In early 2007 the first exploratory mission was launched up the Lomami. One very large dug-out took off from Kisangani full of barrels of fuel, bags of rice, bags of beans, packs of salt fish, cans of sardines , a bottle or two of Johny Walker-red and a crew of men. All of these men had had experience in animal inventories in Congo’s forests, but none of them had worked here, in the center of the Congo.
I was in the west, in Kinshasa covering on the administrative/ diplomatic aspects of the trip. John was in the east, finishing up an animal inventory in the Ituri forest. Ashley, who had earlier worked with John on surveys in the Salonga Forest accepted the rather daunting task of leading the first mission into a truly unknown forest.
In two months Ashley made it all the way to the first falls on the Lomami River, nearly 1000 river km (620 miles) south along the Lomami River. His teams had made survey circuits into the forest on the east and west bank, often trekking with only sardines, beans and fufu as rations for two weeks or more.
By the second mission John was full time on the TL2 challenge and I expanded diplomatic efforts, first to Kisangani, then to Kindu.
The diplomacy became far more complicated than anticipated as we were accused by some of being diamond prospectors and by others of being mercenary/rebels. Why else would anyone venture up the Lomami River?
Major Ranger was a Maimai rebel up the Lomami River with whom we had to negotiate our terms of co-existance carefully. He is center, Maga of TL2 on the right. He was an elephant poacher and killer of bonobo, but finally jailed for large-scale rape.
By early in 2008 we had two field bases, one at Obenge and one at Katopa .
The original area slated for inventory covered 50,000 km² (19,300 mi²). Our first estimation of important forest had included all that seemed unbroken – virgin – on satellite maps. On the ground, however, it rapidly became clear that much of this forest was empty. Although there were no settlements, the forest had been hunted to exhaustion; all large mammals were gone including totally protected, bonobo, okapi and forest elephant. Hunting camps and signs of hunting were everywhere. Bushmeat merchants were along every path and road hauling their wares to market.
The beginning of the bushmeat chain. Black mangabey mother, baby and 12-gauge that killed them.
This baby black mangabey survived the killing of its Mom to become a local pet until it dies.
This hunting camp has a whole family living in it.
This hunting camp is just the guys.
Bushmeat being portaged to market on foot.
Bushmeat being bicycled to market along an old colonial road through the forest.
So we cut back our focus area to 30,000 square km² (11,580 mi²), the most remote part of these forests. With supply lines by bicycle over minimal paths to the base camp of Katopa and by dugout to the base camp at Obenge.
Field teams were usually 12 people. Sometimes we had three teams and sometimes as many as five. The key people were the experienced team leaders and their assistants. These top staff could use the critical equipment rapidly and well (GPS unit for location, Thuraya sat-phones, and cameras). They needed to know all the animal signs and needed the skills of forest survival. And as team leaders, they needed to have people skills to encourage the porter who is suffering from malaria and to face the belligerent petty official with his armed escort.
All these aptitudes were essential to carry out the recce-transect methods of the first two years.
A few photos of the work on the ground:
Team leader following the compass man who directs the machete man in front.
Cutting across one of the most northern of the savanna islands.
Keeping the equipment dry.
Sometimes the “primary” crossing points are a bit submerged.
Sometimes a thrown together raft is the only way to cross at high water.
After two years we have learned what forest in central Congo is empty and where there are still concentrations of animals. Importantly, we also know where there are villages and can characterize villages by size, occupation and tenure on the land. All of this is important as we draw the contours of a potential protected area.
The Province of Maniema is in favor of a national park, now we must work in the Province of Orientale to make it a joint effort between the two provinces. The national government has said that it will back a national park, but it is up to us to guide this process to make certain that the most important and least contested area is conserved.
Before a protected area is formed, bringing law and order to the exploitation of bushmeat is essential. It is also the best possible preparation for an eventual protected area. Through village meetings and provincial meetings we have popularized the national edict protecting bonobo, elephant and certain other key bushmeat species (black and white colobus, red colobus and okapi).
We have also supported the governor in establishing a no-hunting season in the province of Maniema. Now we are responsible for monitoring the roads; is the law being respected?
This load of bushmeat is crossing at the Kasuku River before the closed season. A couple ferry-points and cross-roads became our monitoring points. So far the no-hunting season is being amazingly well observed.
Can a park work? Will it work? Yes we are convinced that there can be a national park. We are convinced that we can make it happen in collaboration with the people who live around the TL2 forest and the Conservation Authority of Congo, but we are not there yet…..