In the June 2013 issue, Béla Nagy writes about his adventures collecting in Africa. Two of the tougher places to collect were Sudan and Zambia, and he recalls his experiences there.
By Béla Nagy
Sudan: The Only Thing You Need Is Patience
Many years ago, large parts of Africa were what people would call terra incognita, unknown land. Today, much of the land is well known, but one of the few exceptions is the relatively unexplored Nuba Mountains region of Sudan.
It is prudent to always pay attention to the counsel of those who have been in Africa, and one common piece of advice is to allow plenty of time and exercise patience. This is especially important in Sudan.
After my arrival in that country for a collecting trip in 2010, the local agency I was dealing with began the complicated administrative tasks to provide us with the necessary permits. In the end, some members of our group were denied. We had also not been granted permission to visit some areas where there was potential for Nothobranchius habitats. Therefore, we had to take a risk and visit those regions without permits. We felt very lucky because, most of the time, we were allowed to pass through the countless military checkpoints smoothly and quickly and reach our planned destinations. This may have also been due to our local driver, who prayed to the celestial beings before each control point.
Sudan is vast, and one should allow plenty of time to get from one place to another. The poor road conditions seem to conspire against you in being able to reach the destination. We headed to the breathtakingly beautiful Nuba Mountains. Sudan achieved independence only in 1956, but since then, flirtations with democracy and military coups have been regular features of the Sudanese political landscape. Color-coded markings along the roads indicate the degree of risk of land mines. Few roads traverse these mountains, and many villages are accessible only by ancient footpaths or tracks. The absence of suitable accommodation in the Nuba Mountains made our tents a worthwhile investment. Although spent cartridges and scorpions were our standard companions wherever we pitched camp, we did not feel unsafe while traveling around the country.
We collected N. virgatus and N. nubaensis at several locations. The records of the localities of Nothobranchius species in central Sudan today indicate disjunctive and sporadic distributions of the species. Most of the known locations are in the foothills of the Nuba Mountains and have, presently, no obvious links. However, the Greek historian Herodotus noted that the 100 days of annual Nile floods occurred at the time of the summer solstice when no rain fell in Egypt, and he correctly interpreted the cause as heavy precipitation in the headwaters region of the Nile during that time of year. The highly fluctuating water levels of the Nile and the earlier presence of the ancient mega-lake provided more continuous and permanent connections between the presently known populations of Nothobranchius species in that area.
At the end of the day, the trip had been safe and collecting was a success, but it was at a time just before the planned elections in the country. A few months later, a new state was born when Southern Sudan reached independence after 21 years of bloody infighting. Tens of thousands of people had fled the violence.
Even after the countries separated, the security situation remained very unstable around the new boundary between the two parts of the former Sudan. Fighting, aerial bombing, and gunfire were frequently reported from the region along the new border and from the vicinity of Kadugli. We stayed in that city overnight and collected one population of Nothobranchius just outside of the city. A considerable part of our route led us in close proximity to the new border. Hopefully, the situation will soon be stabilized and allow further field trips into the region.
Discoveries in the Footsteps of Livingstone: Zambia
Zambia is a country one dreams about when thinking of visiting Africa—mesmerizing landscapes encompassing the very best of African wilderness, an astonishing diversity of wildlife, and people with genuine friendliness and warmth. Zambia is a landlocked country at the northern edge of the region referred to as Southern Africa, at quite some distance from both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Most of the country is part of the high undulating plateau that forms the backbone of the African continent. Several Nothobranchius habitats are known from Zambia, among others N. symoensi, a true beauty, which we have found at five localities.
In the foyer of the British Royal Geographical Society in London are some very interesting relics that greet the visitor. In the elegantly furnished lobby is a time-worn, carefully guarded treasure—the cap worn by Dr. David Livingstone when he traveled in the heart of Africa. The cap seems to embody the courage, tenacity, and determination of the original wearer. Livingstone was the pre-eminent missionary explorer of the Victorian era who criss-crossed Africa between 1841 and 1873, including much of what is now known as Zambia.
The area around Lake Mweru, which Livingstone discovered, was one of the major objectives on our collecting trip to Zambia in 2012. The Lushiba Marsh at the northern end of the lake had not been extensively investigated and, as Nothobranchius species are known from other drainage systems in the vicinity, it seemed likely to me that we might find a Nothobranchius species inhabiting the Lushiba Marsh. The drainage system in this particular area has been isolated from that of adjacent regions for a long time, so we speculated that any Nothobranchius inhabiting the marsh might well constitute an unknown species. However, the marsh is relatively difficult to access, and that is probably the reason for the lack of extensive ichthyological surveys in the area. It took quite some time for us to reach Chienge, a village at the edge of the Lushiba Marsh, but our efforts were quickly rewarded when the first site we stopped at yielded a new species of Nothobranchius.
We spent the evening at a new guesthouse in Chienge, with splendid views of Lake Mweru. The new state of the guesthouse did not mean it was of perfect quality, and there was no running water for the ablution facilities. On the other hand, we had delicious dinner prepared from the catch of the day from the lake. This wonderful dinner was in strong contrast to the meals of the previous few days that consisted almost exclusively of fritas, a kind of local fried cake that we could usually buy on the roadside. While fritas were quite tasty, the main problem was that quite a bit of sand found its way into the ingredients, and we had to eat them carefully. The peaceful dinner was also in contrast to the night we spent at another guesthouse the previous day, where the somewhat drunken local owner wanted to force us to go with him to the local night club, which we could only avoid after a lot of negotiation.
Discovering new fish species frequently requires dedication, and there may be many difficulties that one has to overcome, but the rewards make it all worthwhile.