Seismic Changes in Congo Conservation

Blood of the goat on the ground
When a goat is hung up for slaughter, its blood drains on the ground. This marks the site of ritual, celebration or tragedy.

We are beginning to believe in continental movements and the succession of ice ages.  We are beginning to believe in biologic and geographic ultimatum as mover of extinction and speciation.  We are living in an age of fire and flood, tsunami and sudden crevasse, the era of global pandemics.

meeting change with drums and dance
When something must be communicated – ritual, celebration or tragedy – drums reach farther than words.

DR Congo should be central to the disasters… everyone here knows the life crushing impact of Ebola, Measles, Cholera, and, particularly, the heart-tearing loss of toddlers to Diarrhea, Malaria and Pneumonia.  So, DR Congo should be a tremulous, tragic crucible of these cataclysms. 

It is not. 

Congo had only one volcanic eruption this year with many fewer lives and businesses lost than in the eruption of 2002.    And Covid is among us, but it is a small tremor in Covid’s global shake-up.  

Dancing is not just for the firm and young – dancing is for everyone and is for ritual, celebration and even closure after tragedy.

But other Seismic changes, changes that we thought might never happen in Congo, are now upon us.

Stronger than the health system in DR Congo, far stronger than any emergency response system in DR Congo is a self-serving, self-perpetuating state administration.  And among the most “profit to the big man” of these state services was Parks and Nature Conservation.   A national election and change of president did not shake his hold.  His mandate ended, his legal tenure was past and still he stayed.

Not always easy to swallow what must go down….
Canopy camera trap video thanks to Daniel Alempijevic.

We kept waiting for change but it always seemed a bite too big to swallow….until…

The Bilateral and Multilateral funders for conservation knew something was not right; their money moved out of the banks, but on-the-ground accomplishments did not happen or, they happened, but with other money.  Smaller NGOs, not required to give their money through the state, use it directly on the ground.   Smaller NGOs fund biomonitoring, law enforcement, community projects.  Outrageous proportions of the bi-lateral funds were drained into the state institution without ever reaching the ground.

This is what funds must help, totally protected species like Angolan colobus.
Video from Daniel Alempijevic’s canopy camera traps.

 Behind the institutional dams, that side-channeled funding, the seismic tension built; the German development bank understood something was amiss.  It cut funding making private partnerships or co-management with NGOs a requirement in every park where they invested, before funding would be resumed.  In the case of the Lomami National Park, FZS signed a co-management contract with the Parks Service in January. The German bank immediately resumed funding — BUT no co-management was put in place.  The appointments weren’t made, people weren’t officially notified, the seismic tension built – and then in August the dam burst.

at the cutting of the ribbon
All New: me freshly appointed Park Director (September 2021) next to an equally new Assistant Director of the national ICCN to the left, Vincent Imbongo.

Event 1:  There is a new head of national parks and conservation —  Olivier Mushiete – Welcome.  Olivier comes with international experience, conservation experience (he was head of a protected area) and has a significant slice of administrative savvy.

shaking hands with outgoing
I shake hands with the parting, temporary Park Director (now my assistant) and receive the “seals”.

Event 2: There is a new head of the Lomami National Park  — me, mamaTerese – and we are all rising to this challenge – all of FZS-TL2 together.  It is a challenge that we will bring to fruition for Lomami conservation.

with staff present in Kindu
In front of the ICCN-Lomami Naitonal Park office in Kindu with staff from both FZS and ICCN that will be merging into one park unit.

And then almost immediately after these two events:

Motorbike cavalcade down the “roads” of Maniema with the directrice of the German Development Bank of DR Congo.

Event 3:  the national representative of the German bank visited Lomami.  She did what no one expected: she actually went out on the ground, went into the park, and saw, as had not been seen before, how conservation is accomplished in the Lomami and how German taxpayer money is being used.

At the park border:

Arrived at the park border
Britta Oltmann of KfW DRC to the right of sign in blue handkerchief.
Also in photo DGA ICCN, Director Chief of International Collaboration ICCN, Assistant director LNP, representative vice premier minister and minister of the environment.

Watching Daniel climb to change the sim in a canopy camera trap:

going up

A rest-stop on a walk in the park:

second 5 min rest point

Sitting next to John, above, is Ben of the ICCN-Kinshasa, the Director of International Cooperation. He was extremely helpful in guiding us and pushing ahead the FZS contract in ICCN despite severe stagnation. And he is critical now to assure the integration we need of ICCN and FZS-TL2 on the ground.

With the women:

with women of Lukunda

Above, Britta meets with a group of women in Lukunda .  She had similar meetings to understand the challenges of being a woman of the buffer zone in Kakunga, NgongaMoto, Olangate and Nyombo.

** Because of the help of many, we have a new momentum.  Thank you Matthieu and Ben, thank you Leon and Omo, thank you OT and John and many others.  A litany of thanks is appropriate.   Let-us make good on it.  Let thrive Congolese forests and all the plants and animals within them.  Let thrive the Lomami National Park.

Thank you to Leon Salumu and Daniel Alempijevic for the photos and videos.

Protect Animals by Helping Hunters

In Lomami National Park we help hunters:

all ages transport bushmeat
Young and old will porter bushmeat across the park.

We build metal-roofed shelters for them to sleep under when they cross the park;
We clear the paths through the park they use to carry bushmeat to market;
We give them vouchers so they will not be arrested by surveillance patrols.


Because:  all the cultures around the southern park have economies based on hunting, and
Because:  hunting is the biggest threat to the park. 

Putting up a shelter along a footpath through the Lomami National Park.

THEREFORE, the only people who can reduce the threat are Hunters themselves.  
By recognizing legal hunting, we win greater support against illegal hunting.

What is legal hunting? 
All hunting outside the park is legal;
except – it is illegal to hunt totally protected species (elephant, bonobo, pangolin…..),
except – it is also illegal to hunt during the closed season.

The hunters on the west side of the park are mostly legal.  They have a huge uninhabited forest to hunt (3000 km2 with only a small population concentrated along a couple foot paths).  The Lomami River separates them from the park, BUT to sell their bushmeat at the closest bushmeat market– Kindu – the fastest, least expensive route is to backload the bushmeat across the park.  

The hunters on the east side of the park are closer to the market.  They are also much more numerous, living in more frequent villages, clustered along roads and paths that motorbikes can travel.  The local eastern hunters are also joined by more outside hunters, coming from different provinces and ethnic groups.

hunting cultures surround the southern part of park
The Balanga and Bangengele ethnic groups around the southern portion of the park have a hunting tradition. The pressure on the park itself is greatest in the east where there are more hunters and the markets are closer.

Not surprisingly, it is in the east where there is the greatest threat from hunters clandestinely crossing into the park to hunt.

burning bushmeat between bafundo and kakonog
Burning bushmeat in the park after ambushing hunters coming from a hunting camp.

Surveillance patrols arrest these poachers in the park and burn their bushmeat. 

hunting camp raid in park
Preparing to burn bushmeat found in this hunting camp in the park.

But what about people walking their bushmeat from the west side to the east side?  How to tell them apart?  How do we make sure they don’t stop to hunt along the way?

Courbure encounters in and around park

This above map of early surveillance in the courbure sector of the Lomami Park showed the problem.  Who was legal and who was illegal?  Were they just carrying bushmeat caught outside the park from Kakongo to Bafundo on the footpath or did they come from a hunting camp hidden in the park?

We did not want to alienate the whole western section of the buffer zone as their meat crossed the park, but how could we be sure that they had not actually been hunting in the park?

two more bushmeat transporters
Crossing the park with bushmeat from the western forests to the eastern markets.

In 2015 we started an experiment to “certify” bushmeat by giving bushmeat transporters a voucher, or “jeton” that listed all the animals they carried when they left the west to cross the park.  They had only two days to cross from one of the western villages, Polepole, Benekamba or Kakongo, to the nearest village east of the park, Bafundo or Oluo, where the “jeton” would again be checked against the load.  Depending on the path it was a walk of 45 to 55 km. 

developing method 2015 in Bafundo
We worked with the parks service (ICCN) and the local population to come up with a system.

The voucher stations were to be manned by one person from the TL2 project, one ICCN person and one villager assigned by the chief. 

At the Kakongo jeton station.

We expected a grudging acceptance by the western populations. 

BUT INSTEAD, JETONS got enthusiastic approval.  We had given them back a lifeline that could have been cut off.  And we had made them partners in the protection of the park.

Talking with hunters at a jeton station. Omo (notebook in hand) is the leader of the jeton process.

The low point was in October 2019 when the Mai-Mai, Fidel, attacked two of our jetonniers (voucher distributors).   In Benekamba, Debaba was pummeled to near-death; in Kakongo Idris was shot but survived.  The military beside him was shot dead.

We nearly dropped the process – potential non-local “jetonniers” were afraid.   No one wanted to move into the lawless villages.   But then Locals, themselves, stepped up, we were amazed at the risks they took to keep “jetons” going.

Alain Basila, local jetonnier at Benekamba said “hunting is the only way my brothers can get money, there is no other way for medicine, clothes, school….with jetons they can take it to market”

Julie examines bushmeat load on arrival Bafundo
Checking a bushmeat load against the jeton after arrival at an eastern post.

In Polepole – Cedric, the local jetonnier, went into hiding in the forest.  He only came out when the Mai-Mai were absent and a meat transporter called him.  He checked the load, wrote up the jeton, and went back into hiding.  Cedric’s family, afraid for their son, gave Fidel a goat, but that was not enough.  Eventually they had to put a “Fidel-fee” on every load of meat that went across.  About 8 dollars.  People paid until finally Fidel was arrested, captured by the villagers themselves.   Then the surcharge was dropped.

In Kakongo –Marcel, the son of the local chief Liboke, was the local jetonnier beginning in June 2019.  He continued after Idris, was shot in the early morning by Fidel’s Mai-Mai band.  Bernard’s band sent a contingent of Mai-mai to steal from Liboke, just because he and his son Marcel collaborated with the Park.  They stole three goats, chickens, ducks and two bags of rice.  Marcel, too, temporarily went into hiding, but came back and continued providing his brothers with jetons.

The story of Benekamba was particularly heart-wrenching.

first meeting in Benekamba
Arriving to see Alain in the little house in Benekamba where he sits all day.
telling what happened
Alain explaining what happened in May 2020.

Even after Fidel was captured there was continued tension.   The person who replaced Debaba also fled when more threats came in, but the local assistant, Alain Basila, took over.  Alain is handicapped.  A few years ago, while clearing forest for his garden, a tree fell on his lower back.  He has no use of his legs.  He sits in his one-room house where bushmeat transporters seek him out to show their meat and get jetons before crossing the park.

In May 2020, Thoms, the father of Fidel, sent a group of 35 young men to teach Alain a lesson for collaborating with the park.   Thoms’s way of exacting revenge for the capture of his son.  They beat Alain around the head and shoulders and hung him up in the baraza to beat him more.  But Konya, an elderly villager threw himself on the ground in front of the young attackers pleading for mercy.   Perhaps somewhat ashamed – they took a radio and the equivalent of about 70 dollars and they left.

Alain recovered and continued doing jetons…. There was no one else with the courage to replace him.

Jeremi_Bafundo copy
The jetonnier, Jeremie, verifies a load that has arrived in Bafundo.

But there is another benefit from the jeton process: All the collected jeton information gives us a better understanding of the people around the park and the animals that they depend on. We want to manage this park based on real knowledge.

For instance:
The forests west of the park have not been depleted by overhunting. HOW DO WE KNOW? A large proportion of the bushmeat brought across is from large mammals. Less than 5% was small animals (such as porcupine) which are the most abundant game from overhunted forests and there was a large proportion of forest pigs and large antelope – about 10% of all animals – rare in depleted forests.
Hunting is no longer the only important source of income in the west. HOW DO WE KNOW? In 2020 there were 927 domestic species (goats, chickens and ducks) brought across the park to sell and 319 groups of porters walked through with loads of fish from the rivers and streams of the western buffer zone.
But there are still a lot of forest animals coming over as bushmeat: in 2020 6,400 animals were killed and carried across the park, most to sell in the bushmeat market of Kindu.

A Strong Woman and her Matropopo

our FZS-TL2 dugout on the Lomami
Our dugouts on the Lomami River are big (compare with fisherman’s dugout alongside), but not big enough to provide three months’ supplies at a time to the riverine base camps.

The efficient, economical answer to supply problems,  “MATROPOPO”,  showed up on John’s budget request for the northern park.  Whatever it was, it cost thousands of dollars.  How are we to explain Matropopo to the finance department in Frankfurt, Germany?

Part of John’s budget summary section

John was in the forest camp of Katopa about to start the descent of the Lomami River.  I asked him by satellite SMS: “What is Matropopo?  How do I explain it? Is it French? Is it Lingala?  Is it Swahili?”

He answered in the 160 characters – spaces included – allotted an InReach message:

 “About matropopo: Logistics breakthrough. Not Swahili, not Lingala. Onomatopoeia. It refers to sound of big diesel motor:  po-po-po. Ignition makes: Maattrrrooo.”

OK ,I get it. A sort of 3rd grade lingua-franca:   Matrrrrooo— Matrrrroooo – po-po-po-po-po. So, what do I tell Frankfurt?

In order to be able to translate for the financial department I did my own “Internal Audit” when I met John in Kisangani: “The real breakthrough,” John said, “is not the matropopo – but its owner.”

John and Lucy in stern_at port
John with Lucie in the stern of her Matropopo.  The “outhouse” is the orange and the diesel motor is at the rear of the central dugout.

He is very proud of his discovery of Madame Lucie Mosopa.  She oversees the loading of her Matropopo, a combination of three outsize dugouts lashed together, and accompanies it from the port of Kisangani on the Congo River to the Port of Opala on the Lomami River and from the port of Opala to our port at Bangaliwa, the most northern of the Lomami National Park base camps.  It takes her 6 days.

following Lucie on board
Lucie gives me a tour.  I take note that a backlit “outhouse” might not be real private.

She maximizes travel speed by omitting all unnecessary stops e.g. the Outhouse is off the stern.

basic river outhouse_out over the river
This is an inside view of the outhouse.  Basics: a hole to the river.

On the trip, she only pulls into shore to pass the nights.   It takes four days to get from Kisangani to Opala and two, upstream, from Opala to Bangaliwa.

When we asked her how much fuel was needed, she did not hesitate or consult a log book;  she knew.  “We used 7 barrels one way from Kis to Bangaliwa.” That is the equivalent of 1400 liters or $1,750.00 by current Kisangani prices.

What is her crew ?  Five:  one captain, one mechanic and three sailors.  I assumed they were somehow family as that is the way it is usually done in Congo. But no. These were the most reliable people that she could find in the ports.  And she is always with the same crew.

FZS-TL2 staff ready to board the matropopo
Three FZS-TL2 staff arrive to take place as passengers on the matropopo.

And how did she start in the matropopo business?

She started like all the hundreds of “mama commerçantes”:  using a commercial riverboat she bought goods in Kisangani, where they are cheap, to take them where she could sell them at enough of a markup to make a profit:  Isangi, Opala, Basoko, Lokutu. Then brought back agricultural goods to sell in Kisangani.   But she realized that she lost money waiting for the riverboat in which she rented space.  It would take, two, three, or more days for it to accumulate enough of a load to be profitable for the owner to pull anchor. 

looking over stores
The matropopo load includes beans, medical supplies, fuel, motor oil, cooking oil, sugar, salt, tomato paste, soap, onions, garlic…..

 She set about little by little to save enough to buy a diesel motor and her own large dugout.  Now she has three dugouts that she lashes together to make the Matropopo.

Koko oversaw purchase and loading, now departure
Koko, who oversaw purchases and then loading with Lucie, sees off the matropopo.  John bought lifejackets for our staff and Lucie’s crew (although not all wanted them).

Madame Lucie has a husband working in agricultural outreach and two children: 11 and 7 years old.

down Congo to mouth of Lomami
Heading downstream on the Congo to the mouth of the Lomami, then upstream to Opala. Madame Lucie is standing in the lifejacket.

My conclusion: it takes a strong woman to own and operate a matropopo.

Open-Air Justice for Mai-mai

Starting on the 19th of January 2021, there was a public trial in the town of Kindu, the nearest large town to the Lomami National Park.  On trial were six Mai-Mai insurgents – call them village terrorists – that had banded around two young war-lords, Fidel on the west side of the park and Bernard on the east side of the park.

Fidele Lofeno au milieu des acolytes_ligotés
At the trial: Fidel is in the middle with two others from his band on either side. Kindu watches from the street behind.

At first it seemed petty:  robbery at knife point, stealing a rifle from a park guard at night.  It quickly escalated (2019-2020) to torture, murder, ritual be-headings, cannibalism and live burials. The victims were from neighboring ethnic groups, but also much closer, even from clans that speak the same dialect.

La vidéo de l'enterrment de madame Honorine
On “stage” at the open-air trial

Defendants in green shirts on the left, witnesses seated in the back, the judges on the right. Here with video of the live-burial of Mama Honorine.

WHY did this horror happen? The Mai-Mai told victims, recruits and judges at the trial that they were protectors of their traditional forest.  They would make outsiders pay or leave; they would give back the park to their brothers.  But is that why you behead a shop-owner who hesitates to hand you all he has, or why you torture a fellow cultivator just down the road who says he is glad the military are after you?  Is that reason to bury alive a woman who says she knows nothing of secret forest treasures that you think she is hiding?  Your explanation does not explain why you gang-raped over a hundred married women and young girls in nearby villages.

Fidel was hand grabbed by the villagers themselves – they had had enough.  

Fidel_prisoner and being insulted by village
Fidel in captivity in Ohandja a village on the Pole-Pole road.

Villagers were tired of his extortion; they would no longer put up with his humiliation of women who were their sisters and cousins.  And also, they were given courage by an FZS-TL2 military sweep, on-going along the Lomami River.

mission leaves Polepole in TL2 dugout
The military, in an FZS-TL2 dugout, pull out from Pole-Pole where they had a shoot-out with Fidel’s band.

Bernard was caught by a military hit-squad.

Bernard captured
Bernard in captivity in Ichuku village before being transferred to Kindu.

He only spent a few days in Kindu before being flown to Kinshasa as informants believe he is supported by powerful people in Kindu.

After he was gone three of his band were caught, all with multiple accusations against them.  

What seemed strange to me is that at the trial itself, there were few witnesses. Enough to condemn them, though.  Three to life in prison, three to 20 years, one to 10 years.

Le  victime idrisa _FZS-TL2
Idris testifying.

Among the witnesses: Idris in white shirt, Katamoto in embroidered shirt and, next to him, Mama Marie from Ichuku.

We congratulate those witnesses who came forward at the open trial:

Katamoto – the leader of those who caught Fidel;
Idris – shot by Fidel’s gang, but survived;
Boji –  his nephew beaten, then shot and killed by Fidel;
Military — their own ambushed, shot and killed by Bernard’s gang;
Two married women – gang raped, stripped and made to walk through the village as their house was burned by Bernard’s gang.

Particularly damning was a video, made with a cheap phone, of Honorine’s live burial by Bernard and gang.  Unlike the middle ages, the executioners did not wear masks.  Totally visible  were the young men that beat her with sticks, the man who pulled her into the grave hole, and those that shoveled sandy clay over her last struggles.

Madame Marie Kafua témoigne contre Taye sur viol, torture et incendie de sa maison
Mama Marie from Ichuku testifies. The crowd has overflowed onto the “stage”.

Sitting on the bench below in the center is, Taye, one of the men that gang-raped her:

Simon Ndjate, Taye Ilungu au milieu et Patrice Sona (1)
Taye, center, with two others from Bernard’s band.

BUT where were the majority of the witnesses?

We were told repeatedly that tradition is stronger than government.  The legal system has little credibility in remote villages.  As before colonial time, the relations between adjacent groups and clans are modulated by pacts, blood bonding.  There are people you do not betray to the outside; you wait – or else far worse will happen. Let Tradition bring its own justice.

These were not small crimes committed by Bernard’s Mai-Mai and Fidel’s Mai-Mai:

A teacher from Boyela was kidnapped and tortured over 12 days;
A shop-owner was tortured and his wife gang-raped; she miscarried their baby;
Another shop-owner tortured and robbed;
An influential villager beheaded, cut up and eaten, his bones used to make fetishes;
A bicycle vendor stabbed multiple times and his goods stolen;
A chief forced to torture himself;
An Ngo employee shot and beheaded (not FZS-TL2).

These crimes and many others had witnesses or survivors.  Some came all the way to Kindu to witness at the open trial, but then decided that they could not give testimony.  They were more afraid of Tradition, and possibly of those Mai-Mai not yet arrested, or the brothers and uncles of those arrested that might take revenge.

The judges
The President-Judge of the military tribunal addresses the defendants.

And there was abundant reason for fear: Who paid for the 8 defence lawyers? Who raised the 3,000 USD to lighten their sentences, that the President of the Military Court turned down?