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Field Notes: Lessons from Squirrels

March 19, 2017
After a long drive on the pothole-ridden road from Beira, I entered the park for the very first time as the sun was setting. It illuminated the thick riverine forest along the Pungwe River with a welcoming red glow. The thick trees looked like they could hide an entire herd of elephants. Troops of yellow baboons, thirty or forty strong, populated the dirt track and dashed out of the way as the car approached. I watched it all in anticipation and amazement. 
The author, Yannick Bindert, with his camera in Borneo
This is where I would be working for the next six months. 
One morning just a few days later, the head guide, Fraser, took me to the Sand Forest northwest of the park headquarters, Chitengo. The Sand Forest is a very particular habitat, characterized by its sandy soils and home to some unique species of trees—like the towering Newtonia hildebrantii—and wildlife—like the elusive Red Duiker. It cuts through the grassy plains that surround it and ends as abruptly as it begins: with a wall of trees. We were scouting a location for the very first Fly Camp along the edge of the forest, when Fraser perked up: “Do you hear that?” 
I listened and tried to discern a call that didn’t sound like the usual suspects. There was a distinct ‘chip-chip-chip’ going through the forest, which made me think we were listening to the call of bird endemic to the forest. When I asked Fraser what it was, he simply instructed me to grab my camera and go find the source of the call—as it seemed nearby. Curious and slightly puzzled, I walked into the forest following the call and careful to stay undetected. After a few minutes of looking for birds in the upper canopy, my eyes caught a flash of reddish-orange movement jumping through the branches. I held perfectly still, my eyes following it until the flash froze to look straight at me.
It uttered an alarmed ‘chip-chip-chip!’
I had found who had been making all that racket: a pair of red bush squirrels. I snapped a few photos of them and went back to report my findings. With a smile, Fraser told me I should go drop the photos off at the biodiversity database at the E.O.Wilson Biodiversity Lab in Chitengo. 
One of the red bush squirrels (Paraxerus palliatus) mentioned in the story.
The red bush squirrel (Paraxerus palliatus) may be considered unremarkable except for its coat of fur, which is a fiery red and dark grey. They are usually slightly larger than their European and North American counterparts and can be found mainly in forests along the Eastern seaboard of Africa. Although the Red Bush Squirrel is considered a species at ‘least concern’ for extinction risk by the IUCN—and is not as flashy as, say, the Green Headed Oriole endemic to Gorongosa Mountain—the few photos I had snapped were the very first photographic records of the species in the park. I felt an immense sense of pride: In my first week on the job, it felt like I had made a lasting contribution, however small, towards the betterment and preservation of Gorongosa. 
It was the beginning of what became a personal project during my time in the park: throughout my stay, I would periodically drop off photos for the database and did my best to help out the scientists working there. 
It resulted in wonderful collaborations, friendships, and experiences.
To think it all started with a pair of tiny red bush squirrels… This ‘unremarkable’ species that led me to connect with the fauna and flora of the park on many levels, and motivated me to learn about individual species and how they interact with one another. I have never been a real scientist: I got bad grades in biology, chemistry and physics in school and fell asleep during my introduction to environmental science class in college. But thanks to the squirrels, I found that I too could contribute in small yet significant ways to scientific and conservation efforts.