, our clients set out with the local trackers to spend some time with the habituated group of chimpanzees that have been subject to a long-term study here. Chimpanzee treks here are certainly not for the faint-hearted, and I would only recommend joining these treks if you are fit, and if the trackers advise that the group is relatively close to camp. You leave camp at 5am, in the pitch-black, and power-walk for a couple of hours to wherever the chimps nested the night before, but the terrain is hilly and dense. Prepare to be exhausted before you even reach the chimps! There is a huge reward, though, as this loose association of chimps is one of the most famous in the world. Not only is it the first population ever to be documented using tools (using rocks and wood to crack nuts - it is this which is extensively studied nowadays), but also the first to be noted to be susceptible to ebola*. In total, about 50 chimps are part of this group, although you generally won't see more than 20 together.

 

 

Once you arrive at the nests, the chimps will generally have vacated it by daybreak, and you will have to track them down with the help of your local tracker. Sound is your friend, and it helps that these chimps crack nuts, as this can be used to hone in on their location. Your arrival is heralded with cacophonous noise, but they quickly settle when they realise you are in the company of one of the trackers they are familiar with. But the work isn't done - the next two hours are spent following the chimps across challenging terrain, pausing only when they stop to feed. Every now and then, they come across a fruiting tree and you are rewarded with spectacular views of these magnificent primates. Be warned, they are very nervous of large camera lenses, as they resemble firearms, but the youngsters are generally highly photogenic. This is a far cry from the sanitised experiences of Nyungwe and Kibale, but it is so much more rewarding, with wilder chimps, a more fragile population and a much richer history behind these animals. For anyone who genuinely loves chimps, I would suggest there is no experience more rewarding than the tracking in Tai. 

 

 

*A note on ebola - there is no real risk for visitors to Tai, but it is worth noting that Tai is considered one of the largest reservoirs of ebola on the continent, and its proximity to population centres does worry many. 

 

Understandably, a few hours rest were taken over lunch after several hours on foot this morning, during which a large troop of king colobus came through camp. The calls of Cassin's hawk-eagle and long-tailed hawk were ever-present, as always. This afternoon, we set out to explore one of the swamps near camp, quickly spotting diana monkey and another group of king colobus. But, shortly afterwards, we got a bit of a wake-up call. Off to our left, we suddenly spooked a very large animal. Branches cracked, followed by a colossal 'THUD, THUD, THUD' as this animal's feet collided with the ground in panic. At this point, a few milliseconds after we had first heard it, it could have been a buffalo, perhaps even an elephant. But then up came an almighty splash as the animal launched itself into a pool of water, followed by total silence. Hippo!

 

Now, when you hear something like this in the forest, there is only one thing to do - sprint after it. Our local guide wanted to discuss tactics, but we urged him on, quickly winding ourselves as we battled through the undergrowth. We aimed for the direction the sound had come from;  distance is hard to gauge in the forest, but hippo was certainly close. We crossed a few paths used for chimp trekking, and with no obvious sign that the hippo had left the area, we began to comb the channel the hippo must have been in. There was sign everywhere, fresh tracks, even a mark where a hippo had been lying up on a small sandy beach. But, try as we might, we just couldn't find a hippo. In hindsight, the hippo had almost certainly secreted itself deep in the roots and overhanging banks of the channel, where they are known to stay for up to three days, so our chances at this point were slim. But it's hard to let go of a sighting when you came so close to seeing your target, and we spent a good chunk of time wading the channel, eventually coming up empty-handed.

 

Returning to camp with renewed optimism, we met up with our other client, who had stayed back after a bout of illness. It was agreed that the channels would be walked again tonight. The night walk didn't produce hippo, but did produce a significant amount of fresh (read; warm and wet) dung. Maxwell's duiker, Beecroft's anomalure, three Johnston's genet and Demidoff's dwarf galago were decent bycatch from the evening's activity.

 

Day 8

 

It had become clear to us that these channels around camp were amongst the most productive areas we had located so far in terms of pygmy hippo activity, even during daylight hours. As such, this morning was spent scouting out good spots for a stake-out this evening. What is key in Tai is finding good habitat where you have some kind of line of sight - unlike the forests of Central Africa, there are no bais and very few open areas, so even if you find a hippo, seeing it is incredibly difficult. A handful of spots were identified that offered fresh sign and good grazing for the hippos, but no wildlife was seen. In camp, a single group of diana monkeys was recorded.

 

This afternoon, one client headed off with a local guide to collect a camera trap that had been set up near Hana Camp. Sadly, the trap failed to record anything of note, but the area offered a huge number of fresh bongo tracks, as well as the now familiar king colobus and diana monkey. A bonus was a chocolate-backed kingfisher and hairy-breasted barbet, alongside the more common blue-breasted and shining-blue kingfishers.

 

This evening the team headed out together to stake out one of the spots identified this morning. As soon as we sat down, we spooked a large animal on the far side of the clearing, but it remained unseen. We did manage African wood owl, two more Johnston's genet and, most entertainingly, a very close view of African brush-tailed porcupine. Using the thermal imager, we were able to view the porcupine until it was almost on top of one of our clients before spotlighting it - I'm not sure who was more surprised, the porcupine or our client who was nearly blinded by our spotlights! A great spot indeed. Regrettably, a very heavy rainstorm cut our stake-out short, but it had been another thoroughly enjoyable day in Tai.

 

 

Edited by Pictus Safaris
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23 hours ago, Pictus Safaris said:

chocolate-backed kingfisher and hairy-breasted barbet

 

*drool, drool*

 

 

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Indeed @offshorebirder- the birding was slightly odd throughout. Very quiet in the forest, and LBJs were not easily seen at all (I don't think I saw a single greenbul myself during the entire tour), but the river was superb. Only 96 species recorded total, but about half of them were absolute corkers.

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Posted (edited)

The mythical forest goat

 

Day 9 

 

This morning proffered one of the most productive morning walks of the entire tour. Getting a better view of the sooty mangabey was a key priority and, despite hearing their chimp-like hooting almost constantly, these elusive primates chose to move away from the group whenever we got close. Eventually admitting defeat, good views were gained of the stunning western red colobus, king colobus, diana monkey and olive colobus. The undoubted highlight though was an excellent view of a Jentink's duiker crossing the path at a trot in front of our client. Just too fast for photos and videos, but about as clear a view of a wild Jentink's duiker as it is possible to get.

 

It may be worth writing a few lines on why this animal is so special, as I can understand that those who spend their time in the savanna reserves of Eastern and Southern Africa may not be particularly enthralled by a duiker. The Jentink's is, quite simply, a stunning animal. It's disruptive camouflage, consisting of a grey body that sharply contrasts with its black shoulders, neck and head is in itself quite remarkable. Its size is also quite something, with it being a massive duiker, standing at around a metre tall (head height) and weighing in at over 70kg - the only duiker of comparable proportions in these forests is the yellow-backed. Unsurprisingly, this duiker is highly-valued for bushmeat, given its size and the relative ease of hunting it. As such, it is generally considered extremely rare throughout its range. In fact, I was advised by the WCF it was the one duiker we absolutely would not see in Tai, and we'd managed a fleeting glimpse of one, and a superb view of another in fairly short order. I include a photo of a captive individual from Earth.com for reference below, so that those not familiar with the species can get a sense of just how strikingly beautiful this animal is.

 

Cephalophus jentinki • Earth.com

 

Whilst this was all being seen, one client had stayed back at camp to, ahem, remain close to a toilet. He wandered down to the small river beneath the camp where camp staff wash clothes and bathe, and was rewarded with some excellent birding and our first water chevrotain. Whilst this beautiful little ungulate may not be as rare as the Jentink's duiker, it is also delightfully attractive, with heavy white spotting on a brown coat. This animal is remarkably adapted to the forest, and there is incredible footage online of them diving into pools and walking along the bottom of rivers. Well worth a Google!

 

This afternoon, an unsuccessful search for sooty mangabey, which were heard at lunch on the other side of camp from where they had been heard this morning, delivered more sightings of the more common primates we had by now become accustomed to. We were beginning to fall into a familiar pattern, and as the light faded, we headed to another likely spot for a pygmy hippo stake-out. Stake-outs in Tai are, compared to elsewhere on the continent, quite comfortable. The absence of forest elephants in much of the park mean that it is safe to sit out in the forest at all hours, and we carried camping chairs to and from these spots. At various stages of the tour, I did spend plenty of time sleeping and scanning from the forest floor, but it is possible to be a bit more civilised.

 

This evening, the thermal imagers revealed a pair of water chevrotain, a Brooke's duiker and a bay duiker. However, there was huge excitement to come, as a client using the thermal told us he could clearly see a hippo walking towards us! Some of the tensest moments of any mammal-watcher's life followed, but excitement soon turned to bemusement as there was no audio, as one would expect with a hippo at such close quarters. Another scan with the therm revealed a Brooke's duiker feeding where the 'hippo' had been. Over the next few days, our client slowly walked back the claim about the hippo, but it didn't half get the blood pumping this evening.

 

As we arrived back in camp tonight, the staff told us there was a rat near the kitchen. Expecting something fairly pedestrian, we thanked them and thought we would give it a cursory check, and we were glad we did. A bold Emin's pouched rat was scuttling around, providing great views. Not a hippo, but special in its own right.

 

Day Ten

 

A primate-focussed morning walk again delivered good views of western red colobus, diana monkey and an obliging Maxwell's duiker, as well as our first fleeting view of a green bush squirrel. The forest hardly teems with squirrels, and certainly fire-footed rope squirrels are the most common. Oddly, sun squirrels seem to be almost entirely absent from the park, and are not regularly reported by local guides. I suspect they are more common outside the park in the plantations, and it is hard to imagine they are absent from the are entirely. We did record slender-tailed squirrel on our afternoon walk, as well as further excellent views of the enigmatic white-breasted guineafowl, but little else today.

 

Western red colobus

 

This evening, we headed across to a hole deep in the forest where researchers had previously recorded giant pangolin. On arrival, there was undeniably fresh tracks from a giant pangolin, as well as plenty of flies to indicate that something had been using this deep cave regularly. We stuck our heads in, but aside from some bats deep inside, there wasn't anything home. We had a lengthy discussion about whether to leave one of our three camera traps here, in the hopes that the pangolin came back, but ultimately decided to focus all our resources on the pygmy hippo.

 

Our night walk back to camp was relatively quiet, with only a pair of Maxwell's duiker, a sleeping spot-nosed monkey and a Thomas's dwarf galago to show for our efforts. Our client back in camp had seen Johnston's genet and Emin's pouched rat at his spot on the river, but again, despite plenty of sign, there was no hippo to show for our efforts.

 

Maxwell's Duiker

 

Edited by Pictus Safaris
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Jentink's duiker is certainly a stunning animal!  And I'm super jealous of the water chevrotain!  We had hoped to see one on our safari in Gabon but to no avail!  Another very cool antelope species!

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Along with all the other adventures, you saved a croc!  The airplane proposal was hilarious.  What a disastrous velcro malfunction to lose a new camcorder.  Your encounters with richness of wildlife gives comfort to know it is out there.

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I agree - the Jentink's duiker is a stunner. somehow it reminded me of the  malayan tapir because of the grey body and dark head. 

 

very jealous of all the birds and mammals seen!

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Apologies for the hiatus - some connectivity issues whilst stuck in Cuba. Hope to resume in the next week or so!

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  • 4 weeks later...

My apologies to those who have been following this TR - so much to do and so little time!

 

@Biko- I'm glad you are enjoying - I hope we will have many more TRs to share soon.

 

@gatoratlarge- aren't they gorgeous? I do enjoy water chevrotain sightings, they're the perfect mix of stunningly beautiful and tenacious. In Tai, they were pretty relaxed most of the time; along with Maxwell's duikers, they were one of the few critters that didn't flee once they realised we were there. Probably one of the better places to see them, although they're also fairly easy to pick up in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

 

@Atravelynn- there is a surprising amount of wildlife left in Tai. It is a shame that it is under such pressure nowadays, and it made me wonder what it must once have been like there.

 

@Kitsafari- I love that comparison, Jentink's are certainly just as striking as the tapirs. It's remarkable how such boldly-coloured species become so difficult to see in the forest.

 

 

For pygmy hippo enthusiasts, a couple of blurry photos below of a recent sighting made by our team on the ground in Tai.

 

PH1.jpg.8edfc8e45cc2d356711c7daec2b9962d.jpg

 

PH3.jpg.4dce887aa0db7fbe43e24e33d3b67630.jpg

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Right, let's get back on the (river) horse.

 

Knocking Kibale out the park

 

Day Eleven

 

Today the group split - a stomach bug continued to cause a few issues, so I headed back to the main lodge to pick up some meds. One client headed out onto the river by kayak, whilst another stayed closer to camp throughout the day. Our client in camp picked up more of the 'usual' species, with excellent birding as usual - the resident long-tailed hawk, white-crested hornbill and Cassin's hawk-eagle are often easy to see but difficult to photograph.

 

The river is a fair distance from camp, so it's a fairly taxing walk before you can reach the kayaks we leave far up the river. Once there, though, there can be no questioning that this is the best way to get prolonged views of many primate species in the forest. Given the level of poaching in the forest, and the fact that poachers clearly use the Hana as an arterial route, any engine noise alarms the primates in a pretty big way - the squeaky alarm calls of diana monkeys are a very common sound on the river indeed. Gliding quietly on the kayaks, though, allows a slightly more sneaky approach, and diana monkey, spot-nosed monkeys, western red colobus, king colobus et al were seen reasonably well today.

 

DianaMonkey1.jpg.32eacaf570b1945fe87a59fc043671c8.jpg

A stunning view of a diana monkey

 

My walks to and from the main lodge were quiet, with the exception of good views of white-breasted guineafowl. Of great interest, though, were extremely fresh hippo tracks on the main swamp between the lodge and camp - the porters who travel this route regularly each day told us that they appeared between 10am and 11am this morning. Whilst this might sound outlandish, the evidence we saw throughout our stay indicated that hippos were active by day, at least on occasion, and were not particularly fazed by disturbance. We would be sure to come back and check this area again soon.

 

A brief night walk produced water chevrotain once more, as well as another bundle of the rarely-seen Johnston's genet.

 

Day Twelve

 

This morning, the group headed out once more to spend time with Tai's famous chimpanzees, with the kind assistance of the resident WCF researcher. We had heard the evening before that the chimps were fairly close, but 'close' is a relative term. At 5am, we were jog-stumbling through the forest behind our tracker, and it's fair to say most of us were exhausted in short order. Generally speaking, the trails in Tai around Camp Chimpanzee are very well maintained (it gets a bit thicker once you move away from this area), but there is a nasty habit of clearing trees and leaving the bottom few inches of the trunk protruding from the ground. The upshot is that there a few faceplants in the dark this morning - fortunately only pride was hurt.

 

We arrived at the chimps' nest just as dawn was breaking, but it was clear we had already missed them. No matter, as a bit of patience coupled with the keen ear of our friendly researcher meant that we soon picked out the distinctive sounds of nut-cracking not too far away. The chase was on. As I've mentioned before, the terrain is uneven here and we were strictly off-piste for most of our time with the chimps. We moved quickly, snapping photos when the brief moments of still allowed for it. As forum members who have spent time with chimps elsewhere in Africa will know, this experience is truly visceral. The noise as youngsters screech or males beat the buttresses of the trees around you shakes you to the core. But there is something altogether less manicured than, say, Kibale here. The chimps are more nervous, wilder even. The forest is tougher - thornier, stickier and hillier. And, perhaps wrongly, I certainly felt a sense of privilege to spend time with these specific chimps, who have spawned countless headlines over the years, with their tool use in particular. It might be the closest I've come to being starstruck.

 

KingColobus1.jpg.b6b0a4952082be83b30010c95a9e5fc5.jpg

Check out the diagnostic grizzled face of this king colobus

 

As luck would have it, when it came to saying goodbye to the chimps after another magical hour, they had led us nearly directly to camp - we welcomed the brief return to camp and a cold drink.

 

This afternoon, we set out to check the giant pangolin hole once more, pausing a couple of times as heavy rain came through. There were no signs of life at the hole, with only Maxwell's duiker to show for our efforts on our final night at Camp Chimpanzee with this group.

 

 

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Incredible. Pygmy hippo out of the water no less. Holy Grail sighting. 

 

 

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