The Final Slaughter of Elephants is One by One.

Here is a sad story which, alas, is true:
Hundreds of northern white rhinoceroses were slaughtered on the northern savanna of Congo in the 1970s and early 80s.  Their horns were shipped to the Middle East and Asia.  There was a brief recovery in the late 80s and 90s.  Then, in this the 21st century, the remaining rhinos were picked off one by one until – it seems – the northern white rhinoceros is no more—not in the wild.

Big-horned rhino killed in Uele
This northern white rhinoceros with enormous horns was killed early in the colonial era near the Uele River.

Here are two more sad stories, just out from TL2. They too, alas, are true:
A couple weeks ago a man seemed to be carrying smoked fish toward Kindu on his bicycle.  The police in Lokando were suspicious: too many flies. They opened the basket and below the fish were great slabs of elephant meat.
About the same time, many miles to the west an elephant poacher was apprehended along the Lomami River.  He was sent to prison in Kindu.  When a few days later we went to check – he was no longer there.  Our questions were unwelcome. Obviously someone high-up was involved.

the prison in Kindu
The prison in Kindu, built in 1938.

Here is why these last stories are important:
There is still a viable elephant population along the Lomami River in the north part of TL2.  We hope a national park will be created before these last elephants are lost, one by one.

Elephant distribution in the TL2 area
The elephant population is concentrated in the north part of the TL2 Conservation Landscape. On this map the green outline indicates what we hope will be made into national park.

I wrote earlier about the first massive elephant slaughter in these central Congo forests when there were still big-tuskers in every troop.  It started in the second half of the nineteenth century when Arab hunters crossed the Lualaba into the Lomami forests.  Why did they come? –The global economy of 150 years ago.   In 1856 there was a sharp rise in ivory price that did not fall until the early 20th century.

The global market is a record of elephant depletion. In 1889 Europe was receiving 100,000 kg less ivory than 10 years earlier and in 1899 there was a further drop. Already in 1883 Emin Pasha, then in Khartoum, wrote that “for some years there has been a considerable decrease in (ivory/elephant) supply.”  (see reference below.  Emin Pasha was later murdered in Congo during the Belgo-Arab conflict).

A big tusker from the colonial era
A big-tusker from the Garamba National Park during the colonial era.

During the early 20th century the Belgian Congo with its massive forest was still considered the continental elephant reservoir.   The Belgians maintained strong gun controls and by the 1920s nature conservation became part of the colonial pride and policy.  The Belgian Congo had the first National Park of the continent (Virunga National Park) and dozens of provincial reserves were created.

After independence in 1960 control was lost.  It is a period still in the living memory of villages along the Lomami.  The story below was heard in various renditions, from village elders in Obenge, Polepole, Yakunda and Chombe Lombe.

Some background: Up through the 1960s, prices for raw ivory remained low, between $3 and $10 per pound, but by 1975 the price reached $50 per pound and by 1987 the price was $125 per pound ( $275 per kg).   At the same time, automatic firearms were becoming widely available and the government had poor control over the military.  Poaching moved into formally safe elephant areas (Reserves and Parks) and into very remote areas such as the Lomami Forest.

As the Lomami villagers remember:  the first ivory poacher, named Shindo, came in 1970.  He was an army officer from the province of Equateur, same province as then autocrat-president, Mobutu Sese Seko.  Shindo killed elephants from Polepole north to Opala.  A second group of poachers came in 1975.  No one remembers their names but they too were from Equateur.

It is José le Maître that people really remember.  He came in 1980.  He also came from the military and from Equateur.  Apparently linked to one of Mobutu’s sons, he came well-equipped. He had 20 to 30 military firearms and two outboard motors.  He made his headquarters Polepole where he lived with  a mysterious woman said to be a sorcerer.  Her name was Marie.  From two dugouts he patrolled a series of outposts along the Lomami, including Obenge and Katopa.  He is remembered as ruthless, a rapist, a petty tyrant.  Dugouts loaded with Lomami tusks slipped north to the Congo River.  Perhaps from Isangi the loads went overland to Central African Republic.

The villagers of Polepole
The villagers of Polepole were very friendly, but a bit uncertain in front of the camera.

Polepole is now a village of only 15 huts.  There is no school and no medical facilities at all. But they remember José le Maître and the night they came to get him.  Le Maître made the mistake of rebelling against his hierarchy, of thinking that he could go independent.

In the blackest hours before morning — was it 1985 or 1986? — a group of commandos from the garrison at Katako Kombe, under the leadership of commander Mukomboso crept into the village and surrounded the house of Le Maître and Marie, set on the banks of the Lomami.  The commandos fired a single shot at four in the morning.  Immediately Marie flew – yes flew – out from the back of the house, she flew over the Lomami river and was never seen again.  That is the story.  Le Maître, being less magically endowed, ran for cover along the Lomami River.

Mukomboso told his troops not to move, to stay quiet.  More than an hour later and just as night began to dissolve into the gray of dawn, Le Maître climbed up the bank.  Without hesitation the commandos all fired and Le Maître rolled back to the river.  His body was retrieved and buried in the forests of Polepole on the banks of the Lomami.

And so, a couple decades ago, Congolese justice was carried out by the Lomami River.

The village of Polepole
The village of Polepole with our TL2 tents in the background.

About the same time a CITES ban on global ivory trading brought relative peace to the African elephants.   Their peace was short-lived.  The CITES ban was lifted for one-off sales from south African countries to Asia.  At the same time war, anarchy and weapons swept across Congo.   And the price makes the killing worthwhile. In Vietnam the price of ivory has sky rocketed up to $1500/kg.  Compare this to $50 per pound ($110/kg)  in 1975.

A National Park along the Lomami is essential.  The elephants that remain continue to be picked off, one by one.

The village of Polepole.

View POLEPOLE in a larger map

A reference not available as a link:
Spinage, C.A. 1973. A review of ivory exploitation and elephant population trends in Africa. E. Afr. Wildl. J. Volume 11, pg 281-289.


  1. Posted 2009-08-05 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    Let’s hope the Lomami population survives to enjoy effective protection. Are these forest elephants of eastern D.R. Congo any different morphologically from the forest elephants of West Central Africa? Are there “bais”–openings in the forest– that the elephants use to find salts and bathe as they do in the forests of R. Congo and southwestern C.A.R.?

  2. Terese Hart
    Posted 2009-08-05 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    I do not believe that there is any recorded difference across central africa and Yes there are “bais” or “edos”…but those were often areas where poachers did their killing. see the post about elephants and pigeons (two back…).
    By the way we do have hope — we really do — that a park of the Lomami will be created.

  3. Greg Davies
    Posted 2009-08-07 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Looks like the Elephants are concentrated in the north, whereas the Bonobos are more abundant in the south of Lomami. Interesting.

  4. cleve hicks
    Posted 2009-08-07 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    This was an excellent piece.

    I am certain that the same thing is happening up near Bili. One by one.

  5. Terese Hart
    Posted 2009-08-08 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Cleve!

    Yep Greg. the elephants were killed off in the south — Maniema but still a population in the north. The bonobo population, on the otherhand, can not be understood through poaching pressure.

  6. Posted 2009-10-05 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    This was an excellent piece.

    I am certain that the same thing is happening up near Bili. One by one.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *