Bonobo Mourners at a Bonobo Grave

David came as a volunteer to learn about the forests of central Congo. And he certainly learned a lot about bonobos. Soon after he arrived he accompanied John to dig up a bonobo skeleton.

bonobo skull in Mpechi grave
Picture of bonobo skull unearthed near the T4 transect.

Later David got the full story from the team that buried the bonobo two months earlier.

at the grave weeks later
John pointing out the skeleton; Junior is next to him and David behind him.

What David was told:
The 1709AN2 patrol team heard unmistakable bonobo clamor. It was 10AM, the 7th of October, and they were heading south on the T4 transect of their circuit of the Mpechi forest. There were eight team members, Amuri, Aiguille, Komba, Dilombe, Pierro, Abeli and Mooko, but they knew how to move quietly. They continued until they were under the group of noisy bonobo; six were clearly visible from the transect with recently built nests nearby (1st nest 7.7 meters from transect). Searching off transect for more nests, they stumbled on a bonobo corpse (it was 10:14 AM).

attendent bonobo
Bonobo watched from the branches above the corpse.

The bonobo group watched from the canopy. The team suspected the bonobos had cleared the area around the corpse as it looked as though twigs and branches had been brushed away. Talking with me (David), Amuri and Aiguille said they thought the bonobos seemed mournful.

corpse found on its side
The body was on its side.

discovered corpse
Turned on its back the lips were curled back, there were small maggots on the face and numerous flies buzzing over it. The body was not completely stiff.

The young female had probably died within the last 24 hours. There was no obvious cause of death although her body was emaciated. No signs of injury were evident. With un-developed breasts and small size she was likely a young adult. In bonobo communities this could mean two things: either she was a recent arrival to the group or a soon-to-depart daughter of a group member. Whichever, the group may have been present near the corpse for at least 8 possibly 12 or more hours.

team at grave
The 1709AN2 team at the grave, with the labelled flagging tape unfurled after the burial.

As best they could with a machete and sticks, the team dug a grave for the young female bonobo. The bonobos watched from the trees. Amuri slit a stick and fit it with another to make a cross. They wrote “Cimitière bonobo” (bonobo cemetery) on a strip of plastic flagging tape with a magic marker. When the patrol left, the bonobos were still there watching.

southern park with bonobo transects and cemetery copy
Map of the transects and grave site in the southern Lomami National Park.

new nest near grave nearly a month later
Nest found over the grave in November.

From late October and into December, we (David,John,Junior and other expert observers) conducted a nesting-site re-use study in the Mpechi Forest. When a team next returned (24th October) two recently built nests were found perched above the “cemetery”. Two weeks later two more new nests were in adjacent trees. The grave continued to have its sentinel mourners for over a month.

David_rest stop on Boha
David at a rest-stop. He has come back to the Lomami National Park, now to study the bonobo in another area, Luzaka, south of Mpechi.

Torture and Truth along the Lomami

Torture has two main purposes:

(1) Create fear and pain to bring out the truth (=encouragement)
(2) Create fear and pain to punish a crime committed (=dissuasion)

Which was the purpose in February 2018 along the Lomami? Kesonga was arrested, beaten, and repeatedly submerged in the Lomami with a sack over his head.

Kesonga climbing from cell in Opala
Kesonga climbs out of his prison cell in Opala

Around the Lomami National Park, there are many stories of torture used for Punishment. Ask any park guard, military or worker for our TL2 project.

When Thoms gang raped 135 women and enslaved their husbands, brothers and sons (Mbole villagers) for two weeks in Lieke Lesole (July – August 2007), it was punishment. It was punishment for resisting domination by Thoms and to assure that the villagers provided the food he needed while elephant poaching.

When William Kapere (TL2 staff) was tied to a tree and beaten to death by Thoms and his acolytes on the 14th June 2013, it was punishment. It was punishment and a warning to the village of Obenge and the TL2 project. Warning: no more collaboration with military and no refusing Thoms’s domination of the northern park.

When women were raped and the village chief’s father whipped in Kakongo (Balanga villagers) by Thoms’s brother and 10 others of his gang on 27 January 2017, it was punishment. And dissuasion. No more helping ICCN and the TL2 project, not even to allow them to camp in the village while their dugout passes on the Lomami.

Assessing damage at destroyed Lohumunuku camp
Our base camp at Lohumunuku was burned down the same night that Shindano and Fiston were tortured. Here a first trip to assess the damage.

When Shindano and Fiston (TL2 staff) were beaten and poked with red hot machetes the night of 18 February 2014 at Lohumunuku, by members of Thoms’s gang , it was punishment. It was a lesson to the TL2 project and ICCN for trying to put an end to elephant poaching.

When Maurice and four other members of his outreach team were taken from their bicycles, stripped, tied with lianes and whipped with thorny vines (September 24th, 2016) that was punishment for bringing outreach to the Mituku territory controlled by Thoms and his maimai. Message: get lost and don’t come back.

Maurice after attack
Maurice just back to Kisangani, 6 days after attack, shows where his arms were bound.

Thoms captured and beat 6 villagers (29 September 2017) one of whom suffered factured arms and crushed fingers. This was punishment for having agreed to allow the TL2 project to build a base near Bimbi. Message: accept Thom’s domination and no other.

And then of course there were shootouts when the FARDC marched numerous times to push Thoms from the forests he was terrorizing. Many were the young boys pressed into service for Thoms that were killed. At least seven military have died in these operations.

after first shootout with Thoms
Picture Fardc after first shootout with Thoms gang. Local villagers killed.

Given the above it is not hard to imagine that locally there is a strong desire to capture, expel from these forests or eliminate Thoms. Nowhere is it felt more strongly than among rank and file military, park guards and TL2 staff – most of the latter two are from local villages.

The mood was particularly tense in February at the guard post, Bangaliwa. At the beginning of the month a normal surveillance patrol had been attacked, the assailants had 4 AK47s. Two eco-guards and two military were with the patrol. They fought back, the assailants retreated and there were no injuries. But this was evidence: Thoms had rearmed and he was back in the elephant zone. There would be more attacks…no doubt.

So Kesonga was entering a nervous territory alert for maimai, bandits, terrorists. The following is not surprising.

11 February, arrest :

The eco-guard, Washi, was on a routine check in village of Chekecheke near Bangaliwa (see map). A stranger was in the village. He had no identification; no one knew him. The village chief questioned him, but he and Washi decided he was suspect; he should return with Washi to Bangaliwa

12 february at 1 in the morning, Washi brought Kesonga to Bangaliwa, Lomami National Park base-camp, in a dugout.

12 February Morning in Bangaliwa : The military question Kesonga
12 February Afternoon in Bangaliwa: the eco-guards and TL2 question Kesonga.

Map_Kesonga enslaved by maimai then liberated
Map showing Kesonga’s movements during those unfortunate months of January and February 2018.

This is the first story Kesonga told:
I am a Musongola (ethnic affiliation) from Pembeliba (map). For cash I sell medicines. I was carrying antibiotics, malaria cures, and other pills to sell in Balanga West. Eight armed men blocked the trail; they kidnapped me and the two women with me. We walked for two days, we crossed the river Okopo, we arrived in Thoms camp where they took everything we had: medicines, machete, food. I became a porter of Thoms for three weeks, before I could escape. I was with one of three hunting groups – the one led by Samy. I accompanied hunting trips to carry back the take to Thoms’s camp. It was when we were hunting near the Obiyo River. They left me alone with the little dugout. I took off downstream, dragging the dugout around where the river was filled with fallen trees. When I reached the Lomami, I did not have the energy to go upriver. Downriver I came to an abandoned village (Obenge). In old gardens, I dug up manioc, but had no fire to cook it. I continued downstream, it was night. I saw many flashlights and fire (Bangaliwa). I was afraid it must be one of Thoms’s camps. I stayed close to the other shore. In the morning I came into Chekecheke.

But the military and the guards were not satisfied – did this really make sense? Was this Kesonga a spy? Thoms must be planning an attack.


Kesonga during questioning at Bangaliwa.

Kesonga was bound and whipped.
This is Kesonga’s second story:

I went to find my daughter at Ngombe (Thoms home area) because by daughter was kidnapped by the Maimai. I was afraid of the Maimai and I ran away (abandoning daughter). The chief of Mukwara showed me the path. I came out on the Lomami at the Lofuma river where I found the small dugout and came downstream. And, yes, I have a military rifle, an AK47.

This story was even more mixed up. He was whipped some more, he was held under water.
This is Kesonga’s third story:

Everything I said is false. This is the truth: I am an elephant poacher. I have been poaching elephants for a long time. I come down the Lomami to Isangi where I meet my ivory buyers who come from Kisangani.

The military whipped him more.

Kesonga continues: I have 18 tusks cut up into pieces. Because I saw a big dugout on the Lomami, I turned around and hid them at Katondo. Please, I will go with a small team, in just a little dugout to recuperate the ivory at Katondo.

In retrospect I imagine Kesonga was just trying to get some reprieve, any reprieve from the torture.

A very large expedition took off with Kesonga the next day up to Katondo. He showed where the ivory was in the river and insisted on being the one to dive to get it. Nothing was found. Three park guards also dove for the ivory. Nothing was found.

At the end of the day they returned and certainly Kesonga was no better off. No other story was offered.

fractured finger_Kesonga
Kesonga’s finger wound after torture.

Finally, Henri Silegowa, TL2 leader at Bangaliwa wrote the following evaluation:
–There is no coherence between Kesonga’s different stories;
–Yet he seems mentally stable;
–He has a good understanding of the forest and villages near Thoms main camp;
–It is possible that he is a spy sent by Thoms, because Thoms wants to advance towards the north.
–All that we could discover in his possession though were a few manioc tubers.

22 February, when our large dugout came down to Opala to stock up on food they brought Kesonga for more questioning.

Face wound healing well
Kesonga’s friction burn on face from torture.

Leon, from the TL2 project, and Firmin, from ICCN, took over. They used a different method. Reassuring Kesonga, they posed as lawyers, paid by the UN to defend him.

They got back the first story…no mention of being an elephant poacher or in possession of either a rifle or ivory.

They got more information. Kesonga is the father of 7 children, his wife Bitsho is waiting for him in Pembeliba, she must be desperate for information as to what happened to him.

Kesonga by cell after first care
Kesonga treated and at ease in Opala beside his cell.

In Thom’s camp, he was one of over 30 porter-slaves. There were more than 70 militia men with 40+ AK47s as well as shotguns. In camp Kesonga and the other porters were closely guarded, to the point of being accompanied even when they bathed or relieved themselves. Thoms’s mud house is raised on a platform so that he can watch over the camp. Thoms has six wives in the camp and is always surrounded by 14 bodyguards.

Unlike Bangaliwa, in Opala there is a phone network. Leon made phone calls, checked Kesonga’s contacts and double-checked through his own contacts. The first story was the true story.

If the torture had been to get the truth, it failed. The more torture the more desperate the lies.

Leon and Firmin took Kesonga to Kisangani where he spoke with military information services, they gave him new clothes and paid his way back to Pembeliba on a dugout.

Kesonga says whenever Leon and Firmin come to Pembeliba, there are gifts of hogs and chickens waiting.

N.B We post this as the US Senate considers Gina Haspel as Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA. The Senate will grill her regarding then-legal interrogation methods at the CIA “black site” she oversaw. Prisoners were water boarded and slammed against walls. We are all glad these are no longer legal, quite possibly Ms Hagel is as well. She is recommended by many in the intelligence community as non-political, respected by the rank and file, smart, capable…. important qualities.

Outboard dies as the Lomami Floods

large and small dugouts
Our big dugout on the Lomami with a little fishing dugout alongside.

Even when the outboards are working well, the logistics of moving up and down the Lomami are always “best case scenario”. Papa Bolenga our northern helmsman thinks in liters –depth –kilometers. He measures time in minutes (“we docked at 22h17min”). But despite a love of precision he is a “bricoleur” (handyman for worst of circumstances) and travels with a diverse tool kit including bits of old truck inner tube, metal sheeting, tin cans etc .

base camp Elengalale
The Elengalale base camp.

Matthieu, Dino and I left Papa Bolenga in Opala on the 27th of February. He was loading the big dugout with fufu, rice, beans, machetes, shovels, medical supplies…but mainly he had to wait for the fuel barrels to be downloaded from a barge to reload them in the dugout. Matthieu, Dino and I needed to work with teams at our inland Elengalale base (see map) including outreach and surveillance. We took motorcylces the 95 km to the end of the road.

Travel map_Opala-Bangaliwa
Map of the buffer zone north of the park and our two northern base camps.

Three days later, after checking by Delorme that Bolenga had ready taken off, we walked the 24 km path from Elengalale to the Lomami River. We would meet Bolenga that afternoon. He would be pushing the dugout upstream with both 25horsepower and 15horsepower motors. He left at 3AM; we left a bit after 7 AM; we expected that we would all arrive at the mouth of the Ndulu (105 km Opala-Ndulu by river) about the same time.

The Lomami River is up; last time I walked the Ndulu path I came right out on the Lomami. This time the backwaters and lagoons were flooded a couple hundred meters back. We called and pounded tree trunks thinking the big dugout was there. Finally a little fishing dugout came and picked us up. We took turns two by two crossing the Lomami to a small hunting camp on the higher east bank.

flooded back water Lomami
Friendly fisherman took us through the backwaters and across the Lomami to the higher eastern bank.

Eventaully we got a Delorme message: “The 25 hp broke down one hour out of Opala.” They were progressing with the 15 hp.

Waiting for dugout at Ndulu
Our tents set up at the Ndulu camp.

We went to bed in the rain expecting the boat to arrive any minute. Not having eaten since the morning before, we were hungry when we got up. Fisherman helped us with some smoked fish and the wife of the hunter helped us with some plantains. The dugout arrived at 12 noon.

The big dugout
Dugout landed at Ndulu hunting camp.

Not only were they pushing a loaded 57.5 foot dugout against floodwater; they also had a second dugout tied on to accommodate extra goods and people.

They only stopped once at 17hrs, to slaughter and cook a goat. Three hours later they were back in the dugout and continued all night.

The whole time Bolenga had the motor disassembled on the floor of the dugout, with bits and pieces in caps, broken cups etc. The driveshaft had broken near the gearbox. The pinion, forward and reverse gears all need replacement. We bought this outboard in 2011, but Bolenga had on board another 25hp that we bought in 2007, already definitively broken down but kept for parts. Unfortunately it had had a driveshaft “repair” as well. He pounded and coaxed bits and pieces into an obedient structure. One half hour out of Ndulu the 25hp was back on the stern and churning along. It kept us going all the way to two km outside of Bangaliwa, and then gave up (Ndulu-Bangalwa 45Km). We got into Bangaliwa just at dark.

repairing dugout with metal sheet
Papa Bolenga overseeing a major dugout repair in Kisangani.

Upshot: When Matthieu, Dino and I returned 3 days later to walk back to Elengalale camp, the big dugout with the 15hp motor brought us down with the second smaller dugout again attached and the defeated 25hp lying in the bottom. The big dugout dropped us off at Ndulu and turned around. Dugout and 15hp are needed to keep the patrols going out.

Coming around the Opala courbure
The small pirogue with paddlers coming around the Opala bend.

Bolenga unhitched the little pirogue and continued downstream with two paddlers.
They stopped for 45 minutes to cook up some fish and foufou that they then ate in the boat. Whereas pushing upriver from Opala to Ndulu had taken 30 hours on the water with the 15hp and the big dugout. Going downriver in the little dugout from Ndulu with only two paddlers who did more steering than paddling took only slightly over 13hours.

unloading the 25hp
One of the muscular rice-loading stevedores stepped in to unload our 25hp outboard in Opala.

Papa Bolenga is now in Kisangani collecting a whole portfolio of spare parts. And, much to his delight…a new 25 hp Yamaha outboard motor.

strongman with rice and man on board
Demonstration of strength by a rice-loading stevedore. That sack of rice, alone, weighs 75 kg. This is rice season and the barges from Opala to Kisangani are all loaded with rice.

D.R. Congo’s Giant Pangolins : Two Tons of Scales Seized

2015 smoked pangolin meat
Tip of giant Pangolin tail smoked for sale. The scales were removed and sold separately to an Asian market.

The market for pangolin scales is exploding in D.R. Congo. Jules (not real name) called our attention to it in 2016. He is our crime sleuth around the northern Lomami buffer zone. In the town of Ubundu, Sept. 2016, he took a picture of a collection of scales drying in the sun – perhaps one giant pangolin. He was told rice buyers also bought pangolin scales. Jules heard the same when he was in Lowa later that year.

pangolin scales in Ubundu sept 2016
Pangolin scales drying in the sun in Ubundu.

Pangolins are a completely protected species in D.R.Congo. No hunting allowed. In January of 2017 while explaining this to his “informant” in the village of Liekelesole, the informant told Jules that he knew a hunter who dried pangolin scales to sell. He took Jules into his courtyard where the scales were spread on the ground.

Village of Liekelesole
A photo of Liekelesole taken by our outreach team in 2012.

Was it possible to follow up the supply chain? Who was the hunter’s buyer? Jules left his informant in Liekelesole on the pangolin scale trail.

How to hunt a giant pangolin? Rarely are they caught in snares. Too big, too strong. They rip themselves free. The most certain is to go after them with dogs. Apparently they have a very particular odor; hunters say they are accompanied by numerous flies. A dog can locate them in a burrow and then the hunter digs them out. Or if dogs surge on them in the forest pangolins curl into a ball like a giant cowry waiting to be collected. A machete blow to their head ends the hunt.

hunting camp with 2 dogs
A hunting camp with a dog at the feet of each of the men.

village hunting dog
Village hunting dog. Dogs are in all villages around the Lomami.

The informant from Liekelesole sent a message to Jules when the hunter gathered pangolin scales from his neighbors. He took them and his own north to Opala in February. An informant in Opala found out where the hunter would be in Kisangani. In March, in Kisangani another contact of Jules befriended the hunter pretending that he too had pangolin scales to sell.

The hunter said his previous buyer, a Maman Amanita, was no longer taking pangolin scales because her stock had been seized by the DGDA (customs officials).

mama Amanita in December
Maman Amanita

Jules’s contact found Maman Amanita on May 25th. He approached her; this is what she told him:

In January she had filled over 30 cargo sacks with Pangolin scales — each sack weighed about 70kg. They were all seized by the DGDA. The DGDA said it would make a deal: it took 16 sacks and left her with 14 and a half, but, they told her that if she talked law would come for her. She was furious, she got a lawyer. DGDA paid her a piddling sum and said that was all she would get, any more trouble and she would be arrested and thrown in jail because any shipment of pangolin scales is illegal.

DGDA's seizure report in February
The DGDA’s seizure report of 30.5 sacks of pangolin scales.

It was in July that Jules’s informant at the airport reported pangolin scales waiting to be shipped out on a transport plane: 16 sacks. Jules mobilized. He had the shipping slip. DGDA was the conveyor and paid $2250 to move their 1125 kg (over 1 ton). The correct legal procedure would have been to hand the scales over to the CITES authority (ICCN) right there in the city of Kisangani and at the time of seizure – 4 months earlier.

July 2017 pangolin scales in Kisangani
16 sacks of pangolin scales in July 2017 at an airport warehouse in Kisangani. They are to be shipped by DGDA (customs agency)to Kinshasa.

Since September 2016, all international commerce in Pangolin scales is forbidden by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Despite this, the trade continues to increase.

Jules realized that the subterfuge reached high into the DGDA. He had to protect his own network of informants. Thus, as DGDA had already paid for the transport, ICCN in Kinshasa could make the arrest. He sent them photos of the sacks and the bill of lading.

Scales in Kinshasa in July
The scales arrive at the Kinshasa airport in Njili.

In Kinshasa ICCN took the case to the public prosecutor as DGDA tried to refuse the confiscation. They said that they had arrested the scales, it was their job to arrest illegal cargo.

The prosecutor did not hesitate: Where was the person arrested? He should be sent directly to Kinshasa for questioning, The sub-director of DGDA in Kisangani should also appear. And where is the official report of the seizure?
The official report was produced (see above). It said there were 30.5 sacks in all. Where were the rest?

photo mama Amanita and lawyer
Maman Aminita and lawyer at warehouse.

The DGDA in Kinshasa instructed the DGDA in Kisangani to send the remaining sacks! Poor mama Amanita. She showed up at the warehouse with a lawyer. These were HER pangolin scales; no one was going to take them!! DGDA had said she could have them.
Jules told the local ICCN authorities to call Kisangani’s Public Prosecutor. As in Kinshasa the prosecutor wanted to see not only the documents but also the original owner. Amanita and the lawyer both fled.

November examining pangolin scales
DGDA and ICCN examine the scales from the remaining 14.5 sacks in Kinsangani before shipment. The sub-director is second from right wearing a badge around his neck. The other DGDA staff is on the far left in blue shirt.

Now all the Pangolin scales – over two tons (between 300 and 450 animals) – are with ICCN in Kinshasa. These scales were confiscated in February long after the CITES ban on commercial shipment. We are waiting to hear the results of the prosecution – will heads role? And the fate of the scales – will they be publicly burned? We hope so.

Pangolin scales being taken by ICCN for shipment to Kin
ICCN transported the remaining 14.5 sacks for shipment to Kinshasa.