We just arrived this morning and I already want to leave Kisangani, a city of 700,000 in the center of Congo‚Äôs jungle. A cholera outbreak started in the city last week and left 27 dead‚Äî200 more cases have been reported. Andy and I are with Terese and John Hart, conservationists who have been working in the DRC for 30 years. They‚Äôve agreed to help us plan our mission. But the question of where to start sampling elephant dung isn‚Äôt simple. The region Dr. Wasser wants us to sample most, the proposed Lomami National Park in the 25,000 square mile jungle known as TL2, has become even more dangerous.
The Harts, who have been a driving force behind the creation of Lomani National Park, had just received a letter from the one of their TL2-based supporters. It warned them of a man who is calling himself Moses and planting burning crosses‚Äîdeath threats‚Äîin the front yards of people who support the creation of Lomami National Park. President Kabila is expected to approve the park this year. That declaration could crack down on poachers operating in the region, which is why Moses opposes any additional protections to TL2.
“There‚Äôs so much conflict in the country that we don’t know how many elephants are left in some of DRC‚Äôs biggest protected areas,” says Dr. Samuel Wasser, the director of the Center for Conservation Biology. ‚ÄúOne thing we do know is African elephant numbers are dropping, and a lot of ivory is coming from the Congo.‚Äù Samples from TL2 will help Wasser locate and stop poachers operating around the country.
So we‚Äôre going in. The expedition is far and away the most complicated of my life. I‚Äôve never needed a military escort.
First thing tomorrow, John, Andy, and I will fly south to Kindu, a town of 200,000 on the edge of TL2. Over the next five days, we‚Äôll take motorcycles and motorized pirogues the 120-some miles into Obenge, a remote research facility operated by the Harts on the Lomami River. John thinks Obenge‚Äôs remoteness has limited poaching in the region. We’re hoping to collect 30 scat samples from 30 different groups of forest elephants living near the research camp.
While Andy, John and I make our way to Obenge from the south, a second team will come from Kisangani in the north. One of the Hart‚Äôs TL2 team leaders, Maurice, will be leading the expedition. Joining him is Major Guy, an official in the Congolese army, and several of Maurice‚Äôs team members. They‚Äôll be pushing bicycles loaded with three weeks of supplies (camping gear, sampling vials, etc.) 100-some miles into Obenge. They‚Äôre expected to arrive on Tuesday.
Once we meet up, Andy and I will spend the next two weeks sampling elephant scat near the Lomami River. John will head back north with Maurice and Major Guy and pay the cross-burning Moses a visit.
‚ÄúI just want to ask him face to face why I haven’t got a burning cross yet,‚Äù says John. “He should have sent me the first one.”
John doesn’t think Moses is dangerous, but wants to flex a little muscle now to show bandits, poachers, etc. that the laws protecting the proposed Lomami National Park will be enforced. We’re now into the heart of our adventure. Find out what happens to John and Moses here, and follow our progress in the jungles on the Spot Map posted at the Elephant Ivory Project‚Äôs homepage. Spot updates will remain stable. Wish us luck.
–Trip Jennings and Kyle Dickman
Unless noted otherwise, all photos and maps provided by Terese Hart. Thanks for your support.