I went off to do some limited hunting and gathering in the buffer zone myself, collecting beetles just beyond the park along a narrow jeep trail. No matter how the needs of humans, great apes, and monkeys are resolved the overwhelming majority of animal life in the tropics will always have six legs.
Beetles are the most diverse group; my vials filled with forms resembling everything from polished metal to lichen-splotched bark. Ants and termites are the most abundant; together their small bodies outweigh all the big mammals combined.
Few animals are able to digest cellulose, the tough structural tissue of plants. Termites can. Aided by specialized microbes that live in their guts, they turn it into carbohydrates.
Upon reaching maturity, many species grow wings to take to the air in a mating flight, a stage during which they are known as alates. Those wings soon detach, leaving pairs of termites scattered throughout the woodland to found new colonies.
A massive flight of alates surrounded me all through the morning. Shrikes and the glossy black birds called drongos fluttered in pursuit. I saw a water mongoose, a golden cat, and then chimpanzees feasting on alates as they drifted down onto the forest floor. Fresh sign said a leopard had been the same. The wealth of the forest that had been locked into wood was being distributed to one and all in mist of gossamer wings.
Nouabalé-Ndoki does not conform to many of the usual romantic notions about nature, I thought as I made my way along another path the next morning. It is simply nature unto itself – real wilderness: ancient, potent, and largely unfathomed.
At any moment some part of it might transform me from a normal human, thinking relatively normal thoughts, into a crazed bundle of mindless reflexes and fear; I knew that now. I would keep pressing ahead into the green embrace anyway, because…because, to be honest, I am as much afraid of being a quitter as I am of anything else. But most of all because of the possibility that, in a few more steps, I would once again be transformed by wonder instead.