Hello from the steamy jungles of Udzungwa, deep in the heart of Tanzania!
Without any exaggeration, I think that Udzungwa National Park may just be the most exotic place I have ever reached in my lifetime (and that is definitely saying something): the air is hot and thick with tropical moisture, the trees monstrous and strange, the forest thick with hanging vines, the rock face covered in rare flowers and the canopy swinging with even rarer animals.
As a scientist, you will appreciate the wealth of biodiversity that resides in this miraculous hotspot, from the endemic birds and plants to the endemic primates.
Yes, there are monkeys who live in Udzungwa that do not exist anywhere else in the world. When I discovered this, I immediately shouted impatiently, “Where, when, and how do I get there?” Something about endemic species gets me crazily excited, and yet nature is not a zoo—the animals do not perform on time or in a convenient exhibit with a refreshment stand around the corner.
No, in the wild, one must work for one’s reward of seeing animals in their natural environment, and let me tell you Nigella—I worked for my animals. The early riser catches the monkey—and so I awoke at 4 a.m. (gasp!) and rode a half hour to the edge of the jungle, where I joined four Udzungwa patrolmen: Octavius, Pils, Sebastian and Baptista. Each of them carried either a panga (machete) or a loaded submachine gun, which are the everyday tools of conservationists (on the front lines).
In the total darkness, we slipped into the lowland rain forest. I felt as if I had just vanished into oblivion—my sense of sight was nil and I could only feel my way forward over the bumpy upward path. Of course, I feared sticking my naked hand on some vine and discovering it was in fact some hazardous serpent, but luck was with me and I did not encounter any of the superb number of snakes that do live here.
Slowly, the darkness became slightly less dark, and as we climbed higher and higher, I begin to see the brown outline of leaves and trees, discerning that I was not merely walking through some black cloud of death, but was witnessing the birth of a new day in the forest.
The symphony of the jungle began with a great warming up of all voices present—the chaotic birds chirping and cawing and screeching. It was not even five in the morning but the animals were up and busy with their business of beating the sun.
The sun was pink—hot pink, and touched every leaf in the forest with a fiery orange edge. For a moment, I stopped climbing to wipe the sweat from my face and neck and to capture this beautiful moment of day invading night. The transition is slower in the rain forest and I witnessed myself as the sunlight advanced, inch by inch, across the leafy jungle floor.
For an hour we climbed and waited and listened. The patrol walked with ears piqued, tuning out all the terrific hubbub of animals and listening specifically for the single, bellowing oooh-OOOHT of the Sanje crested mangabey.
The Sanje crested mangabey (Cercocebus sanjei) is the pride of Udzungwa—an endemic old world primate that lives here and only here. In fact, this animal is so rare it is believed that there are only some 1,200 left in the world—meaning, 1,200 left in these mountain forest of Udzungwa. Like all exceedingly rare animals, they are endangered—as in IUCN-classified “ENDANGERED”—and threatened due to poaching and habitat loss.
It is the sad, sad story that you hear too often in your work, I am sure, but I am not writing to depress or distress you. Instead, I am writing to let you know that after two hours searching in the jungle, the patrol heard the mangabeys’ hooting and set me on a path in their direction.
Tracking primates is not easy and far more physically rigorous than any of these classes they offer at my gym back home. For twenty minutes, in quite unbearable heat, I jumped over or ran under high logs, scaled cliffs of crumbling soil and loose rock, slid down hillsides, got snagged on thorny shrubs and followed the sound of monkeys up and down the steep jungle hillside until . . . until . . .
There they were: the Sanje crested mangabeys—sitting in the cleft of a tree, nibbling a twig and looking right at me.
Oh, Nigella, they are beautiful animals! Perhaps not brilliantly colored like some primates—for their fur is only very beige and grey. However, their grey crimped hair is these mangabeys’ defining trait—I could not help but compare them to a band of hilarious tricksters all wearing Tina Turner wigs (forgive me, Tina).
At first, the mangabeys were fast and furious, spilling from the trees and taking off in another direction. They knew that there was no way this primate would keep up with them, but we followed them nonetheless. Baptista explained that they would not stay long here as there was no food, but that if we continued with them, once we came to food, they would stop.
Thus the chase continued until we came to a forest of fruit trees where the mangabeys seemed to linger slightly while devouring heavy clumps of small yellow fruit. They ate and ate, and while they ate, they dropped hundreds of fruit pits down upon us, so that the rain forest was raining heavy fruit pits that bounced (ouch) from my head.
There, in the high, high mountains of a lost jungle, I was able to really get a good look at this army of special monkeys. Immediately, you saw their human-ness—the way they moved each tiny finger like we move ours, the way they stood and turned their head, and the way they clung to their young.
The baby mangabeys gripped their mothers tightly as the pair jumped from one limb to another. Mangabeys are wonderful jumpers and can leap some thirty feet from one branch to the next. They also come down to the ground and run on all fours, so that constantly, I would be surprised by a mangabey coming from behind or whipping past one side of me. They were everywhere!
I was told that in this group, there were around 70 animals. Six different groups of mangabeys have been identified in Udzungwa, and this group is the only one to have been successfully habituated—meaning, they do not immediately flee upon seeing humans. Mangabeys are incredibly shy by nature, making them very difficult to study. Thus, we know too little about them, other than the fact that without this national park, they would likely go extinct.
Habituating these mangabeys took more than 15 years of daily human effort—with the patrol following and sitting with the monkeys for long periods during the day until eventually, they were no longer afraid of their presence. It is the hope of the national park that by habituating this one group, visitors will be able to come and see the mangabeys in their natural environment and in this way, the primates will be preserved.
Habituated or no, the monkeys were not easy to keep up with—they did not stay in one place for long. Each little animal was a bundle of action: running, swinging, eating, and then resting, sometimes all within ten minutes. I remember one baby in particular, his face colored pink, his tiny head like a toy ball with ears, his black eyes blinking right at me.
“Try not to look at them directly in the face,” Baptista warned me. This is a sign of aggression in primates, I was told, and so I tried to be sly about my monkey-viewing, though this proved difficult. The mangabeys were so spectacular and cute, I wanted to look each and every one of them directly in the eye. Instead, I spent most of my time staring at them through the lens of my camera, trying hard to capture the splendor of this endemic monkey in the wild.
Some were curious, others very shy, but for the couple of hours I spent in their presence, I myself felt incredible happiness. Somehow, taking the effort to go into the forest and enter the rare and shaded world of the mangabeys made me feel a kind of unique and innocent joy—as if nature would prevail no matter what horrible things may occur.
I am sure you have the same kind emotion in your work with aquatic life. It is this innocence that draws all people to nature, and somehow in monkeys—perhaps because we are so similar—we feel it even more.
Not without some reluctance did I leave the mangabeys in the forest , happy to have met such a rare creature, yet legitimately worried for them. “You take care, now!” I wanted to shout to each of them—somehow convinced that because we have similar hands and fingers and facial expressions, we would also share linguistic cognition.
But no—the mangabeys merely moved on, as did I, leaving the lost jungles of Udzungwa for new adventures in other parts of Tanzania. And yet, I can’t stop remembering this band of 70 primates and how for only a moment, I had joined them in their world.
Surely, the mangabeys are something you would enjoy seeing, and I hope for your sake, that it might happen one day. Until that happens, I would like to thank you for the work that you do, which is, as they say in Swahili, so muhimu—important.
I bid you all good things from Africa and look forward to seeing you again online. Thank you for traveling with me virtually, round and round the globe. I guess in this way, I am like the mangabeys—difficult to track and always moving on to the next place.
Thank you again, for following along.