Elephant Poacher Joins our Team

Two major elephant poachers asked to come out of the forest to rejoin society.

Kitona in front of termite mound

Kitona, previously an infamous elephant poacher, on recent trip with TL2 teams into Park.

Once, in 2018, Ranger and Kitona sent an emissary to Bangaliwa “we are ready to talk with the general.” We had no way to handle a major surrender.  Less than a year later, on our return to Opala, we stopped the dugout at a small village Olemandeko, to heat up lunch.   As we beached the dugout, three men with AK47s stepped out of the shadows.  

 “We could have shot you, but we didn’t, we want to turn ourselves in.”

Ranger and Kitona_elephant poachers

Again, it was Ranger (far left) and Kitona (far right, next to me).

We heated up our lunch and moved on.  But knew we had to do something.  Ranger had already spent time in jail for killing elephants; both have been involved in serious elephant slaughter, most recently north of the park in 2015.  Several army officers, who “sponsored” that carnage were convicted, but the poachers went free.  

Unlike the Maimai bands in the buffer zone, these poachers are not involved in crimes against humanity: they don’t torture, rape, pillage and burn – but, they do kill elephants.

If they would truly reform, it would remove an important threat for elephants.   It would also help differentiate between the cruelty of Maimai and the illegal exploitation of poachers.  When Thoms asked Ranger to join his Maimai band, Ranger refused.  Poaching only.

With the help of the parks service, ICCN, and specifically its branch linked to the army, CorPPN, we were able to contact the national ministry of defense and get an official pardon and letter for Ranger’s and Kitona’s reintegration.

not quite at ease

Kitona, in white and black shirt, is still clearly worried at the start of interactions with the army to hand over his weapons.

We started the process.  Alas, Ranger balked, he had already spent two years in prison.  Was this a trap?  Nevertheless, the process went ahead with Kitona and the band of hunters that he brought out of the forest.

the AK 47s turned in

First Kitona handed over two army rifles ;

handing in arms

then each member of his team came forward with their shotgun or poisoned arrows. Some wearing protective “gri-gri” (magical protection).

The steps are shown in this short film:

Now what? Its promising, but the process is not over.  

sign to abandon poaching

Kitona’s poaching band signed individually that each refused all poaching, but they are not yet officially integrated into the park service, ICCN.

John and Kitona_Biondo

Nevertheless, Kitona joined John on his recent monitoring patrols in the northern park.  

A series of short-hand Delorme messages from John:

May 30th PM: Camp at Losekola. No sign of poachers. Kitona: humorist not comedian. Naturalist. Records bats, hyrax on phone at night to share morning. Showed where he saw Lox [elephant] 2018

June 1st AM: Spent night in edo [natural clearing] sector. Lots of Lox [elephant] sign. Lox vocalized during night, Kitona recorded, also crowing paon [Congo peacock] on his phone.

Kitona's "signature" on a tree copy

Kitona points out where he had left his mark on trees in earlier years.

June 1st PM: Back at Losekola for night. Discovered 2 more active edos [natural clearings]. We surveyed 7. Most had Lox. 4 had bonobo sign. 7 cameras set [camera traps]

June 2nd PM: Returned Obenge. 4.5m [4.5 meters long] python drowned in project fishnet this morning. Kitona cleaned and drying skin for us.

python caught in fishnets

Kitona took over the basic python taxidermy.

John’s assessment:  Kitona loves and knows the forest.

Kitona also worked with our camp leader, Bebe Bofenda, tracking a mysterious primate.  

Bebe Bofenda and John Hart near Biondo

Bebe Bofenda, camp leader, takes a selfie with John on recent search for mysterious monkey.

Bebe’s assessment of Kitona: “Kitona is courageous, very social and ready to work hard.  This is our first mission with him.  We need more to really get to know each other, but one thing is clear he wants to join the ICCN guard force.”

Kitona in poachers camp

Kitona with guards in a poachers’ camp that they will burn.

Following a visit by Kitona to Ranger’s forest base, Ranger again sent a letter saying he is ready to come out of the forest and turn in his guns.  Hopefully we can make this happen.  

Ranger's letter restating commitment copy

Ranger, again, writes that he wants to turn in his guns — now, in July 2020.

Like so many major efforts in Conservation, the true consequences and importance of these surrenders will be seen over the next few years.  Success will depend upon integration of the poachers into ICCN. It will also depend on  the poachers’ own capacity and determination to contribute and our quickness to detect problems, and our resolution to make it work.

Kitona and guard in camp

Kitona relaxing with a park guard in camp.

We thank Elephant Crisis Fund and Wildcat Foundation for making Kitona’s peaceful transition possible.

View from Congo : Covid-19 and Violence

Above map shows the rate of geographic spread of Covid-19 in Congo

Covid-19 confinement in the USA was to open cautiously –

but unjustified police brutality, resulting in death of yet another black man, was the rupture through which mass protests poured through city streets of USA.  Violence broke out and escalated in the urban nights. 

As a result, will there be another upsurge in USA covid-19 cases –
remaining mainly urban, disproportionately black?

In Congo there is violence, too; here it started well before confinement-
but it was not city violence as in the States, it was rural violence.

It was not protest violence –

It was gang violence, maimai violence to establish dominance by remote, self-defined elites.
This violence, in the buffer zone of Lomami national park, is psychopathic, superstitious:

A woman was accused by one maimai lord of being a “witch” able to reveal where there were diamonds.  She said she had no such knowledge.  She was stripped and whipped.  She had the strength to continue to cry out that she was falsely accused, she was not a sorcerer. She was buried alive.  All this is captured on telephone video.  Like the brutality against George Floyd, the brutality against Honorine was documented.    Here the criminal was Bernard and his band.

These maimai have beheaded, eviscerated and destroyed whole villages on both sides of the park.  One maimai leader, Fidele was caught, not by military or park guards, but by the villagers themselves.

Congo’s violence has a different social origin and will come to a different social end than the violence in the USA, hopefully both ends will come with fundamental social change.

The virus, Covid-19, too has a different social “position” here.  It is one of several virus killers all on-going. Note: the 11th Congolese ebola epidemic just broke out this week. 

Here, too Covid-19, is a killer and it is on the increase, though more slowly – so far – than in the more powerful, economically dominant countries.

Rate of increase in cases and deaths…on June 2nd there are 72 deaths known to have occured of Covid-19 in DR Congo.

We have not seen the end of Covid-19 here or in the USA.

We cannot be sure where the violence will lead in Congo or the USA, or how history will be written, or what lessons will be learned.  But we will continue to give an occasional view from central DR Congo.

Virus Compatriots of Covid-19 in Congo

Ebola virus: an electron micrograph of an ebolavirus virion

I came back from the Lomami National Park a week ago and, checking the news, found Covid-19 spreading in Kinshasa, but it has not exploded.  Here’s the situation.

And there is still no sign of covid-19 in Kindu where I am now.  When John returned to Kisangani from the northern Lomami NP he reported the same: no sign.  We asked in medical centers in Kindu and Kisangani…no coronavirus patients, although the medical staff are very attentive for symptoms. 

John took pictures of the casket-maker’s wares lined up along the side of the road for sale:  That business has not yet picked up in Kisangani.   John has his eyes on the “green and yellow casket” which he thinks will be the first to go.

John is watching for changes in the speed of turnover of Kisangani casket-vendors’ wares.

We of course wonder if this moderate pace will continue long-term, then maybe dwindle, OR if the incidence graph is about to jump into a sharp incline and the virus jump, too, from city to city.

For clues we looked at how other virus epidemics were doing in DR Congo, and were shocked at how complacent we have been.

For all three viruses, rapid propagation and virulence assure tragedy.   Containment of the scale of tragedy is a struggle with poverty, poor infrastructure, and failed health systems.

EBOLA: The current epidemic is Congo’s 10th Ebola outbreak and started in August 2018.  The virus was first identified in DR Congo near the Ebola river in the northeast in 1976.  Even now, with better protocols for treating patients, the current epidemic has a mortality rate of 66%.  Whole families and neighborhoods are lost.  New vaccines, while still experimental, were and are what allow the current epidemic to remain contained (part of eastern DR Congo only). Finally, we believe, the vaccines may soon allow an end to the epidemic.

The Kindu bushmeat market at Makengele on 27 March 2020. A bustling place.

Like Covid-19, Ebola is animal vectored. In the case of Ebola probably jumping to humans through hunting and preparation of bushmeat.

Unlike Covid-19, the human to human contagion is through contact with body fluids – blood, vomit – or clothes and surfaces contaminated by the fluids.  It spares no-one and kills more than half of those affected.

Hand washing bucket set-up to prevent Covid-19, here at the Makengele bushmeat market, and at essentially all public places.

MEASLES : The current epidemic in Congo is newer than the Ebola outbreak starting early in 2019, but it is the most devastating, fastest moving measles epidemic currently in the world. 

Like Covid-19 it spreads through the air, it is now in all 26 provinces of DR Congo mowing down the unvaccinated.   

Unlike Covid-19 it kills mainly the young.  According to MSF (Doctors without Borders), 73% of those dead were young children. World Health Organization (WHO) 25% of reported cases are under 5 years old.

A child with measles.

The devastation of measles was something we never knew growing up in a highly vaccinated, well nourished USA.

COVID-19: The third virus has been in Congo less than two months.  Unlike Measles and Ebola its impact is most murderous among the older as well as the weakened.  It came into the capital of Congo with flights of the wealthy and politicians from Europe. 

Faced with the reality of Covid-19 (no vaccine, no known treatment) and knowing the condition of Congo’s unequipped hospitals, poor infrastructure, urban and rural poverty, the government closed down most internal and external transport, locked down part of the capital, instituted hand washing and even tried to institute social distancing.

Social distancing at the bushmeat market in Kindu or any outdoor market is not yet achieved.

We are waiting to see what next week and next month and beyond will bring.

But the key to the difference in Congo’s amazingly successful containment of Ebola and its inability to rein in Measles … lies in foreign funding.

WHO’s Ebola Response Funding report is the following:

270 million dollars since August 2018 when the Ebola epidemic started.  

WHO is asking for another 20 million dollars this month to deal with a resurfacing of the virus, 6 new cases in the town of Beni (an infected person “disappeared” from a treatment center on the 23rd April and is still at large).

WHO’s newsletter reporting on DR Congo’s measles epidemic stated this:

27.6 million dollars have been mobilized; however, a further 40 million is needed.

(note:  most of the western world, where financial aid comes from, is vaccinated. It is apparently hard to feel measles is an important threat.)

Child in an MSF measles ward in the Ituri Province.

What will the world be able to donate to help DR Congo’s Coronavirus response?

  • when even the States struggle to get help from the USA federal government and
  • when the president of the USA has cut funding to the World Health Organization (WHO). –?

Today’s DR Congo news is that the Netherlands has voted to contribute 115 million dollars to help the poorest countries in the world with their Coronavirus response – that, of course, includes Congo.  It is logical – Covid-19 has no respect for sovereignty and will rush back from wherever it remains uncontrolled.   

Coronavirus in Congo

Above a Commercial center Kinshasa on the 25th of March. Most non-food shops were closed and circulation was cut back.  This corner would normally have 3x this much activity.

Dr. Jean-Paul Mira, head of Intensive Care at a Paris hospital, overwhelmed by the French Coronavirus crisis, suggested that a possible new Covid-19 vaccine be tested in Africa.

–to paraphrase: Africans don’t have masks and they have no intensive care..  it would be like when prostitutes were used to test treatments for AIDS….they are highly exposed and don’t protect themselves….

The head of the Covid-19 task force in D.R.Congo Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe, a virologist who himself contracted Ebola and recovered and who was able to bring D.R. Congo’s recent Ebola epidemic under control by using still-experimental vaccines, was unperturbed.

To paraphrase Dr Muyembe: DR Congo could be ready to test vaccines by May…”

Above Dr. Muyembe Tanfum coordinator of the Covid-19-response task-force in D.R. Congo.

The media reaction in D.R. Congo was vicious,

To paraphrase the journals:  Dr Muyembe wants us to be guinea pigs…

The international press also castigated Dr Mira and his colleagues for being insensitive.  French medicine has a very partial understanding of the situation in Congo.  I am now in Kindu and John is in Opala, both towns in D.R. Congo. We chose not to return to the USA although the embassy in Kinshasa is organizing an emergency flight for desperate, stranded Americans.  We are not desperate.

Above the 27th March, in front of our Kinshasa office the day before a proposed city-wide “shelter-in-place”.  Because of the hardship it would cause many and the difficulty of fair enforcement, the shut-down was delayed.  It is now in effect but only for the two communes with the highest prevalence of coronavirus. 

Where Dr Mira is correct is that facilities in the Congo are very far from western standards.  The medical personnel are incredibly underpaid and underequipped.  When John had a hernia operation in Kinshasa last year, he was still semi-conscious in recovery when I complained that the rain was coming through the roof and through the ceiling onto his bed. The nurses had to balance him to another bed.  During the night we heard rats overhead.  But the operation, itself, was faultless and his wound was well-tended with correct anti-septic procedure.

What Dr Mira missed was the adaptiveness and resourcefulness of this administration and its people.  He also missed the fact that every person in this population feels his/her vulnerability to Covid-19 as well as many other invisible killers.  They felt this before Wuhan happened.

The first case known in the USA was in January.  Now in April, the president of the United States still has not nationalized strong protective measures for all American citizens to follow.

The first case known in DR Congo was discovered 8 March, by 10 March a national state of emergency was announced and all commercial international passenger flights shut out of Congo.  A week later all internal passenger flights were stopped.   Schools, churches, and bars ceased to function.  In Kinshasa non-essential businesses were closed.

Tshisikedi, the Congolese president, has been struggling with multiple political factions ever since his election more than a year ago, but all opposition parties and traditional leaders openly support his anti-Covid mobilization. 

The provinces followed the national lead closing ferries and roads between major cities.  There are no known cases in the town of Kindu where I now am, but for the past two weeks there has been no school, no church, no bars.

Will that put the cap on Covid-19 spread?  Probably not, but the published numbers are provocative:

It is curious that Kinshasa, a teeming third world metropolis, with more residents than New York City, mainly living hand to mouth, did not quickly spiral into crisis. 

Our top project leaders here in Kindu tried to understand the phenomenon….all of us sitting two meters apart with clean hands….

Was it because Congo is tropical and the weather always warm?  Perhaps, but southeast Asia is not doing as well.

Is it because this is such a young population?  Most days I see only people at least a generation younger than myself.

Is it because early symptoms resemble malaria? People can assume malaria and self-treat (usually not with Chloroquine) and the symptoms generally go away.

Is it lack of air pollution?  Even in Kinshasa there is little industrial pollution, but car exhaust is uncontrolled.

Could it be the BCG vaccine given to all children here?  That is an interesting possibility.

Or are the figures a massive under-estimate of the numbers.  After all in the whole of Congo there is only one testing center. Only the very sick are tested (but that too was the case in the USA not long ago).

Tomorrow, 10thApril, I leave going further into the hinterland on a motorcycle to visit base camps—off internet.  John is already off line.  I will be back in ten days.  Possibly I will find that Kinshasa cases are exploding.   Perhaps the incidence curve will spike.

We will report back …  and hopefully, in the meantime, there will be much more international help for this country that is doing all that is possible to flatten its curve.   Perhaps the Congolese and all of us will soon be competing for the same experimental vaccines.

Above: Coming into port in Ubundu. Food and people continue to move by dugout and barge up Congo’s many rivers. Unlike Ebola that was spread through contact with bodily fluids, Covid-19 scatters through the air and lingers on surfaces. It is on the move in Congo as elsewhere.