The Heart Of Darkness

For time interminable the word “Congo” has inspired thoughts of cannibal filled forests, primeval beasts and deadly plagues.  Even after man began his never ending quest to conquer the seas West Africa remained a destination for only the bravest and in some cases the most wretched of souls. For more than 400 hundred years slave captains came to the coasts of West Africa to ply their grim trade. Along with their human cargo they spread throughout the world lurid tales of an impenetrable jungle, never ending rivers and a giant, man-like beast.  Long after David Livingston was so famously greeted by H.M Stanley the Congo remained feared and enigmatic.

Only in the last half century have some of the mysteries been unraveled. The Congo is the second largest rainforest on earth and is home to millions of native peoples, 11,000 plant species, 450 mammal species, 1,150 bird species, 500 reptile and amphibian species and an untold number of insect species. The Congo River does indeed have an end, you simply have to travel 2,920 miles to reach it. The giant man-like beast has been revealed to be a wondrous creature. The Gorilla is a family oriented vegetarian, far from the fearsome beast that haunted nightmares.

Everyday modern biologists are making exciting new discoveries in the Congo; from previously unknown populations of western lowland gorillas to incredible new species of beetles, frogs and monkeys. Time spent in the Congo may be full of discovery but its no “walk in the park”. Some parts of the basin receive more than ten feet of rain annually.  Remember those 11,000 species of plants that can be found in the Congo? In many places the vegetation is so thick that paths must be cleared daily by machete and it can take a day of walking to cover a couple of miles.  I hope you don’t mind our sticky Cincinnati summers if you’re going to the Congo. While no one knows exactly how many species of insects live in the Congo, everyone who’s been there agrees a lot of them are mosquitoes.

The Cincinnati Zoo’s animal collection has but a few species from the Congo but they can be viewed without enduring more hardships than a contestant on Survivor. The Okapi; the only living relative of the Giraffe, The Rhinoceros viper; among the most beautiful and feared snakes in the world, the Congo peafowl; a bird so rare it was first described in 1936, the Bonobo; a species of great ape with which we share 98% of our DNA, the aforementioned Gorilla and of course insects.  What would any zoo collection be without insects? We are fortunate o display several species of insects from the Congo including Emperor scorpions, Giant African millipedes, Magnificent Flower beetles, Taxi-cab beetles, Yellow-bellied beetles, and both Red-eyed and White-eyed assassin bugs.

Unfortunately, fear no longer protects these living jewels. Commercial logging, clearing of the land for agriculture and the bushmeat crisis threaten the animal life while political instability and civil war has displaced forest peoples and devastated entire cultures.

All is not lost. Organizations like our own Cincinnati Zoo, the Wildlife Conservation Society, The National Geographic Society and UNESCO are working to preserve the Congo forest, its people and its animals. Visit the zoo and get to know some of our Congolese residents.

Winton Ray / Insectarium Head Keeper