Villages and Gunfire along the Lomami

mood serious on return
Karsten and his team returning to Obenge after third time under gunfire in less than a month.

We planned to meet part way. John, Matthieu and myself were to take a dugout moving downstream from Katopa camp. In the meantime, Karsten who now directs activities at the northern Obenge camp would take a dugout upstream.

Here’s the plan: First Karsten stops at Biondo. There, he hikes in to collect the first data from the camera trap grid, comes back to Biondo and continues upstream. We meet at Lifongo, the river that marks the division between Orientale and Maniema Provinces.

villages and camps near Lomami

Plan was to meet at Lifongo River mouth. We come downstream. Karsten comes upstream.

Afterwards we send our Katopa dugout, with Maniema military, back to Katopa. We climb into Karsten’s dugout which has Orientale based military, turn around and continue downstream to Obenge. After a visit at Obenge, John and I will take a dugout further downstream to Opala and then motor-mikes to Kisangani.

That was the plan. Karsten started first, on the 5th of September, as he had to stop to at Biondo. The hike into the E15 camera traps, uploading the data, and hike out would be at least 5 days.crocodile_Mecistops cataphractus
Narrow-snouted crocodile taking stock of Karsten’s passing dugout.

Karsten’s team made their first stop at Likaka at 14 hrs (2PM). This was Col Thom’s (elephant poacher and escaped convict) forest camp discovered on the last trip.

The first day was maximum tension. The military disembarked and walked towards the camp so the dugout motor would not be heard just in case Thoms’s gang was there. Gunfire as soon as they came out of the forest. Washi saw three men disappear into the trees. There may have been more. By the time the dugout beached the burning was well underway.

The TL2 team with the military set fire to Thoms’s Camp Likaka in the middle of the park.

Then they continued upstream. This is where the curves in the course of the Lomami do not serve us well. On the same day, three hours later and just a couple of kilometers from the Biondo camp the dugout was under gunfire. The same men as ran off at Likaka? Had they cut forest, using the short path connecting one side of a bend to the other. Who knows what trap might be waiting at Biondo?

Karsten and the TL2 team hit the bottom of the dugout.

Voices and gunfire come from a wall of trees.

First trip aborted, but no one was injured. Karsten’s team did not stop at Biondo. They continued upstream in the dusk. Made a small camp. The next dawn they continued upstream as far as the village of Kakongo. They spent two nights and then returned straight to Obenge to reassess.

Five days later, on the 13th of September, they took off again from Obenge arriving at Biondo the same night. They camped and hiked out the next morning to the Camera trap grid.

Karsten and team resetting camera trap

Resetting one of the camera traps after downloading the videos.

In the meantime we were at Katopa and the delay had served us well. The Secretary of the Balanga Secteur had come all the way from the village capital of the Balanga at KimiaKimia (see map), to join us in Katopa. We wanted him to see the Balanga villages on the banks of the Lomami, some were ancient, some were brand new and we feared they were all used as camouflage for hunters to poach in the park.

The Balanga sector has one road on its far east side– a road accessible only to motorbikes and bicycles. But the Balanga sector is also on the west bank of the Lomami River. This is an important buffer zone of the park where villages are only connected by footpaths. It is also home turf for the criminal, Col Thoms, from the village Ngombe.

The secretary, Longoma Beloko, saw our trip as a possibility for him to see what was really happening in his sector. (A sector is an administrative unit like a county, but often established along ethnic lines. The Balanga are an ethnic group). We left on the 18th of September. Our first stop was BeneKamba, ancient village on the Lomami river, way-station for Ivory and slaves during the Arab era and for Ivory and miserably-paid labor during the early Belgian era.

town meeting Bene Kamba The children and the men were the first to gather at Benekamba. Women came later.

The Secretary gathered the villagers, his fellow Balanga, and told them not to hunt in the park and never to hunt Bonobo or Elephant anywhere. He said that Benekamba would become an endpoint for one of two official foot passages across the Park. The village would be responsible for helping to monitor the loads that left BeneKamba that would again be checked on the other side of the park.

we spent night along Lomami

We camped the night in an empty fishing camp on the banks of the Lomami.

The next day we reached Bokeke a brand new village. Although we were still in the Balanga Sector there were no Balanga in the village. It was a group migrating from another Province; they were Djonga (ethnic group). We all strongly suspected the agricultural activity to be a cover for poaching in the park. The village had not been initiated through normal procedure; the sector had no record of its existence.

BOKEKE went from fishing camp to village
The new village, Bokeke, on the Lomami River.

secretary explains about protected spp

The Secretary Beloko warning about totally protected species. Next to him the a local chief (chef de groupement) who also accompanied us.

These stops delayed us. We sent a thuraya message to Karsten saying we would not reach Lifongo on the evening of the 19th as planned but would spend the night in Kakongo and arrive the next day.

2 Calibre 12_hunt in park?
The village had a least two 12 calibre shotguns. We suspected for hunting in the park.

In the meantime Karsten had arrived back in Biondo camp on the 18th and continued on to Lifongo that same day.

We received a thuraya message on the 19th:

“We’ve been fired on. From both banks. Military wounded. Returning to Obenge immediately.”

The second meeting at Lifongo was also aborted.
Best option: John, Matthieu, the secretary Beloko and I walked 46km east to the village of Bafundo and our dugout returned upstream to Katopa camp.

A week and a half later we met up with Karsten and got the full story.

first soins for wounded in dugout

Zagbala, the wounded military, in the dugout heading back to Obenge.

What happened: From the prow of the dugout the deckhand, Fidel, who usually marked the depth of the river saw a dugout coming around a bend upstream. The dugout turned around and disappeared. After brief consultation the decision was to follow it. Probably whoever it was, they were scared. Probably it was Balanga fishermen who might have fresh fish to sell.

Our team saw the dugout along the shore, a new dugout, and as they approached, Fidel saw it was loaded with supplies: plantains, jerry cans of palm oil, piles of manioc…
Fidel saw movement…
“Turn around” “Turn around” he yelled to the coxswain.
Too late. Gun fire from both banks. The Military returned fire. But Zagbala, a military, was hit.

hands on_no anesthesia
No anesthesia back in Obenge. But plenty of hands-on to help.

Alfonse, one of our staff at Obenge, is also a nurse and he gave first aid in the dugout and again back in Obenge. Zagbala slept OK the second night. And Karsten accompanied him to Kisangani. A bullet wound to the flesh, no bones affected.

inserting a drip
Alfonse inserts a serum drip.

Follow-up: What we found out in Kakongo is that Col Thoms had returned to his natal Balanga village of Ngombe for supplies. He returned to the forest with some new recruits. It was his dugout at the Lifongo bend.

There are now two military operations underway. One in Orientale in the forest around Thoms’s bases there, and one in Maniema moving towards his natal village to cut off the supply route. Will there be success? It is a huge forest to hide in, the weak point is that Col Thoms has to have enough food for him and his gang.

Will there be a favorable end to this story soon? We will keep updates coming.

“Marines” patrol the Lomami River

marines on the dugout
Commander of the “marines”, Lieutenant Alexie, forefront on left, in hat with beard.

BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION : August (2015), John patrolled up the Lomami River in a motorized dugout. He traveled with a camera-trap team and a botanical team, but, as has been the case for the last three years, military need to be part of all missions.  A group of criminal bandits, led by Thoms , is hiding in the park’s wilderness, supporting itself by poaching ivory and sending out raft loads of dried bushmeat. They have shot at our dugouts numerous times. The military accompany us partly as protection and eventually to uncurl the criminal grip on the Lomami.

JOHNS FIELD NOTES : August 4 We finally received authorization for a military escort. We are in our Obenge camp with the small military detachment stationed here since the trouble with col Thoms in 2013. Authorization came by Thuraya from Major Sammy, battalion commander in Kisangani. We are about to leave on a two week trip to the E15 block in PNL’s northern sector and from there further upstream to meet the Katopa-based dugout at Kakongo. Our first objective is to reach Biondo (map), establish a base camp, and then hike 15 km to the west to set up a field camp and lay out 20 camera traps in one of the most remote areas of the park.

Map of john's trip with marines
Start point:Obenge camp in the north. New base for field work: Biondo Change to southern team’s dugout: Kakongo.

August 5.
After various delays and discussions with the Obenge commanding officer over the composition of the escort, the mission gets underway midday preceded by a parade at our landing.

departure parade at Obenge
Military presentation of the Marine detachment before Obenge departure. The captain assigns Lieutenant Alexie as commander of the escort (see top photo). He is seconded by a dreadlocked Premier Sergent sporting a necklace of wild boar incisors and manning a machine gun belt. Premier sergent
Premier Sergent takes position on dugout “deck”.

Seven additional soldiers armed with a bazooka and a range of small arms complete the escort. With our field team and boat staff we number 27 in total. Sharing a cup of Nescafe with me in the front of the dugout, shortly after we push off from Obenge, Alexie announces that we have now become a company of “marines” ; our motorized dugout is the Lomami “navy”.

Work section of dugout
Marines are fore and aft, but midship is the classroom/and study unit.

As we move up river we stop and investigate old camp sites and suspected points where mai mai leader Col Thoms and his outlaws might cross the Lomami. The Kisangani command informed us via thuraya that Thoms’s gang is under pressure from a second army operation coming in from the Lualaba. The eastern force has retaken Yese (see map), one of the villages east of the park where Thoms is often based. Thoms and his band are expected to flee west toward Maniema and even Kasai. They will need to cross the Lomami. We must be on alert. Goliath heron along the Lomami
Goliath Heron on the river bank stepping through morning mist.

We search the river banks as we progress. We spot two makeshift rafts both long abandoned, but we stop to disassemble them.
Omo demonstrates crossing on makeshift raft copy
Omo demonstrates that it is possible to cross the Lomami on a makeshift raft.

We stop at the confluence of the Lifale, where Thoms’ gang shot at our dugout two years ago. The tiny clearing is overgrown. We harvest huge lemons from an abandoned tree – lemon trees remain for decades as sites get used and abandoned repeatedly. Army scouts locate four dugouts, hidden up a small tributary stream. 2 dugouts were hidden  up a small tributary
We find hidden dugouts up a tributary.

All but one are barely floatable. Our team completes the “decommissioning”, cutting the hastily made, light-weight crafts in half with machetes. The dugout that is still serviceable is lashed on the side of our big dugout and ferried along.

decomissioning dugout
We scuttle the more decrepit dugouts. John and Omo look on. Karsten and Pablo in background. Yellow-billed stork in breeding plumage
Yellow-billed storks in full breeding plumage are unperturbed as we continue patrolling the banks.

We stop at four camps sites along the 70 km of river. Only one is occupied ; two occupants flee, leaving everything behind: a small stash of manioc, a few deteriorated fishnets, a pot with water and bananas on the fire. Tellingly there are several joints of old dry-smoked bush pig. If it was a poachers camp there would be fresh meat over a fire; the fish nets would be strung for mending. We are suspicous. This camp is something else – a hideout – a relay point ?

a snarl of fish nets
A snarl of unused fish nets.

Shortly upstream from this camp, our boatman points out a single piece of recently cut wood on an exposed sand bar. We pull up and the soldiers jump out following a barely visible track to a clearing 100 meters from the river. By chance we have stumbled on one of Thoms’s secret field bases that he reportedly boasted of over the last several years. This camp, that we call Likaka for the nearby tributary, appears to have been unoccupied for several weeks based on accumulated leaf fall and re-growth. dormitory at Likaka
A “dormitory” at the hidden Likaka camp. The weedy regrowth suggests several weeks without active use.

It is a major hideout by local standards: 15 palm leaf dwellings, with about 20 pole beds. The site is surrounded with manioc and banana gardens. Nothing is visible from the river. The gang’s departure was not panicked, but was clearly accomplished quickly– they traveled light. Several chickens still roam and various stolen goods were left behind including a sewing machine, with the proprietor’s name, and jerry cans of palm oil. Among the loot are the remains of our TL2 thermarests and tents, full of holes, but still in use. These were stolen in 2013.

our stolen tent at Likaka
A Eureka tent stolen from our Obenge camp hangs in tatters in Thoms’s camp at Likaka.

We recover a horde of documents, many addressed to Col Thoms and some in his hand writing. They provide perspective on his network of relationships and operations over the last couple of years. His view on life and humanity is clear : Thoms view of women
Misogynist note in Thoms’s handwriting. Translation from the Swahili:
Women are bad. Why call them human? Why do writings (scripture?) tell us that women amount to something?

A moldy brief case is discovered, probably belonging to Thoms himself. Among the fistful of letters and a stolen agenda book, is a plastic laminated sheet produced and distributed by the TL2 project in 2012 illustrating the totally protected flagship species of the Lomami Park.

The soldiers make quick work of lifting what is left from the camp and hurry back to the dugout. They are nervous to be here.

We push on into the early evening, the chatter in the boat gone quiet, and arrive at Biondo an hour and a half up stream from Likaka, half an hour before dark.

loading the E15 GPS waypoints
In Biondo camp the next morning. Loading the E15 GPS waypoints.

6 August.
The morning is spent in a chaotic exercise organizing the next steps. The TL2 scientific team sits on the side while Lt. Alexie, smoking feverishly shouts orders. He divides his contingent, leaving two armed guards with Florent (our helmsman) and the dugouts. The remainder of the soldiers, all heavily armed, with Alexie leading, will accompany us to our field camp.

We leave at noon, and within an hour all trace of human passage is gone. We are cutting our way across trackless forest. The heavily armed soldiers soon lag. Lt. Alexie quells one argument about who is to lug the ammo cases. The bazooka is frequently caught in lianes. By late afternoon it is clear the soldiers are unwilling to progress. We stop at a small stream and spend the night. By our GPS we still have over 9 km to go to reach our destination, an unnamed stream to the west.

7 August.
A good meal and quiet night bring renewed vigor to the military and we break camp before 7 AM. The forest is glorious. No sign of human passage, the monkeys we encounter watch from the treetops as our expedition passes underneath. They show no sign of flight. The forest is criss-crossed with animal trails: pigs, duiker and the occasional buffalo and elephant.
okapibrowse in open understory
Okapi feeding sign: The leaves are stripped from this Euphorbiaceous shrub.

By midday, the soldiers again are knackered. Mandjaka, leading the path breaking with the compass and GPS keeps spirits up by announcing our destination is not far. At 15H (3PM), the soldiers sit down and they don’t look like they will move. We still have a couple kms left, and may need to do some further work to locate a good site.

I suggest that the soldiers and our own staff carrying the heaviest loads sit tight while a lead team goes ahead and locates a suitable campsite. We stand to leave, and so does everyone else. An hour later we all arrive at the river and by chance at an excellent site for a camp. Everyone sheds loads and with renewed vigor open up a site that will be our base for the better part of the next week.

Alexis with premier botaniste
In E15 camp, Alex is yucking it up with “premier sergent” while Mandjaka takes notes at the field table.

8 August.
Our first day on to the camera grid. By now it is clear that there is no danger of Thoms or any other bandits in the area. There is no sign anyone has been here for years.
Henri and Pablo checking new camera traps
Henri (at computer) and pablo check the new camera traps in Obenge before the trip.

In the relaxed atmosphere Lt. Alexie assigns two lightly armed soldiers to the field team. He and the others with the bazooka and ammo cases spend the day in camp. Our first day placing cameras confirms this little disturbed forest is full of wildlife. We find our first okapi tracks. The TL2 team is upbeat, despite heavy going to lay out cameras in trackless forest.

setting camera trap on E15 grid
Henri (green hat, blue shirt) and Karsten (black hat, blue shirt) verify a newly placed camera trap. Military escort in background.

Back in camp that evening we decide with Lt. Alexie that the real need for the military is back on the river, guarding the dugouts and our base camp at Biondo. We also will need more food from the dugout. We will operate with a reduced escort over the remaining days.

9 August. 
Lt Alexie, three soldiers with the ammo box and bazooka, accompanied by five field staff with compass and GPS and empty packs, leave Camp E15 early in the morning to return to the Biondo Base. The rest of us leave for the camera grid.

We discover a small wet clearing (edo) with abundant wildlife sign, including recent visits by bonobos who fed on the sedges. Omo finds five recent bonobo nests nearby. This is our first evidence of bonobos in this closed forest whose understory is so shaded even herbaceous Marantaceae (a bonobo staple elsewhere) is not present. We wonder if these bonobos have ever seen humans before. But the big question is : how are these bonobos making a living where their usual foods are in such low supply? We have one extra camera trap and set it up to record comings and goings on one of the animal boulevards into the clearing. Placing camera-trap in natural opening
Pablo and Henri set a camera trap in the natural forest opening to regard its use by bonobos and other wildlife.

10 August.
Mandjaka and the porters return to E15 with food, but also with disconcerting news. When they arrived at the river they learned that the day after we left Biondo, the rear guard had encountered two men and a woman with loads coming into Biondo from the north. Biondo is a way stop on the path linking the Mituku settlements east of the Lomami including Yese (one of Thoms’s villages) with the scattered settlements of the Balanga west of the Lomami.

Two letters to us described the encounter: One from our boatman, Florent, who after first assuring us that he was “a little bit OK,” referred to an attack by Thom’s “militia fighters”. He described how after refusing the command of one of the soldiers to halt, the three travelers had fled back up the path, dumping their loads as they went while the soldier fired off 75 AK rounds after them.

Possessions dropping in flight
Loads dumped by people on the Mitukut-Balanga path who fled when they saw the military.

Lt Alexie’s more dispassionate missive described three “interlocuteurs”, but did not refer to them as rebels. The photos of the dumped loads seemed to bear out Alexie’s more cautious assessment: women’s clothing, cooking gear, a 25 liter jerry can of plam oil (palm oil is a primary item of commerce between the eastern palm groves and the Balanga forests). There were two identity cards: A Mituku woman with a Mulanga man. Likely as not husband and wife. Helmsman. Too bad he doesnt use facebook
Our boatman, Florent, posing with bazooka in Biondo camp. He would love facebook if he knew about it.

The only possibly incriminating evidence, a small quantity of black gunpowder used to reload shotgun shells. In Florent’s account, this was a magical concoction retrieved from military grade ammunition and used by mai mai to protect themselves from gun-shots. So what local technology did Florent think was used to safely open military grade brass ammunition casings to retrieve the powder ? And why would milita fighters, whose primary trade focuses on arms and ammo, squander dozens of rounds for such a volume.

reloaded shotgun shells or grisgris anti-balle?
The only incriminating evidence. Probably gunpowder for reloading shotgun shells.

The incident rattled our military escort and the team, but after a short discussion we decided to proceed with our planned program.

11-12 August. MOSTLY done in at end of a long day. one of us cant even take off a wet boot copy
Back in camp at the end of a long day on the E15 camera grid. Only Alex has a camera smile. Mandjaka could probably break trail a bit longer if he had to, but John and Karsten are beat.

Long days on the E15 camera trap grid. By the evening of the 12th we have 20 cameras placed on a grid.

Final camera trap layout

Computer screen showing placement of camera traps (red dots) on grid. Inset shows grid relative to Biondo camp.

Along side the camera-trap team, the botanical team laid out 20 plots, each 300 m2, to survey tree and understory composition. Our Premier Sergent who accompanied most of the outings, has become quite interested in the tree identifications, and stands near-by as Reddy Sutsha, our team forester confirms identifications with slashes. By the end of the day Premier Sergent is joining us in calling out tree names as they are identified, with a particular interest in the cola nut tree, Cola acuminata and its fallen fruits (often chewed and high in caffeine). The last day in camp we all refer to him as Premier Botaniste. botanical team and marines
Reddi in white boots with plant press and the Premier Botaniste squatting in front.

13 August.
We break camp at 8:10. In a five and a half hour march we reach Biondo along what is now a visible trail. We arrive to find camp Biondo in turmoil. A second “infiltrant” has been found, this time caught and captured while climbing one of the clearing’s palm trees. The captured man, barefoot and in tattered clothing tells us his name is Amisi and that he is from Kibombo, well south of the park, married to a woman from the left bank settlement of Ngombe. He has no ID card with him and changes his story at least once under questioning.

Amisi, détenu Biondo
Amisi is, the “infiltrant” who becomes the “détenu”.

Alexie loses his calm and orders the prisoner to be bound hand and foot. The “détenu” is forced to the ground in the middle of camp where Alexie strides back and forth, interrogating him. One of the soldiers joins me on the sidelines and asks if I want the détenu’s throat slit. Perhaps only a threat, but despite the casual way the question was asked, I had the disturbing realization that it might indeed have happened if I nodded my head. Certainly torture would have been ramped up.

Alexie now fears ambush, so we hastily break camp, load the dugout and proceed to the Lifongo River three hours upstream to pass the night. We arrive an hour before nightfall. I watch the moon rise sitting off from camp on a beautiful sand bar with a little swallow of Johnny Walker Red in my metal coffee mug.

14 August
We are in the dugout and under way before 7 am. We spend all day navigating long, narrow hairpin curves. As we proceed south, we see occasional occupied fishing camps in the buffer zone on the west bank of the Lomami. In the south, the Park is only on one side of the Lomami (see map). None of the fishermen, many of whom know us and greet us with friendly shouts from the shore, report any suspicious activities.

At one camp the people on shore call us over. It is Acteur, the chief of Kakongo, who is returning from a relative’s burial at on of the interior west bank Balanga villages. He is with his father, their families, and most the rest of the village of Kakongo, all in a single overloaded dugout. They are delighted to see us.

There is a brief moment of panic when Lt Alexie grabs one of the young men in the party and throws him to the ground. “This is the escapee,” he shouts, as I hurry over to explain who the people are. Pulling out the ID card dropped by the couple fleeing Biondo, he points out that the hair cut on his captive looks the same as that in the photo. ID_ man's haircut a problem
ID with suspicious hair style.

Calm quickly returns, once he realizes that these are two different people, and no offence is taken. We tie the Kakongo dugout to our motorized dugout and continue up river arriving in Kakongo village in the late afternoon.

Kakongo, tiny as it was on my last visit in late 2013, just before it was attacked by Thoms’s gang, is even smaller now. There are just four active households, including Acteur who was absent when the attack occurred and that of his father who was tortured by the Thoms’s brother.

While traveling with us in our dugout, Acteur is able to confirm and clarify the identity of the “détenu”. He is indeed Amisi from Ngombe and Acteur announced that they had seen his wife at the burial and that she had just given birth to their sixth child. The détenu is immediately unbound and is roundly congratulated. Washi one of the field staff gives him a hair cut with a razor blade. When we arrive in Kakongo he cleans the boat, fetches water and fire wood. No hard feelings.

15 August.
We spend the day in Kakongo with Matthieu and the Maniema contingent who arrived at 8 PM the night before from Katopa with an escort of four military. The two field teams, as well as the two military companies spend the day sharing news, washing cloths, downloading GPS and cameras and sleeping. I buy all the available chickens in Kakongo and have them prepared for a mid day meal.

Lt Alexie, inspects all the houses and seizes a grey parrot that was being kept by one villager hoping for a client to buy it.

16 August.
I give Amisi, the former détenu, 4500FC for his help over the past day. Then Pablo, Henri, Omo, Reddi, Alex and I take our places in the Maniema dugout to continue on upstream to Katopa, two days travel. Karsten, starts his return to Obenge, also only two days going downstream. Before Amisi climbs in the dugout to be dropped off downstream at the Ngombe path «beach», he asked me if we could hire him fulltime. The parrot, Karsten informed us by thuraya, mysteriously died en route and was eaten by one of the military.

Postcript, 30 August.
Information from sources in the Balanga villages, report eighteen members of Thom’s gang fleeing to villages on the west bank of the Lomami. They are moving in small groups and have been reported from at least four villages where they are received with trepidation. They seem unarmed . These may be fleeing the continued pressure from the army in the Mituku villages where Thoms held sway.

Postscript, 4 september.
An informant from Mayunga brought out more information about the 23 August confrontation between the military and Thoms. A couple military were killed ; at least 5 of Thom’s band were killed ; importantly Thoms himself took two bullets, one in the leg and one somewhere in the torso. He is in the forest. In serious condition?

Postscript, 5 september.
Our own dugout on the Lomami, with Karsten on board, was shot at by Thoms men…was Thoms in the group ? Karsten was on his way to recheck the camera traps. No one was hurt. The military with Karsten fired back and now they are low on munitions.

Will this be the end of Col Thoms and his band of outlaws? Time will tell. Thoms escaped a life sentence in prison in 2010 and in the intervening time managed to be involved in the deaths of, among others, a local chief, a woman, and one of our employees. He is a major elephant poacher and thief. Despite this, he has set himself up in the remotest villages as a small-time chief , the sponsor of a local football team and sponsor of a patriotic independence day celebration. May his influence be shattered.

Is it Possible to Save Congo’s Parrots?

Coming down in a forest clearing
African Grey Parrots descend to the ground at the Aikongo forest clearing, northwest of the Lomami Park.

I returned to TL2 in April of this year to spend 3.5 months visiting important parrot sites around the park. My aim was to develop methods to monitor parrot numbers at these sites, as well as to investigate parrot trapping. I wish to thank World Parrot Trust for financial backing and Lukuru’s TL2 project for logistical support and follow-up. And, of course, thanks for all the great discussions along the way – to John and Terese Hart, Rowan Martin and my team-mates. Below, I give some observations and preliminary conclusions. Andrew Bernard

With captives near Lac Ndjale

Mustapha, member of our team, with African Grey chicks the day after their capture.

DRCongo is the largest exporter of African Grey Parrots. It is likely also the country with the largest remaining wild populations. Currently, under CITES provisions African Greys are Appendix Two species, which limits legal DRCongo exports to 5000 individuals per year. Based on recent Lukuru research (summarized here, and published here, we know that this quota is massively exceeded; expansion of trapping operations in Maniema and Orientale provinces is driving parrot declines. With little local incentive for sustainable exploitation, in all likelihood, parrot numbers will continue to drop until current trapping epicenters are seriously (irreparably?) depleted. So how do we halt the precipitous decline?

camera trap placed under parrot nest
Lac Ndjale is different from most parrot trapping sites around the Lomami Park because it is a nesting site and trappers collect chicks directly from the nest. Here, we set a camera trap 20 meters up the tree and just beneath an African Grey nest site.

I found two bad leaks in any restraining dike:

Firstly, the international demand for pet birds must be staunched. It is the driver pushing captures. Up-listing African Grey Parrots to CITES Appendix One would help; all exports would be illegal. An Appendix One listing requires cooperation from multiple organizations and countries; even if a proposal is submitted at the CITES Convention of the Parties in 2016, a new Appendix One listing would not, alone, eliminate parrot trapping activities on the ground. So…

Secondly, we must have cooperation from the local (Provincial) administrations to both enforce existing government regulations, and even create stricter capture and trade controls. Currently, African Grey Parrots are not on the radar of local administrations. There is almost no application of Provincial regulations. A functional Provincial system will be essential to enforce both local and international parrot capture and trade restrictions.

near Lac Ndjale

Lambert, from the Provincial Environment Ministry, talks to villagers near Lac Ndjale about African Grey Parrot regulations.

Although the TL2 project collaborates closely with provincial environmental ministries to enforce a number of important laws concerning the park and bushmeat exploitation, parrot trade and parrot monitoring are new. I took an appointed ministry official, along on a research trip to an important African Grey nesting site, Lac Ndjale, about 60km south of Kindu. At the last-minute a minor official turned up, Lambert. Our five-day trip confirmed Lac Ndjale to be an extremely important nesting site for parrots; it is also the largest trapping operation known to TL2: locals report over 3000 nestlings are collected each year during the prime trapping season January-March.

Lac Ndjale - very young captives

African Grey Parrots captured too young and close to death.

It was soon obvious that Lambert could communicate little about existing African Grey Parrot regulations; he did not even know that that the legal trapping season only runs from February through July. It is not only Lambert, the TL2 project recognizes that provincial authorities have an urgent need for parrot information and a priority setting session.

Force feeding young captive

The sister of a Lac Ndjale parrot trapper force feeds rice to chicks. The trapper reported chick mortality at greater than 50% during the prime capture season, January to March. 

Training is not all that is needed; in order to understand the impact of the trade, to know what is being lost, TL2 must, itself, learn as much as possible about parrot populations in and around the Lomami National Park. Besides nesting sites, like Lac Ndjale, African Greys congregate in forest clearings: these congregations, or gatherings, undoubtedly play an important role in their social behavior, yet the dynamics of these gatherings remain mostly unknown.

Parrot trappers climb

Two trappers at one of the Shopo sites climb with glue sticks.  These are fastened high in a tree with a bound living decoy bird whose distress calls bring in other parrots.

What makes a clearing “good” for parrots? Why do some clearings have parrots visiting every day, other clearings seem to be visited seasonally, and some clearings have no parrots? Where do parrots go after they disperse from the clearings? (Protection offered by the Lomami Park is only effective if the parrots remain inside the park.) Critically, these clearing agglomerations make parrots vulnerable to capture. Because of this, TL2 must find, map and monitor clearings visited by parrots.

map of Grey Parrot sites

Map showing what is now known about African Grey Parrot capture sites in and around the Lomami Park. Those mentioned in this article are labeled.

Most of the clearings around the Lomami Park have had some level of African Grey trapping. The Aikongo clearing is one of the most important parrot sites known to TL2: parrots visit the clearing daily. As of May 2015 there was no sign that parrots had been trapped there.

Parrots at Aikongo

This was largest group of parrots we observed at Aikongo in late June. It is likely that many of these individuals have already been caught.

My team arrived at Aikongo in late June to find a large holding cage, newly built. Our guide Zacharie told us that two trappers from the village Elengalale, about 25km away, had spent about a week trapping at Aikongo, and only left because they heard my team was soon coming.

Trappers holding pen

Gilbert Paluku, a member of my team, examines the parrot holding cage built by trappers at Aikongo a couple of weeks earlier.

Unconfirmed reports suggest they captured about 40 parrots during that week, and the effect on the Aikongo congregation was noticeable: the highest AGP count during this trip was 79 individuals, compared to over 120 counted at the same site in 2013.

Andrew and his escort

We were escorted by military to visit several clearings in Yawende (including Aikongo) northwest of the Lomami Park.

If the trappers returned to Aikongo after my team left, which is very likely, the Aikongo parrots will already be significantly depleted, possibly approaching complete extirpation. These key aggregations must receive a higher level of protection through monitoring and law enforcement if we are to save them.

A field report at the end of June from one of the TL2 staff, Matthieu Mirambo, shows how rapidly African Grey Parrot trapping is expanding around the park. His dugout on the Lomami stopped at a fishing camp known as Parc aux Hippos, on the edge of the park (see map above). They found a trapper who in just a single day had collected 25 parrots, using three living decoys. He had absolutely no permits. The clearing had not been trapped in years. The trapper admitted that he moved north because the Bamanga clearing was trapped out and the Tshopo clearing had fewer and fewer parrots to capture. There is urgency for the TL2 project to increase protection on the ground and for the international community to close down legal African Grey exports.

african grey, red-fronted and a turaco

An African Grey Parrot, two of the less common Red-fronted Parrots and a Great Blue Turaco all gather in a single tree on the edge of the Aikongo clearing.

For more information about Andrew’s recent parrot study see his blog.

Justice or Vengeance in the Heart of Africa?

Case from TL2: the disappearance of Bernard Botumba.

Michel blamed in disappearance of Bernard
Park guard Michel is blamed for the disappearance of Bernard.

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