Daniel’s Intimate View of Lomami

Notes, photos and videos by Daniel Alempijevic

The far south of Lomami National Park is nutrient-poor, seasonally flooded grasslands dotted with tree islands, or bosquets. Gallery forests project into these prairies, creating a fluted but, abrupt end to the rainforest blanket covering most of the park and most of the Congo Basin.

landscape photo
A forest gallery juts out in the Luzaka Prairie.

The Luzaka prairie and surrounding forests are TL2 “hotspots” where patrols frequently encounter bonobos. David Fasbender spent a year in Luzaka studying the bonobo-rich forest with terrestrial camera traps. 

Davids team
David wading through the flooded southern forests.

But what about the arboreal mammal community?  Which species occur in the forest fingers, or galleries? How many of these mammals leave the trees to cross prairies and colonize bosquets?

Distant bosquet
A distant bosquet in the Luzaka prairie.

I am a PhD Candidate from Florida Atlantic University.  This was my third trip to the Lomami National Park.  Earlier I used multi-strata camera trap “columns” to study Inoko in the courbure sector. These columns increased our knowledge of mammal diversity in Lomami National Park (LNP), and revealed the preferred heights of different species in the canopy. Since these surveys, one Inoko was killed by a hunter in the Luanga gallery, on the east side of the Luzaka prairie.

Joined by a fellow FAU student, Charlene, and a TL2 team, I set 30 columns, 2 km apart, covering forest interior, forest edge, and bosquets to determine the occurrence not only of inoko but all mammal species in the southern LNP ecotone. 

CF & BM set CT
Martin sets a camera trap while Charlene records site characteristics.

MAP
The thirty camera trap columns, spanning 172 km2 at the southern tip of the Lomami National Park.

There were some surprises working in Luzaka.  At some camps, it was the bee swarms. Honeybees craving salt would swarm us at camp, covering our skin, entering our clothes. They are not aggressive but, it is easy to pin the bees under your clothes, resulting in a sting. There were times when it was unbearable, and we would have to take refuge in our tents. Once, with bees in my ears and mouth, I had to submerge myself in a nearby stream.  I have been stung almost daily in Luzaka.  

Bee assortment
Three species of “honey” making bees are attracted to sweat; only the largest, the “common” honey bee can sting.

bees
Honey bees attracted to a sweaty back pack.

At another camp, it was the termites. Charlene was their first victim, waking in the middle of the night with the sensation of insects crawling on her. They had chewed through her tent from below. We thought it was an unfortunate coincidence, and patched up the holes with some duct tape. A few nights later, I woke flat on the ground. The termites chewed through my tarp, then my tent, and finally my inflatable sleeping pad, and I was only three weeks into a 6-month trip. Over the next few visits to this camp, wherever I set up my tent, the termites would emerge. Over the next few months, other insects chewed through the rainfly and mesh from above. Brand new camping gear, all bug food.

Termites emerged repeatedly from below my tent, chewing their way through everything in their way.

Next, the rains began. Much of our 172 km2 survey area quickly became inundated with water. Already difficult hikes over tussocky grasses and sedges, now included wading and the occasional swim. My “storm proof” tent, now covered in holes, offered little shelter from the storms. Flood surges destroyed two camera traps.

The environment and species captured by this camera trap completely changed with the wet season rains.

The forest was transformed by the wet season rains.

While at our farthest camp from the Lukunda field base, Martin, one of my assistants, woke me in the night whimpering from abdominal pain. Together with an ecoguard, they left camp on foot towards Lukunda, from where a TL2 motorbike took Martin to Kindu. The following night, I woke with fever. The next day, three more sick. We pushed for a few more days, setting a few more camera traps, this time targeting Inoko where the hunter reported killing one in the buffer zone years before. Finally, we could go no further, abandoned our goal of setting the three last sites, and started our two-day hike back to Lukunda. There we found that both the TL2 base leader and the ICCN head of the guard post had returned to Kindu ill. Some tested positive for malaria, none tested positive for COVID, we are now calling our collective illness “Lukundiasis”.

Through this work, we have accumulated some incredible videos. Not only did we record bonobos on the ground, but also in the canopy for the first time. The forest galleries are also home to a diverse ungulate community, and four monkeys.

Bonobos.

Ungulates.

Monkeys.

The elusive Inoko, blue monkey, and black mangabey, are all present nearby in the Courbure sector, but  rare or absent in southern galleries. 

The most exciting finds for me have been black-bellied pangolins. Canopy camera traps provide the only confirmation that this exclusively arboreal species occurs in Lomami National Park. We recorded all three rainforest pangolin species during this survey. 

Pangolins.

We have found that two monkeys and several other arboreal species are frequent visitors or residents of the bosquets. Three of them have been recorded crossing the prairies. We also recorded two of the prairies predators.

Red-legged sun squirrel.

Out on the ground.

And perhaps the most incredible part of this work, is the breath-taking view and indescribable feeling of emerging through the rainforest canopy to see what creatures have passed over the same branch as me.

I want to thank the Primatology Lab at Florida Atlantic University and the FZS-TL2 project in DR Congo. Our particular thanks to ICCN for welcoming and facilitating this project. The critical funding that made it possible came from Margot Marsh Biodiversity Fund, Primate Conservation Inc. (PCI) and Primate Action Fund (PAF).

Seismic Changes in Congo Conservation

Blood of the goat on the ground
When a goat is hung up for slaughter, its blood drains on the ground. This marks the site of ritual, celebration or tragedy.

We are beginning to believe in continental movements and the succession of ice ages.  We are beginning to believe in biologic and geographic ultimatum as mover of extinction and speciation.  We are living in an age of fire and flood, tsunami and sudden crevasse, the era of global pandemics.

meeting change with drums and dance
When something must be communicated – ritual, celebration or tragedy – drums reach farther than words.

DR Congo should be central to the disasters… everyone here knows the life crushing impact of Ebola, Measles, Cholera, and, particularly, the heart-tearing loss of toddlers to Diarrhea, Malaria and Pneumonia.  So, DR Congo should be a tremulous, tragic crucible of these cataclysms. 

It is not. 

Congo had only one volcanic eruption this year with many fewer lives and businesses lost than in the eruption of 2002.    And Covid is among us, but it is a small tremor in Covid’s global shake-up.  

Dancing is not just for the firm and young – dancing is for everyone and is for ritual, celebration and even closure after tragedy.

But other Seismic changes, changes that we thought might never happen in Congo, are now upon us.

Stronger than the health system in DR Congo, far stronger than any emergency response system in DR Congo is a self-serving, self-perpetuating state administration.  And among the most “profit to the big man” of these state services was Parks and Nature Conservation.   A national election and change of president did not shake his hold.  His mandate ended, his legal tenure was past and still he stayed.

Not always easy to swallow what must go down….
Canopy camera trap video thanks to Daniel Alempijevic.

We kept waiting for change but it always seemed a bite too big to swallow….until…

The Bilateral and Multilateral funders for conservation knew something was not right; their money moved out of the banks, but on-the-ground accomplishments did not happen or, they happened, but with other money.  Smaller NGOs, not required to give their money through the state, use it directly on the ground.   Smaller NGOs fund biomonitoring, law enforcement, community projects.  Outrageous proportions of the bi-lateral funds were drained into the state institution without ever reaching the ground.

This is what funds must help, totally protected species like Angolan colobus.
Video from Daniel Alempijevic’s canopy camera traps.

 Behind the institutional dams, that side-channeled funding, the seismic tension built; the German development bank understood something was amiss.  It cut funding making private partnerships or co-management with NGOs a requirement in every park where they invested, before funding would be resumed.  In the case of the Lomami National Park, FZS signed a co-management contract with the Parks Service in January. The German bank immediately resumed funding — BUT no co-management was put in place.  The appointments weren’t made, people weren’t officially notified, the seismic tension built – and then in August the dam burst.

at the cutting of the ribbon
All New: me freshly appointed Park Director (September 2021) next to an equally new Assistant Director of the national ICCN to the left, Vincent Imbongo.

Event 1:  There is a new head of national parks and conservation —  Olivier Mushiete – Welcome.  Olivier comes with international experience, conservation experience (he was head of a protected area) and has a significant slice of administrative savvy.

shaking hands with outgoing
I shake hands with the parting, temporary Park Director (now my assistant) and receive the “seals”.

Event 2: There is a new head of the Lomami National Park  — me, mamaTerese – and we are all rising to this challenge – all of FZS-TL2 together.  It is a challenge that we will bring to fruition for Lomami conservation.

with staff present in Kindu
In front of the ICCN-Lomami Naitonal Park office in Kindu with staff from both FZS and ICCN that will be merging into one park unit.

And then almost immediately after these two events:

Motorbike cavalcade down the “roads” of Maniema with the directrice of the German Development Bank of DR Congo.

Event 3:  the national representative of the German bank visited Lomami.  She did what no one expected: she actually went out on the ground, went into the park, and saw, as had not been seen before, how conservation is accomplished in the Lomami and how German taxpayer money is being used.

At the park border:

Arrived at the park border
Britta Oltmann of KfW DRC to the right of sign in blue handkerchief.
Also in photo DGA ICCN, Director Chief of International Collaboration ICCN, Assistant director LNP, representative vice premier minister and minister of the environment.

Watching Daniel climb to change the sim in a canopy camera trap:

going up

A rest-stop on a walk in the park:

second 5 min rest point
At a quickly constructed picnic table mid-walk.

Sitting next to John, above, is Ben of the ICCN-Kinshasa, Director of International Cooperation. Behind John is Piers, part of the KfW delegation and beside and behind me, Britta. She was determined to not just have the usual light look at KfW operations in Kindu, but a true look at what was happening and what needed to happen for conservation on the ground.

With the women:

with women of Lukunda

Above, Britta meets with a group of women in Lukunda .  She had similar meetings to understand the challenges of being a woman of the buffer zone in Kakunga, NgongaMoto, Olangate and Nyombo.

** Because of the help of many, we have a new momentum.  Thank you Matthieu and Ben, thank you Leon and Omo, thank you OT and John and many others.  A litany of thanks is appropriate.   Let-us make good on it.  Let thrive Congolese forests and all the plants and animals within them.  Let thrive the Lomami National Park.

Thank you to Leon Salumu and Daniel Alempijevic for the photos and videos.

Protect Animals by Helping Hunters

In Lomami National Park we help hunters:

all ages transport bushmeat
Young and old will porter bushmeat across the park.

We build metal-roofed shelters for them to sleep under when they cross the park;
We clear the paths through the park they use to carry bushmeat to market;
We give them vouchers so they will not be arrested by surveillance patrols.

WHY?

Because:  all the cultures around the southern park have economies based on hunting, and
Because:  hunting is the biggest threat to the park. 

SHELTER FOR HUNTERS
Putting up a shelter along a footpath through the Lomami National Park.

THEREFORE, the only people who can reduce the threat are Hunters themselves.  
By recognizing legal hunting, we win greater support against illegal hunting.

What is legal hunting? 
All hunting outside the park is legal;
except – it is illegal to hunt totally protected species (elephant, bonobo, pangolin…..),
except – it is also illegal to hunt during the closed season.

The hunters on the west side of the park are mostly legal.  They have a huge uninhabited forest to hunt (3000 km2 with only a small population concentrated along a couple foot paths).  The Lomami River separates them from the park, BUT to sell their bushmeat at the closest bushmeat market– Kindu – the fastest, least expensive route is to backload the bushmeat across the park.  

The hunters on the east side of the park are closer to the market.  They are also much more numerous, living in more frequent villages, clustered along roads and paths that motorbikes can travel.  The local eastern hunters are also joined by more outside hunters, coming from different provinces and ethnic groups.

hunting cultures surround the southern part of park
The Balanga and Bangengele ethnic groups around the southern portion of the park have a hunting tradition. The pressure on the park itself is greatest in the east where there are more hunters and the markets are closer.

Not surprisingly, it is in the east where there is the greatest threat from hunters clandestinely crossing into the park to hunt.

burning bushmeat between bafundo and kakonog
Burning bushmeat in the park after ambushing hunters coming from a hunting camp.

Surveillance patrols arrest these poachers in the park and burn their bushmeat. 

hunting camp raid in park
Preparing to burn bushmeat found in this hunting camp in the park.

But what about people walking their bushmeat from the west side to the east side?  How to tell them apart?  How do we make sure they don’t stop to hunt along the way?

Courbure encounters in and around park

This above map of early surveillance in the courbure sector of the Lomami Park showed the problem.  Who was legal and who was illegal?  Were they just carrying bushmeat caught outside the park from Kakongo to Bafundo on the footpath or did they come from a hunting camp hidden in the park?

We did not want to alienate the whole western section of the buffer zone as their meat crossed the park, but how could we be sure that they had not actually been hunting in the park?

two more bushmeat transporters
Crossing the park with bushmeat from the western forests to the eastern markets.

In 2015 we started an experiment to “certify” bushmeat by giving bushmeat transporters a voucher, or “jeton” that listed all the animals they carried when they left the west to cross the park.  They had only two days to cross from one of the western villages, Polepole, Benekamba or Kakongo, to the nearest village east of the park, Bafundo or Oluo, where the “jeton” would again be checked against the load.  Depending on the path it was a walk of 45 to 55 km. 

developing method 2015 in Bafundo
We worked with the parks service (ICCN) and the local population to come up with a system.

The voucher stations were to be manned by one person from the TL2 project, one ICCN person and one villager assigned by the chief. 

Kakongo2
At the Kakongo jeton station.

We expected a grudging acceptance by the western populations. 

BUT INSTEAD, JETONS got enthusiastic approval.  We had given them back a lifeline that could have been cut off.  And we had made them partners in the protection of the park.

Talking with hunters at a jeton station. Omo (notebook in hand) is the leader of the jeton process.

The low point was in October 2019 when the Mai-Mai, Fidel, attacked two of our jetonniers (voucher distributors).   In Benekamba, Debaba was pummeled to near-death; in Kakongo Idris was shot but survived.  The military beside him was shot dead.

We nearly dropped the process – potential non-local “jetonniers” were afraid.   No one wanted to move into the lawless villages.   But then Locals, themselves, stepped up, we were amazed at the risks they took to keep “jetons” going.

Alain Basila, local jetonnier at Benekamba said “hunting is the only way my brothers can get money, there is no other way for medicine, clothes, school….with jetons they can take it to market”

Julie examines bushmeat load on arrival Bafundo
Checking a bushmeat load against the jeton after arrival at an eastern post.

In Polepole – Cedric, the local jetonnier, went into hiding in the forest.  He only came out when the Mai-Mai were absent and a meat transporter called him.  He checked the load, wrote up the jeton, and went back into hiding.  Cedric’s family, afraid for their son, gave Fidel a goat, but that was not enough.  Eventually they had to put a “Fidel-fee” on every load of meat that went across.  About 8 dollars.  People paid until finally Fidel was arrested, captured by the villagers themselves.   Then the surcharge was dropped.

In Kakongo –Marcel, the son of the local chief Liboke, was the local jetonnier beginning in June 2019.  He continued after Idris, was shot in the early morning by Fidel’s Mai-Mai band.  Bernard’s band sent a contingent of Mai-mai to steal from Liboke, just because he and his son Marcel collaborated with the Park.  They stole three goats, chickens, ducks and two bags of rice.  Marcel, too, temporarily went into hiding, but came back and continued providing his brothers with jetons.

The story of Benekamba was particularly heart-wrenching.

first meeting in Benekamba
Arriving to see Alain in the little house in Benekamba where he sits all day.
telling what happened
Alain explaining what happened in May 2020.

Even after Fidel was captured there was continued tension.   The person who replaced Debaba also fled when more threats came in, but the local assistant, Alain Basila, took over.  Alain is handicapped.  A few years ago, while clearing forest for his garden, a tree fell on his lower back.  He has no use of his legs.  He sits in his one-room house where bushmeat transporters seek him out to show their meat and get jetons before crossing the park.

In May 2020, Thoms, the father of Fidel, sent a group of 35 young men to teach Alain a lesson for collaborating with the park.   Thoms’s way of exacting revenge for the capture of his son.  They beat Alain around the head and shoulders and hung him up in the baraza to beat him more.  But Konya, an elderly villager threw himself on the ground in front of the young attackers pleading for mercy.   Perhaps somewhat ashamed – they took a radio and the equivalent of about 70 dollars and they left.

Alain recovered and continued doing jetons…. There was no one else with the courage to replace him.

Jeremi_Bafundo copy
The jetonnier, Jeremie, verifies a load that has arrived in Bafundo.

But there is another benefit from the jeton process: All the collected jeton information gives us a better understanding of the people around the park and the animals that they depend on. We want to manage this park based on real knowledge.

For instance:
The forests west of the park have not been depleted by overhunting. HOW DO WE KNOW? A large proportion of the bushmeat brought across is from large mammals. Less than 5% was small animals (such as porcupine) which are the most abundant game from overhunted forests and there was a large proportion of forest pigs and large antelope – about 10% of all animals – rare in depleted forests.
Hunting is no longer the only important source of income in the west. HOW DO WE KNOW? In 2020 there were 927 domestic species (goats, chickens and ducks) brought across the park to sell and 319 groups of porters walked through with loads of fish from the rivers and streams of the western buffer zone.
But there are still a lot of forest animals coming over as bushmeat: in 2020 6,400 animals were killed and carried across the park, most to sell in the bushmeat market of Kindu.

A Strong Woman and her Matropopo

our FZS-TL2 dugout on the Lomami
Our dugouts on the Lomami River are big (compare with fisherman’s dugout alongside), but not big enough to provide three months’ supplies at a time to the riverine base camps.

The efficient, economical answer to supply problems,  “MATROPOPO”,  showed up on John’s budget request for the northern park.  Whatever it was, it cost thousands of dollars.  How are we to explain Matropopo to the finance department in Frankfurt, Germany?

Part of John’s budget summary section

John was in the forest camp of Katopa about to start the descent of the Lomami River.  I asked him by satellite SMS: “What is Matropopo?  How do I explain it? Is it French? Is it Lingala?  Is it Swahili?”

He answered in the 160 characters – spaces included – allotted an InReach message:

 “About matropopo: Logistics breakthrough. Not Swahili, not Lingala. Onomatopoeia. It refers to sound of big diesel motor:  po-po-po. Ignition makes: Maattrrrooo.”

OK ,I get it. A sort of 3rd grade lingua-franca:   Matrrrrooo— Matrrrroooo – po-po-po-po-po. So, what do I tell Frankfurt?

In order to be able to translate for the financial department I did my own “Internal Audit” when I met John in Kisangani: “The real breakthrough,” John said, “is not the matropopo – but its owner.”

John and Lucy in stern_at port
John with Lucie in the stern of her Matropopo.  The “outhouse” is the orange and the diesel motor is at the rear of the central dugout.

He is very proud of his discovery of Madame Lucie Mosopa.  She oversees the loading of her Matropopo, a combination of three outsize dugouts lashed together, and accompanies it from the port of Kisangani on the Congo River to the Port of Opala on the Lomami River and from the port of Opala to our port at Bangaliwa, the most northern of the Lomami National Park base camps.  It takes her 6 days.

following Lucie on board
Lucie gives me a tour.  I take note that a backlit “outhouse” might not be real private.

She maximizes travel speed by omitting all unnecessary stops e.g. the Outhouse is off the stern.

basic river outhouse_out over the river
This is an inside view of the outhouse.  Basics: a hole to the river.

On the trip, she only pulls into shore to pass the nights.   It takes four days to get from Kisangani to Opala and two, upstream, from Opala to Bangaliwa.

When we asked her how much fuel was needed, she did not hesitate or consult a log book;  she knew.  “We used 7 barrels one way from Kis to Bangaliwa.” That is the equivalent of 1400 liters or $1,750.00 by current Kisangani prices.

What is her crew ?  Five:  one captain, one mechanic and three sailors.  I assumed they were somehow family as that is the way it is usually done in Congo. But no. These were the most reliable people that she could find in the ports.  And she is always with the same crew.

FZS-TL2 staff ready to board the matropopo
Three FZS-TL2 staff arrive to take place as passengers on the matropopo.

And how did she start in the matropopo business?

She started like all the hundreds of “mama commerçantes”:  using a commercial riverboat she bought goods in Kisangani, where they are cheap, to take them where she could sell them at enough of a markup to make a profit:  Isangi, Opala, Basoko, Lokutu. Then brought back agricultural goods to sell in Kisangani.   But she realized that she lost money waiting for the riverboat in which she rented space.  It would take, two, three, or more days for it to accumulate enough of a load to be profitable for the owner to pull anchor. 

looking over stores
The matropopo load includes beans, medical supplies, fuel, motor oil, cooking oil, sugar, salt, tomato paste, soap, onions, garlic…..

 She set about little by little to save enough to buy a diesel motor and her own large dugout.  Now she has three dugouts that she lashes together to make the Matropopo.

Koko oversaw purchase and loading, now departure
Koko, who oversaw purchases and then loading with Lucie, sees off the matropopo.  John bought lifejackets for our staff and Lucie’s crew (although not all wanted them).

Madame Lucie has a husband working in agricultural outreach and two children: 11 and 7 years old.

down Congo to mouth of Lomami
Heading downstream on the Congo to the mouth of the Lomami, then upstream to Opala. Madame Lucie is standing in the lifejacket.

My conclusion: it takes a strong woman to own and operate a matropopo.