Family Cruise on the Lomami

Our youngest daughter, Jojo, and her beloved, Mike, came to TL2. 

Dream trip, but not a trip they will recommend to any of their friends, even the most adventurous….

The four of us at Obenge

Here we are- well underway- in the ghost town of Obenge, only village that existed in the forest that became national park.

Jojo grew up expecting to be part of our work;

Our family has always done it that way:

In grad school: John knocked on the seminar door – Sarah needed nursing;

Sofi with jojo, mamaAmboko behind

Jojo with MamaSofi.

In the Ituri, during PhD research : Sofi, our Mbuti nanny, sat outside the botanical plots -Bekah cooing in her lap; 

During okapi captures : Jojo watched the forest from a sling over my shoulder, or John’s shoulder.

Sarah, Bekah and Jojo at Afarama

Sarah, Jojo, and Bekah at our research camp in the Ituri Forest…circa 1990.

This year Jojo came back.  Mike had to see what a couple weeks with Mom and Dad was really like.  The trip could “Make it” or “Break it”.

There were plenty of chances to “Break It” before even getting near Mom and Dad.

First problem:  The visa.  They submitted all the documents plus a money order for $325 per visa in the middle of May – two months before trip-start date.  The documents included two heavily signed and stamped letters from DR Congo (another $300),  a formal invitation, vaccination records, and a long questionnaire.

After one month with no message from the embassy, Jojo telephoned.  Four days she called repeatedly – no answer.  On the fifth day an answer: “Our means of payment have changed: Full cash payment.”  

Rather than put $650 cash in an envelope, they contacted a travel agency to drop off cash on delivery of visa (a fee, of course).  The embassy then decided the whole application process should restart through the travel agency – minimally a 10day process and, by this time, there were 5 days left before departure.

We mobilized in Congo.  Matthieu went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We discovered some of Jojo’s and Mike’s papers had been lost (thus the suggestion to restart the process).  Finally the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kinshasa instructed the embassy in Washington DC to issue the visas.  YEAH!  But this was the day before travel.  

The embassy gave the passports to FedEX.  Unfortunately two months earlier, when they paid return mail, “overnight delivery” was not even considered.  A weeping Jojo pleaded over the phone with FedEX, but too late.  

The passports arrived after their plane had taken off,  they got new tickets for $3,969.00 (!) and were reimbursed a mere $1,134.00.  

A.Passports arrive in Colorado

Passports finally did arrive WiTH visas in Colorado.

Taking into account the changed airfares and all other costs, the price-tag for those visas was $1500 each. Being a tourist on the cheap in Congo is not easy.

Finally with John on the right continent

Finally: John with Jojo and Mike on the way through Goma.

This only added to the delight of seeing them.  John met them in Kigali.  Once he was with them I felt it was real – they would make it –they did.

We were sure the travel tribulations were over.  They flew together to Kindu

We took two full days downtime in Kindu.

Hard cider on the banks of Lualaba

At Vero Beach, the bar near our Kindu office, on the Lualaba (Congo) River.

John and Mike biking in Kindu

John and Mike went biking and birding.

Then off on the  “work vacation” with Mom and Dad – not luxurious, but with neither the uncertainty nor cost of getting to Congo in the first place.  

We started with a motorbike ride for 7 hours.

Map_of trip with Jojo and Mike

With a three day pause along the whole trip took 10 days.


Packing the caravan in our Kindu yard

The caravan gets ready- with a town garbage pile and ancient colonial era train beyond the yard’s bamboo fence.

Sand pits on the savanna

Motorbikes first move north through a prairie / forest mix.

trail narrows down in forest

Then west through forest;

20 small bridges along the way

And at least twenty local bridges where passengers walked.

Second day was the trek… from the Chombe Kilima patrol post to Katopa patrol post on the Lomami :  we walked 37km across…..

First formidable savanna

Through Prairie;

Here we have entered into the park


The Djodjo stream was the second crossing

Swamp And Mire.

When we reached Katopa base camp we took three days down time before the “luxury” part of the trip….

Katopa village comes down for some soccer

A bit of camp “foot” with the local ball Jojo and Mike brought …until it punctured;

every day a little jaunt on the river

Each afternoon we took a short, near-by cruise for bird watching, fishing, change of scene;

A tigerfish! almost there

The big deal was John’s haul of the tigerfish;

camp pleased with the fish

The whole camp was thrilled.

Then the trip down the river – we started packing the dugout a day ahead of time for the “luxury” cruise.

Packing the dugout for "work" and "cruise"

Actually it was a “work” cruise, patrols would be dropped off along the way.

chicken in the middle

Once underway, there was hardly lots of room, but there is always extra space for a few chickens…(see the rooster?).

Jojo and Mke play cards on board

And room for some games of cards.

Looking back in the rain

The luxury passengers were under the tarp during the rain…not so the helmsman.

Offboarded with supplies for 12 days of patrol copy

We dropped off the patrol team lead by BienFait in the late afternoon.  They were all set for twelve days in the forest with what they could carry on their backs.

On the prow in the sunset

And the first day was a bit long.  Still on the river after sunset.
We finally reached our patrol post at Kakongo well after dark.

The second day was shorter.  We camped that night at the mouth of Lomami’s tributary, Lifongo.

second dugout from the north met us at Lifongo

Here we met our northern dugout that had come upstream to meet us.  It had picked up a couple smaller poachers’ dugouts along the way (attached to side).

Before parting ways

We said good bye to the southern dugout, helmsman and crew.

one-night camp in ghost-town Obenge

The third night of our trip downstream we camped at Obenge.

Nothing is now left of either our original camp nor the small village that we originally found here.  

we used three small dugouts
we tested the Tutu tributary in small dugouts

The next day we used smaller dugouts to paddle partly up the Tutu tributary.

Maybe the diet was not luxury: lots of salt fish, fresh fish and bugali…no vegetables and the only fruit was lemons off of feral trees

Obenge camp_helping with bugali_standard fare

Jojo “helping” make bugali.

BUT it was, afterall,  a work cruise…as every trip down the Lomami must be.

Obenge discussion

With its meetings,

hastily abandoned poachers' camp

Destroyed poacher camps,

Meat left by poachers who fled

And confiscated bushmeat.

on hill at northern camp, Bangaliwa.

The final patrol post was Bangaliwa which is also now the new village of Obenge2.

After that was the small  town of Opala on the Lomami; then, a very long motorbike ride to Kisangani….we had to do it in one day, because the next day Jojo and Mike were to fly to Goma so that they could get their flight home out of Kigali the following day.

All this was well documented on Jojo’s Instagram at “HartEleanor”.

Alas, we reached Kisangani to be informed their flight to Goma was cancelled.

The travel tribulations in DR Congo were NOT over.  The critical Congo Airways  flight was cancelled; no refund, no apologoy…..just cancelled.

Mike learned in a day struggling to change tickets from Kigali, Rwanda,  to Boulder, Colorado, that it was just as cheap to buy new tickets and that internet negotiations are not always simple from the middle of Congo.  In fact it was not until they were at the airport in Kigali that they could buy new tickets.  

Mike and Jojo ended up paying three times the cost of their original round trip tickets…and that is after all the reimbursements came in.

Mike’s recommendations to intrepid travellers to DR Congo:

1/ Work through a travel agency from the beginning when dealing with the DRC embassy;

2/  Buy the top reimbursement travel insurance on your flights because most likely you will be forced to alter flights;

3/  Schedule a couple days in Kigali (or Kinshasa) on each end of the trip as Congo Airways will likely have issues and mess up planning anyway.

Relax at Obenge

And also: Enjoy it supremely when in DR Congo. Jojo and Mike did.

Coming down the Lomami in April 2019

We took three different paths and all emerged on the Lomami River in different places.  Eventually two different dugouts brought us together at the mouth of the Lifongo River.

Sheltering from the rain at our meeting at the confluence of the Lifongo River

We visited base camps and checked field operations along the way. 

We took different routes, then met on the Lomami.

John started in the north; his dugout came upstream and south towards Lifongo.  His crew included park guards and military. 

Readying John’s dugout for the trip upstream towards Lifongo.  Goats to eat in front and fuel to pass off to the southern pirogue in back.

It took them several days from Bangaliwa to Lifongo; they were checking smaller streams along the way.

They found illegal dugouts  possibly dugouts from fishermen in the park or left by maimai fleeing a failed insurgence further east.

I started in Kindu and went north by motorbike then west on foot.   I stopped to see our fish-pond project along the eastern edge of the Park’s bufferzone.  Because of village requests we have added a new set of pilot fish ponds to bring the fry closer to the villages of Bafundo and Ichuku where villagers are digging their own ponds.

One of the new pilot fish ponds at Ichuku – source of fry for the communities.

Harvesting fish from Lovis Ilunga’s pond at Kinungu.

Making salt fish to sell in the distant market of Kindu.

It took me three days to reach Kakongo

Resting on the walk from Bafundo to Kakongo and sending a satellite-delorme message to John.

burning bushmeat between bafundo and kakonog

We met hunters in the park who fled leaving their bushmeat — we burned it.

In Kakongo I found Olivier and Willy who had just attended meetings with representatives of all villages in Balanga West.   

Two well-respected Balanga who have been living in Kindu called the clans together to examine the possibility of getting legal land tenure.

Right now the only control the Balanga have over their land is traditional.   Traditional hold on lands is proving to be uncertain in the face of outside commercial interests around Kindu.  Even in Balanga West they know about these legal grabs on traditional holdings near the city – The elders are nervous.

The attendees at this meeting will now return to their clans and discuss the issues getting the opinion of others including women, young men and the infirm.

Also in Kakongo was JP, camp leader.  He showed me photos of Bonobo he had taken nearby in the Courbure part of the park.  This is an unsolved mystery.  There are very few bonobo nests in the Courbure and nests are our way of determining the size of the bonobo population.  Despite the paucity of nests, there are plenty of bonobo feeding signs and the bonobos themselves do not seem particularly frightened of people.  It is not as though they were heavily hunted.

There is still a lot we don’t understand about these bonobos.

Omo (project coordinator in the south), like me, took off from Kindu, but he went west by motorbike around the southern limit of the park.  He stopped at the basecamp of Lukunda to get the camp’s patrol results and continued on to Katopa.   After working with the camp leader, Kangese, to get Katopa patrol results, they started downstream by dugout towards Kakongo.  It took them two days, dropping off patrol teams as they moved north.

Omo and Kangese’s team found a “fisherman’s” camp that was really a hunting camp;  they had been hunting protected crocodile besides.

Bushmeat hid behind the camp.

Omo’s team also burned the bushmeat.

Omo and Kangese spent a night in Kakongo; I joined them and we continued north early the next morning to meet the northern dugouts.

Olivier did not come with us, he and his team moved inland to oversee progress on the school building, a community project we are supporting in the Balanga West village of Boyela.

Tending the bricks that are baking for school construction in Boyela.

The first school house – not quite finished – is already being used.

That evening and early we reached the mouth of the Lifongo; John’s dugout arrived a half later. All evening and the next morning we had a combined north-south meeting on the banks of the Lomami.

We met with basecamp leaders and park guards on the banks of the Lomami.

Then the dugouts separated. I changed dugouts, joining John’s as it returned back north.  We spent the night at the now-abandoned village of Obenge.  From here. patrols headed inland.  They stopped at a series of natural forest openings where we had left camera traps.

Soon we will have a camera trap video — next post.

Koko’s team recovered the cameras and sent us videos of okapi, elephant, buffalo, aardvark and bonobo all foraging in the openings.

John and I continued north to Bangaliwa, the patrol camp outside the park on its northern border.

After a night there, we continued towards Opala.  Partway we stopped to warm up lunch at the tiny village of Olemandeko.  Standing on the bank as we pulled over were three armed men – it was the core of the elephant-poaching gang led by Ranger .

Elephant poachers, Ranger on the left and Kitona on the right. John the assistant warden, Didier, and I are in the middle.

They met us as we pulled into shore.  They want to turn themselves in, join the army – but given their history, this will take a while.

We spent the night in Opala and then took motorbikes to Elengalale basecamp along with the camp leader, Bebe.  We collected patrol data, reviewed protocols and then returned to Opala.

Getting the last beam of Ilipa’s second bridge in place.

The high-point on the road Elengalale-Opala was Maurice and his crew who were finishing the second bridge at Ilapa.  Congratulations to the Mbole communities who “pulled together”.  Perhaps they will pull for Community Concessions as well.  It is still a long road to fair, resource-secure, community-owned forests around the Park.  But at least some communities will get there, I am certain.

The women took a turn pulling a sleeper (above). And finally both bridges over the Ilapa River are finished (below).

Dryas monkey: Critically Endangered? Not anymore.

We are in the era of imminent extinctions. How does something almost gone become — well — not almost gone ?

Discovering abundance is a lot of foot-slogging, balance and sweat.

Future abundance belongs to animals in the human shadow: cockroaches, rats…. For most animals the future is shrinking: dung-beetles, honeyguides, okapi and on and on. Chain-saws, bottom trawls, John Deere tractors, bucket wheel excavators, dynamite, tarmac… Animals are slipping from Vulnerable, to Endangered and worse.

Two patrol teams before launch

Two biomonitoring patrols in the Lomami National Park before they split to follow their separate circuits from way-point to way-point.

So, it is a joy when TL2 explorations make enough widespread observations to pull a species from the Extinction waiting room.

This is the story of the Dryas monkey:

In 2008 the IUCN CITES Red List assigned Cercopithecus dryas the dire status of “critically endangered”. Human knowledge gave it only one small bit of rainforest on the globe: Kokolopori-Wamba.

In 2014 a freshly killed monkey was hung out for sale 400 km to the southeast in the village of Likanjo, near our base at Bafundo. Our field staff JP Kapale and Henri Silegowa did not recognize it. John Hart agreed, this was new.

Bafundo moneky 2014

This was the female monkey hung out for sale.

After seven years of exploring the TL2 forests, how could something new turn up now?

According to the hunter who put the female Dryas up for sale: the Inoko (local name) is too small to send to market. Most hunter’s have never followed it. It’s usually hidden low in the forest in a tangle of lianas.

In fact it is the smallest monkey in the Cercopithecus genus, and probably the most secretive.

John drilled the Bafundo field base patrol teams. This is what we are looking for and this is where we will look. By the end of that year, 2014, the teams had found Inoko in two more locations, both in the park, one on the edge of the Lomami River. But no good photos…the monkeys had hidden in dense understory and sat immobile.

C dryas distribution

Inoko occured in two widely separated sites, in each area it has been sighted in several places spread up to 50 km from each other.

Daniel Alempijevic, a graduate student from Kate Detwiler’s primate lab at Florida Atlantic University, came in October 2016. He set up camera trap columns near Bafundo and at one of the sites in the Park, Bartho. The cameras surveyed different heights in the forest: ground, understory and canopy. Daniel got videos of Inoko at both sites.

The TL2 project assistant Koko Bisimwa went through the 2019 arboreal videos and produced a clip of several camera trap sequences.

In November 2016, John called team leaders from a number of patrol posts to Bafundo. Everyone should be looking out for Inoko. Daniel and his TL2 assistant Pablo showed a video clip of Inoko and a hand held photo Pablo had taken.

Team leaders came to Bafundo to hear about Inoko from Daniel, Pablo and John.

Jean Marie Bushiri, field camp leader for Djekoshilo, returned south and called together the hunters. This part of the TL2 area has a different ethnic group, Bangengele not Balanga, and importantly it is a very different forest: Sand soils with little clay, flooded prairies, gallery forest and “scrub” forest as well as high forest. But some of the hunters said they knew the monkey in the photos Jean Marie showed.

Jean Marie told them the Dryas monkey was totally protected — NO shooting, — please, no dead animals. Nevertheless, anyone who saw an Inoko and could describe the place in detail for verification, would get a bar of soap. The first report came in 2017, but there were no photos and it could not be substantiated. Then, in 2018, the chief took blurry telephone photos (telephones are not very important in Djekoshilo where the nearest network is 60 km distant in the town of Kindu). He had found a second hunter with an Inoko in hand.

Inoko photos snapped by the Chief of Djekoshilo

Here are the blurry, but unmistakable photos taken by the chief with his own photo snapped as the final MOV (Means of Verification)

It was at this time that John, Kate and collaborators wrote a new Red List classification for the Dryas monkey. The species moved out of Critically Endangered to Endangered.

In the meantime there had been another sighting on the west bank of the Lomami River near the village of Kakongo. No photo, but it was reported by JP one of the team leaders who found the first Inoko in Likanjo/Bafundo.

Inoko has been found in seven widely separated locations in the TL2 area to date.  Habitats include mature upland forest, seasonally flooded riverine forest, gallery forests in prairie ecotones and secondary regenerating forest.  In all locations the monkeys are found in micro-sites with liana thickets and dense understory vegetation.

And now the most recent observation near Lifale River, March 2019, is in the Lomami National Park, but north, in the province of Tshopo. The patrol team first saw the strange little monkey on the ground. It climbed out of view into a mat of lianas. They waited 30 minutes to finally get the photo documentation – below.

March 2019_Inoko sighted in at Lifale

Inoko – no doubt about it.

Are we headed from Endangered towards Least Concern? And besides Inoko, what is next?

patrol team on circuit

The patrols continue. We hope to be able to cover more of the buffer zone soon.

DR Congo’s forest redoubts likely still mask plant and animal surprises that we cannot yet fathom. Just 15 years ago the middle Lomami where we have now found new species and new distributions was considered moderate to low priority for biodiversity conservation. But the more we look, the more amazing plants and animals we find. The new Lomami National Park is now among the most important places for conservation in Congo.

Not THAT Bridge !

Maurice in the middle of a good time
Maurice, center front, singing and dancing with his fellow “bridge engineers.”

We often build bridges: Our bridges are made from mahogany and termite nests.

Bangengele bridge repair in south
On the road to ChombeKilima, we built the abutments with termite nests that are “strong as cement.” There is something in the saliva of termites.

In the Southern buffer zone of the Lomami National Park we put in ten bridges on the road to ChombeKilima, and another on the Balanga road and yet another on the Watambolo road.

minister inaugurates bridges_2014_BANGENGELE
The Minister walks the mahogany boards. The Entandrophragma mahoganies are durable wood, but not too dense for our chainsaw.

The Provincial Environment Minister took a motorbike 120 km to see the bridges. No 4-wheel vehicles can negotiate these roads, only bicycles and motorbikes, but they are still the primary “thoroughfares” and still need bridges.

When Maurice said that there was some road and bridge work in the Northern Buffer Zone we figured this would be possible and within budget.  I had recently been over the road to Elengalale camp where Maurice is based.  It had some bad parts.

road needed fixing
A bad place on the road to Elengalale. It could be improved with some serious shovel and pick work. Machetes would open the road verges.

But I thought the three bridges along that stretch weren’t too bad. 

bridge I thought they would reinforce
This bridge on the Elengalale road can be used as it is. Perhaps Maurice just meant to reinforce it with new logs?
Roadwork serves the purpose of outreach too. Above Maurice’s assistant, Leon, is talking with the road crew (and kids) about totally protected species.

Bridge repair is a frequent request from villages.  Without bridges farm produce does not get to market or family members to hospital.  We, too, use these roads; all of them have our patrol posts at their dead ends. 

So, when Maurice told us the road work was finished, but there was more bridge repair needed and that he was working with the Mbole elders to assure it happened efficiently, we gave our approval. 

Song a part of it
Maurice on top of a girder with the singing bridge crew.

Who is Maurice:  He is one of our own most faithful “elders.”  He has been with the TL2 project from the beginning and before that, worked with John Hart to inventory elephants in the Salonga National Park.  While doing outreach among the Mituku he was tortured by the bandit Portugais who is now the instigator of an ongoing insurrection; while he was TL2 team leader at Obenge in 2012 he was threatened by the rogue, prison-escapee, Thoms; when he started working in the north at Elengalale he was met by a hostile population.  Over a period of several months he won over the villages and they built a patrol post with him. 

Maurice’s first bridge budget was reasonable. 
But the budgets kept coming, the next month and the next month.

This photo was slipped in the file
This photo had been slipped into the file.

We had not noticed the picture of the Ilipa bridge in the photos of proposed road repair.  The Ilipa bridge is a major bridge, much bigger than anything we have done before.  It is on the road before the bifurcation to Elengalale.   By the time we realized what was underway it was too late to halt the work.  Maurice had mobilized a sector and two chiefdoms.  Practically every village south of Opala was participating.

Why the bridge had to be raised
Ilipa River during rainy season. An island, with only the bamboo showing here, has to be built up. It allows the bridge to be in two smaller segments.
Inspirational talks before the sleepers are moved
Maurice was doing what he does well : work with the chiefs, organize and motivate people.
our early crossings of Ilipa
Crossing the Ilipa River in a dugout with a motorbike on board.

The Ilipa bridge is the major bridge between Opala and Elengalale.  We crossed it in dugouts the first few times I visited.   At that time even the log crossing was down.   

crossing one part of Ilipa with cargo
Crossing one of the two Ilipa bridge with a bicycle.

When the logs were in,  the Ilipa crossing had improved to this.

But why was fixing the Ilipa bridge suddenly urgent? Apparently a number of villages had put pressure on Maurice after a motorbike fell in the River; it was carrying home the corpse of a beloved elder in his casket.

However, in a place where all work is done with shovels, machetes and axes, along with the heft and dexterity of the human body, this was a huge project. 

We visited and saw the enthusiasm. Belgian foreign aid gave empty sacks, a wheel barrow, and some shovels.   The territorial administrator cheered Maurice on.  It was too late to say no. 

Maurice was confident, “Don’t under-estimate what human labor can do.”   This was the continent that built the pyramids, after all.    But that was slave labor, here we would have to count on the chiefs – and Maurice — to keep up the enthusiasm.  Thank goodness, among the Mbole people, the chiefs have power.

the elders dance after consultation
Chiefs and elders dance and sing with Maurice after a meeting. All decisions are reinforced with music and dance.

In  june 2018 the work began:   the trees were selected to become the girders  that would support the largest bridge.   The first planks were sawn and lianas collected to build up abutments

choosing one of the trees
The trees for the major sleepers were all Wele, Pterocarpus soyauxii.

But Wele, the species used for the main girders, is not frequent and the appropriate tall, straight trees (four for the first bridge) were all between five and ten km away.

Different trees were used for the surface planks, and the abutment framing-wall.

examining the timber_June
Maurice and others examine the sawn wood.

In July the work on the abutments began.
1700 sandbags were filled and put in place.

starting to build up the abutement
Sticks, lianas and boards were used to frame the abutments at both sides of the bridge and on the central island.
sandbags were the first building block
Sandbags were filled and carried to the site – 1700 in all.
moving beams to finish abutement
The logs spanning the River were lifted to put sandbags in place.
bringing and arranging sand bags for abutement
The island was raised sandbag by sandbag.
reinforced with sand bags
By early September 2018 the Ilipa bridges had new abutments, but was still spanned by the same logs.

But it was in October and November that the drums began to talk seriously.   Men were called from distant villages to the Ilipa Bridges.  Time to pull the sleepers out of the forest.  Manpower was needed.

Mbole bridge work_is it straight? copy
The trees had been felled and the girders squared-off months earlier.
Guiding beam out of forest to path
A rough forest path was cut and now each girder had to be positioned .
first steps to moving beam out
And wrestled onto the skids.
high spirits as they ready to pull a beam
The rotin lianes were ready for the harness and lead. Spirits were high.

All four sleeper logs for the first bridge were between 5 and 10 km away and took five to seven days to get from forest to destination.

this is how the pyramids were built
The weight of villages was called to help.

We bought goats, village women provided greens. We bought manioc, village women provided the pounding into flour and cooking. Everyone ate.

replacing the rollers under the beam
The elders carried the skid sticks from the back to the front to keep the sleeper moving.
pulling beam into final position
Finally onto the bridge.

One by one the sleepers were pulled into placed over the course of  October and November.

first bridge done_december 18
One bridge is done by the end of December.

For the second bridge – the materials are ready.  As the rains peter out, Maurice and the chiefs will mobilize manpower again.

Is this Maurice’s folly?  Or a “do-it-ourselves” miracle by Maurice and the chiefs?  In any case the conservation outreach aspect has been huge.