Parrot Holding Pen just Down River

confined in cage
Parrots in the Nyonge holding pen.

On May 28th 65 parrots were confiscated approximately 10 km north of Kindu in Nyonge, a small village on the edge of the Congo River in Maniema Province. These birds were collected from the wild in defiance of a law that was repeatedly communicated to the public and had already been enforced several times. Obviously the demand is high and the rewards are worth the risk.

parrot holding at Nyungwe
Old map (when Congo was Zaire) showing the approximate location of Nyonge and some of the other villages we write about in the buffer zone of Lomami Park.

Recent 2016 history:

CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) : In January 2016 at its 65th the decision of the standing committee was a recommendation that adhering countries “suspend commercial trade “ of African Grey Parrot from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Parrots and fish traps
The Pen was discovered but the caretakers came to feed them once a day and disappeared afterwards. They have still not yet been caught.

Maniema Province: The governor, recognizing that Maniema was an important hub for the illegal trade, prolonged the annual closed capture season in February 2016. He declared all commerce of grey parrots in the Province illegal indefinitely.

Kindu, capital of Maniema province: In February over 400 parrots, destined for Byart Birds, taken in a single bust.

loading into dugout
The parrots were confiscated and taken to Kindu by dugout.

Kisangani reports over a thousand parrots shipped downstream from Maniema on the Congo River during the month of march. The airport in Kindu is closed to parrot transport, not so in Kisangani.

minister receives parrots
In Kindu the minister of the environment received the parrots.

In March and April the Environmental Ministry in Maniema, supported by World Parrot Trust, undertook a major campaign on the radio to publicize the illegality of parrot captures. It also sent delegations to major collecting points. Captured birds were again confiscated.

from ministere to ICCN
The parrots were transferred to ICCN, the parks institute, for care and release.

Parrot holding pens are empty in Kindu. Parrot crates no longer pass through the airport. But less than 10 km downriver a holding pen is discovered. How many more are hidden along the banks of the Congo River? A barge heading towards Ubundu and Kisangani will be hailed; the birds put on board. Many will die, but the profit is still worth it. What does it take to discourage this trade? Is it even possible as long as the markets exist and the price is high? Maniema won’t give up, BUT will it be enough? If an international band won’t close markets – what will?

We Updated our “About Us” Section

People are the key to conservation. Through people we learn about the forest of the Lomami Park and its buffer zone. People working with people build the collaborations necessary to secure a ring of managed forest around the park. There are more trained, dedicated and inspired people on the TL2 project staff now than a couple of years ago. Their voices are in the posts…. Now you can read about them individually through the About us section as well.

crossing a stream on elephant census_2016
Elephant census team in northern part of Lomami Park.

Our interviews are an ongoing process. More of the Lukuru/TL2 workers will introduce themselves on this site over the next few weeks and months, after they get out of the forest and we meet up in camp or town.

Nevertheless, not all of the people will be represented who make it possible for this project to move forward and the park to remain secured. It would be impossible to include them all individually. Nevertheless please feel free to ask about any of our staff or collaborators here:[email protected]


Special request for our staff, needed before the end of July 2016:

Junior and Matthieu, would both benefit enormously and have much to share with fellow students at a field course in Tanzania. It will improve their capacity to use GIS for mapping, monitoring and analysis.

We need 7 thousand dollars for their pre-course English training, travel, travel documents and tuition. Please help us.

And do mention that it is for Junior and Matthieu.

This course will help Junior and Matthieu advance their field and analytical skills and they will be able to share with and learn from students of a wide international background. Both Junior and Matthieu speak some English but will need to get better for the course. We will organize a 2-week very intense English training for them in Kinshasa and see how far their incredible motivation will take them.

Many thanks and all donations are very appreciated.

 Dugout at Katopa camp before loading for patrol mission
Dugout before loading for a patrol mission in the southern Lomami Park.

How to Move a Village ?

Obenge from the Lomami
Obenge, seemed a peaceful village…

… though impoverished and utterly remote with no school and no health care.

In 2007 the TL2/Lukuru project made its first landing at Obenge and soon it became our first base camp along the Lomami.

About Obenge: it first appeared on maps in the early 1920s.

1910_Congo Belge lower Lomami
It was not yet on this 1910 map.

1921_Congo Belge_Lomami lower copy
Obenge-Benge is represented on this 1921 map.

The Belgians had plans to develop all the Lomami north of BeneKamba, and were not deterred by an exploratory medical study that stated: “Above the mouth of the river Elipa, there is a fourth tribe (along the Lomami). It is a wretched population living in very small villages in what is mainly uninhabited forest.”
From: J. Schwetz 1930 “Deux voyages d’études Medicales et Paramedicales dans le Bas Lomami.”

map lower Lomami_1930
J. Shwetz’s map of his medical studies up the Lomami.

The colonial history of Obenge is still visible in the forest as vestiges of a rubber plantation. The rubber trees (Hevea) were planted by the Lomami and Lualaba Company as it tried to push its holdings further south, upstream along the Lomami. Colonial enterprise abandoned wild rubber and started planting rubber plantations in the latter 1920s. Perhaps the Hevea trees at Obenge were planted in the 1930s. But it was a long reach to generate enough revenue to justify such a remote site. Obenge did not prosper. Perhaps just the distance? Or perhaps because south of Elipa, the river becomes too shallow for reliable year round access? Or is it because the European plantation manager committed suicide?

Whatever the reason, the plantation was no longer tended. Forest ineluctably grew over and through the plantings. Most of the Mbole workers left more than a generation ago moving back west, but a small nucleus of people that had come from the east, parents to the present day population stayed. Was it love for the land? Lack of opportunity elsewhere?

The Obenge we found was small. Our census in 2012 showed 39 families who could claim to be 2nd or 3rd generation and that lived and farmed in Obenge.

We found out soon, Obenge was not only small, it was also deeply divided. As from the time of Cain and Abel, the strongest antipathies are within a family.

John and Kapere
Kapere was a great support during the early years of our base camp in Obenge.

Guillaume Kapere was the chief we found in place. He was replaced by his cousin, Marie Longbembengembe; who was appointed by the territorial administration in Opala soon after our arrival. Kapere used his allegiance to the TL2/Lukuru project to mark his legitimacy as leader; Longbembengembe used her relations with an infamous elephant poacher as her basis of power.

How did the people of Obenge survive after the plantations of the mid-20th century and before we came in the early 21st century? True, the village could grow food in the good soil; it could hunt and fish for protein, but how could the villagers get money for salt, medicine, and clothes? Or for marriage, settling disputes, and sending their children to school elsewhere?

bushmeat hunting around Obenge
In a hunting camp near Obenge.

Answer: bushmeat. At least for the last decade and a half, bushmeat is the cash staple. Along with the 39 families there were close to the same number of rotating bushmeat buyers. They paddled up from Opala with salt, baubles, clothes, and medicines, and they traded directly for bushmeat. The exchange rate was in favor of the merchant; the hunter was often left in debt. The debt was to be paid in future bushmeat.

Another potential source of revenue: The forest near Obenge has the main remnant elephants of the middle-Lomami. They are concentrated in the nearby basin of the Tutu, tributary to the Lomami. When we first came, however, large scale elephant hunting seemed mainly a thing of the past.

elephant skull on forest floor_2009
Elephants bones dating from slaughters of one to three years previous were common.

There were plenty of elephant bones scattered on the forest floor, but the main poachers were in jail. The infamous Colonel Thoms and the coldly vicious Major Ranger. They were both from ethnic groups further south in Maniema and Sankuru Provinces, the Balanga and the Djonga.

Obenge village seemed ready to rid itself of this recent past. The chief participated in the arrest of another elephant poacher soon after we arrived. He too was from the Balanga, coming from the south.

Osongo_elephant poacher arrested Obenge_2011
Osongo, a Mulanga elephant poacher arrested by an Opala policeman in Obenge in 2011.

It was a good time to make a park. Bushmeat traders are usually not criminal; elephant poachers, on the other hand, with military weapons and often with connections high in the army, can be boldly criminal; they act untouchable.

But for the park, Obenge’s very existence was a problem. A National Park cannot have any permanent habitations within its borders. Obenge would be illegal, though only a remote speck, in bend after bend of unbroken green along the Lomami and barely visible even in a low-flying plane where horizon-to-horizon is forest – still, Obenge would be illegal. And would its existence in the park serve as a cover for poachers from far as well as near?

The easiest solution – even though the nearest village to Obenge is more than 70 river km downstream, about 40 km as the crow flies- was just to redefine the park borders so that Obenge was sitting on the edge and outside, but keep the Tutu River and other areas of major elephant population on the inside.

MAP 2011_of proposed limits for north park
Proposed limits that would leave Obenge outside the park borders.

ICCN (the parks service) will accompany the park proposal through the National government. We discussed how to draw the borders with them, the administrative authorities of Opala and traditional authorities. The sector chiefs objected. John’s modified map would exclude the sectors of Walengola Babira and Mituku Bamoya. The chiefs insisted that their sectors had extensive uninhabited forest on the east bank of the Lomami. Why should they be excluded from the park because of a single small village?
They wanted the contours below:

2013_park map as now is agreed
These limits were adopted by the chiefs and are written into the park proposal.

Could Obenge give up bushmeat and become an agricultural enclave? The TL2 project tried an experiment with cabbage, beans, green peppers, eggplant.. They grew well on Obenge’s raised beds. There was a huge crop. But where was the market? Where could the vegetables arrive without rotting first? If there was no market, gardens provided no substitute for the easily transported smoked bushmeat.

Jardin Obenge
Our agricultural experiment in Obenge was highly productive.

With our outboard motor a dugout can get to Opala in two days, but already the cost of fuel surpasses the selling price of the vegetables carried. And Opala is not a good market. It is a small town surrounded by good agricultural land, vast fields of rice. Could Obenge get its produce to the much larger market of Kisangani? Not and make any money, it was another three and a half days by motorized dugout.

Here is a comparison of 2016 prices for more durable garden produce versus forest produce from the market in Kisangani, price in dollars per kilo:

prices in Kisangani
The ivory, of course, is not sold at the open market.

At a traditional ceremony within the village of Obenge, chief Longbembengembe and her elders agreed to the park in general.

At a later ceremony amongst the Lengola and Mituku the chief of Obenge agreed to move out of the park – with conditions:
Help moving, help building, help clearing the forest, help with food until their first gardens produce rice and manioc. And they want better social conditions: a school and a dispensary.

tambiko at Obenge in 2011
The first tambiko in Obenge.

Our TL2/Lukuru project certainly did not have the money for this. We turned to the bilateral and multilateral donors who said that they would have funds for the Lomami Park: World Bank (through their PrePan program), GIZ (german aid), GFA (a consultancy group representing the conservation initiative of KfW – the german development bank — in DR Congo).

The chief Marie Longbembengembe is chief of a groupement (geographic area including a few to many villages). Her request is that the new Obenge remains in the same groupement even if north of the park. Then she and her people would still have their own forest to hunt in and they would be guests of no one.

So what help could the big funders give? None of them could actually help with the physical move, that would go against policy. But World Bank (PrePan project) said that it could help with a preliminary study to determine costs and then help once the village had moved. GIZ said it could finance a development project, but not the relocation of a village. KfW said basically the same thing, they had to avoid the criticism that they participated in “forcing” people out of the park. World Bank, however, would make a study of what building a new village would cost. Our interpretation was that there was money for all except the original move out of the village. Things stalled.

Should the TL2/Lukuru project help with the first step? It would involve not just fuel to move all the families and their possessions by dugout, but much more: temporary housing, putting in gardens… But worse: what if we could help with these first steps and then no one was there to help with the second and third steps? We waited for the study by World Bank.

In the meantime –late 2011- there was a seismic change for the elephants and a realignment of alliances in Obenge village. Ranger had finished his two-year prison term for poaching and was back in the forest. Thoms had escaped from a life prison sentence for massive rape and torture after little more than a year’s incarceration. He was back in the forest. At first we did not suspect the importance of these two events.

Thoms came to Obenge. It became general knowledge that he took the chief as his concubine. Did he? It is true that he stayed in her tiny house and called our team leaders to her house where he told them they could go about their business, but he would go about his. His business was killing elephants.
About this time two army deserters joined the ranks of Thoms’s band. Though unknown to us, the news had moved to the top ranks of the Army. Because of who these deserters were, their association with Thoms was considered a national threat, a rebel army in the forest. Two hundred military marched on Obenge.

military reach Obenge_2013
Military on the Lomami. Would superior number and superior weapons beat forest skills?

February 2013: Two hundred military arriving on the banks of the Lomami across from Obenge was another seismic change. Thoms band dispersed. There were numerous arrests; in shoot outs boys from Obenge, aligned with Thoms, were killed; military were killed by Thoms gang. The military used our Obenge-based team as guides.

**** a graphic and disturbing photo follows ****

Escaping alive was not enough for Thoms. He was not about to leave Obenge in peace with its new military corps. He circled around. Vavis, Guillaume Kapere’s son, explained what happened:

“Thoms lived in the outer gardens for two days, fed by the chief Longbembengembe herself. Then the chief called on the men of the village to go chop down a tree to make a dugout. Her cousin, Kapere knew where a good tree was. She told them to do it on Friday even though the usual community work day is Saturday.

When far from the village and close to the tree, Thoms and his men stepped out from the forest with their guns on the men. The others were forbidden to move, Thoms walked away with Kapere.

It was 6 days later, a lone fisherman smelled decay close to the shore, further upstream. He stepped into the forest, followed the odor until he found the maggot covered remnants of Kapere. He had been tied to a tree, whipped to death and then the lashings were cut and he fell to the ground.”

Kapere's body found, about to be returned to village _2013
A group of villagers accompanied the fisherman, to bring Kapere’s body back.

The military arrested Chief Longbembengembe and sent her to Kisangani. Complicity.

Obenge village and military at burial of Kapere
Villagers and military stand together at the funeral.

But still there was no peace. There were attempts on the life of Alacho, who served as chief in the absence of both Kapere and Longbembengembe. The villagers no longer felt safe; husband and wife could no longer walk out alone to work in their garden. Each family began to build a raft to flee.

building a raft_Obenge sept 2013
Obenge families started building rafts of bamboo and light weight sticks.

Alacho told Bofenda, the TL2 camp leader “We agreed to move. Where are you now when we need you?”

kids on raft_aug 2013
Everything went on the rafts: chickens, goats, everything that could be harvested.

The village dispersed. Many went downstream to Opala, others towards the Lualaba River, to Bimbi or even Muchaliko, others to relatives in Kisangani.

rafts_loaded and leaving august 2013
Over a period of a few weeks, a whole village floated away.

It was tempting to think of this as a solution, a tragic solution, to the problem of Obenge, the village in the park.

What’s more, the elephants, at least in the core Tutu area were probably better protected than for the previous two years. Thoms was on the run without the stability he needed to organize poaching missions.

But this was no real solution.

For one thing: the bandits were not permanently incapacitated. Far from Obenge to the northwest of the Park, Ranger’s band burned our camp at Lohumonoko and tortured the three men who were in camp.

They then burned three villages along the Lomami River.

Ongwaina january 2014
Was it a show of power? Was it a statement that they would be around longer than the military?

For another thing: Most of the people of Obenge were in Opala where they had neither land nor houses. It was when visiting Opala in 2014 that we saw the penury of Obenge’s displaced.

displaced in chekecheke
Obenge’s displaced met with ICCN and the TL2/Lukuru team on a trip upriver in 2014.

“Find us some forest, a home of our own. We are afraid to return and yet you do not help.”

In November 2014, TL2 project decided that it had to at least start the first steps with all the concerned administrations: the province, the territory, the sector and, of course the village itself. Willy Mekombo, our program manager, brought everyone to a meeting in Kisangani including the chief Longbembengembe who was now freed from prison. The villagers announced their choice of site, Bangaliwa, a village abandoned at the beginning of the 21st century in the last years of the rebellion.

The displaced villagers, with TL2/Lukuru staff, and representatives of all the authorities took off for Bangaliwa that December, seven km due north of the park limit.

chief docking at Bangaliwa_end 2014
The chief and elders watch in anticipation as they dock at the abandoned village site, Bangaliwa.

The chief surrounded by her people held a traditional tambiko, a ceremony to bless the new site. It was also to honor the ancestors’ graves that they would leave in Obenge.

tambiko at Bangaliwa to identify the move_2014
The chief called on the ancestors to bless the new site.

Willy returned to Kinshasa confident that the move was off to a good start.

Alas, sorting out support from the bi-lateral and multi-lateral donors still seemed impossible. GIZ did the simplest thing: “We can buy materials,” they said. They put roofing metal, mattresses and a chain saw in a container in Kisangani, 30,000 dollars worth. A good start. But the materials still sit in the container waiting for a go ahead from the other big donors or ICCN. Obenge waited.

Finally, months later, the chief and a handful of people paddled back up to the original village site of Obenge. Chief Longbembengembe said they had to start their rice gardens.

“We will not continue to live off the charity of others.”

At the original village, the Obenge forest is already cleared, planting easy. A TL2/Lukuru team is still based at the Obenge site along with a remnant of the 2013 military contingent. The chief knew they would help in case of need.

return to Obenge1, sept 2014
The chief with a group of villagers paddling back up to Obenge.

This was a disaster: Recalcitrant settlers return to settle in the middle of the soon-to-be Lomami National Park. It looked like the park would lose all the progress made. And what would happen to them once the park was declared? For the sake of the people of Obenge as well as the park, we could not wait any longer.

In December 2015, Willy started a second mission with Simeon Dino. Dino has been with the TL2 project since 2007 and knows well all the original citizens of Obenge. The TL2 project bought an initial quantity of roof metal, nails, machetes, shovels and a chainsaw. Dino chose, Louison Bakatunga, who has worked beside many of Obenge’s villagers in the forest for years. He would be Chief of Operations on site at Bangaliwa, or, now, Obenge 2.

open camp bangaliwa nov 2015
The first camp opened on the site of Bangaliwa in December 2015.

Half a year later, it is still only the TL2/Lukuru project on site. But progress is being made….

Mama chefitaine at Bangaliwa_fev16
The chief with Willy (middle) and Pablo (far right) at Bangaliwa in February 2016.

16ha have been cleared, 13 of the workers are from Obenge. A house has been built for the chief and she is planting a garden….

Mama chefitaine planting at bangaliwa
Pablo helps the Chief plant her garden at Bangaliwa.

Still the challenges are enormous… With our limited means will we be able to convince the whole village to relocate at Bangaliwa – and not return to Obenge 1?

Storing rations at Bangaliwa
Food stocks at Bangaliwa will be needed to feed the village until their gardens can produce rice and manioc.

The new Obenge2 has many advantages. It is near three other villages. Together they are a large enough population to warrant an elementary school and a medical dispensary. And it is closer to Opala, the nearest market, and there is a forest trail that leads to Ubundu. Already a first group of Obenge citizens is putting in their rice and manioc gardens….

Bangaliwa from the Lomami_feb 2016 copy
And Bangaliwa/Obenge2 seems a peaceful village….

African Grey Parrot Bust _ Now What?

recent dead in periwinkle
Recently dead African Grey Parrots are scattered through the periwinkle at a holding site of one of Byart Birds’s local buyers.

Four motorbikes loaded with baskets of African Grey Parrot chicks crossed the Kasuku River for Kindu on February 14th just as it grew dark. The security officer on duty knew that they were illegal. He called Leon who has been documenting the grey parrot traffic through Kindu for more than a year.

Kindu-Lomami, Kasuku crossing
A dugout ferry takes motorbikes across the Kasuku River. The ancient bridge pillars in the background attest to colonial ambition – never realized.

Leon informed Maniema’s Environment Minister; the minister sent security officers to intercept the shipment at Byart Birds’s holding facilities in Kindu. Theo and Cams, local buyers who hold the parrots before shipping to Kinshasa, were under immediate house arrest, and now in jail.

Théo_operating with advances from Byart
A local buyer watches as his facility is taken over by security forces. He had been paying climbers with advance funds from Byart Birds.

Up to now excesses in the African Grey Parrot trade hid behind the semi-legality provided by a CITES export quota for DR Congo.

Maison Byart crossed out
“Maison Byart” is scratched out below and replaced by the more discreet “B.A.”. Perhaps a recognition that the illegality of the operation was more than the usual.

Not only were far more than the permitted 5000 exported annually, but also these were acquired at the expense of huge mortality at every stage of the capture and shipment process.

Governor's letter prolonging closed season
At the end of January, the governor of Maniema announced that the parrot capture season would remain closed – no captures, no exports.

There was no longer any ambiguity – these birds were illegal. The authorities in the province of Maniema knew that in January 2016, CITES put a ban on all African Grey exports out of DR Congo except for 1600 supposedly ready for transport. Maniema’s capture season for grey parrots was to reopen at the beginning of February. The governor passed a decision to keep it closed (see above).

African Grey Parrots being held for Byart Birds at one of the raided facilities in Kindu. These were almost all taken before fledging from nests over the last three months.

These birds were illegal in Maniema and they were certainly not part of any national stock ready for export. Captured as only partially feathered chicks over the last three months, they had to be hand fed a mush to even stay alive.

force feeding young parrot at Lake Ndjale
Force feeding a chick after capture at Lake Ndjale before sending to Kindu and eventually Kinshasa.

The parrot trade in DR Congo has developed in a make-believe legality. Restrictions are side-stepped, re-interpreted and never literally applied. As unstoppable as an afternoon shadow, the disappearance of African Greys spreads over Congo’s forests. Already Provinces that were parrot redoubts a few years ago have lost their colonies and profitability. Collectors and commissioners move to neighboring forests. In the TL2 landscape (Maniema and Tshopo Provinces), the parrot commerce is run by people from Sankuru and Equator Provinces where the parrot forests are now nearly empty. These immigrant collectors climb to take parrots from roosts in Maniema where local villagers have no idea of the value.

a mobile unit_boom box, guide bird, and life's essentials copy
An itinerant parrot climber with decoy bird, boom box and other essential possessions.

What is the value? An African Grey is sold in South Africa and the Middle East for 100s of dollars. The buyer in Kindu buys a parrot from the climber for $5 or $6.

dead parrots and parrot parts in trash heap
Dead parrots on the trash pile at a local buyer’s holding facility.

When the Province closed Byart Birds’s holding facilities, they contained at least 420 living parrots. In the four days after they were busted, at least 65 parrots died. All of these parrots appear to have been taken as nestlings.

Nestlings in captivity Kindu
Some of the youngest birds at the facility.

An attempt to release the birds was made. Only fifteen could fly. In Theo’s facility there was a 10 year-old teacher bird that trains the nestlings to eat their peanuts, but most were not able to respond to the possibility of flight. It is estimated that all had been taken from nests in the last few months, all during Maniema’s closed season.

ICCN moves in for confiscation
The ICCN provincial director and head warden of Lomami National Park overseas the crating for shipment to Kinshasa of the illegal birds.

in shipping container
The parrots in one of the crates.

crates on tarmac_295 birds to Kinshasa
The crates at the airport.

Two hundred and ninety five (295) living birds were transferred to ICCN (Congolese Conservation Institute) and flown to Kinshasa.

Governor speaks at aiport_parrot shipment
The governor, Tutu Salumu Pascal, came to the airport for the shipment and made a public warning of the illegality of all parrot captures and trade in the Province of Maniema.

Because the Maniema authorities were monitoring air shipments, parrots started going downstream on Congo River barges instead. They would then be flown out of Kisangani where it was still semi-legal. Leon was informed by one shipper that his load of 130 parrots left the dock in Kindu, but only 30 were alive on arrival in Kisangani.

Dead parrots and parrot food mixed
Dead parrots in the parrot food at one raided facility in Kindu.

Another shipment of confiscated parrots is now being prepared for Kinshasa as the authorities in Kindu uncover more illegal parrots. A load of 54 parrots of the “group Byart” was arrested on the river. Only 39 of these survived. Of a group of 72 handed over in Kindu, 11 survived. Another small group of parrots (5) was arrested from collectors on the road to Kindu. At this reporting, one is dead.

parrots_hand held camera_
Red tail feathers glowing in the sun….as it should be.

Despite the high mortality, what is happening now is the best news for parrots yet in DR Congo. The semi-legality with all its false permits, cheating on numbers and seasons, and multiple names for single exporters is being revealed. It has to be stopped.

Parrots passing before camera trap
On wing before a camera trap … as it should be.

Our hope is that the cynical disrespect for international norms revealed by this “bust” will be taken as seriously nationally and internationally as is the case in the province of Maniema, itself, where a moratorium of at least two years on all parrot captures is being prepared.  The buyers are being arrested and climbers chased from collection sites.

A Congolese forest where evening comes on without the reassurance of a parrot chorale, raucous and friendly, will be followed by a dark and very long night.

as it should be…

Parrot shipments from Kindu and Kisangani