Death of a Great Conservationist

Lomami National Park would not exist without local champions. The most pivotal – one who both led and reprimanded – even foreign conservationists (us),– was the chief, Mama Jeanne Ulimwengu.

1. Cheifitaine in Lokandu
For nine years she was the supreme leader of the Bangengele.

She was buried last Sunday. There is contention over who shall replace her. She is irreplaceable.

We must not forget her. The park must not forget her. This was a great woman and a great leader.

DELIMITATION Chef de groupe Kori sur la limite Tchombelome
The Lomami National Park limits were first marked in the bark of trees. Thank you chief Ulimwengu, for showing us how to arrive here.

This is what we remember:

3. Coronation of chefitaine
The clans gathered for her coronation.

This was the woman who became a chief: Her grandfather died. After a period of contention and confusion among the Bangengele, the key elder of the chiefdom chose her over her older brother or cousins. She became the only woman chief among the 34 sectors of Maniema Province. Everyone knew she was calm, but the elder who chose her must also have sensed her dedication, commitment and vision. We only learned that slowly.

Speaking to her population
The Chief addressed her people with confidence and an unwavering sense of what was right.

4. making arrests for illegal pigeon capture
She did not hesitate to arrest people committing wildlife crimes – here the mass capture and sail of pigeons during closed hunting season.

This was the exceptional effort she made: In 2009 she listened to us explain the amazing biodiversity of the Lomami forest that included the western most part of her chiefdom. She understood the peril of not officially saving it – already non-Ngengele hunters were using it. She rode motorcycle, and crossed flooded streams to speak to her people about the park. She accompanied ministers, assemblymen and the ICCN (parks) director.

4. helping her cross a bridge copy
A National Parks (ICCN) director helping the chief across a plank bridge to reach villages where she would explain the importance of protecting their forest.

But then she told us that all this outreach was not enough to make the park. “The ancestors must agree.” She led the conservation effort towards the traditional “TAMBIKO” . In the end villages throughout the park organized five tambikos and the park gained deep-rooted local acceptance.

2. Olangate_receiving ritual marking after ceremony
The chief receives the marks of the Olangate tambiko.

tambiko meals
She was not above working with the other woman to assure all the assembled guests at the tambiko had enough to eat.

These were the storms she weathered: Jeanne Ulimwengu was chief during nine difficult years. Her house was bludgeoned and burned by Tetela, an outside ethnic group, that was angry at measures she took against their deforestation of Ngengele lands.

5. destruction Katako
At night men from the Tetela tribe attacked the chief’s house and burned the outbuildings.

Last time she stopped by our Kindu office, she was weary and angry. She came with two men from one of her villages west of Kindu. She needed a small sum of money to stay out of jail. Why would anyone put the chief in jail? She had opposed the sale of traditional lands to a political strongman. The men accompanying her were leaders of the clan whose lands were “lost”.

She fought for what was good for her people and good for posterity.

ALAS: What hurts is during the post-funeral, clanic meetings a ruling was passed denying henceforward all women access to the throne of the Bangengele. She was the first and the last and a stalwart voice gone quiet.

1. Cheftaine at Balanga tambiko
May your memory help guide us in the years ahead.

Rest in peace, mama Jeanne– Chief of the Bangengele.

First for Lomami, First for DR Congo

The Lomami National Park has a new head warden: The first woman head warden ever for DR Congo. Welcome, Chantal Shalukoma.

Loidjo bridge_park border
The new Head Warden, Chantal, standing on the Loidjo Bridge. The Loidjo river is the eastern border of the park through most of Maniema Province.

She was barely a month in her office and she told the TL2 team that she wanted to accompany us on our dugout trip down the Lomami River in October. Congratulations Chantal, you definitely have the right priorities! She closed the door on the political games and administrative demands of Kindu, in order to see first hand the Park that depends on her.

Lunch in the dugout
Eating lunch on the Lomami River with the Head Warden (bottom right), myself (bottom left), Matthieu (grey shirt) and the general (blue arm patch).

What’s more she insisted that she not go alone, but lobbied hard to get a General to accompany us from the new PPN, Protection for National Parks, a division of the DRCongo Conservation Institute (ICCN). She wanted him to make the Lomami National Park a priority. The PPN is a melding of the army with park guards into an elite corps to specifically suppress armed crises in the parks: criminal militias, poaching bands, etc…. She succeeded. General Kitenge came to Kindu to join our trip down the Lomami. Congratulations again, Chantal.

The general, the colonel and the head warden_before the accident
Head Warden Chantal, General Kitenge and his “body guard” colonel as we started out on motorbike.

But the real test was after the first day out. It takes real grit to face the worst of Congo’s roads and keep going. Chantal has real grit.

The first 120km are by motorbike, often over a path so narrow and uneven it would not even qualify as a walking path in a USA National Park. Chantal had our best chauffeur, but still the motorbike went over and the foot-rest landed on her foot with the full weight of bike and load. I was ahead and arrived at the end of the road more than an hour before Matthieu (our program manager), the General and the head warden.

map of trip
Map of our itinerary.

It was well after dark when they pulled into the Chombe Kilima patrol post. Two people had to nearly carry her under the thatch roof of the barazza. She smiled, explained what happened and then insisted that we continue to Katopa the next day. BUT there are 37 km between Chombe Kilima and Katopa! All has to be crossed on foot, including flooded savannas, tussock-y tropical moors and many streams. It is not just open forest paths and it is a long way. The head warden could not put any weight on one foot; it looked impossible. Perhaps something was broken, or twisted or pulled.

Three of us got out of our tents in the morning with the same idea. The General, Matthieu and I all suggested “tipoy” or litter. The head warden was willing. Being carried that 37 km to Katopa is not at all preferable to walking it – but she did it – with six singing porters taking turns hoisting her over the path.

Crossing DjoDjo in Tipoy
Crossing the first flooded stream, Djodjo, and trying to be very quiet as we balance on hidden logs because there is an overhanging wasp nest.

a flooded stream after dark
We continued for two hours after dark before camping, including a stream crossing that the head warden did on foot with lots of help.

We made the Chombe Kilima-Katopa trek with one overnight. Along the way we could judge the morale and strength of her porters by the volume of their song and the originality of its harmonies.

Tipoy departure from KK/4
Picking up the tipoy in full song after a night’s sleep and a very large meal at our K-4 campsite.

Admiring the orchids on Brazza
Appreciating the orchids in the last savanna as we neared our destination of Katopa.

Chantal was well aware that both park guards and TL2 staff viewed her with curiosity and expectation as she entered Katopa camp.

Head Warden of Lomami National Park arrives at Katopa
Chantal hobbling into Katopa camp.

Before even taking a bucket bath, she reviewed the park guards.

Head Warden treated by Colin with American marine medical kit
A volunteer and ex-marine in Katopa re-bandaged her foot.

Later that day we had several presentations to allow different staff from ICCN and our TL2 project to discuss history, problems and discoveries in the southern part of the park.

Presentations in Katopa
Katopa introductions, presentations, and discussions.

The next day from early morning until after dark we were in the dugout, moving downriver to the post at Kakonga.

Balancing act to get in the dugout
A balancing act to get into the dugout using only one foot.

Tigerfish_enough lunch for all of us
We bought a tigerfish from a local fisherman. It was our evening meal, enough for all of us.

The head warden stopped in PolePole and BeneKamba, villages on the west bank of the river to talk about the park on the east bank and to hear the villagers’ views and problems.

Ancient village of BeneKamba
Bene Kamba in October 2018. This village appeared on colonial maps of the 1890s.

A welcome with song in Kakongo
A singing, dancing welcome the next morning in Kakongo where we slept.

Head warden speaks to school chilidren in Kakongo
The head warden, Chantal, adresses school children in Kakongo before we again head north in the dugout.

The next day at sunset we stopped briefly at the “tongo” or old village site, now abandoned, of Obenge. Then we continued on to Bangaliwa the northern post on the Lomami River and just outside the park. We didn’t arrive until 2 AM. Baba Bolenge our dugout pilot for the northern park knows the Lomami like the back of his hand and guides the boat with confidence in the dead of night.

Women greet head warden with dance and song Bangaliwa
Women of Obenge and park guards’ wives greet the new head warden.

There was no sleeping in the next morning. The women from the relocated village of Obenge as well as the wives of guards were singing greetings to the new head warden before 6AM.

Head warden Chantal and assistant Didier address guards in Bangaliwa
Warden Chantal reveiws the guards in Bangaliwa with assistant warden, Didier.

That day and the next we listened to guards, TL2 patrollers and villagers.

Deep in discussion at Bangaliwa
Discussions at Bangaliwa.

Introduction in Bangaliwa
The head warden articulates her vision for the park.

The head warden now has perspectives from the south and from the north matched with the vision and physical experience of the field.

Village of Obenge welcomes new head warden at Bangaliwa
The whole village of Obenge (now relocated in the same clearing as the Bangaliwa patrol post) sings and dances for us before we reenter the dugout to continue north.

And we, the partners and staff, not only saw her grit but also her candor: no false promises, but rather clear reprimands and forceful encouragement. We saw her readiness to share and partake of it all. “If they suffer in the sun and floods, I too shall suffer in the sun and floods. If they dance, I too will dance.”

Everyone joins at Kakongo
The head warden, and the rest of us, dance with the community.

What Happened in August? part 2.

2012_a mituku classroom
These Mituku children are the real losers. Boys are forced into Maimai gangs, schools close and villages empty.

This last July, the attack at Mayunga, in the eastern buffer zone, should have been the beginning of the end for the criminal Thoms Mesandu and all the worst of his gang: Mopao, Portugais, Machine, Reddi…  But then a politician and a cleric intervened. The whole violent mess was pushed back into the Lomami National Park.

Maimai controlled area mid-2018
The Mituku “roads” controlled by Thoms and his militias in mid-2018. Map made by Koko Bisimwa, UMI-TL2

What happened at Mayunga?

July 20th 2018 a military outpost at Mayunga was attacked. Maimai militia came in from all four roads. Colonel Thoms , himself, was there. The shootouts continued from 9h30 in the morning until 16h in the late afternoon. One soldier who refused to retreat used up his ammunition and then committed suicide rather than be caught and tortured.

2012_mituku woman tending drying peanuts afer harvest
A quiet Mituku village after peanut harvest before Thoms and his criminal band moved into the sector.

At least 5 maimai and one civilian were killed, right there in the village.
A week later 18 severely wounded had shown up in the nearest equipped dispensary, north of Muchaliko, at Masimango, more than 70 km of bicycle/foot path from the scene of the battle.

2012_Hunter on main path between Mituku villages
Hunter on the narrow “foot-path” roads between Mituku villages.

Thoms, himself, said that 41 of his men were killed.
Questioning afterwards : approximately 300 maimai participated in the attack.

2012 Mituku village meeting
In 2012 Crispin led TL2 outreach sessions among the Mituku; how many of these young men were in the battles – possibly forced in?

What was the lead-up to the Mayunga attack?

After the unrest of 2013 to 2015  it seemed that real progress was being made. Some of the principal Maimai actually agreed to meet with our outreach teams.

In 2016 Maurice (middle in yellow shirt) meets with Portugais (far left in matching shirt-pants) and Mopao (right in green shirt).

2017_in Bimbi discussions with MACHINE, on left
Machine, in hat, meets with ICCN team in 2017.

By September 2017, 85% of the population in Bimbi was in favor of collaboration; The chief and elders signed a document asking for a park patrol post in their village.

2017_Bimbi après sensibilisation copy
Celebrating in Bimbi after the village decides to build the patrol post and to send Mituku youth to become park guards.

But the remaining 15% joined Thoms in October 2017 when he returned to the Mituku sector. He came breathing fire. This was his fief how could any chief or any villagers accept the park, volunteer to become park guards, or be willing to have a patrol post in their village? He turned young men into bloody examples. One was tortured until bones were broken, fingers crushed. Others beaten and made to pay impossible fines.

Anx3_a1_lettre from chief Mituku Bamoya_pge1
A letter from the Sector Chief to the governor of the province tells the horrific story of maimai punishment under the direction of Thoms. He asks for help immediately — it takes months to come.

February 2018. An escaped slave  confirms rumors about Thoms’s large hunting camp in the Mituku forests of the upper tributaries of the Lilo, to the east of the park. Thoms ran the camp with an iron fist. AK47s were present. There were slaves for labor.

May 2018: Mitilia men tried to hold-up a barge, “Emmanuel”, going up the Lualaba river. The barge escapes, but villagers all along the river have abandoned their homes in fear.

By early June military have started moving into the area to stage an attack. By late June 115 military from Maniema were at Lowa (see map above).

June 28th the military advanced from Lowa towards Mayunga; there was no armed resistance; the militias moved back towards Muchaliko.

June 29th 76 military advance towards Bimbi leaving a back-post at Mayunga and another at the head of the path towards Yesse.

June 30th and July 1st shoot outs with the militias near the village of Baysiya. Two wounded military and more than 10 dead on the side of the maimai.
Military returned to Mayunga. Waiting for a resupply of ammunition.

Then – with the Military still waiting for more ammunition, on July 20th: the maimai attacked.

2012_Mituku women returning from gardens
These Mituku women along with the population of more than 20 villages fled to Maniema or to the Lualaba following the Mayunga violence.

How did authorities react to the Mayunga battle?

The military should have led the negotiations with Thoms – or at least been present as an armed force. BUT no…

A local politician rushed to Lowa as quickly as a motorized dugout could get him upstream from Ubundu. His name has long been associated with the maimai. Some say that as a deputy back in 2011, playing the ethnic card of local politics (he is Mituku), he helped Thoms escape from prison where he was condemned for 30 years after he and his band raped more than 130 Mbole women. Now this politican says he will bring peace, put an end to this war. That will maximize his political capital, without revealing past sins.

The local parish priest was appointed as a neutral person to go meet and negotiate with Thoms. He took 2000 USD from the politician to ease the deal.

1808_FARDC and church in negotiations
Second from left is Major Didier commanding the army troops at Lowa. Next to him, all in white, is the parish priest, Abbé Déon.

The parish priest, Abbé Déon, along with 5 respected elders of Lowa met a group of 12 maimai in Mayunga. The goal of the negotiators was to convince the maimai to give up their weapons and continue negotiations without arms. The words of the militia were that they too wanted to stop fighting; the number of dead and wounded and the lack of medical care was a heavy price.

But the terms of the agreement reached with the Abbé are at best only partially followed. Approaching the end of September, only 6 AK47 rifles (out of a probable 45 or 50) have been turned in.

Instead the agreement seems to have sent military arms and poachers into the Lomami National Park. Thoms even told an informant that he had sent his men into the park to get bushmeat.

What was the situation in the park in August?

Patrols during the latter half of August and early September had three shoot-outs with outlaws in the park.

Insecurity in Park in August 2018
The three shootouts (accrochages),from north to south, occured on 1st Sept, 24th Aug, 28th Aug. Map made by Junior Amboko, UMI-TL2.

The most sustained shoot-out was right near a “bai” frequented by elephants. A small research team led by Dieu Merci and accompanied by two military and two park guards was attacked in their camp on the 24th of August at 19h45 (7:45PM)

Dieu Merci's team in Obenge
Dieu Merci in orange shirt with GPSunit around his neck, poses with his team and a couple of colleagues before leaving Obenge for the Musumbuku “bai”.

During the day they had set out camera traps in and near the elephant opening. Some were already in their tent when the shooting started. The team managed to run for cover in the adjacent forest and exchanged fire regularly until 23h (11PM). By the number of shots seen and heard, the team reported 8 or 9 enemy AK47. During the midnight pause, DieuMerci and the guards crept back into camp to collect tents and food; they inched off without flashlights and were more than a km distant when shooting restarted near 1h30 in the morning. They did not answer fire and were able to move back to the Lomami River very early in the morning,

left by Mopao's maimai
When Mopao fled the Obenge clearing he left behind a few possessions including tags he had taken from trees on the botany plots.

The other two shoot outs happened when regular patrol teams encountered armed bands during their circuits. One team found maimai raiding the old gardens around the abandoned village of Obenge. Two TL2 team members actually saw the militiaman Mopao. Mopao and his men ran off after exchange of fire.

dugouts of poachers and criminals
Park guards destroy maimai and poachers’ dugouts found in the park.

And now what?

There seemed nevertheless to be hope as long as Major Didier and over 100 military from Maniema were present at Lowa and planned to patrol village to village and reinforce our teams in the park.

But a few days ago all the Maniema military were called back to Kindu. They have to move to the east; there’s a rebellion among the gold mines.

Is this hard-won success about to turn into little more than a brief respite for the Mituku and a time of high danger for the park. The latter at least is true.

What Happened in August? part 1.

August 2018 had its good side. It was all about capacity building, camaraderie and resetting our compasses.

Seven of us left Kindu and headed towards Nairobi. But first we spent a week in intense concentration on our porch in Kindu analyzing data, putting together talks.

sitting out the rain
This is not work on the porch but the step before: field work in Mpechi that figured in talks of both David (front in blue) and Junior (beside John in green hat).

We pulled together information about bonobo killing, the two TL2 red colobus species, and new sightings of the rare dryas species.

Lukuru’s president, Jo Thompson, and our colleague and professor from Florida Atlantic University (FAU), Kate Detwiler, organized a symposium on the primates of Lomami for the International Primate Society (IPS) Congress in Nairobi. Altogether we had eleven presentations.

With Jo at Hotel
Jo here with some of the Congo team. From left: Koko, Junior, David, Jo, Leon and Matthieu. Junior had not yet acclimated to Nairobi’s chill.

We turned into tourists as soon as we crossed from Congo to Rwanda and definitely were dodging through a different climate and conditions once in Nairobi — where the IPS Congress was a big affair:

meeting friends from Arcus and USFWS
The Congo contingent met important people to the project previously only known by email (from left in center: Ken, Dirck and Annette).

no badge_no entry to IPS
Some interested observers just hung over the roof: No badge – No entry.

The talks went well — or well enough for a first group effort.

Last minutes concentration
Palpable tension just minutes before the symposium.

And afterward we took a couple more days at Lolldaiga Hills where we were definitely tourists. What we saw:

The Congo team was counting
The Congo team was counting as the behemoth moved through.

Taking it in
Something to see in all directions.

Red-billed oxpecker takes a ride
Close enough to see the oxpecker along for a ride and a snack.

TL2 collaborators
With our FAU colleagues, Kate and Daniele, at a Lolldaiga sundowner.

Let me show you what you saw
Let me show you what you saw.

superb starling_mascot Lolldaiga
Superb starling was our mascot for this superb visit.

But August was two faced. While in Kenya we followed the menacing messages from back home. They came quickly: delorme, thuraya, phone text : the northeast buffer zone of Lomami National Park was growing toxic. That is the next post.

For the photos: thankyou Daniele and also Jo and Koko.