The team is mainly slogging through swamp. It is inundated forest southwest of Obenge: a lot of swamp forest, isolated dry hillocks, then again swamp and always another river to cross…day after day.
A wet “exploration circuit” between the Tshuapa and the Lomami
But this particular forest is extremely important. The forest of the Tutu watershed is the only remaining forest with a good elephant population in the whole TL2 landscape. In fact there are not many other forest elephant populations left in all of the DR Congo’s central basin…and that is a lot of forest ( more than 800,000Km² !)
Elephants are concentrated along the TuTu River, west of Obenge
The “Boussolier” with the compass calls out directions to the “pisteur” with the machete who is breaking trail up front: “Stay right” “Straight to that Apakipekipe,” (a big swamp tree). Slow going. Bernard and Muhindo are the observers behind the boussolier: one keeps his eyes in the treetops watching for primates, the other’s eyes are on the ground looking for tracks, elephant “rubbings” or dung. Both take notes. Seven porters follow behind with tents and food.
At least four more days of wet-knee transect before returning to Obenge, the village that is our current base.
It is the pisteur, stepping up on some nominally firm ground, who sees them first. “Pembe!! Hey, two pembe (tusks) right here”.
Pembe is white gold. You don’t find elephant tusks just lying around in the forest. But these were just lying there— actually half buried and they were huge, compared to the size of tusks found on the forest elephants hunted today.
They dug and pulled them from the muck and ground tangle. They were nearly black , with ruts and riddles from years, probably decades of slow weathering. Did some big elephant just come here to die? The team scoured the area for bones – none. Even teeth – none.
An elephant entering a marshy glade in the Ituri Forest, photograph © Reto Kuster
Or maybe it was some poacher — If so, how long ago? — and if so, why did he leave the tusks? Besides, there is no path near-by, nor a navigable stream, nor any kind of recognizable landmark. Even today the poachers of TL2 , have no compass, let alone GPS. They would not even temporarily leave such wealth in such an unrecognizable place. But maybe such obscurity is just the sort of place an old or wounded elephant would seek to die.
At 25kg those tusks would have fetched well over a thousand dollars just in Opala. In Kisangani? In Kinshasa? In Dubai? Before they had been so “weathered” on the outside, how much did they weigh?
Ashley got an SMS on his satellite phone sent from the team’s satellite phone. “What do we do, boss? Throw them in the river or bring them back?” They brought them back.
Crispin is holding one of the tusks to show to officials in Opala. John and Ashley in the background.
The tusks might be white gold, but they are also contraband and associated with the most unscrupulous of poachers. Obenge’s Chefitaine de Village said, “Take them to Opala”. In Opala the authorities said, “Take them down to Kisangani”. In Kisangani a very self-important Chef de Ressorts Désirables (= chief of desirable finds), signed for the ivory and took it, presumably, to the bank. Presumably.