Anarchy and Complicity Deep in Lomami’s Forest

Father and son
Father and son resemble Abraham and Isaac except for the fetishes at their side.

Who slaughters elephants in Congo? What Kingpin can pluck ivory from the most remote forests and also have access to international smuggling chains? This requires a substantial network.

In the Lomami River forests we see only the bones and the anarchy this breeds…
Who is responsible at this bottom end of the network: Criminals with forest savvy …

Mai Mai chief in foreground with leopard skin
Col. Thoms (actually Basele Lotula) escaped from a top security prison two years ago where he was doing life for the rape of over 100 MBOLE girls. Now elephant poacher.

This year, 2013, criminals infiltrated the remote forest that is to become the Lomami National Park, forest we monitor from our camp at the small village of Obenge along the Lomami. We have had this camp since 2008 and developed excellent relations with some of the villagers –plausible relations with others. They are bushmeat hunters – only a few have hunted elephants and then always for someone else. They know a national park is being created, they were ready to move – until things began to change.

Where Thoms's rebellion occurred
In central Congo, the north of the future Lomami National Park is still an outlaw’s wilderness.

Last year – in October – Col Thoms showed up at Obenge with two new players: someone who goes by the name of “John” and someone who goes by the name of “50centimes” or “50cents”. Thoms called Maurice, our team leader, and told him “you do your work and let me do mine – I hunt elephants, that is all I can do.” Then Thoms left for nearby camps. His gang has gotten bigger and it is better-armed – military guns. Only the bravest in Obenge have stayed aligned with us.

A truce of sorts was maintained by the fact that 6 armed park guards, on loan from the Maiko National Park patrolled the primary elephant zone around Obenge. The elephants are spread over thousands of square kilometers; the killing was reduced, but not stopped.

park guards in patrol camp
Park guards on patrol with the TL2 team stop at a bivouac camp for the night.

The guards came for six months; they were due to leave in February. Maurice’s replacement, Bofenda, arrived in early February. There were no replacement guards, though–not yet. In the meantime Maurice took Bofenda to see key sites, camera traps, the study area, as well as paths used by poachers….

A small group of researchers from the University of Kisangani made collections for a week. On February 9th they left, seemingly peacefully, in the motorized dugout they had rented in Opala. Actually it was not a peaceful return…they were shot at 40 km down stream, across from Katondo’s fishing camp, at the big bend in the river.

On February 10th, John and 50Cents came from Katondo to Obenge. They brought the information, “Two hundred military are marching to Obenge…” the news came from one of Thoms’s wives in Bimbi. The tension in Obenge explodes. John and 50Cents summon Maurice.

“You called the military to come get us. If the military come here, you will regret it.“

maker of grigri
Katondo made the grigri magic that made the men immune to all harm. It was also from his fishing camp that John and 50Cent staged their ambushes.

Old Katondo started making grigri…magic to make men invincible. Women and children were sent out to garden camps. Men ate grigri and stripped half naked for greater strength. Now – presumably they were immune to bullets, immune to stabs, slices, or thrusts of any kind. They sang.

John and 50Cents left Obenge. They said they would go west to Lokobekobe to meet the military, but secretly they took a dugout downriver back to the big bend.

Bofenda and three guards set off on another routine patrol of several days. Maurice stayed in camp near Obenge to wait through the tension. He had no idea who these supposed military were – if they existed?

The 15th of February Thoms, himself arrived in camp with six armed men. Maurice in his own words “was arrested” by the outlaw. For an hour and half Thoms harangued Maurice. “If the military arrive here, in Obenge, you die.” Finally through the intervention of the three guards, Thoms backed down. But he stayed in the village, more grigri, more dancing. He called all the fishing dugouts from the east bank, back to the west bank of the Lomami.

bofenda with quiver of capture fleches
Picture of Bebe Bofenda taken several years ago when he and others on a TL2 patrol raided a parrot capture camp.

Bofenda arrived on the 16th. Maurice and he did their final planning for Maurice’s departure. Our motorized dugout, the only one in Obenge, left the morning of the 18th February with Maurice and the 6 park guards.

What happened on the 18th February :

1. Along the Lomami, at the Katondo bend: Maurice and the guards are shot at from both banks of the River – AK47s.
2. Across the river from Obenge village: 200 military arrive on the east bank but they have no way to cross.
3. In Obenge, Bofenda and the TL2 team are taken hostage by Thoms. The village chief, himself, holds them at gun-point.

dugout cooking fire
If your dugout is fired upon hit the bottom but remember wood does not block bullets the way metal can.

1…. Along the Lomami – the guards in Maurice’s dugout shot back. Bullets whizzed. Later I was shown a bullet hole in the dugout and another bullet gouge right against the side where Maga, the helmsman was sitting to guide the boat, first towards one bank, then the other, then downstream through the middle of the Lomami. Full throttle. No one was hurt. Pulled over finally at Masasi, the villagers, who knew the ambush was afoot were amazed to see Maurice and crew all alive. But no one (at least not us, not the military) knows where John and 50Cents are now.

2 and 3…. In Obenge – after nightfall, perhaps too nervous to stay quiet, Col Thoms started firing in the air, firing across the river towards the military. His hunters/rebels are lined up with him, with their shotguns, half naked in leaves, invincible, …
Bofenda and his team grabbed the moment of chaos to escape. Kapere, a stalwart local supporter, took the TL2 escapees in his dugout, out of sight, downriver, across the Lomami. They slept under the stars and then, at dawn on the 19th they crossed forest to find the military. Sixty military with PKM hike back through the forest to the dugout.

The dugout is no longer there. Reclaimed by Thoms.

Searching the banks they find two tiny fisherman’s dugouts…each large enough for one standing helmsman with paddle and one passenger

Undercover of deep darkness starting at two AM, the morning of the 20th, two of the TL2 team, Janiver (loyal and from Obenge) and Vincent took troops across; one by one with a PK Machine gun. At first light, firing began. Obviously outgunned Thoms and crew dove into the forest.

Now more than three weeks later, the military are still based at Obenge. They have taken close to a dozen prisoners: Thoms’s collaborators, some from the “elite” of Obenge. But Thoms, like John and 50Cents, has disappeared. Perhaps he has returned to Maniema. But he will be back. And he will come expecting to kill elephants.

The events above collected from thuraya messages and interviews with people who came out of Obenge…
And THANK YOU Edith and Nancy for making it possible for us to get more park guards back into the elephant forest!


  1. Posted 2013-03-20 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    This is terrible news. We are all very concerned for all of the team. Psychotic humans, brutal and armed. Please be prepared. Thinking of you every moment.

  2. Posted 2013-03-20 at 1:37 am | Permalink

    Very sad. So lucky no one was killed.
    Why were the soldiers sent there and by whom?

  3. Tan
    Posted 2013-03-20 at 3:14 am | Permalink

    Wow, such harsh environment for both humans and animals. I hope things get a lot better.

    “Psychotic humans” – Tom Hart

    I think the word you’re looking for is ‘psychopathic’.

  4. Kate Detwiler
    Posted 2013-03-20 at 3:46 am | Permalink

    Terrible and very sad news. Terese, thank you for the detailed information. Thank you to all TL2 for such amazing work. So very relieved everyone is ok. Please give my best to Maurice. Wonderful to read about the guard support from Edith and Nancy. So very important.

  5. Posted 2013-03-20 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    Those are certainly terrifying events, and I’m so relieved to hear everyone miraculously came through unscathed. I hope you all continue to be safe out there! Please send my regards to poor Maurice and the rest of the TL2 crew. You must all be so worn out.

  6. Posted 2013-03-20 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Amazing story. Looks like you are dealing with a few real bad guys who will get their just deserve!

  7. cleve hicks
    Posted 2013-03-20 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Terrifying! So glad to hear that Bebe and team escaped unhurt ….

  8. Jonas Eriksson
    Posted 2013-03-20 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Ivory is like any other resource in DRC. All business generating this kind of money in a country where corruption is the norm, will end up working this way (attract criminals and violence). For the African elephant, time is running out and the reason for the increased price of ivory is the quickly growing Chinese/Asian market in combination with the many Chinese now in the Central African countries acting as middle men… much as we have to do all we can in DRC to keep the “life support” going, the elephant will not survive this unless we manage to stop the markets in China/Asia. So all the China connected peole interested in conservation…the African elephants need your help

  9. Terese Hart
    Posted 2013-03-20 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Very true, Jonas. We, in conservation, are working at the bottom of the chain. We are aware of the corruption and complicity that makes it possible for the criminals to operate with impunity — but the weigh in needed to make changes is not from us.

  10. Posted 2013-03-20 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Mama. This is very important journalism.
    May you all stay safe………. my prayers and thoughts are with you.

  11. Boo
    Posted 2013-03-20 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Very sorry indeed to hear of these developments. Jonas says it all- no demand= no ivory poaching. CITES this year was far better than at any time in the past though- see and
    Everyone- donate to elephant conservation, write to Congress, speak to Chinese friends and family. Please!

  12. Posted 2013-03-29 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Dear Terry,
    We read your posts, alarmed by the violence, concerned for your welfare. Prayers and encouragement to you and J.
    Love, Nat

  13. Posted 2013-03-31 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Story on ivory poaching in the DRC and “Mai Mai Morgan” in the Guardian:

  14. genna anderson
    Posted 2013-05-25 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    The story in the Guardian is heartbreaking.When I was in the Congo it was bad.I didn’t think it could get worse but it has. I travelled alone in 1986-88 but I wouldn’t today.

    Genna Anderson

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