A Rainy Season Crossing to the Lomami River

November and December are the height of the rainy season in the Lomami Park and this has been a wet rainy season. A trip into the park is more complicated. BUT, with good porters and adequate audacity, it is still possible.

1_packing to leave ChombeKilima
The porters are checking their loads before leaving the last village.

All the streams are overflowing…

2_Junior at clearwater stream
Only “mayi nyeupe” is not flooded. It is a clear spring and our best drinking water. Junior, thuraya in one hand, is filling up for the rest of the walk.

… the biggest challenge is the Loidjo: not only is the river channel over its banks, the whole west riverside is flooded for a kilometer and some deep bayous are brimming over.

The Loidjo River Crossing
The Loidjo’s left bank is low. The river seems to go on and on.

Loidjo is 20 km from the nearest village and our attempts at bridge making are not quite up to the challenge.

3_Starting across the Loidjo
We start across the main river bed and strongest current.

Usually the current is more than six feet below us. Okonda and Heritier, in the lead, found some of the major poles were washed away.

4_Okonda and Hertier patch gap
Balanced on one pole Okonda and Heritier try to reposition another one.

Junior took the pictures. We were travelling with Karsten who manages the Obenge base camp.

6_across Loidjo but no dry land
Once across the main channel the water kept going.

7_left not good_how 'bout right
The bridge trellis is out and left does not look good, how about right?

8_Okonda says to go right
Okonda says to go right…by the upturned root mass…

9_you're taller_can you carry this?
You’re taller than me, why don’t you carry this?

10_eventually I swim pas upturned root mass
Besides I end up swimming…

11_Okonda makes second trip across 3rd deep area
Last deep bayou and disintegrated bridge, Okonda carried the loads of several of the less “stable” travelers…

12_no problem
With someone else carrying my camera, what is there to worry about?

14_rest step before Boha and mainly dry
We had dried out a bit when we stopped before the Boha savanna.

15_Wet gluey savanna is no easier
But flooded savanna, where the mud is a suction to every step, is no easier than a flooded stream…

It was good to get to Katopa camp for a hot bucket bath and a cup of hot sugared tea.

Bonobos in the Baies

TL2’s bonobos have different strategies in different areas across a wide ecological range.
Above a group is feeding in a baie or forest clearing called Musubuku in the northern part of the Lomami National Park.

distribution of bonobos in the Lomami National Park and buffer zone
On the map above, each survey grid square is 100 km2. The area within each square had at least 10km of survey effort. The surveys were done during our first years in TL2, 2007 – 2009.

TL2’s bonobos are distinguished by two genetically distinct populations, separated by the Lomami River. Now we know there is marked diversity in the ecology and behavior of these bonobos as well.

Bonobos occur throughout the TL2 landscape, from the open canopied forests and galleries bordering the savannas in the south through the high, closed forests of the north (see map above). At the outset, as we began explorations in 2007, we predicted that bonobos would be more abundant in the north of the landscape than in the south. Not only were the northern forests unbroken by savannas, but, compared to the south, they had a history of low human settlement with little hunting of apes. These undisturbed forests, it seemed to us, would be an ape haven. Yet the opposite seemed to be the case. Bonobos are widespread and common in the southern ecotone forests. We frequently encounter night nests and feeding sign on our inventories. bonobo feeding sign in forest_marantaceae
A ripped Marantaceae stalk is evidence of bonobo feeding in the southern forests.

Direct encounters with the apes are common. Though they rarely venture into the seasonally flooded grasslands, they are frequent around their margins. Outside the park they sometimes come right up to the edge of villages, and occasionally into the gardens where they are tolerated by at least some villages despite their crop raiding. Among ourselves we refer to this area of the landscape as the southern bonobo sector (see map).

In the dense forests in the north, in contrast, bonobo nesting sites are uncommon and widely dispersed, the apes themselves are encountered only infrequently. Bonobos seem to be absent or scarce over large areas of this unsettled wilderness. But why ?

Clues came as we learned more about the feeding habits of bonobos, and the differences in the composition of the forest in the two regions. Terrestrial herbaceous vegetation, in particular certain species in the Marantaceae family, is very important in the diets of TL2 bonobos, as elsewhere across their range. The palatable herbaceous species are abundant in the understory of the southern bonobo sector, but rare in the dark, close-canopied forests in the north. In addition, while bonobos feed on fruits from a large number of species, their preferred foods came from only a small number of tree species. Preferred trees that are relatively common in the southern bonobo sector are rare in the north.

Rachelle sampling bonobo fruit_Annonidium
In the south, TL2 volunteer, Rachelle, with team leader, Junior, sample the bonobos’ Annonidium fruits.

Differences in ecology thus appeared to play a major role in determining the distribution and abundance of bonobos across the TL2 landscape. But that still leaves unanswered just what bonobos are feeding on in the closed forests in the north of the landscape.

This bonobo in Musubuku appears to be eating at least two species of plants.

Camera traps have now provided a clue. The northern TL2 contains many small, wet clearings, many just a hundred meters across or less, termed edos, or baies. These attracted our interest as they are crisscrossed with tracks of large mammals. In 2013 we began placing camera traps at some of these clearings to record visiting fauna. Buffalo, sitatunga and bongo appeared on videos in almost all of the clearings, elephants at others. Most of these videos were recorded at night. Then, to our surprise, we began to get photos and videos of bonobos at some of the clearings during the day. In the videos the bonobos are feeding on ground vegetation growing in the clearings, sometimes wading out through mud and standing water to harvest the plants. bonobo knuckle print
Bonobo knuckle prints in a baie.

Alerted, we began to inspect the clearings more carefully. We discovered the bonobos’ tell tale foot and hand prints associated with their feeding sign. We found that bonobos were selecting not only specific plants, but also specific plant parts, usually the tender, buried meristems where new leaves are produced. The reason it seemed that we missed this evidence before, is that the day time feeding sign of the bonobos was often obliterated by the trodding and stomping of the large hoofed animals at night.

uprooted by bonobo in baie
Uprooted and torn apart near bonobo prints.

Harvesting plants in clearings, something we had never seen in the southern bonobo sector, appears to play a significant role in the feeding ecology of bonobos in the north.

A leopard, too, samples the baie’s vegetation by day.

Yet even as we gain new insights, further questions arise. Clearings are highly variable, and only some are used by bonobos. What are the key differences between clearings that attract bonobos and those they do not use? Nor do bonobos come to the clearings every day. Do they come at specific seasons to harvest their favorite herbs in a certain stage of growth? Where are they going the rest of the time, and what are they eating?

These small discoveries about bonobos remind us how much less information we have about the north of the Park. Although twice the size of the southern sector we have only one team in the north and seven teams in the south. In 2013 elephant poaching criminals started attacking our camps and project staff at Obenge. We cut back our efforts in the north. We are now rebuilding with improved security. Our goal in 2016 is to expand monitoring and surveillance, inside and outside the park, so that we can do a major elephant census and start exploring the areas we do not yet know.

As the TL2 teams follow bonobos across the northern landscape, they will lead us to answers and more questions. Already the bonobos in the baies have shown us a new importance of the clearings in the north and more questions about those in the south.

Post contributed by John Hart

Ivory Sting Operation – for Lomami Elephants

Ranger arrested in 2008
Ranger (center) in 2008 during his arrest for Ivory poaching. After 2 years in prison, he is back poaching Lomami elephants.

Four gangs are now poaching the remnant elephant population of the Loamami Park:
— Ranger’s gang from north west of the park,
— Tchuma’s gang from the north center of the park,
— Sylva’s gang from the north east of the park, and
— Thom’s gang from dead center of the park.

map with poachers locations
The elephants are in the middle of four poaching gangs and condemned by rising ivory prices and a corrupt element within the military.

Photo Thoms near Obenge 2007
We only have two photos of Thoms – this one before he served time in prison for, among other things, 135 rapes in the western buffer zone of the Lomami Park. Thoms “escaped” after less than three years  of what was to be a life sentence in high-security prison. He continues poaching (and raping).

An estimate based only on observations of informants from the two northern towns of Opala and Ubundu is that 23 elephants have been poached from the Lomami in 2015. Might well be more.

Elephant meat for sale in Opala, september 2015
The amount and availability of elephant meat in Opala – photo above in Sept 2015 — was a first sign of increasing danger. ½ kg (just over 1 lb) costs about $2. Informants say bandits’ guns and ammunition come from the Congolese military.

Arrests and confiscations have started. A group of determined officials within the Congolese military (FARDC), the Congolese secret service (ANR), the parks service (ICCN) and the Congolese provincial administration (Orientale Province) are cracking down. Not easy. They often find that certain doors within their own administrations are closed, the very places from which the most help should be coming.

two loads of ivory confiscated before shipment
Just two confiscations in sept-oct 2015 are over 70kg (>155lbs).

Confiscations made:
— Date: 7 Sept 2015 – 53 kg (116lbs) of ivory confiscated at Kisangani’s Bangoka airport.
— Date: 22 Oct 2015 – 20 kg (44lbs) of ivory confiscated from Bangoka at the foot of a ServeAir cargo plane.

presidential guard stops ivory from loading
The Republican guard went to the foot of the plane to identify and remove the package of ivory after being alerted by anonymous informants.

As a military stated himself:
“First, it is against the law to kill elephants, but second, the very bandits we supply with arms and ammunition today, will turn on us tomorrow.”

Thoms and his gang is the example to be feared. Supplied with arms and ammunition by the military for elephant poaching since 2007, Thoms has turned against the military and the population.

letter from Lieutenant Omari to Tchuma's gang
This 2009 letter from Lieutenant Omari (previous FARDC commander in Opala), stamped with his official seal, informs members of Thoms’s gang of ammunition deliveries. Among others, he mentions Tchuma, now with his own independent poaching operation.

Note: in the last three years, with military arms and ammunition, Thoms has killed at least 5 FARDC soldiers and wounded others. At least three civilians have been killed by his thugs, among them Kapere who worked for our TL2 project. Col Thoms’s gang has burned four villages and tortured at least six civilians, three of them TL2 project workers.

Minister of Environment for Orientale Province with confiscated ivory
The minister of the environment of Orientale holds part of a tusk seized during one of the recent arrests below.

Some recent arrests are promising:

— Date- 23 Sept 2015: Felix Bongela Yafolo, a poacher, is arrested in Ubundu with a trunk, heart and liver from a recently killed elephant.

— Date- 4 Oct 2015: Lieutenant Asumani Sumaili is arrested by the Republican Guard at a river crossing on the road between Opala and Kisangani. He is carrying two whole elephant tusks and elephant meat.

— Date- 9 Oct 2015: Captain Didier Bosongo Basosila is arrested 18 km outside Kisangani, coming from Opala. He has a suitcase of ivory.

— Date- 9 Oct 2015: Akili Okondo, an elephant poacher, is arrested in Opala and sent to Kisangani. He admits to bringing ivory to the military in Opala.

Felix arrested in Ubundu with elephant meat
Felix, arrested with elephant parts, is now under arrest in Kisangani.

The poacher Mobeti 18 km south of Opala
Mobeti, above in grey cap, is a poacher in Rangers gang. On 10 October 2015, an undercover agent interrogated him at a market 18 km outside of Opala.

The poacher Mobeti, photo above, was recorded saying:
“ …if you are arrested, the military commander will act like he doesn’t know you, but then he will liberate you. …I collaborate with the army: if you tell me ‘Mobeti, take this gun, go find ivory’ ; if you buy me my rations; OK, I go. …If you want to leave, you say, ‘Mobeti, give me back my gun’. I give it back to you. …But I won’t hide it from you, Mzee, it takes three chargers to kill an elephant. In fact an animal was killed with 101 shots, three hunters fired…”

If that amount of ammunition is going to the poachers, they now have significant stocks.

The price of ivory in Kinshasa varies. It depends on the quality of the ivory and where the transactions occur. In the second half of October 2015: ivory can be bought for from $150 to $200 per kg and resold for up to $300 per kg. These prices will keep driving the slaughter; 100 kg of ivory will bring over $15,000 maybe up to $30,000.

The civil society of Opala gave a plea over the radio:

“…the military officers that poach elephants in Opala receive support from their commanders…”
“ ..the military court in Kisangani should seek more information in the case of Captain Bosongo and Lieutenant Asumani. We need to know where and to whom they have sent ammunition and military weapons …”

elephant skull in lomami park
The forest is littered with the bones of elephants.

We join the civil society of RD Congo in thanking the authorities that are determined to reveal the ivory scam that is destroying Congo’s elephants and bringing fear and violence to the Lomami.

minister talks to the press
The minister of Orientale Province talks to the press. He gives the following injunction: Our country’s re-found peace should be an opportunity for us to rebuild our wildlife. It is deplorable that certain of our fellow citizens destroy all the efforts put forward by the Republic to create a new national park, and they do so saying that they are obeying their own hierarchy.

Are the above arrests and confiscations enough to stop the Lomami elephant massacre? It will be slowed, at least temporarily, but with the ivory price so high, we must remain united with the Congolese officials — those who are determined to protect elephants and the rural village populations. We must not relent until the poachers themselves are brought to justice.

Of these elephants caught on camera trap along the Lomami in 2014 — how many remain?

Villages and Gunfire along the Lomami

mood serious on return
Karsten and his team returning to Obenge after third time under gunfire in less than a month.

We planned to meet part way. John, Matthieu and myself were to take a dugout moving downstream from Katopa camp. In the meantime, Karsten who now directs activities at the northern Obenge camp would take a dugout upstream.

Here’s the plan: First Karsten stops at Biondo. There, he hikes in to collect the first data from the camera trap grid, comes back to Biondo and continues upstream. We meet at Lifongo, the river that marks the division between Orientale and Maniema Provinces.

Villages and camps near Lomami

Plan was to meet at Lifongo River mouth. We come downstream. Karsten comes upstream.

Afterwards we send our Katopa dugout, with Maniema military, back to Katopa. We climb into Karsten’s dugout which has Orientale based military, turn around and continue downstream to Obenge. After a visit at Obenge, John and I will take a dugout further downstream to Opala and then motor-mikes to Kisangani.

That was the plan. Karsten started first, on the 5th of September, as he had to stop to at Biondo. The hike into the E15 camera traps, uploading the data, and hike out would be at least 5 days.crocodile_Mecistops cataphractus
Narrow-snouted crocodile taking stock of Karsten’s passing dugout.

Karsten’s team made their first stop at Likaka at 14 hrs (2PM). This was Col Thom’s (elephant poacher and escaped convict) forest camp discovered on the last trip.

The first day was maximum tension. The military disembarked and walked towards the camp so the dugout motor would not be heard just in case Thoms’s gang was there. Gunfire as soon as they came out of the forest. Washi saw three men disappear into the trees. There may have been more. By the time the dugout beached the burning was well underway.

The TL2 team with the military set fire to Thoms’s Camp Likaka in the middle of the park.

Then they continued upstream. This is where the curves in the course of the Lomami do not serve us well. On the same day, three hours later and just a couple of kilometers from the Biondo camp the dugout was under gunfire. The same men as ran off at Likaka? Had they cut forest, using the short path connecting one side of a bend to the other. Who knows what trap might be waiting at Biondo?

Karsten and the TL2 team hit the bottom of the dugout.

Voices and gunfire come from a wall of trees.

First trip aborted, but no one was injured. Karsten’s team did not stop at Biondo. They continued upstream in the dusk. Made a small camp. The next dawn they continued upstream as far as the village of Kakongo. They spent two nights and then returned straight to Obenge to reassess.

Five days later, on the 13th of September, they took off again from Obenge arriving at Biondo the same night. They camped and hiked out the next morning to the Camera trap grid.

Karsten and team resetting camera trap

Resetting one of the camera traps after downloading the videos.

In the meantime we were at Katopa and the delay had served us well. The Secretary of the Balanga Secteur had come all the way from the village capital of the Balanga at KimiaKimia (see map), to join us in Katopa. We wanted him to see the Balanga villages on the banks of the Lomami, some were ancient, some were brand new and we feared they were all used as camouflage for hunters to poach in the park.

The Balanga sector has one road on its far east side– a road accessible only to motorbikes and bicycles. But the Balanga sector is also on the west bank of the Lomami River. This is an important buffer zone of the park where villages are only connected by footpaths. It is also home turf for the criminal, Col Thoms, from the village Ngombe.

The secretary, Longoma Beloko, saw our trip as a possibility for him to see what was really happening in his sector. (A sector is an administrative unit like a county, but often established along ethnic lines. The Balanga are an ethnic group). We left on the 18th of September. Our first stop was BeneKamba, ancient village on the Lomami river, way-station for Ivory and slaves during the Arab era and for Ivory and miserably-paid labor during the early Belgian era.

town meeting Bene Kamba The children and the men were the first to gather at Benekamba. Women came later.

The Secretary gathered the villagers, his fellow Balanga, and told them not to hunt in the park and never to hunt Bonobo or Elephant anywhere. He said that Benekamba would become an endpoint for one of two official foot passages across the Park. The village would be responsible for helping to monitor the loads that left BeneKamba that would again be checked on the other side of the park.

we spent night along Lomami

We camped the night in an empty fishing camp on the banks of the Lomami.

The next day we reached Bokeke a brand new village. Although we were still in the Balanga Sector there were no Balanga in the village. It was a group migrating from another Province; they were Djonga (ethnic group). We all strongly suspected the agricultural activity to be a cover for poaching in the park. The village had not been initiated through normal procedure; the sector had no record of its existence.

BOKEKE went from fishing camp to village
The new village, Bokeke, on the Lomami River.

secretary explains about protected spp

The Secretary Beloko warning about totally protected species. Next to him the a local chief (chef de groupement) who also accompanied us.

These stops delayed us. We sent a thuraya message to Karsten saying we would not reach Lifongo on the evening of the 19th as planned but would spend the night in Kakongo and arrive the next day.

2 Calibre 12_hunt in park?
The village had a least two 12 calibre shotguns. We suspected for hunting in the park.

In the meantime Karsten had arrived back in Biondo camp on the 18th and continued on to Lifongo that same day.

We received a thuraya message on the 19th:

“We’ve been fired on. From both banks. Military wounded. Returning to Obenge immediately.”

The second meeting at Lifongo was also aborted.
Best option: John, Matthieu, the secretary Beloko and I walked 46km east to the village of Bafundo and our dugout returned upstream to Katopa camp.

A week and a half later we met up with Karsten and got the full story.

first soins for wounded in dugout

Zagbala, the wounded military, in the dugout heading back to Obenge.

What happened: From the prow of the dugout the deckhand, Fidel, who usually marked the depth of the river saw a dugout coming around a bend upstream. The dugout turned around and disappeared. After brief consultation the decision was to follow it. Probably whoever it was, they were scared. Probably it was Balanga fishermen who might have fresh fish to sell.

Our team saw the dugout along the shore, a new dugout, and as they approached, Fidel saw it was loaded with supplies: plantains, jerry cans of palm oil, piles of manioc…
Fidel saw movement…
“Turn around” “Turn around” he yelled to the coxswain.
Too late. Gun fire from both banks. The Military returned fire. But Zagbala, a military, was hit.

hands on_no anesthesia
No anesthesia back in Obenge. But plenty of hands-on to help.

Alfonse, one of our staff at Obenge, is also a nurse and he gave first aid in the dugout and again back in Obenge. Zagbala slept OK the second night. And Karsten accompanied him to Kisangani. A bullet wound to the flesh, no bones affected.

inserting a drip
Alfonse inserts a serum drip.

Follow-up: What we found out in Kakongo is that Col Thoms had returned to his natal Balanga village of Ngombe for supplies. He returned to the forest with some new recruits. It was his dugout at the Lifongo bend.

There are now two military operations underway. One in Orientale in the forest around Thoms’s bases there, and one in Maniema moving towards his natal village to cut off the supply route. Will there be success? It is a huge forest to hide in, the weak point is that Col Thoms has to have enough food for him and his gang.

Will there be a favorable end to this story soon? We will keep updates coming.