I first got word of the ambush on Sunday, by satellite phone, while still in Kinshasa: “today, poachers ambushed TL2 team. Boni was stabbed with machete.” I flew to Kindu the following day, October 9th. I went with Salumu, our TL2 coordinator in Kindu, to explain the case at army headquarters. The lieutenant assigned Major Bashimbe and two other military to accompany us to Chombe Kilima.
Boni’s team caught two of the poachers, but held them in the forest. Only when they were sure we were leaving Kindu, a group of TL2 field hands marched the prisoners to meet us. We all arrived the same evening at Chombe Kilima, the little village at the end of the road. One of the captives was the hunter with the shotgun, Ongona Nene. The other, Mopau, was one of his porters. The other five had fled through the forest. They had killed 8 forest antelope and 11 monkeys including the completely protected black and white colobus. Edmon is the name of the poacher who tried to kill our Boni with a machete – Edmon got away through the forest.
We arrived with Major Bashimbe in Chombe Kilima Thursday evening, 12th of October. The military were to officially arrest the poachers, and then Salumu and I would walk to Katopa to check on Boni.
We were all up before dawn the morning of the 13th. In a half light, whose only sounds were the last night cries of the forest hyrax and the first trumpet of the village rooster, Major Bashimbe brought Nene out of the small windowless mud-wattle room where he was “incarcerated” overnight. Major Bashimbe, sat in a dilapidated plastic chair and leaned across a small hand-hewn table to interrogate the poacher. His posture was reassuring, his tone half-confiding. The interrogation went on for a good 45 minutes. “I was hunting”, Nene admitted, but everything else he denied. Holding up his hands, swollen from the tight binding, he insisted his 12 caliber shotgun went off only accidentally after Boni jumped on him.
Major Bashimbe nodded, listening to him complain at the treatment he had received at the hands of TL2 researchers. Bashimbe finished his notes, dismissed him and called one of our team, Jean Pierre, who had been present at the forest confrontation on Sunday.
Our teams always have at least one camera to document animal sign, they document other discoveries that please them as well. This Amaryllis is from Boni’s camera the morning before they stumbled on the poachers’ camp.
“From our camp at KK/4 [the intersection of the path ‘KK’ and the path ‘4’ on the study area] we were hearing gun shots. We heard them Thursday and also Friday. Saturday we broke up in teams to search out the poachers. We found nothing. Sunday two search teams went out, each with a park guard, but I was in Boni’s team; we were looking for bonobo nests and bonobos, as usual. We were four and unarmed, the poachers were seven and armed.”
“We heard people ahead; it could only be poachers, so we cut towards them real quietly,then burst into their camp, taking them by surprise.”
“Boni pretended an armed park guard was just behind us in the forest. He kept calling to him, ‘Don’t shoot, Alexis. They won’t make trouble. Don’t shoot.’ The poachers believed him. We took two prisoners, the two from Kindu who had supplied all the munitions and were going to split the take of smoked meat with Nene.”
Jean Pierre continued in a quiet, matter-of-fact voice, standing in front of Major Bashimbe. Boni directed the burning of all the meat; Jean Pierre carefully recording it all on camera as usual. Then they started to lead the prisoners back to KK/4; it was already late in the afternoon. They knew to be very alert because the prisoners had told them the main hunter was still in the forest.
“Then all of a sudden there was Nene in front of us at a path crossing.” Certainly, he had heard and smelled the commotion in camp. “I was in front. His shot-gun was up and pointed. ‘Kill them’, Nene shouted and he shot. I was already leaping behind a tree. He just missed me.”
This picture was taken a month ago at KK/4. The researcher, Paco, is explaining his work to John and some of the team. Christian is to the far right behind John. Boni is beside him. JP is sitting beside John and Xavier is also sitting with his legs outstretched. The shortest person, in the striped shirt standing to the left is DieuDonné.
I heard this same story three times, always the same, but always with the details of a different person’s point of view. First Jean Pierre’s version, then on the hike across the forests and savannas to Katopa, I walked with DieuDonné, “Jamais tombé” or “Never fallen” they call him and I saw why. Short, but lithe and extremely solid, he heaved the outsize pelican up on his head and took off at a pace that had me half running behind. Waist high water, clumpy flooded savanna never slowed his stride or his animated dialogues.
“As soon as Nene shot”, DieuDonné told me, “Boni surged in from the side to tackle him and grab the shot gun.”
Pelican case balanced on his head, DieuDonné shrugged his shoulders. “Boni is a real man. Most people would have run”. Boni is not small, but Nene was boulder-big and determined as a mad buffalo. “Boni threw all his weight at him and they went over. Nene still yelling ‘Kill them. Kill their leader’.”
“Then I didn’t see anything”, DieuDonné continued, “because I was tackling the porter. It wasn’t until I was tying the porter with a liana that I saw another poacher had come from behind on the trail with a machete and was going for Boni. ‘Kill them’, Nene sputtered when he could, but Boni had him in a stranglehold and wouldn’t let go. He was kicking and twisting to keep the other, Edmon, from getting his neck. He tried to keep Nene between him and Edmon.”
“That was when Jean Pierre came hurdling at Edmon from the back. I left the porter and came running too. Jean Pierre pulled Edmon back, but he twisted free and ran away. I wrenched the shotgun away and threw it, then I grabbed Nene’s arms behind his back and started binding, real tight. ‘I shoot’, Jean Pierre said picking up the shotgun. Boni got up and stepped away. ‘No don’t shoot’, he said. There was blood everywhere.
Later Boni told me that he did not even know that he had been hurt until he saw all the blood. Then he realized his hand was throbbing and the blood was spurting out of it all over the ground.
They got back to KK/4 well after dark with Nene and Mopau; the first two prisoners had fled during the confrontation. Boni walked to our base camp at Katopa the next day accompanied by part of the TL2 field team. Christian, the leader of our basecamp told me that Boni is from the village Katopa and as soon as his story got out, at least 10 villagers grabbed machetes ready to take off for KK/4. “I managed to talk them out of it,” Christian told me. “‘This is not your affair’, I told them, ‘this is now for the government’.”
The nurse visiting Katopa did an excellent job of keeping infection out of Boni’s wound but – unfortunately – there was no possibility of stitches and there was no possibility of blood transfusion. Nevertheless, in our kit we had the antibiotics, the antiseptics and clean gauze. Salumu and I brought anti-tetanus serum.
That morning in Chombe Kilima, the only evidence that Major Bashimbe had was Nene’s word against Jean Pierre’s word. Boni, even if there was no infection, wouldn’t be fit to make the walk out for a week or more. Edmon and the others had fled and were lying low who knows where. Suddenly, I was worried that I might not be able to insist that Nene stay in prison. What if Nene’s family came up with 8 or 10 goats to bribe the right person? With no strong evidence it would be easy to liberate him.
After Jean Pierre was done talking, Major Bashimbe thought for a minute, “Bring them both out”, he said. The military sat both Nene and Mopau in front of the low table. I was on one side and Jean Pierre was in the back. I felt sorry for Mopau. He was just a porter, hardly more than a boy, earning a bit of money.
“Now, Mopau” Major Bashimbe addressed him in a kind voice, “who was it who fired the shotgun?” Silence. Mopau looked at the ground and then slowly pointed his finger at Nene. “Mmm,” Major Bashimbe acknowledged. “Now that was before you guys were wrestling, or was it during the ruckus?” Mopau looked at Major Bashimbe a long minute, then whispered “before”. Bashimbe smiled and scribbled quickly to finish his proces verbal.
The next day, after Salumu and I arrived at Katopa camp, our driver in Kindu sent word to the camp satellite phone that Nene was in the central prison. I hope this is a lesson that reachs all the poachers and would be poachers in the future Parc National de la Lomami.
The pictures below were also on Boni’s camera taken just before the photos in the poacher’s camp. He is one of our best naturalists — may he not be discouraged!
Invisible on forest floor?
A bonobo nest in the forest canopy.