Mystery Ivory in the Swamps of the Lomami

The team is mainly slogging through swamp. It is inundated forest southwest of Obenge: a lot of swamp forest, isolated dry hillocks, then again swamp and always another river to cross…day after day.
Some pretty wet forest to traverse
A wet “exploration circuit” between the Tshuapa and the Lomami

But this particular forest is extremely important. The forest of the Tutu watershed is the only remaining forest with a good elephant population in the whole TL2 landscape. In fact there are not many other forest elephant populations left in all of the DR Congo’s central basin…and that is a lot of forest ( more than 800,000Km² !)
index of elephant presence in TL2
Elephants are concentrated along the TuTu River, west of Obenge

The “Boussolier” with the compass calls out directions to the “pisteur” with the machete who is breaking trail up front: “Stay right” “Straight to that Apakipekipe,” (a big swamp tree). Slow going. Bernard and Muhindo are the observers behind the boussolier: one keeps his eyes in the treetops watching for primates, the other’s eyes are on the ground looking for tracks, elephant “rubbings” or dung. Both take notes. Seven porters follow behind with tents and food.

At least four more days of wet-knee transect before returning to Obenge, the village that is our current base.

It is the pisteur, stepping up on some nominally firm ground, who sees them first. “Pembe!! Hey, two pembe (tusks) right here”.

Pembe is white gold. You don’t find elephant tusks just lying around in the forest. But these were just lying there— actually half buried and they were huge, compared to the size of tusks found on the forest elephants hunted today.

They dug and pulled them from the muck and ground tangle. They were nearly black , with ruts and riddles from years, probably decades of slow weathering. Did some big elephant just come here to die? The team scoured the area for bones – none. Even teeth – none.
Elephant_01©Copyright_Reto Kuster_E-Mail
An elephant entering a marshy glade in the Ituri Forest, photograph © Reto Kuster

Or maybe it was some poacher — If so, how long ago? — and if so, why did he leave the tusks? Besides, there is no path near-by, nor a navigable stream, nor any kind of recognizable landmark. Even today the poachers of TL2 , have no compass, let alone GPS. They would not even temporarily leave such wealth in such an unrecognizable place. But maybe such obscurity is just the sort of place an old or wounded elephant would seek to die.

At 25kg those tusks would have fetched well over a thousand dollars just in Opala. In Kisangani? In Kinshasa? In Dubai? Before they had been so “weathered” on the outside, how much did they weigh?

Ashley got an SMS on his satellite phone sent from the team’s satellite phone. “What do we do, boss? Throw them in the river or bring them back?” They brought them back.
ivory found in TL2
Crispin is holding one of the tusks to show to officials in Opala. John and Ashley in the background.

The tusks might be white gold, but they are also contraband and associated with the most unscrupulous of poachers. Obenge’s Chefitaine de Village said, “Take them to Opala”. In Opala the authorities said, “Take them down to Kisangani”. In Kisangani a very self-important Chef de Ressorts Désirables (= chief of desirable finds), signed for the ivory and took it, presumably, to the bank. Presumably.


  1. Posted 2008-04-10 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    Those tusk are huge! Good map, good photos, good story.

  2. Posted 2008-04-10 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Hi! Thanks for all that you are doing! I’m ear deep in a bonobo project for kids and I’m wondering if you have a moment to email me for some quick questions?

  3. Terese Hart
    Posted 2008-04-10 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Julie, You mean some quick answers?? We do indeed have plenty of questions ourselves but if your questions are ones we can answer — we will do so with pleasure. You might want to just email me:

  4. Posted 2008-04-13 at 12:17 am | Permalink

    Great map Terese, wish there were more dark green areas. Proof these areas need to be protected. I would love to see an overlay of the areas most populated by the bonobos, to get a sense of how much they share the same habitat with these elephants. Please convey to the entire team what important work they are doing. I wish I could send them a nice, hot shower for all their troubles.

  5. michael
    Posted 2008-04-13 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    hello theresa,
    “…i would love to see an overlay of the areas most populated by the bonobos…”
    in the same blog. In TL2 there are a lot of bonobos in the south( where they seem to prefer old elephants baths) – but there the elephants were hunted out from the military of mobutu. The elephants could only survive in the swampy regions in the center in good numbers( not the preferred habitat of bonobos). I hope in the future we see a long stretch of
    protected rainforest from north to south.

    again thanks for all of the hard work of the team.

  6. Terese Hart
    Posted 2008-04-13 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    We too hope for a long swath of protected forest through TL2. It must include the TuTu River with the elephants and it must include the rich southern area with high bonobo density. I do believe we will get there.

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  1. […] first wrote about this after the tusks were brought out, Ashley and John told me about presenting the tusks in Obenge, and […]

  2. […] first wrote about this after the tusks were brought out, Ashley and John told me about presenting the tusks in Obenge, and […]

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