Kisangani, Ravaged Again by Congo River Floods

Une Affaire d’Hommes – A Man’s affair – is the writing on the flooded tavern.

Historical data is limited, but it appears that Congo River’s annual high water season at Kisangani results in major inundations every 15 to 18 years. Large parts of the city are flooded.

pirogues move into streets
Dugouts ply the flooded streets.

Kisangani’s location on the equator, at the bend in the Congo River, makes it vulnerable to catastrophic floods when high rainfall coincides over both the northern and southern tributaries of the Congo River’s eastern basins. In these high rainfall years, flood waters mount through October and into November at the end of the northern rainy season. The water crests in late December as rains peak south of the equator.

Kisangani at the bend
Kisangani gets first the high rains from the north, then from the south.

Exceptional floods were recorded in Kisangani in 1962 and again in 1979.

The 1997 floods were particularly bad. High water crested in late December at the highest levels in 35 years. Over 70 people were reported drowned or swept off by the river and tens of thousands left homeless. More than 1200 cases of cholera were reported over the New Year, with hundreds of deaths. Flooding coincided with other challenges to the city and its population. Fighting between the forces of ex-dictator, Mobutu, and the advancing rebels loyal to Laurent Kabila had devastated the city earlier in the year leaving the city ill prepared for the natural disaster and thus contributing to the heightened death toll.

fish as the waters go down
Many fish are in the receding waters made nutrient rich by flooded outhouses (background) and other waste.

The city flooded again in 2003, but the waters did not reach 1997 levels.
In residential areas with septic tanks many filled and overflowed contributing to the disease threat.

This year, 2015, flood waters returned, with levels reportedly higher than in 2003, but not approaching the 1997 records. In November and December heavy rains fell over Congo’s southern basins, including the TL2, but the worst was avoided thanks to an early onset of the dry season in the north with water level of the northern tributaries dropping before the heavy southern rains. So far, we have heard of no deaths from drowning or confirmation of death from Cholera.

no second floor
Most houses had no second floor for shelter from the flood.

fishing the flood
Boys fish by drawing a mosquito net through the flooded streets….

fish from main street
….the catch seined from the city’s flood-waters.

washing clothes in the flood
No longer necessary to walk to the river to wash the clothes.

river crossing moved into the streets
Life as usual…the river people bounce back quickly. Here, the dugout ferries cross the Congo right up into the Lubunga streets.

market on higher ground
Life as usual: the market vendors found spots of dry ground and the bargaining continues.

Loading to go down river
Life as usual: In a flooded port, yet more cargo being added to a precariously overloaded riverboat.

Kisangani will flood again. And new patterns may emerge as global climates change. The city will require, along with dykes, basic information on the regional rainfall patterns, information that is not now in hand. Collection of meteorological data, and notably rainfall for Central Africa, was considered important several decades ago, but now has plunged to levels similar to the early 20th century.

history rainfall data collection central africa
Operational rain gauges per year in Central Africa. Published in Congo Basin rainfall climatology: Can we believe the climate models?

At the recently concluded Climate Change Conference, COP 21, in Paris, the least-developed nations called on developed countries to help their poorer neighbors to adapt to climate disasters. Priorities include, among other things, early drought warnings for farmers and development of dykes or other measures to protect sensitive environments during torrential rains. It is questionable, however, what can be done with the collapse of record keeping in Central Africa; the case from DRCongo, with more than 50% of the Congo Basin, is the most dire.

Central African Precipitation recording stations
Central African precipitation recording stations. World Meteorological Organization, World Weather Watch Regional Basic Climatological Network.

A congolese, Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, leads the COP 21 movement of the least-developed nations. Tosi could do worse than to start with a commitment by his own country to reestablish credible meteorological record keeping.

Thanks to John Hart for this post and thanks to Michel Mopanga for the photos.

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?