Up the Lomami: an Era Ends and an Elephant Returns

Sheyh Musara's burial mound by the Lomami

From this final overlook Sheyh Musara keeps eternal watch on the passing Lomami. He moved here, to Polepole, in 1990, after Jose le Maitre, elephant poacher and terrorist of Polepole, was killed. Sheyh learned mystic Mayimayi protection (gri-gri) and became the Mayimayi leader of the Balanga people. He eventually dominated both near-by Mbole and Arabisé peoples.

This period (end 1990s, beginning 21st century) was the final elephant slaughter in this southern part of what we call TL2. Elephants were killed not only with military rifles but also with spears and traditional pit-traps. They were wiped out.
Although considered a just leader, Sheyh was also leader when the elephants were silenced and shrubs grew over their trails in the forest. He had no idea where the ivory went after it left Congo– but eventually he understood the loss. His grand children have never seen elephants.

The laissez-faire elephant extermination of Sheyh’s dominion was a precursor of what is happening now throughout much of central Africa.

Sheyh Musara died on the 12th of  April 2012. A month and a half later, 24th of  May, there was a U.S. Senate hearing with testimony about the increase in ivory trade and the precipitous decline of elephants.

Sheyh's last day
John stopped his dugout to see Sheyh on his way upriver to Katopa. As usual he left him coffee although Sheyh was so weak he could not talk. He did manage a smile – but we learned he died that night.

The price of ivory is at $400 dollars a kg . Prices have doubled in the last two years. The market in China is driving the mass-killing in Congo and all of central Africa. Last year, 2011, was a record year for ivory poaching; the ivory seized (25 tons) represents about 2500 African elephants.

the last wife of Sheyh Musara mourning his death
Sheyh’s last wife (in mourning above) ran away in 2010 when her adulterous affair with a much younger man came out in the open (hard to hide in a tiny village). Nevertheless, she returned as Sheyh was failing – perhaps fearing the power of his gri-gri.

Just a day ago we got an SMS sent from a thuraya sat phone in the field: elephant sign found in the southern park! This is the first elephant that has been here in a decade. As the safety of the park area becomes known, will more elephants move down from the remnant population in the north? This would be a fitting tribute to Sheyh Musara. Perhaps his grand children will know elephants.
Sheyh Musara_an influential man
Sheyh Musara several years ago.


  1. cleve hicks
    Posted 2012-06-08 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Very nice piece. There was apparently a serious elephant massacre in the Buta-Bambesa region in the nineties as well. I had an eerie experience surveying the forests of Leguga near Bambesa in 2008. The intact ecosystem was full of ground nesting chimpanzees, okapis, and other wildlife, and there were no signs of recent hunting, but it seemed as if a giant hand had reached down and plucked out all of the elephants. The locals said they were slaughtered in the nineties, but it is hard to know if all of the elephants were killed or if some of them fled across the Uele River.

  2. Terese Hart
    Posted 2012-06-08 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    Alas, a similar story — with slightly different dates — seems to be the ghost of the past in essentially all the wild areas of Congo. And what is happening now — will be the silence of tomorrow.

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