Diving For Ivory

“Ranger is in Litoko.” The message came from Louison, our camp leader at Bangaliwa. It was the second week of September, 2016.

Ranger in Obenge gardens
Ranger with shotgun in the gardens of Obenge – 2009.

Had Ranger Lavino come back? Ranger is the head of an elephant poaching gang. Unlike Thoms who is flamboyantly evil , Ranger is cold, calculating and very slippery.

Northern park and buffer zone
Our camp at Bangaliwa and villages where Ranger has been seen in 2016. The map shows the northern park and bufferzone.

In early 2016 Ranger fled. But not until after his military suppliers were put on public trial and convicted, and two of his gang were shot dead in a confrontation with the military. We heard he went south to his original village in Sankuru Province. Good riddance. More than 50 elephants were killed south of Opala in 2015, his gang responsible for more than 3/4 of the deaths, but at least he fled.

2015_PALL_elephants killings map
In 2015 there were three elephant poaching gangs operating around the northern Lomami National Park: Ranger’s, Tchuma’s and Thoms’s. Ranger’s gang was responsible for the most killings.

In September, when Louison sent the SMS, our teams were spread out in the field. We were doing an elephant census, the first since 2012. The park is quiet; the 2015 slaughter took down an elephant population between the park and Opala. We felt the tragic relief of a family spared by a passing plague. But now Ranger is back and on the edge of the park.

Ranger's camp months after use
Our teams later came across this poacher’s camp in the park, not far from Obenge. It dated from around September and had Ranger’s markings: he has the only known poaching group that sets up structures for tarps rather than using leaf roofed barazzas.

Although the letters did not reach Bangaliwa until later, Obenge send word that Ranger had continued down into the park. It was understood that he was after elephants. The warning came too late.

Letter from vieux Alatsho
This is a translation of Alatsho’s letter from Lingala to French. In it he warns that Ranger spent a day in Obenge then went into the park to hunt elephants. He warns Louison where he should send surveillance teams — but the warning arrived too late.

It was the 28th of September that we got a second satellite phone message from Louison. Ranger’s pirogue had sunk. He was heading north, away from the Park when, in the predawn, about 3 AM of the 27th his dugout struck a submerged tree and overturned.

Ario the chief from Ongwaina village brought the information to Bangaliwa. It had been just in front of his village. Ranger came up dripping and furious. He said there were four elephant tusks in the boat and sacks of elephant meat. All now on the bottom of the Lomami.

Louison at Bangaliwa
Louison at our camp in Bangaliwa. At this time the camp was still under construction.

Later Mama Ali who lives in Ongwaina gave her account. At the rooster’s first crow, four men struggled out of the river into the still sleeping village. Ranger had one white plastic sandal on, the other lost. Another, a hunter from the southern province of Maniema, declared his rifle had been lost.

Ranger in 2009_Obenge
A picture of Ranger when he was based at Obenge in 2009.

Ranger warned that if the military came, or if anyone came, and asked where the ivories went under, the person who informed would answer to Ranger, himself. Ranger had passed our Bangaliwa camp at one or two in the morning. The small group of military and park guards we share our camp with, had seen nothing.

It was a month later that divers were brought in. We brought them up river from Opala, The Lokele, an ethnic group of river-people, sent five men that could handle the depth and the current.

diving for ivory
The divers as they prepare to start diving.

On the 30th of October they started diving at 9:45. Three pieces of ivory, the equivalent of a tusk and a half were brought up.

first piece of ivory brought up
Our team leader, Henri Silegowa, examines the first piece of ivory brought up.

Second ivory recuperated
A second piece of ivory is hauled out.

Also one AK 47 rifle, some cartridges and an old pot.

the AK47 recovered
An AK47 is recovered.

with cartridges
With cartridges – 10 of them.

The rifle was given into the keeping of the army; the tusks were given into the keeping of ICCN, the conservation agency.

Giving the ivory into ICCN's keeping in Opala
The army, the ICCN and our TL2 coordinator in Kisangani all sign over the ivories to the ICCN’s care in Bangaliwa.

But what had become of Ranger? As long as he is uncaught the elephants of the park are not safe.

In January through an informant we learned that Ranger had a new military contact for arms and munitions.

We learned his village base for getting supplies and evacuating ivory and meat was Elome (see map above), still in the forest, but with easy access to the road to Kisangani.

In February through another informant we learned that Ranger was back in the park accompanied by two military and an ex-military. He is in the Tutu basin – the core of the Elephant zone.

In a vast wilderness like TL2, a wily and ruthless elephant poacher can do incalculable damage.

But there is some good news. This month of March, our PALL (TL2 law-enforcement) operative in the northern buffer zone informed us of the arrest of Tchuma.

Tchuma arrested in Kisangani
Tchuma arrested in Opala and transferred to Kisangani.

This is an important victory. He was one of the key 2015 elephant poachers. His case is now going to trial. (See map above of 2015 elephant killings.

Ranger, however, is still out there, and he continues to poach elephants. Perhaps there are no definitive victories, but with more important and more frequent crack-downs, the elephants will become ever safer.

Okapi, Striped Enigma – We looked West, She stepped East

Junior Amboko setting a camera trap
Junior placing a camera trap.

It was the 15th of December 2016. Junior Amboko was in the Mpechi forest between the Lualaba and the Lomami Rivers. He was downloading videos from camera traps:

Junior: “When I opened the video and saw the okapi, I could not believe it was real. I watched it twice. Went to my field guide to check…just to be sure it was really okapi. It is such a beautiful animal.”

The video that Junior downloaded December 15th 2016.

We knew Okapi were in the Lomami National Park. We knew it because we found dung, prints and feeding sign, but only on the west bank of the Lomami River. This was confirmed by David Stanton. He did genetic sequence analysis using Okapi and Bongo dung which are often confused in the field.

John and David collecting Okapi dung
David Stanton and John Hart collecting Okapi dung on the west bank of the Lomami River.

He confirmed Bongo in the park on both sides of the river; Okapi, he could confirm only on the West Side of the River from the samples that he had.

okapi range in DR Congo
Okapi occurs only in DR Congo where its range includes three national parks (Virunga, Maiko, and Lomami) and the Okapi Reserve. The Lomami National Park protects the Okapi in its isolated southwestern range, where the Lomami River is a biogeographic barrier for a number of other taxa including red colobus and the lesula.

We wanted evidence beyond feces. A greater number of Congo’s unique, flagship species are in the Lomami National Park than any other Congolese protected area. We wanted photos of all of them. Arboreal primates we have mainly gotten on our point-and-shoot cameras (including dryas and two endemic red colobus), others we have gotten on camera traps: Congo Peacock, Lesula, Dryas, forest elephant, Bonobo … but not Okapi.

Bonobos captured on camera trap in the same area where the okapi video was recorded.

Congo peacock in the Lomami National Park.

On the west bank, in the known Okapi range, we used camera traps to survey three forest areas, covering 4 to 15 km2. Each grid was comprised of 20 cameras and was active for two to three months. BUT in more than 3500 “camera days” on the west bank where we expected it, not a single okapi was recorded.

Okapi print on the west bank of the Lomami river
Okapi track on the west bank of the Lomami River.

We used camera traps, same method to record other animals on the east bank. Four grids have been surveyed, accumulating a total of 4200 camera trap days. It was at the last grid, at the end of the session in Mpechi, that Junior found the okapi video.

okapi range in Lomami landscape
The western range of Okapi with the new find at Mpechi, only 10 km further east but separated from the previously known distribution by the Lomami River.

A beautiful, healthy young female okapi. The key question: Did we just discover an isolated elusive population, or is she a one-off migration event? And if so HOW did she cross the Lomami River? According to David Stanton, Okapi’s very high genetic variability suggests multiple events of separation and remixing . So ancient dispersals, in perhaps different forest geographies, led to repeat interbreeding over okapis approximately 2 million year history as a species.

David with Louison taking a break
David Stanton, with Louison, on his dung collecting mission through the Lomami National Park.

Certainly the Pleistocene periods of wet and dry were pertinent. During the periods of spreading forest Okapi migrated into expanding appropriate forest …but when did they cross the Lomami a river whose head waters are deep in the Katanga savannas, or even more formidably, the Congo/Lualaba River itself?

1988 in the Ituri Forest, DieuDonné fastens radio collar
Dieudonné fixing a radio collar during our okapi study in the late 1980s.

Our 1980s radio collar study of Okapi in the Ituri Forest (link) revealed that okapi spend their first months on their mother’s territory; as sub-adults they migrate out, sometimes moving many kilometers. But the Okapi, giraffe-gaited, have never been reported to swim and could probably only do so poorly. The Lomami has a deep channel and a strong current.

mid_Lomami from the bank
The Lomami River, at the level of Mpechi and throughout the park, appears to be a formidable barrier.

Were we the only ones that did not know about this cryptic population? Junior undertook a survey of local Ngengele and Langa hunters in the buffer zone closest to the Mpechi forest.

“ I did not tell them I had found the animal” Junior wrote in describing his methods, “they were just sharing their knowledge” None of the hunters interviewed had ever encountered okapi in their forests. “I talked with one old hunter, at least 70 years old. He assured me okapi were never in the Bangengele forest.”

This bongo was recorded on a camera trap in the Lomami National Park buffer zone which is open for local hunting.

When Junior showed the hunters the okapi videos and field guide drawings. They were surprised. The only large stripped ungulates they recognized were the bongo, bushbuck and sitatunga. All occur in their area.

After seeing the video one hunter told Junior. “You are just making this up so you can put more of our forest into the park.”

But pride and recognition of value were the most frequent responses. The news spread. Last week in Kindu Sony Kangese , a Mungengele with a construction business, told John Hart “We now know how important it is to protect the new park.” He had heard about the discovery from a family member.

Sony and a team at bridge repairs
Sony, in striped shirt, with a local work team during bridge repairs.

We now have a challenge: Is this a cryptic population or a lone migration event? We plan to collaborate again with Dave Stanton and this time to do a more thorough combing of east bank forests for Okapi and Bongo dung.

Searching from Forest Duff to Forest Canopy for a Critically Endangered Monkey

We had no idea that the critically endangered dryas monkey, existed in the TL2 watersheds until, in 2014, Henri saw a hunter’s kill hung for sale near our Bafundo camp, in the Balanga village of Bafundo. He knew the monkey was different from any he had seen before. John suspected it was the dryas monkey, though 400 km from the only place where it was known to exist. A couple hunters gave it the name, Inoko, but most local hunters did not even recognize it.

Photo by Pablo of Inoko
Pablo snapped this photo of C. dryas soon after he started working with Daniel on the Inoko Project.

An exchange of photos over the internet confirmed that it was indeed dryas monkey, without any obvious physical difference from the Wamba-Kokolopori monkeys. But why didn’t the Balanga hunters know about it? Was it so very rare, or was it just very secretive? The TL2 team based at Bafundo started a search with an eventual second sighting farther west, inside the park. Maybe it is fairly widespread, but extremely elusive? We found it well below the canopy. Is it a ground monkey? Or a canopy monkey that comes low to forage? What is its favored habitat? What does it eat?

you can see a lot from here
Daniel is often setting camera traps or checking them at 20 or 30m up, in the crowns of trees.

Daniel Aliempijevic, a graduate student at Florida Atlantic University, came over to investigate. If he could collect Inoko feces, he and his professor, Kate Detwiler, could do genetic studies. Her work had earlier contributed to the discovery of TL2’s new primate species, Lesula, Cercopithecus lomamiensis.

Daniel climbing near his Bafundo basecamp
Daniel on his way to work….

Who is coming up our tree?
Something like a very large spider is coming up here…

Daniel set out to discover where Inoko was and how to find it. His team was composed mainly of local Balanga: the hunter who had bagged the original Inoko, Reddy; the deputy to the chief of Bafundo, Denni; and two Balanga that were already with our TL2 project, JP and Marten. He also worked with out TL2 leader, Pablo, from an adjacent province, who is university educated and has a good deal of experience working with camera traps from the Lesula work.

pablo showing slides at Bafundo
Daniel and Pablo (far right) at Bafundo explaining to us the progress and problems of the first phase of the Inoko project.

The first site Daniel chose was just four km from the village of Bafundo. This was the dense area of vegetation where Reddy had previously caught Inoko. Daniel wanted to set camera traps at three levels: the ground, the understory with a good density of lianas, and the high canopy where horizontal branches let animals cross from one tree to another.

a map in the sand
Reddy drew a map in the sand to show where he had seen Inoko. That is where the project started.

daniel demonstrating for Pablo, JP and Kinois
Daniel starts by demonstrating the equipment to Pablo (striped shirt) and JP (blue shirt). Kinois, the team leader at Bafundo camp watches.

Cintia going up for pix
Cintia Garai, the TL2 project assistant, came to take some photos and learn the ropes.

Unlike the Botanical work where we brought in Mbuti climbers, Daniel was the most experienced climber on his team, although, unlike the Mbuti, he used climbing gear. He, himself, set the cameras high in the canopy, but the others helped to set them in the understory and close to the ground.

Reddi setting understory camera
Reddy checks a camera in the understory.

There were surprises:

We were amazed that so near to hunters’ villages there would still be the diversity of game at ground level, including some large mammals.

We had only guessed at the diversity of animals in the canopy. His cameras showed that treetops were not just for monkeys by a long shot.

canopy camera_along a horizontal limb
A camera-trap in the canopy typically had a view over a horizontal branch connecting to another tree.

But the crowning achievement for Daniel (and for us) was the understory videos he captured of Inoko. All Bafundo videos of Inoko were in liana layers of the understory. They were never captured high and never on the ground.

Daniel has now moved the cameras away from the village and into the park itself. Again working in step-wise settings, moving up a tree, with one camera at ground level, one in the understory and one in the canopy. Each rigged tree is a column for observation. There will be many more surprises and, hopefully, lots more information about Inoko.

Daniel was able to do this work with the TL2Project through Dr.Kate Detwiler’s lab, the FAU Primate Evolution and Conservation Lab. We are all looking forward to the second phase of work and thank:
Primate Conservation, Inc.
Mohammed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund
Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation
FAU Technology Fee Grant
International Primate Society Conservation Grant
Support Primate Conservation in Central Africa

For TL2/Lukuru funders see the side bar.

Sing it loud: the Lomami National Park Exists

Rehearsal of the Lomami National Park anthem for the 10th of December 2016.

In October 2016, a colleague from an international conservation NGO in Congo asked us, “Is it true there is a new National Park?” What? She didn’t know?

It was three months earlier, on the 19th of July 2016, that the Prime Minister of RD Congo signed the decree creating the Lomami National Park.

But how could she know?  The only celebration was in the distant province of Maniema whose government played a key role in the final campaign for the National Park.

the general director of the ICCN speaks
At a second ceremony on 10th Dec 2016 , in elephant suit jacket, the DG of ICCN addresses generals and senators, ministers and deputies.


Ambassador Swan speaks
The American ambassador (above), along with the chef of cooperation from Germany and the chief of cooperation from the European Union, addressed the gathering.

The whole nation should know. In Kinshasa on the 10th of December, even as President Joseph Kabila’s government reaches its official term, and opposition forces gather in the streets, the Governor of Maniema called for a national celebration.

mutual appreciation_government and conservation
Terese, of the TL2 project, and the governor of Maniema recognize the interdependence of conservation organizations and government to effect lasting land management for resource protection.

It happened the only way possible: Warring factions were in one room amidst lively music, ambassadors and embassy representatives, top people from top parks, army generals, international conservation organizations, presidential counselors, senators, deputies and a handful of traditional chiefs.

the chiefs from Kailo
The chiefs from Kailo

The disgruntled faction did indeed explode into choreographed battle. The ceremony was briefly taken hostage…but came out singing in the end.

Here is what happened:

a political tirade underway
A deputy of Tshopo stood up and demanded the floor right after the secretary general of the environment gave his words of welcome.

the speakers faced with walkout
The secretary general called him “out of order.” He is flanked, above, by the two governors, Maniema on left and Tshopo on the right.

Tshopo deputy reads manifesto
But, as tensions were rising, the deputy was given the mike to read the Tshopo manifesto. 

Their problem: Maniema Province was becoming park headquarters. Tshopo Province wanted the headquarters. And, more important, there was a land dispute between the provinces well to the east of the Park. Although it had nothing to do with LomamiNational Park, the celebration was the occasion to proclaim provincial rights in front of national authorities.

The Walkout
The deputies and the whole official Tshopo delegation walked out, insisting their governor come with them.

after the walkout
They insisted the Tshopo governor come, too. He left a vacancy at the table.

But the ceremony continued; the breech was filled, but it was now clear the two provinces would have a week of parleys after the ceremony finished.

The show goes on

The song goes on. The park is a wilderness of 8,874 sq km. No hunting, no habitation. It joins, as the 8th national park, those of previous administration (Virungas, Garamba, Kundelungu and Upemba) and the national parks born during Mobutu’s era (Salonga, Maiko, and Kahuzi Biega), Now there is a national park born during Kabila’s era: the Lomami National Park.

policier with calender
And everyone walked away with a calendar and a brochure.