Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Forest of Small Things


 This time it is a walk on an "Elephant Trail" of a primeval forest inland off Mombasa coast. It is not a planned tour and it is almost by chance that my son and I saunter into Arabuko-Sokoke forest on our way back from Gedi Ruins, what was a four-century old town. 

Peter, the forest ranger is accompanying us with bare essentials of a stick (not a club, forget a rifle) under the darkened canopy of dense woodland. We drive some distance into the jungle, park our car on the deserted path, lock it to keep baboons and monkeys from mischief, and set out on foot to unearth forest life. The car looks vulnerable - abandoned and out of place. I idly wonder what if an African elephant were to get too curious about it. Peter assures us about the safety of the car and herds us on to the dirt track which is getting narrower hemmed in as it is with tall trees and lianas.

Lanky Peter walks with a stoop looking surreptitiously to the left and right, up and down, stops suddenly and moves on. His antennas are working taking in the sweep of the forest - for sounds and sights - which for us is a soundless blur of twigs and leaves. This is a regular route of Arabuko’s resident African elephants. Unlike its Asian counterpart, the African elephant has never been tamed or domesticated adding to its “wildness quotient”. I ask Peter if it is not dangerous to come face to face with one. His reply is an amused, indulgent smile. We simply follow in his wake trusting in him completely; we have no choice now that we have crossed the Rubicon. We desperately try to mute our footfalls crunching dry twigs and leaves so as not to attract unwanted attention.  Suddenly, Peter turns to us dramatically and whispers conspiratorially: "Elephant shh...", much to our consternation.

Peter keeps his gaze to the ground and this “elephant shh…” routine is repeated several times, threatening to make nervous wrecks of us. And yet no elephant emerges from the woodwork. While we do hope that we see an African elephant in flesh and blood, we also pray that none crosses our path. We have heard of freak incidents involving tourists and elephants in Mt. Kenya and elsewhere. Peter insists that elephants are very shy and gentle creatures, but our urban minds fail to comprehend this. An hour into the walk the elephants that Peter senses elude us; we are getting impatient and skittish.

It turns out that, all along, Peter has been pointing out the pint-sized “elephant shrew” scurrying on ground, perhaps into its hole, even before we could set eyes on it!

A word about the “elephant shh…rew”! The Golden-rumped Elephant shrew is a fascinating mousy animal that traces its ancestry back to nearly 100 million years. The name is a bit of a misnomer, though, as this ancient insectivorous mammal is more closely related to an elephant or a hyrax rather than a shrew, as zoologists categorize it. This discrepancy has been sought to be rectified by zoologists by giving it a local Bantu name, sengi. The Golden-rumped sengi is endemic to African scrub forests and is a highly endangered species.

What was happening here was that every time Peter spotted an elephant shrew foraging in leaf litter and indicated it to us we missed it due to our obsession with elephants. By the time we realize our mistake and train our sights on the forest floor, it is too late. The fast-footed sengi, elusive and shy, as well, gives us the slip time and again.

Arabuko-Sokoke’s threatened endemic bird species - Sokoke’s pipit, Sokoke’s Scops owl or Amani sunbird – too seem elusive as we are on an afternoon walk when bird activity is at its lowest. And we are glad that we do not cross paths with a boomslang or a green mamba. But we see few psychedelic fungi and innumerable trees and plant species. Peter shows us Antlions on the sandy stretches of Mida Creek where we end at a tree-top to get a bird’s eye-view of the forest. So though we do not see elephants, elephant shrew or rare birds, we learn about the small five, for the first time. And these are the Elephant shrew, Rhino beetle, Antlion, Leopard tortoise and Buffalo weaver. Can you guess why they are called the small five!

Savannas with their Big Five may be the quintessence of Africa, but coastal forests such as Arabuko are a reminder that the African continent was once covered in tropical forests. Arabuko-Sokoke is rich in biodiversity of endangered flora and fauna. It is a  UNESCO Biosphere Reserve - a status given for its conservation efforts brought through community involvement.
As I step out of the forest and out of the time warp, I find myself repeating this line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, quite out of context: “And here were forests as ancient as the hills…” 


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