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.

Sing it loud: the Lomami National Park Exists

Rehearsal of the Lomami National Park anthem for the 10th of December 2016.

In October 2016, a colleague from an international conservation NGO in Congo asked us, “Is it true there is a new National Park?” What? She didn’t know?

It was three months earlier, on the 19th of July 2016, that the Prime Minister of RD Congo signed the decree creating the Lomami National Park.

But how could she know?  The only celebration was in the distant province of Maniema whose government played a key role in the final campaign for the National Park.

the general director of the ICCN speaks
At a second ceremony on 10th Dec 2016 , in elephant suit jacket, the DG of ICCN addresses generals and senators, ministers and deputies.


Ambassador Swan speaks
The American ambassador (above), along with the chef of cooperation from Germany and the chief of cooperation from the European Union, addressed the gathering.

The whole nation should know. In Kinshasa on the 10th of December, even as President Joseph Kabila’s government reaches its official term, and opposition forces gather in the streets, the Governor of Maniema called for a national celebration.

mutual appreciation_government and conservation
Terese, of the TL2 project, and the governor of Maniema recognize the interdependence of conservation organizations and government to effect lasting land management for resource protection.

It happened the only way possible: Warring factions were in one room amidst lively music, ambassadors and embassy representatives, top people from top parks, army generals, international conservation organizations, presidential counselors, senators, deputies and a handful of traditional chiefs.

the chiefs from Kailo
The chiefs from Kailo

The disgruntled faction did indeed explode into choreographed battle. The ceremony was briefly taken hostage…but came out singing in the end.

Here is what happened:

a political tirade underway
A deputy of Tshopo stood up and demanded the floor right after the secretary general of the environment gave his words of welcome.

the speakers faced with walkout
The secretary general called him “out of order.” He is flanked, above, by the two governors, Maniema on left and Tshopo on the right.

Tshopo deputy reads manifesto
But, as tensions were rising, the deputy was given the mike to read the Tshopo manifesto. 

Their problem: Maniema Province was becoming park headquarters. Tshopo Province wanted the headquarters. And, more important, there was a land dispute between the provinces well to the east of the Park. Although it had nothing to do with LomamiNational Park, the celebration was the occasion to proclaim provincial rights in front of national authorities.

The Walkout
The deputies and the whole official Tshopo delegation walked out, insisting their governor come with them.

after the walkout
They insisted the Tshopo governor come, too. He left a vacancy at the table.

But the ceremony continued; the breech was filled, but it was now clear the two provinces would have a week of parleys after the ceremony finished.

The show goes on

The song goes on. The park is a wilderness of 8,874 sq km. No hunting, no habitation. It joins, as the 8th national park, those of previous administration (Virungas, Garamba, Kundelungu and Upemba) and the national parks born during Mobutu’s era (Salonga, Maiko, and Kahuzi Biega), Now there is a national park born during Kabila’s era: the Lomami National Park.

policier with calender
And everyone walked away with a calendar and a brochure.

Maniema Meets New York

Leon at the south end of Central Park, NYC
Leon Salumu stands at the Southern end of Central Park a couple days before returning to Maniema, Congo.

Leon Salumu, the head of the TL2 PALL project (assisting law enforcement) spent three weeks of October 2016 in the eastern United States. When he got back to DR Congo, Cintia Garai, the TL2 project’s administrative assistant, asked him a few questions. Here are his answers:

You traveled around New York City one day on your own. Was that hard? How did you do it?
I had a map. I arrived at the train station, and I asked where I could find the Statue of Liberty. They showed me on the map and it turned out that I was not far. But then I realized that because of the weather I couldn’t see further than 10 meters. It was raining and so foggy. I couldn’t even take a picture. I planned to take a boat to see the statue, but because of the weather, I decided to turn back. I visited the skyscrapers instead and the shops. I didn’t want to leave the avenue (Central Park West) or I would get lost too much. Even so I had to ask where the train station was; it was just in front of me. I had a return ticket, so it was easy, and I arrived at the hotel on time for my plane.

from central park
John and Leon in Central Park.

What was the most interesting thing that you saw in NYCity? Why was it interesting?
The huge buildings. And I liked the park in the middle of the city. There are so many people living there, but still they saved a place for a park. I was also surprised by the cultural diversity. It would have been hard to identify people like “he is American, she is European or Asian”; there were so many people with different origins in the huge crowds. It was amazing.
It was also interesting to see more dogs than children; the Americans love dogs!

What was the strangest thing that you saw in NYCity?
I couldn’t have imagined that in New York I would meet people who beg for money. That was strange. There was someone on the metro, he was drunk I believe; he started to bother the other passengers; he shouted. I was not sure if he was really drunk or crazy, or something else. That was a negatively strange experience.
On the positive side, what was surprising is the respect of the law. People obey the law. For example the traffic signs and at the red light the pedestrians stopped. And even in shops people are quiet.

Washing windows with John
Helping John wash the windows in preparation for the coming Winter.

You spent a couple weeks in the northern part of NY State, was it different than you expected?
First of all I was very glad to see the house of John and Terese Hart. I really liked that they live in the middle of the forest. It is calm and perfect for work. The landscape is beautiful, and the trees, the little stream… I also liked the Keene Valley Mountain.

arrived at the Adirondack hostel where we would spend two nights
In front of the Keene Valley hostel where we spent two nights.

That was a big surprise to me. I have never climbed any mountain in my life. We climbed 3 peaks in a row, we started at 7:40 and we arrived back at 19:00. I think it was very important for me.

we were alone on a well maintained trail
We were alone on a well maintained trail hiking up Bear Den, Dial and Nippletop mountains.

What did you do in Adirondack State Park? What did you like most about the Adirondack Park? What did you like least?
What I found surprising is a long path in the park: it was very clean. There are people living around the park, but I didn’t have the impression that they would impose any threat to the park. They could almost be called conservationists. Some people own a piece of forest, and I saw some boards with information that here we cross private land, and here are the conditions: don’t litter or don’t disturb the ecosystem.

we started our hike on private land
The first part of the hike was on private land.

And I couldn’t see any paper or plastic along the road, it was really clean.
When we were on the peak, I was surprised to see a very little bird. It was so cold up there! And I was wondering, how can this little bird survive here?

the trees were little and it was cold and windy near the top
It was cold on the peaks and the trees were small.

What was the most interesting part of your trip?
The most interesting part of my trip is related to our meeting with US Fish and Wildlife Service; they made it possible for me to come to the States and attend a meeting on Commercial Bushmeat.

When the clouds cleared on the way down...
On the way down the clouds lifted.

I could see that they were really interested in our activities. Law enforcement is getting more and more attention. We discussed lots of questions related to the concept of bushmeat. Most of the people from different NGOs working in Central African countries considered bushmeat as entirely illegal. That is certainly not correct in DR Congo. Not all bushmeat is illegal. It was interesting to see this strong reaction against all hunting.

FWS photo_w Leon
Quite serious at the Fish&Wildlife Service workshop on Commercial Bushmeat.

Another very interesting thing was that USFWS asked us, the TL2 Project, how we plan to continue our work in the long-term, after the directors (Terese and John) retire. It was reassuring to see that a donor wants to make sure of the continuity of a project. And this question was important, we discussed a lot all through my trip.

Salumu at USFWS workshop
More animated, getting a point across at the workshop.

For you, what was the most important part of this trip?
Apart from USFWS I also had the chance to meet Wildcat Foundation, and Rainforest Trust. These 3 organizations truly support our work and intend to help us; they are very enthusiastic. This was important for me to see.

The carwash of course
The car got a “power wash.”

What advice would you give to one of your colleagues who had an opportunity to visit the United States?
You need a certain education to get along in the United States. You should speak some English; without that it would be very difficult to travel around: the signs, everything is in English. You have to have discipline, you have to follow the rules, it is different than in my country.

But apart from that, I would suggest to everybody to go and see, because it is wonderful. We visited some museums, and in one of them I read this: “The inquiry, knowledge and belief of truth is the sovereign good of human nature.” I really liked that. Especially because as a part of my job, I make inquiries and I have to find the truth.

Watching football and getting to know an American dog
I watched a football game (soccer) with Chris and Sarah’s dog.

If you want to add anything else, go ahead!
I would like to thank John and Terese Hart, and also US Fish and Wildlife Service for making it possible for me to visit the USA and to participate in the bushmeat meeting.

With Sarah Hart on St Regis mountain
With John and Terese’s eldest daughter, Sarah.

I also enjoyed the meeting with Sarah, the eldest daughter of John and Terese, and her baby and husband, Chris, whose food was the best during my entire trip, I ate a lot when I was with them! And I was happy to meet Kim of course, who already worked with us before.

This too is NY
This, too, is New York, the state of New York (like the province of Maniema).