By Piotr Naskrecki
Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique — Sitting on the dusty floor of a makeshift laboratory tent Harith Farooq carefully folded a piece of fine, steel mesh into a foot-long cylinder, then weaved in a stretch of a thick wire along its edge, and finally carefully attached a neck of an empty water bottle to one of the ends. He looked at the contraption in his hands with deep concentration. “Something is still missing”, you could almost hear him think, “but what? A battery? A fork? Some gasoline, perhaps?” His gaze shifted to a stack of paper mousetraps covered with thick, sticky glue, the kind that was meant to immobilize any animal unlucky enough to step onto it. “Bingo!” – Harith picked one up and squeezed it into the tubular apparatus. “The perfect leezard trap”, he announced proudly.
For the last few days Harith, a Mozambican scientist from the University of Lúrio in Pemba and his colleague MO Roedel from Berlin, two herpetologists participating in a biodiversity survey of the Cheringoma Plateau in Gorongosa, had been trying to catch some of the many lizards found in the Nhagutua Gorge, the site of our first camp. Alas, the sneaky reptiles proved to be extremely difficult to catch by hand, which prompted Harith to come up with an alternative solution. As the survey progressed his traps kept growing larger and more complex, combining both natural materials (rocks, sticks, bark) and man-made objects – a plastic sheet, twine, wire and, of course, steadily increasing amounts of glue. The one thing that they all had in common was their total inability to capture even a single reptile.
The strangest part was that Harith was incredibly good at catching reptiles, or any other organisms, without the need for additional accessories. I had never seen anybody catching, with their bare hands, a giant centipede, a solifugid, or a deadly spitting cobra, but Harith caught them all, while carrying a casual conversation. In the end, during the Cheringoma survey he and MO collected 47 species of lizards and snakes, effectively quadrupling the number of reptiles known from Gorongosa National Park.
Within a three-week period in Gorongosa our team of biologists was able to document the presence of all nine families of lizards that occur in southern Africa. Among them were some real gems, including an entirely blind, subterranean lizard, the Swynnerton’s amphisbaenian (Chrindia swynnertoni). These tiny reptiles, known only from a handful of specimens recorded around Gorongosa, spend their entire life underground, leading a lifestyle remarkably similar to that of earthworms, and feeding on termites and ant larvae.
On the opposite end of the lizard spectrum, two species of giant monitors (Varanus) turned out to be quite common on the Cheringoma Plateau. One day Harith walked into the camp carrying a live Rock monitor (V. albigularis) the size of a goat, which he had captured by throwing himself on top of the gargantuan animal, barely overpowering it with the help of two other people. The reptile’s snout was still covered with blood of the last victim, probably a bird or a small child, by the looks of it, and gazing into the monitor’s eyes made me realize how grateful I was that our species appeared long after the era of dinosaurs had passed. We released the beautiful creature after examining it for the presence of external parasites, which the lizard had none, proving its excellent health condition.
Almost every day our herpetological team, which also included a Mozambican student Francisco Domingos, recorded something new and exciting. Often it was a tiny brown frog that differed from all other frogs by the presence of a slightly enlarged corner of the left supraocular cuticular fold, which was enough to make our herpetologists prance and giggle with excitement like little girls. But at other times it was a vine snake that could kill you with a half a drop of its venom, or a spiny rock lizard that defends itself by squeezing into rock crevices and inflating its body like a balloon. The survey found charismatic chameleons, among them the famed pygmy chameleon of Mount Gorongosa, unquestionably the cutest lizard in Mozambique, and blindingly fast lacertid lizards with flame orange tails, which looked like tiny thunderbolts zipping across the ground.
The survey officially ended yesterday, and Harith is on the way back to Pemba. Data collected by him and the rest of the herpetological team will be added to the ever-growing Gorongosa biodiversity database, a powerful tool that helps manage the restoration efforts in the park. I was sorry to see the members of the team depart, but having witnessed Harith handle cobras and puff adders as if they were harmless puppies I was relieved to see him leave the park, still alive and well. All things considered, a gash in his finger, courtesy of a pouched rat, followed by a nip from a giant scorpion hardly count as injuries.
Piotr (Peter) Naskrecki is a Polish-born entomologist, photographer and author, currently at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University (Cambridge, MA, USA.). He received his M. Sc. degree in Zoology from the A. Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland (1990), and a Ph.D. in Entomology from the University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT (2000). Between 2002 and 2009 Piotr served as Director of the Invertebrate Diversity Initiative at the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International, Washington, D.C. His research focuses on the evolution of katydids and related insects, and the theory and practice of nature conservation. Visit his website for more information.