The mural at the entrance to Udzungwa National Park is very poor. His shoulders droop seriously, his left eye is one and a half times larger than the size of his right, only the carelessly dyed carnations in his buttonholes make it clear who is meant here. Prince Bernard, as the former head of the World Wildlife Fund, held the official opening of the park in the heart of Tanzania in 1992. This area is now protected – in the 1950s, the prince went hunting in Tanzania for elephants, leopards, buffalo and rhinos, as evidenced by the Pictures that appeared a few years ago. This is four of your palm.
Chasing the Big Five, now on camera, that’s still what a safari in Tanzania is all about. “Have you seen the Big Five” is the standard question we ask when traveling around the country. It was a traditional term for hunting: buffalo, rhinoceros, lion, leopard, and elephant were some of the most coveted hunting trophies, and the hardest to kill when hunted on foot. When you drive a Toyota Land Cruiser through a national park, the term becomes completely meaningless: hippopotamuses, giraffes and impalas are interesting.
Admittedly, when you first see elephants and buffaloes in the savannah, against the golden-red afternoon light, they look almost prehistoric – descendants of the megafauna that once roamed the entire Earth. But we want to hunt down other animals that hardly any visitor to safari sees: the gray-snout hound dog, African ground pangolin, hog hog, Udzungwa wood partridge, Sanji Mangabe monkey. We call them “The Impossible Five”.
What makes animals impossible, i.e. almost impossible to find? Among other things, they occur only in one (preferably poorly accessible) place: the so-called endemic species. Udzungwa National Park, in the heart of Tanzania, is a hotspot for such animals, including the Udzungwa Wood Partridge, which was only discovered in 1994, and the Sanje Mangabey monkey, which was discovered in 1979.
In addition, there are animals that can be found in all kinds of places in the world, but due to their way of life, they manage to make themselves untraceable, for example because they are nocturnal solitary animals that only come out of their den in the middle of the night and disappear. again before the morning light. African ground pangolins belong to this category. Considered a “spirit animal” in large parts of Tanzania, this scaly anteater is an animal with supernatural properties. We searched for it in the remote villages of the Ruha River valley west of Iringa, where people told us that pangolins can make themselves invisible. It is widely believed that pangolins, in a certain ritual, can predict the coming year for the village. A wood collector in the village of Tongamalinga said pangolins are “dreaming” in their den to see if there are people nearby. If the animal shows itself to you, then this is a personal service.
We have no illusions about the chances of seeing these animals
So we have no illusions about our chances. But finding an animal or two from the list would be great. We especially hope for the gray-nosed log dog that lives in these mountains and was only discovered in 2005. Since we saw a log dog in Blijdorp, a first in a European zoo, we’ve been sold out. Like classic mythical beasts, hose dogs appear to be made up of different types of animals: a rodent-like body, a graceful elephant trunk, antelope legs, and a kangaroo’s jumping ability.
Our chance comes during a few days visit to the Udzungwa Environmental Monitoring Center, whose primary task is the structural observation of endemic species in this area. We go this morning after the Sanji Mangabe monkeys, accompanied by the tracker Modihiri Omri, abbreviated Moh. His job is to monitor a specific family group of Sanji Mangabe monkeys every day so that their behavior can be studied. There are an estimated 1,300 of them on Earth, just in this mountain range.
After visiting the information center, we headed into the woods following Moh’s with two other young guides. We are cuddled by wet ferns, creeping plants, and air plants. Immediately begins a steep climb over logs, rocks, and unclear paths. Grenadier weaver, red-black bird, rushes away. Moh is small in stature and climbs slippery rocks twice as fast as us. Giant carob trees rise above the dense bushes, punctuated by wisps of mist and flashing waterfalls.
A grueling climb leads to a deep dry stream bed. One of the young guides misses a foot and slides down five metres, after which we cross very carefully. On the other hand, the Sanji Mangabe monkeys are suddenly all around us in the trees. They have light gray mask-like faces, where their black eyes stand out sharply. Muuh advises not to make eye contact, they see it as a sign of aggression. They don’t seem to care much about us, but they are all gone suddenly; I’m looking for another place to eat.
Moh assures us that tracking animals is hard work, wiping sweat off his face. He does this every day, from six in the morning until two in the afternoon. Fortunately, UEMC also has an important resource: wildlife cameras. Every month, 120 game cameras in the area are read and set up again to see how the animals work. The staff scrolls through thousands of photos each month, often showing only a leaf blown by the wind.
The gray snouted torso dog was discovered in such a wildlife camera in 2005. Until then, four types of proboscis dogs were known, the animal in the camera images differed. Italian biologist Francesco Rovero made a big expedition to catch one, but despite posting all kinds of traps, scientists couldn’t pull it off. He desperately asks Robin Mwakisuma, a local resident who helped the expedition as a former fisherman, for help. “I asked if I could use my traditional knowledge, I was allowed to,” Mwakisuma says the day before our trip. “I found the nest and placed a few rings of natural ropes near the ground, on the approaches to the approaches. Do you think this would work?” asked the scientists in disbelief. But when we went to have a look in the evening, we saw the fun from afar. Everyone was over the moon.” The following fall he struck again. A new type of hose dog was first discovered 120 years ago. The locals have never seen the animal. The torso dog with a gray snout turned out to be gigantic, 25 percent heavier than other known species. A scientific success, but not for the two captive dogs of the proboscis, who turned out to be a married couple: like Romeo and Juliet, they were killed together, to be preserved as specimens in nature museums.
For a chance to see the hose dogs, we drive to another part of the park for a trip to the 270-meter Sanji Waterfall. This is the most touristy route in the park, but happily, Paul Baharia, one of the young guides, tells us he saw a gray-nosed proboscis here last week, just on the trail. Along the way there are name signs on the trees of the big forest: Sterculia quinqueloba, Parkia filicoidea. We fix our eyes on the forest floor strewn with dead leaves. Water hose dogs make their nests in shallow pits under mounds of leaves. We very much hope to get a speedy ghost in red, black and gray.
Suddenly Paul, leading the way, signaled us to be quiet. We sneak up close and look at the bush with his pointing hand. We only see a thick brush-tail striped back disappearing from view: a zebra mongoose. Really lovely little predator.
Moments later, Paul points to the place where the dog saw the gray-nosed torso flash last week. Like anyone who has seen the animal, he confirms how fast it is. This may be the reason for its discovery so late, when the animal must have lived here millions of years ago, before humans came to this forest. Film dogs belong to the group of ancient African mammals Afrotheria, along with elephants, porpoises, rock badgers, and manatees, among others. Since the gray-snouted torso dog lives only in Udzungwas, an ecological catastrophe could be enough to wipe out the species for good. In addition to animals, many people also depend on the region: the water reservoirs in the mountains are the lifeblood of a large and drier region around.
At the end of the day, we’ve located one impossible animal on our list, the Mangabey monkey. Who knows how many stump dogs, partridges, pangolins, and pigskins have heard, smelled, or watched us. American Peter Matthiessen published the worldwide bestseller in 1978 snow leopard. He wrote that everyone asked him about his book: “Have you seen a snow leopard?” His answer was always, “No! Isn’t that cool?”
With each prediction fulfilled, some spells of the unknown disappear. But we also realize that the magic of invisible animals is subject to one important condition: they must remain.