That time a tree fell on my house

I got evacuated from the C.A.R. back in late March due to the political situation in the country, which to this day has not improved much. I took a long hiatus from posting on this blog as it felt like re-reading a book before I had even finished reading it. But I still have many stories to tell, so I will continue to post about my unexpectedly shortened experience in the jungles of the C.A.R. as well as other adventures I may embark on.

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Let me tell you about the time my Biggest Jungle Fear came true: when a tree fell on top of my house hut in mid-March. An astute observer pointed out that my fear did not in fact become realized as I am still alive with all my limbs un-squashed.

What?!—you might exclaim—you live in the middle of the jungle in the Central African Republic and your biggest fear is a tree falling over?! Yes. It is. I can always trust my trackers to avoid snakes (though admittedly I did almost step onto one on three or four different occasions), to prevent gorillas from getting pissed and to tell me when to run away from angry, charging elephants when necessary. But trees? Nope. You sleep in a measly wooden hut surrounded by massive trees that can fall in any direction at any given moment. 

I awoke in the middle of the night to fierce winds howling and the entire forest’s leaves rattling. It sounded like an intense rainstorm but in fact it hadn’t started yet: in the jungle, the rustling of the leaves can be indistinguishable from the pitter-patter of raindrops. I decided to quickly answer my call of nature outside before Mother Nature unleashed all of her glory, but she decided to let the rain start before I was done anyway. Running back inside before I got completely soaked, I started to get a little big frightened. This was the strongest storm I had experienced yet and bits of twigs had started falling around us almost as fast as the rain was.

Suddenly, there was a loud whacking sound: a sizable branch fell on our house. With chaos brewing outside, it was difficult to tell where exactly it landed. I could see that the vet staying in the room next to mine was awake as her headlamp light shone through our connecting wall’s wooden slats. I called out to her: “Are you okay?” Before she could even respond, we heard the much louder ear-splitting crack of a tree unable to bear the added stress, followed by a few moments of terrified waiting. Then, the crash and tumble of an entire tree falling. 

The vet and I sprung into action, grabbing our headlamps and stuffing our sleeping bags into dry bags so that we could run to the nearest structurally intact hut. In the flicker of the lightning I saw the massive tree in front of our house that was most definitely not there before. I allowed myself a second’s pause and a whispered  Holy ****!” before we ran into the rain.

After jumping over several brand-new streams to reach the living room hut, we had no choice but to get ourselves as cozy as we could while we waited out the storm. We made ourselves some hot cocoa and watched in disbelief as a surreal scene unfolded in front of us: our camp caretaker was up washing dishes and a tracker was making coffee in a pot over the kitchen fire. Here we were at 4 am, having barely survived a falling tree, in the middle of a massive storm—and people were going on with their regular household chores! We found out later that the trackers had sprinted across the camp to see if we were ok after they heard the crash, but saw that we were up and about. 

We got to see the damage after the rain stopped and the sun rose.

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It looks like an entire tree, but we think it’s a large branch from the top of the tree of which the trunk you can see on the left of the house. As you can see, we’re very lucky it didn’t land on the house…

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My room—where I stayed the entire duration of my stay—was the one on the far right in the above photo. The vet was staying in the room behind my hanging yoga mat. The area in front of the house is usually a swept clearing. 

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The room on the far left of the house sustained the most damage. It’s a little hard to tell, but you can see how the roof was a little caved in and how the awning snapped.

Back to work for the vet and I! I set out with my two trackers on the main road that leads north of the camp. 

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We found the road to be covered in broken branches and fallen trees. 

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We also found creatures that are normally buried deep within the tree trunks, such as these termite queens (that is my guess, at least). They were the length of a palm. If you look closely, you’ll see that they had little faces complete with eyes and hard, black fangs! 

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The trackers couldn’t resist nibbling on some of the sweat bee honeycombs. The hives are found in hollow trees and were conveniently exposed when its tree fell onto the road.

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The next day, people were sent to assess the damage and to remove the loose pieces. 

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No one could resist seeing a large chainsaw be operated. The tree trunk was cut up into sections for easier removal. The fourth person from the left is an Eco Guard, the armed guards who protect the country’s national parks.

In conclusion, I’m really glad I didn’t get killed in my sleep by a falling tree.

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Elephant Slaughter at Dzanga Bai

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7/26: I took this picture of an elephant family in a small clearing right on the outskirts of Dzanga Bai.
I am posting one photo taken at Dzanga Bai a day for each of the 26 elephants killed by the 17 poachers who entered the clearing on May 7th. 
Please sign the petition to urge the C.A.R. government to do something about it: http://bit.ly/12kHOSt

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8/26: It’s not often that you see an elephant sitting like that.

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9/26: So wrinkly and pink! This elephant is only a few days old.

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10/26: This is what it looks like when a large, lustful elephant chases after you and your child with his penis hanging out.

Related links:

  • (*WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS*) This Huffington Post article was one of the few I saw that actually posted the photos of the carnage.
  • I made a video about Dzanga Bai before any of this happened
  • I also wrote a blog post about my first visit to Dzanga Bai.

See: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6

Elephant Slaughter at Dzanga Bai (6/26)

I am posting a photo a day for every carcass found so far at Dzanga Bai.

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6/26:  This little buddy looks like she is wearing a wig, but it’s actually her mom’s tail! I love the muddy water squirting out of her trunk. On May 7th, 17 poachers entered the clearing and killed 26 elephants for their tusks.

Please sign the petition to urge the C.A.R. government to do something about it: http://bit.ly/12kHOSt

Related links:

  • (*WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS*) This Huffington Post article was one of the few I saw that actually posted the photos of the carnage.
  • I made a video about Dzanga Bai before any of this happened
  • I also wrote a blog post about my first visit to Dzanga Bai. 

See: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5

Elephant Slaughter at Dzanga Bai (5/26)

I am posting a photo a day for every carcass found so far at Dzanga Bai.

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5/26:  Dzanga Bai in black and white looks like a long-lost, prehistoric world. But it exists and will exist as long as we preserve it. Up until March 23rd, tourists were still visiting this awe-inspiring place. On May 7th, 17 poachers entered the clearing and killed 26 elephants for their tusks.

Please sign the petition to urge the C.A.R. government to do something about it: http://bit.ly/12kHOSt

For more information (*WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS*), refer to this Huffington Post article

Please also watch this video I made on Dzanga Bai and read my blog post about my first visit to Dzanga Bai. 

See: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4

Elephant Slaughter at Dzanga Bai (4/26)

I am posting a photo a day for every carcass found so far at Dzanga Bai.

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4/264/26: Elephants are attracted to Dzanga Bai for its mineral-rich soil. This picture was taken from the same viewing platform from which 17 poachers shot at and killed 26 elephants for their tusks on May 7th.

Please sign the petition to urge the C.A.R. government to do something about it: http://bit.ly/12kHOSt

For more information (*WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS*), refer to this Huffington Post article

Please also watch this video I made on Dzanga Bai and read my blog post about my first visit to Dzanga Bai. 

See: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 

Elephant Slaughter at Dzanga Bai (3/26)

I am posting a photo a day for every carcass found so far at Dzanga Bai.

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3/26: These could be some of the (at least) 26 elephants that have been slaughtered by poachers on May 7th at Dzanga Bai.

Please sign the petition to urge the C.A.R. government to do something about it: http://bit.ly/12kHOSt

For more information (*WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS*), refer to this Huffington Post article

Please also watch this video I made on Dzanga Bai and read my blog post about my first visit to Dzanga Bai. 

See: Day 1 | Day 2

Elephant Slaughter at Dzanga Bai (2/26)

I am posting a photo a day for every carcass found so far at Dzanga Bai.

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2/26: These could be some of the (at least) 26 elephants that have been slaughtered by poachers on May 7th at Dzanga Bai. This is not simply an attack on elephants—Dzanga Bai was a sacred, safe place where the elephants could could gather in peace. There is no other place like this on Earth. This photo was taken on March 23rd.  

Please, please sign the petition to urge the C.A.R. government to do something about it: http://bit.ly/12kHOSt

For more information (*WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS*), refer to this Huffington Post article

Please also watch this video I made on Dzanga Bai and read my blog post about my first visit to Dzanga Bai. 

See: Day 1

URGENT: Elephant Slaughter at Dzanga Bai

I am posting a photo a day for every carcass found so far at Dzanga Bai.

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1/26: These could be some of the (at least) 26 elephants that have been slaughtered by poachers in the last week at Dzanga Bai, a unique, natural elephant sanctuary in the C.A.R. This photo was taken just recently on March 23rd, the day that all WWF staff including myself were evacuated and the day that Andrea Turkalo—a researcher who has dedicated her life to the elephants of Dzanga Bai for the past 30 years—called her last normal day there in a Wildlife Conservation Society interview

Turkalo does not know when she will be able to get back to Dzanga Bai. But she recalled her last ordinary day there, on March 23, 2013.  “The weather was perfect. There was a slight breeze. The light was magnificent. In the late afternoon, you get these long rays and a golden aura. I think there were about 80 elephants, and there was a new calf that day with a female I’d known for 20 years, named Delta.  If I had to have a last day anywhere, that was the day I would have chosen.

The baby on the left in the photo above is the very baby to which she is referring. 

If you can stomach the very graphic photos depicting what is happening at Dzanga Bai right now, please see it for yourself here (photos taken and provided by WWF). 

Please, please sign the petition to urge the C.A.R. government to do something about it: http://bit.ly/12kHOSt

For more information, refer to this Huffington Post article

Please also watch this video I made on Dzanga Bai and read an earlier related post I wrote.

Video: Dzanga Bai

A short movie I made about Dzanga Bai, a place I consider one of the most beautiful in the world (best viewed in full screen!). I highly doubt there is any other place that can offer a comparable elephant-watching experience; on any given day, one can see up to 120 elephants at a time. 

A very recent study concluded that over the last ten years, two-thirds of all forest elephants were killed for their ivory. 

The Wildlife Conservation Society separately found that Minkebe Park, in neighboring Gabon, has lost 11,100 elephants since 2004. Most of these killings were likely to have occurred in the last 5 years. Meanwhile in another bordering country, the DRC, the Okapi Faunal Reserve is reported to have lost over 5000 elephants since 1998.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global illegal ivory trade has doubled since 2007In general, most ivory is smuggled to China but Japan is the only country with a preference for the softer ivory of forest elephants.

Here’s an excellent article by the Washington Post about the growing illegal ivory trade.

Check out my last post about Dzanga Bai and consider donating to the Wildlife Conservation Society or the World Wildlife Fund

How to climb a really, really tall tree with a piece of vine

I am currently back in Hong Kong relaxing and spending time with my family, and I will be returning to the C.A.R. on February 7th. Everything is looking relatively good, with the peace agreements signed, a new prime minister appointed and the cabinet dissolved. From now on the only hold-ups I anticipate are silly delays, like when government officials were late to the negotiations in Gabon while the rebels were on time.

In an unrelated matter, Ugandan soldiers together with US Special Forces have killed Kony’s chief bodyguard in the eastern jungles of the CAR (I’m in the west, phew). I think this is good news!

A few months ago, there was a period of time when the radio in our camp was broken. Being our sole form of communication to the outside world, it is rather vital that it remain up and working. After several fruitless attempts to fix it, someone came up with a decidedly novel solution: have the best Ba’Aka tree climbers mount antennae at the tops of very high trees. Didou and a couple other trackers were enlisted due to their elite tree climbing skills and were driven in for this specific purpose.

The Ba’Aka are known for their amazing tree climbing skills, which they need to access the most prized treat of all: wild honey. Check out the mind-blowing segment above from the BBC’s Human Planet, in which a Ba’Aka man climbs to head-dizzying heights and braves a hive of bees in order to impress his wife with some fresh, all-natural honey. (Human Planet is similar to their more famous series Planet Earth but about people and yes, narrated by David Attenborough!) Seriously, watch it. CRAZY. This was actually filmed in Yandoumbe, a village very close to where I am.

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I’m not sure if this picture does justice to the height of this tree, but I guesstimate it to be about 130 feet high. If it helps at all the tiny oval at the base of the tree is a toilet seat; I have no idea why that is there, because we most certainly do not have any toilets.

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This is Didou looking rather smug with himself at the top of the tree. It was pretty terrifying to watch him as I was half-convinced that I was going to witness him plunge to the ground that day. Using no equipment except for a piece of vine with its ends tied together to form a hoop around the tree, Didou shimmied his way up  (watch the BBC video above to see how he did it). I couldn’t tear myself away to grab my camera as he was going up, but scroll down a little to see the video of him coming down.

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Here, Didou is performing some careful maneuvers trying to get a giant pole up the tree. I’m not entirely clear on the thought process behind this entire plan, so don’t ask me why he was doing this.

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A couple of other men climbed up other trees to attach yet more antennae. This guy here uses a different technique than Didou, chopping small footholds into the bark for a surer grip.

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As you can see, there is a very precarious split second during each upwards shimmy.

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The same guy up another tree.

And finally, here’s the video of Didou descending. I couldn’t zoom out to give you a full view of the tree but the length of time it takes for him to get to the ground should give you an idea.