Lomami National Park: a New Protected Area in D.R. Congo

On July 19th 2016, the Lomami National Park took its place as Congo’s 8th national park, the first in more than forty years.

marking southern limits with chiefs
The Parc National de la Lomami (PNL) markers are set along the southern limit with local chiefs.

This gold nugget surfaced from the travail of many, long collaborations. The real debate started in the villages – under leaf roofs, in empty schoolrooms, or open-air churches.

discussion at village meeting
Discussion about park in a Ngengele village along the southern border.

High chiefs discussed with village chiefs and hunters coming from afar argued with hunters who lived nearby.

2012_Chief of Balanga sector (from east) helping with outreach in western village of Yalombe
The chief of the Langa Sector explains the need to protect animals from overhunting to BaLanga in the village of Yalombe.

There were traditional ceremonies; the ancestors were consulted.

Obenge tambiko dancing
The Mbole and Mituku sing and dance as part of the tambiko ceremony consulting ancestors about the park. There were 5 tambikos called by traditional leaders in the immediate vicinity of the park.

The Congolese Nature Institute (ICCN) said a park was needed. In 2010 the villages of the southern sector of the park accepted the park; in 2011 the villages in the north accepted the park.

PN Lomami with the other 7 DRCongo national parks
The Lomami National Park (in green) takes its place in the center of DR Congo among its seven other national parks.

The park itself is 8,874 km² of uninhabited forest with islands of savanna in the south, hills in the west, and the great natural highway of the Lomami River wandering up towards a northern junction with the Congo River.

our dugouts on the Lomami
Our dugouts on the Lomami River close to the border between Maniema and Tshopo provinces.

By 2013 the area was locally delimited and the governors of both provinces, Maniema and Orientale (now Tshopo) had created provincial parks — no hunting permitted — to protect the animals until a single national park was declared.

Curious bonobos interested in camera trap

Last week the Lomami National Park was approved by the President, Joseph Kabila, and then signed into existence by the Prime Minister, Augustin Matata Ponyo. Two weeks before that the Minister of Mines declared the entire park area to be concession-free as well as its periphery for a radius of 50km.

4 bonobos dead_presentation to minister
The Minister of the Environment in Maniema, Patrick Lupia, publicly upbraids a hunter who was caught with the four bonobo that he shot.

But why make a National Park? Explorations started in 2007. The Lukuru Foundation’s TL2 project found Congo’s great ape, the bonobo, farther southeast than they were known to exist; Congo’s rainforest giraffe, the okapi, was also found on the west bank of the Lomami.

Male and Female peacock in front of camera trap

Congo peacock were throughout the area and a new species of monkey was discovered, the Lesula (Cercopithecus lomamiensis).

Lesula, the recently discovered ground monkey, is intrigued by the smell of the camera trap.

Recently the field teams uncovered on the right bank of the Lomami several populations of the dryad monkey, locally called Inoko (Cercopithecus dryas), that was previously known only from a single small area 400 kilometers further west.

setting camera trap
The TL2/Lukuru project has been able to determine presence and abundance of many animals using camera traps, here set up in a grid in an area near the Lomami in Tshopo province.

The Lomami National Park has more of the large charismatic animals that are found only in Congo, than any other protected area in the country.

Only the legs, tail and trunk of adult elephants are seen close to the camera trap, but a young one is seen at head level.

The Lomami is also the critical central Congolese refuge for the threatened African Forest Elephant. Even before the national park was created the battle to protect these forest giants was constant.

saluting trainers at end guard training
The TL2/Lukuru project sponsored the first park guard training with ICCN for the Lomami National Park, December 2015-February 2016.

Without adequate park guards, the TL2 teams worked with military, often to control criminal militias who worked with other corrupt military.

military train new park guards
During park guard training the military trained for the proper, accurate and safe use of military rifles.

Now: with the National Park decree signed the bulwarks for protection will strengthen. German aid to the parks (KfW) has said it will further increase the park guard force, equip the guards and build guard posts. Their help will be another important collaboration.

crossing a river in Tshopo_human chain
Currently the TL2/Lukuru teams often carry out surveillance missions without adequate armed accompaniment (here crossing the Tutu River).

burning a poachers' camp in Provincial Park before new decree
Poachers camps are burned in the park.

Cephalophus in snare trap Tshopo
And snare lines are dismantled; unfortunately, not always before they have caught animals.

Now: TL2/Lukuru teams continue unabated their work inside the National Park – monitoring of bonobos and elephant, camera trap surveys, and surveillance.

Women working to dig fishpond
Villagers are working with the TL2 teams in three initial locations around the park to put in fish ponds. Close to 50 hunters have started building individual ponds as well.

But TL2/Lukuru must continue to increase outreach in the buffer zone. Activities like fishponds and small projects requested by the communities must expand.

villagers lift traverse to position
The outreach team supplied food and some materials,and the villagers provided labor to fix bridges along the motorcycle path around the south end of the Park.

Collaboration with the communities must be strengthened to build the ramparts around the national park: community hunting reserves, community based forest protection.

Most forests around the Lomami National Park are still rich in animals. Villagers want to be able to manage these to allow successful hunting for the long-term. Possible, but no small challenge.

All the activities that led up to this park and are now building it towards its potential — were supported by some dedicated funders who not only support the work on the ground, but have often provided guidance at critical times.  Many thanks to : Arcus Foundation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildcat Foundation, FCF (an anonymous funder), Rainforest Trust, Abraham Foundation, Elephant Crisis Fund, Woodtiger Fund…and others.  Some key individuals have been particularly responsive at tight moments:  Nancy Abraham, Edith McBean and others.

Bonobo personality

Great ape females are submissive to males — except for Bonobos. Bonobo personality in the wild is the subject of an article recently published in a scientific journal, American Journal of Primatology. A popular version has just come out; BBC Earth writes this about the article.

A young male at Lola ya Bonobo, a sanctuary near Kinshasa. Photo by Cintia.

The first author is our intern, Cintia Garai, who studied a bonobo group at Wamba, a field site maintained by Japanese researchers since 1973 in the Equateur Province of the Congo. She finished her PhD last year at Kyoto University, Japan.

Cintia says: “The reason I did a PhD on bonobo behavior was that I wanted to better understand this special species, but I always kept in mind that when I finish, I would work to help bonobo conservation. Studying their personality just reinforced my decision – with every dead bonobo we lose one unique character, one personality: we cannot understand their loss just by numbers.”

The personality of bonobos would be interesting to study in the Lomami Park too, especially because cultural differences between bonobo groups have never been evaluated. Unfortunately, we have not yet habituated bonobo groups in the Lomami. However, we do have camera traps and on the footage we keep discovering behaviors that we did not know about. Currently we are working on the analysis of these videos with the help of our primatologist collaborators.

Here you can see some footage made of wild bonobos at Wamba. They are completely habituated to human presence and can be observed even from 5m distance.

Genito-genital rubbing of bonobo females; a way to strengthen social bonds. At Wamba.

A bonobo infant at the age of 11 months, at Wamba.


Pleading for Elephants in Open Air Court by the Congo River

The public trial started on Tuesday the 19 of April 2016 on the steps of the Kisangani post office. At the base of the wide stairs, was the ample city park and beyond that the silent Congo River.

captain stands accused as Kis gathers
Captain Bosongo stands accused as Kisangani gathers below.

The public ministry had 5 cases against military for elephant poaching; the two from Opala (Lomami Park Zone), both cited the General Basekay Kamangala. The General, it is reported, supplies weapons to militias in exchange for ivory. These are the same maimai militias that rape, torture and pillage the isolated populations of the Lomami Park buffer zone.

the defendants
The defendants stand at the opening of the court: Captain Bosongo farthest from camera, then Captain Tshibangu from Bili Uere and beside him Lieutenant Asumani.

For the Lomami Park the most important cases to appear before the open military tribunal were those against:
Captain Bosongo of the 31st military region, based in Opala
Lieutenant Asumani of the 31st military region, based in Opala
And the civilian Akili Pichen , a go between with the maimai poachers.
The case of the Capt Tshibangu from Bili Uere Reserve, in the far north, also sites General Basekay.

kisangani stops to listen
Despite a relentless sun, Kisangani stopped to listen.

The Lomami Park hired a single lawyer to help with the prosecution. Tuesday morning the defense showed up on the stairs of the post office with 14 lawyers. Who hired them? Small officers in the army, having languished months in jail could not suddenly afford 14 of the country’s best lawyers.

captain Bosongo surrounded by his attorneys
A bevy of defense lawyers surrounds Captain Bosongo.

The general Basekay had not expected this public hearing, His repeated efforts at corruption did not succeed in releasing the defendants. The army, itself, at a very high level, has decided to put an end to elephant poaching among its ranks.

general Basekay
Somewhat grainy: The General Basekay in 2015.

Our estimate is more than 50 elephants killed with military weapons south of Opala, in the Lomami landscape, during 2015.

Day one:
The bevy of lawyers tried to throw out the case against Capt Bosongo : where was the ivory? (The Colonel who recorded the case at the military prosecutor’s office fled with the ivory to Kinshasa when his superior, General Basekay put him under pressure. The ivory was deposed at the high military court in Kinshasa).

is this your signature
“Is this your signature?,” Captain Malenge confronts Captain Bosongo.

The president of the tribunal, Capt Nseba Malenge, asked Captain Bosongo if he had indeed signed the deposition. “Yes,” he admitted, but then added that he did it under threat of being killed by the top military judge. Independent investigation showed that no military judge was present at the signing of the deposition.

Day two:

Court is in session
The court resumes.

Lieutenant Asumani insisted that it was not his signature on the testimony although he said that he had been questioned by the military police. The OPJ (judicial police) was called to testify. He affirmed that questioning had occurred and that Lt Asumani had signed.

I was obeying my superior
Lieutenant testifies: I just obeyed my superior.

The OPJ confirmed the lieutenant testified under oath that he had taken the ivory to the personal residence of General Basekay as the general himself had instructed him to do.

Paulin testifies as Lt Asumani listens
Paulin Tshikaya of ICCN testifies

The provincial Director of the Parks Institute, Paulin Tshikaya of ICCN, was asked to testify as he had written a warning letter citing the names of the various officers that were later apprehended with ivory in their possession. Paulin cited his own network of informants as revealing to him not only who was supplying arms and ammunition but also where the elephants were and who the actual poachers were.

bringing defendants to open court
Each day the defendants were picked up at the prison, delivered to the post office, then returned to the prison.

At this point General Basekay’s name had been brought before the public, published in the press, and was well known in the capital, Kinshasa, where this trial was being carefully followed.

The bevy of lawyers started using stall tactics. What cases should be heard together? What charges should be admitted? Was the actual composition of the tribunal correct? They had the president replaced…

Word came from Kinshasa. General Basekay was stripped of authority. His second, General Kabundi, assumed command.

The open court was only to last 10 days. The lawyer horde managed to move it away from the public. The post office steps went quiet. The judgments were delayed. The defendants were back in jail and waiting. It seemed that the tactics of Basekay’s lawyers for continual postponement would succeed. The public and the top military would forget and move on to other preoccupations.

In the meantime, pleading illness, General Basekay slipped to Kinshasa.

Governor Tokole instrumental
John Tokole, the new governor of Tshopo Province, in Opala.

Unfortunately for General Basekay the new Governor of Tshopo Province, John Tokole, and the interim commanding General of the 31st military region, Gen Innocent Kabundi, did not want the slaughter of elephants and corruption of the military associated with their names. They met in Opala, discussed the delays of the case and made a decision.

open air court underway in Opala
The open air trial reconvened in Opala. The Captain Makisa Kilanga was its president.

On the night of the 29th of May, a vehicle slipped away from the central prison with the accused. It made the all night trip to the Lomami River, crossed on the ferry and continued to Opala.

opala gathers to listen
Opala gathers to listen. Some were collaborators, many were victims of pillage or forced labor.

visiting the site where the tusks were stored
Final testimony was heard outside of Opala where ivory had been hidden. Captain Bosongo with the water bottle. Akili Pichen in handcuffs.

president of court asks for precision
The president of the court asks for precision.

final explanation without lawyers
Capt Bosongo’s final defense was without lawyers.

From the 30th through the 31st of May, in Opala, the final testimony was received. On June 1st 2016 the judgements were handed down.

Opala listens to the verdict
The citizens of Opala listened carefully to what was the end of a regime of military terror.

verdict pronounced
The president of the Court, Captain Makisa, delivers the judgement.

Capt Tshibangu wa Tshibangu: 3 years in top security prison of Ossio
Captain Bosongo Basosila : 3 years in top security prison of Ossio
Lieutenant Asumani: central prison of Kisangani waiting for a higher court to hear his case, a court that is able to insist on the appearance of Gen Basekay for questioning.
Mr Okondo Akili Pichen: Liberated – the six months he already served in prison considered adequate punishment.

Akili Pichen is released
Akili Pichen is liberated, Captain Bosongo is sent for three years to high security prison.

Parrot Confiscation on the Congo River – Film

Cintia Garai, intern on the TL2/Lukuru project, made a film of the parrot confiscation. She accompanied the authorities and our own Leon and Mustafa to the site on the 28th of May (post on the 30th May).

Because of a trip to Katopa camp we are only now able to upload it. Thank you Cintia!