Ekkie’s Garden: A German Biologist’s Eyes To See Ivory Coast.

“Every now and again, during our sojourns in West Africa,  one encounters individuals providing another facet view.  A facet we would never see if left to our own speculations. This enlightenment revolutionizes how we see this place forever.” (Andy Rayner)

There was a “Forêt Classé” (protected forest) near the village of Bébou, South of Abengourou, in Ivory Coast.  When the Mazan River rose too high, flooding over the bridge on the road to Bébou, we had to buypass the Mazan River by taking a path through this Mazan protected forest.

The Forest has an official name which I have long since forgotten. However, locals all refer to this forest as “Ekkie’s Garden”

We knew a German Biologist who had moved to Abengourou region to work in this protected forest as a young man, long before we arrived in 1995. Ekkie had been a local fixture in the Abengourou region for decades when we met him.  I’m not even certain what his real name was now. However, the locals all refereed to this protected forest as “Ekkie’s Garden”.

The story of the locals is that Ekkie knew every tree, stream, dip and animal hotspot of this forest, because he basically lived and slept out there in the woods for his first two years in the country. They said he rarely turning up at his cement village house in the village of Aprompranu, at the SODEFOR (Société de Développement Des Forêts) base located there.

Ekkie eventually married a local girl, spending most of his life in Abengourou area of Ivory Coast. I have long since lost touch with Ekkie after the coup in Ivory Coast in Christmas 1999 and our return to Canada in 2000. I was in Ivory Coast in November 2004 when thousands of French people were being evacuated, because they were being targeted,  and the country was locked down.

At that time I was told Ekie went back to Germany some months before. I have no idea if he ever returned to his private residence in Abengourou or not.

Ekkie took Milton Clark and I on a tour of the forest one day. Giving is a biologists eyes on the forest.

Three of of stood inside a Huge fig tree. He found it in his wanderings over the years.I did not know that all fig trees are eventually hollow.  They are a parasitic tree that grow  on top of another tree from the top down. They send roods down the tree into the ground, eventually encasing the host tree like a shell,  and once  encased, the original tree dies, and eventually rots out  over time. So all fig trees, in time are hollow. Who would have know? I’m a big man, Ekkie and Milton are even taller still. Ekkie explained all this as we stood inside a huge hollow Fig tree .

We saw forest elephants watering holes, beaten down paths where small herds of fores elephants passed though, places where butterflies hang out. Observation towers hidden in the forest.

He pointed out all the wild plants that did not belong here in this forest of Ivory Coast. Transferred here via centuries of cargo trade from countries in Asia, Indonesia, and South America. The seeds transported in the sacks of other food products such as rice.

We entered a huge clearing in the forest carpeted eight feet thick with vines and dozens of plant species.  Eight feet of deep, impregnable, impassable growth, smothering everything underneath it.

Ekkie points at this blanket of growth and says something like this, as I can best recall it,

“Not a single plant in this clearing should be here. Every single one of these plants are invasive species transported here from other tropical countries around the world.

(Taking plants in his hand) This plant is from Asian, this vine is Indonesian in origin, this plant is South American, and they shouldn’t be here. This is the problem. I believe in sustainable logging, it works. These poor local people should benefit from their local natural resources, harvested in a sustainable way. However, when the trees are cut down, this carpet of foreign growth takes over, making it impossible for new indigenous trees to survive. They can not survive long enough to push through this dense carpet and reach light, so they die. These plants killed this forests ability to regenerate itself.”

Wow. Ekkie gave me eyes to see a fuller reality of what was happening in a forest. A perspective people like us do not usually get to understand.

Ekki’s Garden has many wild animals, monkeys, and we have seen forest elephants out there, that pass back and forth over the border with Ghana. Poaching still occurs.

He was telling us about the massive BONGO that lived here. I had never heard of a Bongo, and of course I looked up information about bongos after this conversation. They are an unusually large red Antelope with white stripes. These Bongos are only indigenous to two places in Africa. A western Bongo lived in the coastal forests of west Africa, where it was believed the only remaining ones were in our forests South of Abengourou, in Ivory Coast. Ekkie said he thought the Bongo’s were already extinct here.

After that trip, I began asking people in the villages about them, and Emmanuel in Adjamé, on the SE side of the Komoué River told me the Attie people call them “Bwuflé”. He said he used to set head snares for Bongo’s along the rivers and streams when he was young. He said that Bongos were almost the size of a cow.  He seemed to think they were still around at that time. (1996-1997) though it had been a decade since he had seen one.

Unfortunately, few tourists ever actually came to see these places in the Abengourou region. Therefore “Ekkie’s Garden”  will probably remain his very own. The forests of this area were not developed in any way, there was not any lodging or guide system in place, so tourists went elsewhere to other official national parks. Leaving protected forests like “Ekkie’s Garden” for to the odd researcher who comes,  and creating a job for the men trying to stop poaching in them, many of whom were former poachers and expert animal trackers themselves, and now trained researchers.

Ekkie had dozens of routes marked on a map that he showed us. Trail lines all over the forest in various locations, to be followed by these local poachers turned researchers. At pre-determined times, the local men would walk one of these routes in, one day, recording everything they saw with their eyes, noting that on a research form. Foot prints, fur, scat, scrapping, feeding signs, bird sightings, rats, squirrels, forest snails, crocodiles, elephants, antelope. Any sign that a living animal was active in the forest was noted.  At the end of the trail that day, the researchers would sleep in the bush for the night. The next day they would return on the same trail, but this time, recording everything they heard and how often. This enabled Biologists to get a record of what was living out there, and in what density they might be  (Mapping the biodiversity).

“Travel is the saddest of pleasures, it gave me eyes” (Paul Theroux. Picture Palace)

Ekkie enabled us to see the forests we traversed with new eyes. We often got stuck to seeing this place through PEOPLE – probing their culture, language, teaching, history, and training them.  Now we had a glimpse of this PLACE  through a Biologists eyes too. Just made Ivory Coast that much richer to us.

This experience really changed my village trips. The village destination was no longer all there was to our bush trips. it. I learned to enjoy the journey out to the village also.

Thank you Ekkie, where ever you are,  for this gift.

 

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