Lomami’s Wild West

From the earliest colonial era through the present, Balanga West has always been too far away to matter.

in a Balanga West classroom
A classroom as it now is in Balanga West.

Balanga West is the one hole in the map of our own inventories of 2007-2009. Not because we thought the Balanga West forest was unimportant, it was just too hard to get there.

TL2_block_coverage_in 2008
When we mapped the density of our walked-inventory coverage over the Lomami forest, a hole remained in the Balanga West zone.

Our supplies came from nearest big towns of Kindu and Opala. Balanga West is the most isolated zone– the farthest point from both north and south.

C. Current supply routes and colonial plans
The area of Balanga West is far from both of our supply routes. It’s southern town of Bene Kamba dates from the 19th century. The yellow dotted lines mark the foot paths that the Belgians intended to turn into roads, but independance interrupted operations.

It was the Arabs, before the Belgian colony, who penetrated Balanga West. Elephants were then numerous west of the Lomami.

A. grainy picture of ivory caravan
A 19th century photograph of an ivory caravan in the Belgian Congo.

In the 19th century their supply lines carried ivory east to Zanzibar. Long foot caravans wound through the forests, stopping at the rest point, Bene Kamba, a village that still exists in Balanga West.

B. 1894 map of TL2 region
The village of Bene Kamba on a section of an 1894 map which showed the Congo Free State. The approximate locations of Opala and Kindu are shown although they did not then exist.

Chef Bene Kamba
The chief of Bene Kamba in his village as it is today — not so different from a 120 years ago.

Later, in the first half of the 20th century, the Belgians multiplied rubber and palm oil plantations throughout the most arable of the colonial lands. Balanga West had good soil for agriculture, but how to get anything to market? The obvious route would be the Lomami River except it is not a waterway for commercial cargo. Its long meanders double fuel consumption and at low water there are sand bars and rapids to negotiate.

1943_Belgian Congo transportation map
This 1943 map indicates that the Lomami was not a commercial transport river.

Roads were the other option. Roads from the Lomami to the Lualaba/Congo. The Belgians were working on these, but with independence in 1960 the engineers and wages left (yellow dotted lines on map above).

The roads leave much to be desired
Even roads on the east side of the Lomami are now in poor shape; most are only used by bicycles and motorbikes.

Balanga West became more and more isolated. People left to settle nearer towns. Only the most attached to the land remained.

salt for last resident à Kandolo
This old man is the last resident in the village of Kandolo in Balanga West. Olivier of TL2 is here leaving him with some salt.

The schools were no longer funded, there was no phone coverage, no medical care and there was no market where the people from Balanga West could sell goods and earn cash.

school and students in Yalombe
Children still study although no state money comes into the school and teachers are only paid – in kind – by parents.

Our first contact with people from Balanga West was on the foot path connecting west to east. People from Balanga West carried out huge packs of bushmeat to sell in the east.

carrying bushmeat load from west to east
This Mulanga youth is carrying bushmeat from Balanga West (Kakongo) to the road head in Balanga East.

This was their only source of income. In 2008 we sent a socio economic team to evaluate the situation.

Dino's tent in Balang West village
One of our team’s tents at the end of this Balanga West village.

The Balanga West reputation was this: violent, stubborn, proud. Unfortunately isolation can lead to easy delusion, particularly when there is someone with charisma and a good reason to want to mislead his neighbors.

Col Thoms, prison escapee, murderer, rapist and elephant poacher, is a mulanga from Balanga West. After escaping from the high-security prison, Ossio, he moved to the remaining elephant forest, north of Balanga West, in the territory of the Mbole.

Spy glasses were used to take this video as Thoms refused any cameras during his discussion with the governor’s representatives. He agreed to no longer fight.

He was chased back to Balanga West not for the poaching, rape, torture and murder he committed among the Mbole, but rather because he interrupted commercial traffic on the Lualaba/Congo choking commerce in Kindu. Thoms returned to his home forest and wasted no time exciting the Balanga youth into a militia. He hid amongst them.

three young men from Balanga West
Youth of Balanga West…

His message to the most gullible of the youth was “The Congolese State and TL2-Lukuru will bring the Park here. They want the Park to grow. They will chase us from our forest. It is our duty to destroy them.” Magic would protect them. Grigri would deflect the bullets.

2. blood on the ground
Blood on the ground after a shoot-out between military and Thoms’s militia.

What followed was bloodshed. Thoms set a trap for our dugout, but we had prior knowledge and the dugout was filled with military.

Military head toward Balanga West after village attack
Military in dugouts head downriver towards Balanga West.

The number dead will never be known. 2016 was a hard year: Thoms militia attacked our camp Katopa. The buildings and 40 houses in the adjacent village were burned to the ground. It was only because of one brave woman that we escaped a massacre. In Kakongo, there was rape and pillage. In August 2016, through the efforts of our project, ICCN and the government, a truce was established.

Dancing their surrender
Our camp in Bafundo was used for the ceremony when 136 of Thoms’s militia crossed to the east to turn in their weapons and surrender.

One hundred and thirty-six militia fighters walked out from Balanga West. They laid down 23 army rifles with chargers and bullets. They met with the general of the 33rd regiment. They danced. Thoms did not come. He knew he was a wanted man.

rifles turned in
Their rifles and chargers were turned in, at our camp, at night.

The first trip into Balanga West after the cessation of hostilities included a strong government delegation. They spoke with Thoms, they said the park would not grow, they said the Balanga West peoples could hunt in their own forests.

5. Machozi donne noms des animaux en Kilanga
Machozi, Thoms’s sister, now helps Olivier with outreach in Balanga West.

Our steps are still tentative but positive. We work with Thoms’s sister, Machozi. Others in his family have reached out including those that were leaders in the militias.

Younger brother Thoms, Pharaon, gives gift of bananas
Thoms’s brother, Pharaon, gives Olivier a gift of bananas.

Our goal: to bring the Balanga to manage their own forest. Create a community-controlled protected area, one that will help the communities to refuse outside hunters who now set 100s of traps at a time.

Aid for school children_Ngombe village
Representatives of the parents accept school materials for their children.

But the Balanga are still very cautious. They are not all convinced that we don’t want to expand the park and move them out. Why else would we be there? It is critical to show good intentions.

Balanga West welcomes the “jeton” system. It gives them the possibility to legally take their bushmeat across the park without being accused of hunting in the park.

projet jeton Kakongo
Bushmeat is identified and counted, then the person carrying it is given a voucher, or “jeton”, that he will present when the meat is again counted on the east side of the park.

But how do we show a true sense of collaboration, a readiness to bring Balanga West into the larger society. The Balanga West kept their elementary school running despite great odds. If we can help them build real school buildings and get the school re-registered with the state – it would be a true collaboration.

the 6th grade at Yalombe
Sixth grade class in Yalombe, Balanga West.

It would be done with the help of the parents and chiefs. Someone has already generously proposed 20,000 dollars to build a proper elementary school in Yalombe, Balanga West if we can raise the matching funds. We estimate the total cost to be 36,000 for 6 classrooms and a director’s office. This includes moving metal roofing first by bicycle, then dugout and then head-loading it to Yalombe.

If you can contribute to the match that is needed please use paypal in the right sidebar OR write to lukuru@gmail.com to learn where to send a check or other payment methods.

By building a strong and self-managed buffer zone in Balanga West, we strengthen the park. Please join us!


Diving For Ivory

“Ranger is in Litoko.” The message came from Louison, our camp leader at Bangaliwa. It was the second week of September, 2016.

Ranger in Obenge gardens
Ranger with shotgun in the gardens of Obenge – 2009.

Had Ranger Lavino come back? Ranger is the head of an elephant poaching gang. Unlike Thoms who is flamboyantly evil , Ranger is cold, calculating and very slippery.

Northern park and buffer zone
Our camp at Bangaliwa and villages where Ranger has been seen in 2016. The map shows the northern park and bufferzone.

In early 2016 Ranger fled. But not until after his military suppliers were put on public trial and convicted, and two of his gang were shot dead in a confrontation with the military. We heard he went south to his original village in Sankuru Province. Good riddance. More than 50 elephants were killed south of Opala in 2015, his gang responsible for more than 3/4 of the deaths, but at least he fled.

2015_PALL_elephants killings map
In 2015 there were three elephant poaching gangs operating around the northern Lomami National Park: Ranger’s, Tchuma’s and Thoms’s. Ranger’s gang was responsible for the most killings.

In September, when Louison sent the SMS, our teams were spread out in the field. We were doing an elephant census, the first since 2012. The park is quiet; the 2015 slaughter took down an elephant population between the park and Opala. We felt the tragic relief of a family spared by a passing plague. But now Ranger is back and on the edge of the park.

Ranger's camp months after use
Our teams later came across this poacher’s camp in the park, not far from Obenge. It dated from around September and had Ranger’s markings: he has the only known poaching group that sets up structures for tarps rather than using leaf roofed barazzas.

Although the letters did not reach Bangaliwa until later, Obenge send word that Ranger had continued down into the park. It was understood that he was after elephants. The warning came too late.

Letter from vieux Alatsho
This is a translation of Alatsho’s letter from Lingala to French. In it he warns that Ranger spent a day in Obenge then went into the park to hunt elephants. He warns Louison where he should send surveillance teams — but the warning arrived too late.

It was the 28th of September that we got a second satellite phone message from Louison. Ranger’s pirogue had sunk. He was heading north, away from the Park when, in the predawn, about 3 AM of the 27th his dugout struck a submerged tree and overturned.

Ario the chief from Ongwaina village brought the information to Bangaliwa. It had been just in front of his village. Ranger came up dripping and furious. He said there were four elephant tusks in the boat and sacks of elephant meat. All now on the bottom of the Lomami.

Louison at Bangaliwa
Louison at our camp in Bangaliwa. At this time the camp was still under construction.

Later Mama Ali who lives in Ongwaina gave her account. At the rooster’s first crow, four men struggled out of the river into the still sleeping village. Ranger had one white plastic sandal on, the other lost. Another, a hunter from the southern province of Maniema, declared his rifle had been lost.

Ranger in 2009_Obenge
A picture of Ranger when he was based at Obenge in 2009.

Ranger warned that if the military came, or if anyone came, and asked where the ivories went under, the person who informed would answer to Ranger, himself. Ranger had passed our Bangaliwa camp at one or two in the morning. The small group of military and park guards we share our camp with, had seen nothing.

It was a month later that divers were brought in. We brought them up river from Opala, The Lokele, an ethnic group of river-people, sent five men that could handle the depth and the current.

diving for ivory
The divers as they prepare to start diving.

On the 30th of October they started diving at 9:45. Three pieces of ivory, the equivalent of a tusk and a half were brought up.

first piece of ivory brought up
Our team leader, Henri Silegowa, examines the first piece of ivory brought up.

Second ivory recuperated
A second piece of ivory is hauled out.

Also one AK 47 rifle, some cartridges and an old pot.

the AK47 recovered
An AK47 is recovered.

with cartridges
With cartridges – 10 of them.

The rifle was given into the keeping of the army; the tusks were given into the keeping of ICCN, the conservation agency.

Giving the ivory into ICCN's keeping in Opala
The army, the ICCN and our TL2 coordinator in Kisangani all sign over the ivories to the ICCN’s care in Bangaliwa.

But what had become of Ranger? As long as he is uncaught the elephants of the park are not safe.

In January through an informant we learned that Ranger had a new military contact for arms and munitions.

We learned his village base for getting supplies and evacuating ivory and meat was Elome (see map above), still in the forest, but with easy access to the road to Kisangani.

In February through another informant we learned that Ranger was back in the park accompanied by two military and an ex-military. He is in the Tutu basin – the core of the Elephant zone.

In a vast wilderness like TL2, a wily and ruthless elephant poacher can do incalculable damage.

But there is some good news. This month of March, our PALL (TL2 law-enforcement) operative in the northern buffer zone informed us of the arrest of Tchuma.

Tchuma arrested in Kisangani
Tchuma arrested in Opala and transferred to Kisangani.

This is an important victory. He was one of the key 2015 elephant poachers. His case is now going to trial. (See map above of 2015 elephant killings.

Ranger, however, is still out there, and he continues to poach elephants. Perhaps there are no definitive victories, but with more important and more frequent crack-downs, the elephants will become ever safer.

Okapi, Striped Enigma – We looked West, She stepped East

Junior Amboko setting a camera trap
Junior placing a camera trap.

It was the 15th of December 2016. Junior Amboko was in the Mpechi forest between the Lualaba and the Lomami Rivers. He was downloading videos from camera traps:

Junior: “When I opened the video and saw the okapi, I could not believe it was real. I watched it twice. Went to my field guide to check…just to be sure it was really okapi. It is such a beautiful animal.”

The video that Junior downloaded December 15th 2016.

We knew Okapi were in the Lomami National Park. We knew it because we found dung, prints and feeding sign, but only on the west bank of the Lomami River. This was confirmed by David Stanton. He did genetic sequence analysis using Okapi and Bongo dung which are often confused in the field.

John and David collecting Okapi dung
David Stanton and John Hart collecting Okapi dung on the west bank of the Lomami River.

He confirmed Bongo in the park on both sides of the river; Okapi, he could confirm only on the West Side of the River from the samples that he had.

okapi range in DR Congo
Okapi occurs only in DR Congo where its range includes three national parks (Virunga, Maiko, and Lomami) and the Okapi Reserve. The Lomami National Park protects the Okapi in its isolated southwestern range, where the Lomami River is a biogeographic barrier for a number of other taxa including red colobus and the lesula.

We wanted evidence beyond feces. A greater number of Congo’s unique, flagship species are in the Lomami National Park than any other Congolese protected area. We wanted photos of all of them. Arboreal primates we have mainly gotten on our point-and-shoot cameras (including dryas and two endemic red colobus), others we have gotten on camera traps: Congo Peacock, Lesula, Dryas, forest elephant, Bonobo … but not Okapi.

Bonobos captured on camera trap in the same area where the okapi video was recorded.

Congo peacock in the Lomami National Park.

On the west bank, in the known Okapi range, we used camera traps to survey three forest areas, covering 4 to 15 km2. Each grid was comprised of 20 cameras and was active for two to three months. BUT in more than 3500 “camera days” on the west bank where we expected it, not a single okapi was recorded.

Okapi print on the west bank of the Lomami river
Okapi track on the west bank of the Lomami River.

We used camera traps, same method to record other animals on the east bank. Four grids have been surveyed, accumulating a total of 4200 camera trap days. It was at the last grid, at the end of the session in Mpechi, that Junior found the okapi video.

okapi range in Lomami landscape
The western range of Okapi with the new find at Mpechi, only 10 km further east but separated from the previously known distribution by the Lomami River.

A beautiful, healthy young female okapi. The key question: Did we just discover an isolated elusive population, or is she a one-off migration event? And if so HOW did she cross the Lomami River? According to David Stanton, Okapi’s very high genetic variability suggests multiple events of separation and remixing . So ancient dispersals, in perhaps different forest geographies, led to repeat interbreeding over okapis approximately 2 million year history as a species.

David with Louison taking a break
David Stanton, with Louison, on his dung collecting mission through the Lomami National Park.

Certainly the Pleistocene periods of wet and dry were pertinent. During the periods of spreading forest Okapi migrated into expanding appropriate forest …but when did they cross the Lomami a river whose head waters are deep in the Katanga savannas, or even more formidably, the Congo/Lualaba River itself?

1988 in the Ituri Forest, DieuDonné fastens radio collar
Dieudonné fixing a radio collar during our okapi study in the late 1980s.

Our 1980s radio collar study of Okapi in the Ituri Forest (link) revealed that okapi spend their first months on their mother’s territory; as sub-adults they migrate out, sometimes moving many kilometers. But the Okapi, giraffe-gaited, have never been reported to swim and could probably only do so poorly. The Lomami has a deep channel and a strong current.

mid_Lomami from the bank
The Lomami River, at the level of Mpechi and throughout the park, appears to be a formidable barrier.

Were we the only ones that did not know about this cryptic population? Junior undertook a survey of local Ngengele and Langa hunters in the buffer zone closest to the Mpechi forest.

“ I did not tell them I had found the animal” Junior wrote in describing his methods, “they were just sharing their knowledge” None of the hunters interviewed had ever encountered okapi in their forests. “I talked with one old hunter, at least 70 years old. He assured me okapi were never in the Bangengele forest.”

This bongo was recorded on a camera trap in the Lomami National Park buffer zone which is open for local hunting.

When Junior showed the hunters the okapi videos and field guide drawings. They were surprised. The only large stripped ungulates they recognized were the bongo, bushbuck and sitatunga. All occur in their area.

After seeing the video one hunter told Junior. “You are just making this up so you can put more of our forest into the park.”

But pride and recognition of value were the most frequent responses. The news spread. Last week in Kindu Sony Kangese , a Mungengele with a construction business, told John Hart “We now know how important it is to protect the new park.” He had heard about the discovery from a family member.

Sony and a team at bridge repairs
Sony, in striped shirt, with a local work team during bridge repairs.

We now have a challenge: Is this a cryptic population or a lone migration event? We plan to collaborate again with Dave Stanton and this time to do a more thorough combing of east bank forests for Okapi and Bongo dung.

Searching from Forest Duff to Forest Canopy for a Critically Endangered Monkey

We had no idea that the critically endangered dryas monkey, existed in the TL2 watersheds until, in 2014, Henri saw a hunter’s kill hung for sale near our Bafundo camp, in the Balanga village of Bafundo. He knew the monkey was different from any he had seen before. John suspected it was the dryas monkey, though 400 km from the only place where it was known to exist. A couple hunters gave it the name, Inoko, but most local hunters did not even recognize it.

Photo by Pablo of Inoko
Pablo snapped this photo of C. dryas soon after he started working with Daniel on the Inoko Project.

An exchange of photos over the internet confirmed that it was indeed dryas monkey, without any obvious physical difference from the Wamba-Kokolopori monkeys. But why didn’t the Balanga hunters know about it? Was it so very rare, or was it just very secretive? The TL2 team based at Bafundo started a search with an eventual second sighting farther west, inside the park. Maybe it is fairly widespread, but extremely elusive? We found it well below the canopy. Is it a ground monkey? Or a canopy monkey that comes low to forage? What is its favored habitat? What does it eat?

you can see a lot from here
Daniel is often setting camera traps or checking them at 20 or 30m up, in the crowns of trees.

Daniel Aliempijevic, a graduate student at Florida Atlantic University, came over to investigate. If he could collect Inoko feces, he and his professor, Kate Detwiler, could do genetic studies. Her work had earlier contributed to the discovery of TL2’s new primate species, Lesula, Cercopithecus lomamiensis.

Daniel climbing near his Bafundo basecamp
Daniel on his way to work….

Who is coming up our tree?
Something like a very large spider is coming up here…

Daniel set out to discover where Inoko was and how to find it. His team was composed mainly of local Balanga: the hunter who had bagged the original Inoko, Reddy; the deputy to the chief of Bafundo, Denni; and two Balanga that were already with our TL2 project, JP and Marten. He also worked with out TL2 leader, Pablo, from an adjacent province, who is university educated and has a good deal of experience working with camera traps from the Lesula work.

pablo showing slides at Bafundo
Daniel and Pablo (far right) at Bafundo explaining to us the progress and problems of the first phase of the Inoko project.

The first site Daniel chose was just four km from the village of Bafundo. This was the dense area of vegetation where Reddy had previously caught Inoko. Daniel wanted to set camera traps at three levels: the ground, the understory with a good density of lianas, and the high canopy where horizontal branches let animals cross from one tree to another.

a map in the sand
Reddy drew a map in the sand to show where he had seen Inoko. That is where the project started.

daniel demonstrating for Pablo, JP and Kinois
Daniel starts by demonstrating the equipment to Pablo (striped shirt) and JP (blue shirt). Kinois, the team leader at Bafundo camp watches.

Cintia going up for pix
Cintia Garai, the TL2 project assistant, came to take some photos and learn the ropes.

Unlike the Botanical work where we brought in Mbuti climbers, Daniel was the most experienced climber on his team, although, unlike the Mbuti, he used climbing gear. He, himself, set the cameras high in the canopy, but the others helped to set them in the understory and close to the ground.

Reddi setting understory camera
Reddy checks a camera in the understory.

There were surprises:

We were amazed that so near to hunters’ villages there would still be the diversity of game at ground level, including some large mammals.

We had only guessed at the diversity of animals in the canopy. His cameras showed that treetops were not just for monkeys by a long shot.

canopy camera_along a horizontal limb
A camera-trap in the canopy typically had a view over a horizontal branch connecting to another tree.

But the crowning achievement for Daniel (and for us) was the understory videos he captured of Inoko. All Bafundo videos of Inoko were in liana layers of the understory. They were never captured high and never on the ground.

Daniel has now moved the cameras away from the village and into the park itself. Again working in step-wise settings, moving up a tree, with one camera at ground level, one in the understory and one in the canopy. Each rigged tree is a column for observation. There will be many more surprises and, hopefully, lots more information about Inoko.

Daniel was able to do this work with the TL2Project through Dr.Kate Detwiler’s lab, the FAU Primate Evolution and Conservation Lab. We are all looking forward to the second phase of work and thank:
Primate Conservation, Inc.
Mohammed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund
Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation
FAU Technology Fee Grant
International Primate Society Conservation Grant
Support Primate Conservation in Central Africa

For TL2/Lukuru funders see the side bar.