All animals are vulnerable, but some more than others.
A hundred years ago, even fifty years ago the bonobo, the forest elephant and the okapi were among the least hunted species in Congo. A fortuitous, but unfortunately short term “right to life”. These animals do not withstand pressure from poaching. They are an extreme contrast to rabbits and mice: they birth only one young at a time, they have long intervals between births (>4yrs for bonobo), each pregnancy is many months (>20 for the elephant and >14 for the okapi), and they do not reach sexual maturity quickly (elphant at 9 to 12 years and bonobo have their first young between 13-15years). So, once their populations are reduced they don’t bounce back and, alas, they are easily reduced right down to local extinction. In TL2 these are our most vulnerable animals.
This traditional monkey trap, made entirely of natural forest materials, would not catch bonobo
Even fifty years ago guns were scarce in DR Congo and metal wire for snare traps was a rarity. These, the Big Three, bonobo, elephant and okapi, were abundant, each in its own area of forest. Local people, forest people, understood their special status. In some areas they were taboo –custom forbade killing or eating them –and in other areas, where they were hunted, it might be only older men who were allowed to kill them.
A traditional hunting camp of the Mbuti pygmies in the early 1980s. They set off daily for net hunts, with nets made from the local forest liana they call Kusa. No nylon, no wire.
This was the case in the Ituri Forest where young men risked too much by killing a potent animal like the okapi. The forest might get angry and then they would only have themselves to blame if their wife had a miscarriage or the toddler “lost his breath” and died.
This wire is used to make snare traps. Traps don’t choose. Any animal that steps into it is caught.
Even where taboos did not exist, the means for killing the Big Three required a maximum effort for a minimum success rate. Much easier game was the little antelope or the monkeys that moved in large troops. These smaller animals could be caught with a bow and arrow or in the hunting net; they were also less vulnerable to extinction. To capture elephant or okapi a deep pit had to be dug, covered and disguised, then checked regularly. Occasionally, an okapi or elephant was pursued on foot and speared. To actually kill one was unusual, a cause of celebration, for song, for appreciative quiet. If an elephant, okapi or bonobo was killed, then the familiar spirits of the forest had to be placated.
Passing military marked their presence deep in the Lomami forest on this tree
But, with the long civil war that ended the last century and started this century, military with assault rifles have invaded even the most pristine areas and have changed the vulnerability status of the Big Three. Strangers, unfamiliar and insouciant of local custom, saunter through villages, hungry, unpaid, but with weapons of war slung over their shoulders. Now AK-47s are widely dispersed, hunters move huge distances in search of elephant. They are transients with no use for local taboos. They have no ancestral attachment to the spirits of the forest.
More about the Big Three of the TL2
Bonobo: Found only in DR Congo, and only on the left bank of the Congo/Lualaba River. They are Great Apes along with gorilla, orangutan and chimpanzee. There is only one national park protecting bonobo, the Salonga. Bonobo do much of their traveling on the ground. Mainly vegetarian, they do eat some meat.` An interesting aspect of bonobo social structure is that it is dominated by female coalitions. Although smaller than males, they maintain their social status through cooperation, maintaining strong bonds between unrelated females. Adult males are caring and affectionate with all infants. Sexual access to females is not limited to one male and paternity for young is uncertain. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species : Endangered
A pensive bonobo from Lola ya Bonobo near Kinshasa. Photo by Eleanor Hart
Okapi: Found only in DR Congo, mainly in the northeastern forest but also on the west bank of the Congo River in the TL2 area. They are the lesser known members of the giraffe family and are rarely seen despite their large size (that of a small horse) because of cryptic coloration and long periods of immobility. Okapi are solitary. In relatively rich forest, females have the smaller home range, four to five square km, while males, although smaller, have larger home ranges overlapping those of several females. Okapi are ruminants. They eat only leaves, and only leaves of specific species, stripping the young leaves from branches with their long prehensile tongue.
Okapi at park headquarters in the Réserve de Faune à Okapi. Photo by Kim Gjerstad
Elephant: Of the Big Three, the forest elephant is disappearing fastest. Recent surveys have shown that in the last fifteen years it has been essentially eradicated from areas where it was previously abundant including some national parks. The forest elephant, now generally recognized as a separate species from the savanna elephant, is the lesser known, but this has not protected it ! With each individual eating more than 150kg of leaves and fruit per day, walking long distances and digging for minerals, elephants are the great sculptors of the African forest. When their highways are overgrown, there is a particular silence that settles on the forest. IUCN Red List of threatened species : Vulnerable
Elephant bones scattered on the floor of the Lomami forest show where poaching occurred. We found in the Ituri that such sites were often visited for years afterwards by surviving members of the elephant family
Officially each of these animals has national protection. Our hope is that we can help make that a reality. Everyone who hunts for subsistence or for gain in the forests of the Big Three can avoid killing them easily. A forest in which any of these three animals is allowed to exist in peace – is a forest of hope.