Plants are Last — in the Forests of the Ituri and the Lomami.

Asani marking tree in botqnical plots
ASANI, on right, marking a tree for measurement above the buttresses on our Ituri plots, circa 1990.

We had been in the Ituri Forest for ten years. First we put radio collars on okapi, then on forest antelope. We did forest-wide large mammal inventories, and a study of leopard. It was somewhere after all of that mammal work, that we decided we could do plants. Plants always come last.
riverine forest Lomami 4
The wall of forest along the Lomami River.
And for good reason: In Congo there is no field guide, not even a complete flora or list of trees. And there are so many trees! Once we started, we worked for five years on plants in the Ituri Forest. We developed a good basic botanical knowledge of the central Ituri; not me, the botanical team, itself, built that knowledge.

Collecting plants with Atoka, circa 1990
Collecting plants with ATOKA in the Ituri Forest, circa 1990.

Now we have been eight years along the Lomami: time to do plants. But first I had to go back to the Ituri Forest to put together a team that would be able to build a similar botanical base for the Lomami.
Tambo and Kole circa 1990
TAMBO and KOLE stripping Mbopi lianes to make camp stools, circa 1990, Ituri Forest.
In the Ituri, in the 1990s, we found 714 species of tree, “treelet” and liana on just 40 ha. We discovered and described a large, new species of swamp-forest loving tree, Pradosia spinosa. The biomass – tree weight – is higher in the Ituri forests than on any of the other large forest plots being studied around the world. So, what are we going to find along the Lomami?

Poachers camp in upland forest
Forest around poachers’ camp in the Lomami Forest.

In the Ituri, the botanical teams had two essential elements:

  • Congolese botanists –just out of college and eager to keep learning. For the Ituri botany, Corneille Ewango had been a student who used results from our 40 ha inventory for his Masters in USA and his PhD in Holland. He is back in the Ituri, but ready to guide a new crop of Congolese botanists along the Lomami.

Dino, Ewango and mamaBakebi
EWANGO (in yellow shirt) and DINO explaining to MamaBAKEBI in the Ituri Forest the plans and the needs for the Lomami.

  • The Mbuti Pygmies –expert climbers and masters of the vernacular taxonomy. No place in central Africa has a denser population of pygmies (Mbuti) than the Ituri Forest. In the 1990s we had as more than twenty working for us at one time. I needed their help now to get up the new teams.

To these two elements from the Ituri, we will add international botanists eager to learn more from the uncollected mysterious forests of the Lomami; we will add presses, dryers, collecting papers, logistics…. and the project will get off the ground.

But first the trip to the Ituri.

AA_Dino and Atoka by the Zamus
Dino and Atoka (both veterans of Ituri botany plots) reunited February 2015 in the Ituri. See photo Atoka above circa 1990.

Dino, a veteran of the Ituri botanical plots and now with us on the Lomami (TL2) project, came along and worked closely with long-time Epulu-resident, Nobirabo, an excellent local negotiator. And why would negotiations be necessary?

meeting with Mbuti in paillotte
NOBIRABO in white sneakers during meeting February 2015 with Ituri Mbuti and Bakbala.

In the traditional interstices of central Ituri lives, the Mbuti fall within a Bakbala system. The Bakbala are Bantu families with whom a clan of Mbuti has had relations for many generations. They rely on this familiar relationship with Bantu for interactions beyond immediate clan, with a larger society. In the mobile Congo of today, the Bakbala, themselves, generally poorly educated villagers, are barely able to make informed decisions. Still this was the system we used.

Asani and mamaBakebi
MamaBAKEBI, bakbala to many of the Mbuti we work with, at home in the Ituri. ASANI by her side. See first picture above.

There were meetings on the side where we were introduced to sons and nephews.

AA_Kole's family
KOLE’s (see above 25 years ago) wife (on right) brought Kole’s six children and two grandchildren to meet me.

TAMBO, here with his wife and grandchild, met with us every day. He has the same wit for jokes as 25 years ago.

aa_me with Zaire
I pose with ZAIRE. His son, ULELI, is the senior of the 6 Mbuti that returned to Kisangani with us.

Finally a brave six were chosen and ready to set off to the Lomami…an entirely different part of the world.

our six Mbuti botanists with a couple wives and old friend Nobi in front
Here are the six Mbuti men eager and chosen to come, with several of their wives who agreed to stay behind.

First, the 460 km to Kisangani.

In the landcruiser ready to leave the Ituri
In the car. ULELI, ZAIRE’s son, is next to DINO.

They called out the names of trees as we approached Kisangani, the trees that towered over secondary growth: TAFA, YAKO, MBELI … All was not unfamiliar.

In Kisangani we bought mattresses and the six slept under mosquito nets on the little verandah. They had their fire in back …. But were eager to see more.

around the kitchen fire in Kisangani
Fire behind our Kisangani house/office.

samuel gives haircut..peak through gate
SAMUEL, our guard in Kisangani, gave everyone a hair shave. EMULA is peeking through a crack in the gate at Kisangani street life.

In Kisangani they are outfitted, sightseeing and quickly assimilating knowledge of a wider world.

everyone says hello
On motorbike taxis to market. They are easily recognized as Mbuti and everyone wants to shake hands. A rare sight!

at shoe market
We got good second hand shoes.

at the clothes stall
We bought backpacks. They examined the used clothes displays.

They spent hours down at the Congo River watching the big barges and smaller house boats.

Kisangani sight seeing
They even got to do some sightseeing at churches and schools. On the right is GILBERT, another old Ituri hand, who will accompany them, with DINO, on the next leg of their journey.

The next step towards the Lomami Forest will be riverboat upstream to Kindu. Dino and Gilbert will be along. They will take pictures all along the way. Another post later.

Four-Legged Curiosity and Another Camera Trap Thief

curious young lesula
Is this Lesula curious?

After all, the camera trap is a novelty, although it strives to be too cryptic to notice.

elephant, close but not interested

Most often animals march right by, or continue unperturbed with the day’s business…

This is true of elephants,

of bonobos,

of leopards

A discrete camera will record who is there and what they are doing…

But, once noticed the camera trap elicits a response that can seem like


These bonobos are at least mildly spooked.


Perhaps it is the metallic taste or a residual human odor.

or Curiosity.

Is the leopard trying to elicit a reaction?

Even Congo Peafowl seem intrigued….are they seeing their reflection in that bit of glass?

And a group of Lesula, newly discovered terrestrial primate species, gather to examine it from a few angles.

But generally the camera trap inspection and “mild alarm” do not result in marked avoidance or any perceptible change of behavior. Nevertheless, the elephant’s “curiosity” — not surprisingly – has led to loss of camera traps. A sort of innocent thievery.

2014 elephant core area in Lomami Park
Elephants moved over a camera trap grid set up on the Losekola study area in the northern Lomami Park. Where the dung was most abundant, the camera trap disappeared.

So be it….

Inoko and the Camera Trap Thief

“There’s a new species of monkey at Bafundo” (Henri Silegowa)
“I doubt it!” (John Hart)
“Show me the photos. Where is the skin?” (still John)
“The hunter refused to give up the skin, but,” Henri explained, “There are photos, still in the camera at Bafundo.”

Inoko female_hunter kill
One of the photos on the Bafundo camera. It was a female.

The next morning John and Henri left Kindu for Bafundo camp and that same evening John agreed it was indeed something new. Our second mystery primate.

known occurence of Inoko copy
We can not yet describe it’s distribution beyond a couple of points on a map.

A few hunters gave it the name Inoko, but many local hunters did not recognize the monkey. Is that because it is so rare? or too small for bushmeat? or is this a recent range-extension, or a hybrid???

A month later we had another hunter’s kill and this time a skin.

2nd Inoko_male
The second Inoko was male.

The taxonomic plot was thickening.

But we needed more information about habitat, range and diet. The animal is secretive – very secretive. So we put up camera traps.

We sent 5 camera traps to Bafundo. Old ones and unfortunately three did not work. The two in the field did indeed catch a few animals, but no Inoko.

See bottom right hand corner.

The forest where the hunters found Inoko, was near the villages. It was beautiful forest, but hunted-out. No big mammals were left. Inoko is a diminutive monkey. Still, animals that are much smaller are often caught on cameras. So why no Inoko ? We waited.

Then one of the cameras disappeared.

If I had known, I would have been furious. But Assani, the head of camp TL2, along with Silas, JP and Serge took the information straight to the village chiefs. Within 8 km of our camp there are three villages, Likanjo, Bafundo and Bote. The chiefs responded.

Chiefs from the 3 villages
The three chiefs from villages near our Bafundo camp: Likanjo, Bafundo and Bote.

They wrote a letter and signed not as individuals but with the symbol of custom. The camera had to be returned within two days or traditional punishment would be meted out.

letter with customary "signature"
A letter with customary signature is not taken lightly locally.

There was a suspicion. A traveling salesman told Assani that a certain Bakoto, had tried to trade some sort of camera for a cloth. Was it perhaps the lost camera trap? But no proof.

The traveling salesmen
Traveling salesmen sitting in front of their wares in Likanjo.

The second morning after the chiefs’ letter was distributed, at 6AM, Assani, our camp leader, was called to the house of the chief of Bafundo. The camera had been deposited at his door during the night with, unbeknownst to the thief, recorded evidence of his identity.

Caught in the act.

The story could end here, but the chiefs were not content. They wrote a letter to Bakoto warning him that he had to present himself. He was known.

Bakoto fled. He stayed in the forest. A few days ago, when he was fishing, his hook (a large #6) flipped back and caught him between the ribs. He is at the Lokando hospital. Traditional justice was done. Bakoto will continue to feel pursued. There is no doubt. He has no choice.

Trying to increase the camera traps looking for Inoko, Guylain, our motorcycle driver-mechanic, started taking apart the dysfunctional ones.
fixing camera traps at Bafundo
Guylain with Manaka, our second driver, as assistant.

camera traps dismantled _checked with motorcycle battery

By cleaning off rust and repairing a broken wire, he managed to recover two more for the forest.

Painting for Apes

Cleve Hicks, who led our 2012-2103 survey to Bili, has submitted these two watercolor paintings he made of chimpanzees from Northern DR Congo to the Endangered: Art for Apes contest. Check their on-line gallery.

Chimp by Cleve Hicks
African Ape in the Sunset

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