Who slaughters elephants in Congo? What Kingpin can pluck ivory from the most remote forests and also have access to international smuggling chains? This requires a substantial network.
In the Lomami River forests we see only the bones and the anarchy this breeds…
Who is responsible at this bottom end of the network: Criminals with forest savvy …
This year, 2013, criminals infiltrated the remote forest that is to become the Lomami National Park, forest we monitor from our camp at the small village of Obenge along the Lomami. We have had this camp since 2008 and developed excellent relations with some of the villagers –plausible relations with others. They are bushmeat hunters – only a few have hunted elephants and then always for someone else. They know a national park is being created, they were ready to move – until things began to change.
Last year – in October – Col Thoms showed up at Obenge with two new players: someone who goes by the name of “John” and someone who goes by the name of “50centimes” or “50cents”. Thoms called Maurice, our team leader, and told him “you do your work and let me do mine – I hunt elephants, that is all I can do.” Then Thoms left for nearby camps. His gang has gotten bigger and it is better-armed – military guns. Only the bravest in Obenge have stayed aligned with us.
A truce of sorts was maintained by the fact that 6 armed park guards, on loan from the Maiko National Park patrolled the primary elephant zone around Obenge. The elephants are spread over thousands of square kilometers; the killing was reduced, but not stopped.
The guards came for six months; they were due to leave in February. Maurice’s replacement, Bofenda, arrived in early February. There were no replacement guards, though–not yet. In the meantime Maurice took Bofenda to see key sites, camera traps, the study area, as well as paths used by poachers….
A small group of researchers from the University of Kisangani made collections for a week. On February 9th they left, seemingly peacefully, in the motorized dugout they had rented in Opala. Actually it was not a peaceful return…they were shot at 40 km down stream, across from Katondo’s fishing camp, at the big bend in the river.
On February 10th, John and 50Cents came from Katondo to Obenge. They brought the information, “Two hundred military are marching to Obenge…” the news came from one of Thoms’s wives in Bimbi. The tension in Obenge explodes. John and 50Cents summon Maurice.
“You called the military to come get us. If the military come here, you will regret it.“
Old Katondo started making grigri…magic to make men invincible. Women and children were sent out to garden camps. Men ate grigri and stripped half naked for greater strength. Now – presumably they were immune to bullets, immune to stabs, slices, or thrusts of any kind. They sang.
John and 50Cents left Obenge. They said they would go west to Lokobekobe to meet the military, but secretly they took a dugout downriver back to the big bend.
Bofenda and three guards set off on another routine patrol of several days. Maurice stayed in camp near Obenge to wait through the tension. He had no idea who these supposed military were – if they existed?
The 15th of February Thoms, himself arrived in camp with six armed men. Maurice in his own words “was arrested” by the outlaw. For an hour and half Thoms harangued Maurice. “If the military arrive here, in Obenge, you die.” Finally through the intervention of the three guards, Thoms backed down. But he stayed in the village, more grigri, more dancing. He called all the fishing dugouts from the east bank, back to the west bank of the Lomami.
Bofenda arrived on the 16th. Maurice and he did their final planning for Maurice’s departure. Our motorized dugout, the only one in Obenge, left the morning of the 18th February with Maurice and the 6 park guards.
What happened on the 18th February :
1. Along the Lomami, at the Katondo bend: Maurice and the guards are shot at from both banks of the River – AK47s.
2. Across the river from Obenge village: 200 military arrive on the east bank but they have no way to cross.
3. In Obenge, Bofenda and the TL2 team are taken hostage by Thoms. The village chief, himself, holds them at gun-point.
1…. Along the Lomami – the guards in Maurice’s dugout shot back. Bullets whizzed. Later I was shown a bullet hole in the dugout and another bullet gouge right against the side where Maga, the helmsman was sitting to guide the boat, first towards one bank, then the other, then downstream through the middle of the Lomami. Full throttle. No one was hurt. Pulled over finally at Masasi, the villagers, who knew the ambush was afoot were amazed to see Maurice and crew all alive. But no one (at least not us, not the military) knows where John and 50Cents are now.
2 and 3…. In Obenge – after nightfall, perhaps too nervous to stay quiet, Col Thoms started firing in the air, firing across the river towards the military. His hunters/rebels are lined up with him, with their shotguns, half naked in leaves, invincible, …
Bofenda and his team grabbed the moment of chaos to escape. Kapere, a stalwart local supporter, took the TL2 escapees in his dugout, out of sight, downriver, across the Lomami. They slept under the stars and then, at dawn on the 19th they crossed forest to find the military. Sixty military with PKM hike back through the forest to the dugout.
The dugout is no longer there. Reclaimed by Thoms.
Searching the banks they find two tiny fisherman’s dugouts…each large enough for one standing helmsman with paddle and one passenger
Undercover of deep darkness starting at two AM, the morning of the 20th, two of the TL2 team, Janiver (loyal and from Obenge) and Vincent took troops across; one by one with a PK Machine gun. At first light, firing began. Obviously outgunned Thoms and crew dove into the forest.
Now more than three weeks later, the military are still based at Obenge. They have taken close to a dozen prisoners: Thoms’s collaborators, some from the “elite” of Obenge. But Thoms, like John and 50Cents, has disappeared. Perhaps he has returned to Maniema. But he will be back. And he will come expecting to kill elephants.
The events above collected from thuraya messages and interviews with people who came out of Obenge…
And THANK YOU Edith and Nancy for making it possible for us to get more park guards back into the elephant forest!