Home Africa Surviving an encounter with Congo’s adultery tree

Surviving an encounter with Congo’s adultery tree

by Catherine Marshall

Deep in Africa’s Congo Basin lives a species of ant willing to murder passers-by (and adulterous wives) in exchange for board and lodging.


I was once mistaken for an elephant, and punished by a vengeful adultery tree. On a seething afternoon in sub-equatorial Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo, guide Alon Cassidy led me along a path beneath the forest canopy. Behind us, African Parks eco-monitor Dieudonne Bocka flashed his eyes and pricked his ears in anticipation of danger: elephants, buffalos, hyenas. We were headed for the bai – an exposed saltpan – and were hopeful of spotting a western lowland gorilla, or perhaps even a chimpanzee. Colobus monkeys hooted and flashed their flokati rug tails as they leapt between cecropia canopies. But danger lay ahead, in the form of the innocuous-looking, passionflower-blossomed barteria fitulosa tree. The elephants give this otherwise tasty specimen a wide berth, Alon said, in an effort to avoid an aggressive tetraponera ant species that lives in its hollows.

“In return for housing these ants, as well as providing sweet sap and a little nymph garden for the ants to eat, the tree gets very good protection,” he said. “These ants can sting very, very painfully.”

Barteria fitulosa ant Congo

This dangerous ant species lives in the hollows of the barteria fitulosa tree. Photo: Catherine Marshall.

Killer ants

In fact their bite can kill, if administered in sufficient doses: if you walk beneath the tree, the ants will rain down upon your head like tiny drops of acid; in some parts of equatorial Africa, adulterous wives are tied to the tree, it’s said, as punishment for their misdeeds. Even the elephant’s tough hide isn’t immune to its sting; who knew the mightiest of beasts could be warned off by a barely perceptible insect?

And it’s not only living beings they set out to terrorise: anything foreign will be savaged by these tiny assassins. Demonstrating the ants’ rabidity, Alon smeared sweat from his brow – a ‘threatening’ smell – onto a leaf and placed it on the barteria branch; instantly an army of black ants appeared from nowhere and stormed the hapless leaf, tearing into it with alarming brutality.

A pain like no other

Continuing our walk, I made sure to follow closely behind Alon. But as I skirted the tree, shrinking my body away from it as I imagined an elephant might do, I felt a god-almighty pain on my index finger. It was being lanced with a thousand flaming daggers, it seemed. An ant had flung itself in a kamikaze rage from the tree onto my apparently threatening hand, and had embedded its mandibles in my flesh. It took a few strident swipes from Dieudonne to convince the creature to relinquish its grip.

“The other name for this route is the barteria roulette,” Alon translated for me from Dieudonne’s French.

The pain lasted days. I imagined the bite marks seared into my skin by the minuscule, acid-tipped teeth of an ant willing to murder in exchange for food and rent. Perhaps it was the suffusion of equatorial sweat gushing from my pores that had alerted the ants to the fact there was a foreigner in their midst. Or perhaps they’d simply assumed I was an elephant passing by, and that my finger was an unusually small trunk, poised to snatch a leaf off the barteria fitulosa tree. TTW

Catherine Marshall was a guest of The Classic Safari Company. Read more about African Parks and their work at Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo. 

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