One early morning in 2003, I was driving on a new highway that cut through Senegal’s Niokolo Koba National Park, the largest savannah park in West Africa. Roughly 10,000 square kilometers, Niokolo is about the size of the entire country of The Gambia and supports myriad large mammal species, including elephant, roan antelope, derby eland, lion, buffalo and a small population of wild chimpanzees.
As I pulled out of a deep curve in the road, I was confronted with a large motionless form lying in the middle of the pavement. At first glance I thought it was a young hippopotamus. Putting on the brakes, I pulled off the road. Puzzled as to how it got to this location I got out of the car and went to inspect. I was wrong….it wasn’t a hippo at all but the rare elusive aardvark, a nocturnal species that I had never had the fortune to see in nature. I tied a rope around the adolescent’s fat stubby leg and pulled him off the road. What a tragic unnecessary loss. He must have been hit by a large truck not less than two hours earlier probably attempting to cross before sunrise.
Roadkills are but one of the multitude of threats to the future of Niokolo Koba confronting the Senegal Office of National Parks. The immense size of the park makes its protection problematic, both financially and in terms of human resources. Poaching remains endemic, accompanied by uncontrolled fire and other forms of habitat degradation. But the creation of a new superhighway, finished in 1994 and bisecting the park, posed an additional risk to wild animals. Controlling the speed of traffic in these remote uninhabited areas was difficult if not impossible for police or park guards. I remember discussing the dead aardvark with Souleye Ndiaye, now the director of the National Parks of Senegal, in 2003 when we worked together on the survey of Senegal chimpanzees. At the time, we talked about speed bumps with accompanying signboards as a deterrent to excessive speeds in the park. Nearly 10 years later, it is comforting to know that this protective effort has now been implemented, thanks to Friends of Animals.
Recently, while driving through the park I nearly had whiplash when I was startled to hit one speed bump and then another, causing me to immediately reduce my speed. With funding from Friends of Animals, the National Park Office has constructed 10 speed bumps in the areas defined as high risk for animal crossing. The Senegal National Agency has already constructed four more and will be constructing another six before completion of the project.
My close encounter with the speed bumps got me thinking about my first visit to Niokolo Koba in late 1977, soon after I arrived in The Gambia. Taking advantage of what I thought was to be a brief stay I made a side trip to the park. As excited as I was to do so, my memories are somewhat blurred by the onset of my first fevered bout with malaria.
Five years later and still living in The Gambia, I found myself on the road to Niokolo again. This time I was traveling with my field assistant to an area of the country located just south of the park. The shortest and virtually only route to get us there was the road that passed through the park which was, at that time, more like a narrow path barely wide enough for one vehicle. I had been warned that the trip was long and arduous and to make sure that I carried at least 20 liters of water in case I had a breakdown on the remote road. It could be hours or days before another vehicle would pass. We spent the previous night in Tambacounda, a town of unbelievable suffocating heat, located to the north of Niokolo. Although I am not an early riser, the intense heat made sleeping difficult and facilitated waking up early. We needed a head start on the 210 kilometer trek which could easily take as long as 10-12 hours during the dry season and even days during the rainy season.
I was the driver and Boiro was the navigator. We traveled in my little mustard colored two-seater Suzuki jeep, a car small and light enough to come out of a box of cracker jacks. It was the first vehicle I owned and I loved it. The first 100 kilometers was a reasonable dirt road but nothing particularly exciting. It fit with my naïve misconception of Niokolo, which was one of boring repeated scenes of dry plateaus with sparse tree coverage. After a small town called Dienoundiala there was a dramatic change in the scenery and also in the condition of the road. We were now on a very narrow winding dirt path that submitted completely to the form and demands of the natural habitat and terrain. We passed through tall savanna grass, crossed open plateaus, climbed up and down forested hills, waddled across pebbled streams and drove alongside larger rivers trimmed with thick riverine gallery forest. It was often quite dark, even in the daytime, when we drove through pockets of gallery forest in which thick lianas draped across the path formed a closed canopy above us.
I wish I could find the detailed checklist of species we saw on that first trip. My memory reports groups of oribi, gazelles, harnessed antelope, various duikers and even waterbuck as common sightings. Although we did not see chimpanzees, green monkeys, patas monkeys and the Guinea baboon were plentiful. Each time we stopped the car to look around we saw lion tracks. The car crept slowly and blindly through high grass twice the height of the car. Boiro suddenly motioned to my left while fearfully stuttering that I should go faster. Looking in the direction of his pointed finger I was shocked to find myself side by side with a buffalo that easily stood higher than, and most assuredly outweighed, my little Suzuki. I held by breath as we inched past him. He must have been having a good day because he ambled away without event, seemingly unsurprised by our presence.
As night fell, the stage and actors changed. After nearly every turn of the road we were presented with small mammals like genets, civets and a constant stream of numerous mongoose species. On more than one occasion the long legged serval cat elegantly crossed our path. We could hear hyenas moaning and see the nocturnal bush babies jumping from tree to tree. A couple hours after dusk, I stopped to stretch and take a short jaunt not far from the car. Turning back I saw Boiro standing near the car frantically waving at me to get my attention. Not understanding he was warning me of danger I waved back and kept walking backwards. When I finally turned I found myself face to face, not more than 5 meters, from a herd of nine immense, powerfully built antelopes. Although the night was already dark, shards of light from the rising moon filtered through the trees providing sufficient backlight to illuminate a vision that remains fresh in my mind 30 years later. A group of majestic horse-size animals, the Roan Antelopes, they were all standing motionless staring at me. I don’t know for how long I stood there with my neck bent back so as to look up at them but eventually I quietly backed away and then ran to the car. This was the closing image of our memorable trip, one with all the romance and unknown adventure that only nature has to give.
Five vehicles and 30 years later I continue to be a frequent traveler to this area. As would be expected, three decades have brought many changes. I have fortunately upgraded my mode of transport from a Suzuki jeep to a Toyota Prado. And the romantic meandering path with exciting hairpin curves has been replaced by the new super highway linking one town to the next. Sadly, the condition of the park and its inhabitants has not followed this same forward trend. If anything, they have suffered the passage of time as victims of our progress.