Thanks to SPOT, you’ll be able to watch our progress live via satellite! ¬†Stay tuned to the SPOT map below, or check out our SPOT Adventures profile for all the latest action.
We were recovering at our Obenge base camp when we heard the strange screams. ‚ÄúPardon Papa! Pardon Papa!‚Äù over and over again, with a sound like bamboo being chopped down prompting each yell. Effrin, a local guide, pointed to the corner of camp and explained in half French, half English that Major Guy was whipping a 16-year-old boy for raping an 11-year-old girl earlier that day in the village. It was a wakeup call, just in case we needed one‚Äîwe were still in Congo, where you should always expect anything.
Trip and I returned to camp the previous day empty handed after a week of bushwhacking through the jungle searching for elephants. The only trace of ‚Äúlox‚Äù‚Äîthe locals‚Äô term for forest elephants‚Äîthat we‚Äôd seen was a pile of bones left behind by poachers some years ago. Luckily one of the other teams had better luck, and had collected the first five elephant scat samples of the project. As we relaxed at camp after Major Guy flogged the rapist, news came in via satellite phone that five more samples had been collected near the village of Katopa in the northern part of the TL2 wilderness. With samples from the northern and central parts of the area, it was time for us to head south. In the meantime, a team would head much deeper into the central part of the wilderness and continue searching for elephants. Ultimately, we hope to end up with scat samples from as wide an area as possible to ensure a comprehensive representation of elephant genetics. We also hoped to actually do some scat collecting ourselves.
From Obenge, we piled into the pirogue and spent three days motoring 200 kilometers downstream with John Hart, Major Guy, his three heavily armed men, and the captured rapist to the village of Opala. There, the prisoner was escorted to jail while Trip and I jumped on motorbikes to head back into the forest in search of elephants. We‚Äôd been in Congo for four weeks, and the end of our expedition was quickly approaching. Every day for the rest of the trip was accounted for‚Äîthe clock was ticking for us to round off our collections and start the long trip out of the wilderness.
With a local village chief, an incredible wildlife tracker, and a local guide, we gathered supplies in the village of Lelende Monene and set off on foot into the jungle. Elephants were definitely nearby‚Äîrecently they had been caught coming to the villagers‚Äô gardens to munch on their manioc greens and scare unsuspecting farmers. This type of human-elephant conflict is one of the greatest threats to the survival of the species, along with poaching and habitat loss. Fortunately, our crew of locals didn‚Äôt seem too upset with the resident ‚Äúlox‚Äù yet, and excitedly led us on our trek to find scat.
It took us less than a day of searching to find the first elephant tracks‚Äîindentations in the forest floor the size of motorcycle rims amidst swaths of flattened vegetation. ‚ÄúCrot ici!‚Äù the chief yells in French. He finally perks up as he finds the first pile of elephant dung. Excitedly, Trip and I donned latex gloves, filled a vial with small pinches of dung, and labeled it with GPS coordinates. With the adventure nearly over, we‚Äôd finally gotten a chance to do some collecting ourselves.
For the next four days we navigated from elephant track to elephant track, looking for the freshest piles of dung we could find. Fortunately we found too much scat, and began passing over samples. Some was too old to contain genetic information, some too close together to be from different individual elephants or family groups. In all, our crew collected six viable samples during the 75 kilometer trek, some as fresh as the same day the elephants dropped them. Trip and I collected four samples ourselves, and our guide gloved-up to collect two. As close to elephants as we were, we never saw one. It seems that the 10 percent of elephants left unpoached in this area aren‚Äôt interested in human contact.
With our collections complete, the only thing standing between us and civilization was ‚ÄúThe Prophet,‚Äù the cross-burning poacher/bandit that had been terrorizing the region for weeks. To get back to Kisingani we‚Äôd have to travel through his territory. Then hope that the cholera outbreak in Kisingani had gotten better instead of worse while we were in the bush.
We never did see The Prophet during the two-day, 250-kilometer motorbike ride back to civilization. And fortunately, the local government decided that quarantine was the best action for cholera and the outbreak was contained. ‚Ä®‚Ä®There‚Äôs still one looming question though‚Äîhow are we going to get all of these samples out of the country and back to Seattle? And even more than that, how are all of the samples being collected by teams still in the field going to get out? It sounds like our best bet may be a Wildlife Conservation Society agent in Goma named Deo. He‚Äôs gotten samples to Sam Wasser from Congo before, but the process is complicated and uncertain. All the paperwork is in order to get them into the U.S., but carrying them past the corrupt Congolese boarder guards into Rwanda for our flight is a risk we‚Äôre hoping that we don‚Äôt have to take. There‚Äôs no way that Trip and I can smuggle this many samples wrapped in stinky socks in our backpacks, so were hoping that Deo will be able to help us ship them to the U.S. instead. We‚Äôre flying to Goma tomorrow, so well know soon enough. We‚Äôll be sure to check back in and let you know how it went. Stay tuned to @amaser on Twitter for all the latest news.
There was a shootout. Andy and I weren‚Äôt there, but we learned through satellite text messages that Colonel Gui and his soldiers from the Congolese army ran into the bandits somewhere between Kisangani and Obenge. They were likely the brothers of Colonel Toms, a convicted war criminal and poacher,. A gunfight ensued. One poacher was injured and two others were apprehended. Colonel Gui, with his prisoners in tow, is still coming to Obenge to route out poachers in the region. We should see them tomorrow.
I got the news during a four-day sampling hike through TL2 with Andy and the scientist John Hart. But let me back up. After Kisangani, which is where I last blogged, we flew to Kindu, a town on the border of the 25,000 square mile jungle known as TL2. It’s the region Elephant Ivory Project-lead Samuel Wasser wants elephant dung samples from most (read the previous posts to understand why). From Kindu, the three of us spent two days on the back of motorbikes, riding dirt paths notched into the jungle and savannah. These paths are arteries out of the bush. We saw locals pushing bicycles loaded with everything from pineapples to bush meat in the form of monkeys and okapi, a striped cousin of the giraffe. At the Lomami River, we loaded into motorized pirogues for a supposed two-day trip north to Obenge, the Hart‚Äôs research camp in the northern part of the proposed Lomami National Park. John stopped at every riverside village‚Äîabout a dozen–to explain what the national park meant for the locals.
‚ÄúWhen the park is made official, you will only be able to hunt on the west side of the river,‚Äù he told them. Most people seemed okay with the news. But at one fishing camp, by a hippo pool John said would be one of the park‚Äôs main attractions, we were met with a different reaction.
In a cage made with saplings there were 80 parrots; a monkey head was grilling over a fire nearby. The birds, trapped in a wildlife reserve, were to be sold illegally on the exotic bird market. After hours of heated discussion with the lead trapper, a man with a CITES permit authorizing live collections in a different region of Congo (not the reserve), John called Congo‚Äôs wildlife management agency. They‚Äôre sending agents to the camp to shut down the operation.
The tragic news is the poachers had already spooked the hippos out of their pool, and the animals are unlikely to return anytime soon. And as we left the pool, we saw a lone hippo swimming in the middle of the river.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs got to swim 50 miles upstream to find more suitable habitat,‚Äù John said. ‚ÄúThat’s a long shot.‚Äù
We made it to Obenge five days ago. It‚Äôs a 200-person village so remote the buildings are built entirely from bush materials. The walls are mud, the roofs thatch, and the stoves open fires. Most people hunt and fish for a living but 15 locals work for the Harts as scientific assistants and laborers. John dedicated all of them to helping the Elephant Ivory Project.
After an evening relaxing and eating fish and rice around smoky fires, we woke early to head into the bush in search of elephants. John split the crew. He sent six people to the west to sample elephant dung while Andy, John and I sampled along the river. For four days, we bushwhacked on paths that John’s team created two years ago. They had deteriorated into thorny tunnels through the bush and with 60 pound packs, even though the terrain is flat, it took us all day to hike just 10 kilometers. There are ungodly numbers of bees and ants in the Congolese jungle. One night, so many fire ants raided our camp we couldn‚Äôt leave our tents to pee‚Äîdon‚Äôt ask what we did. We saw a horned viper and heard the call of a new species of monkey, the Lesula, which the Hart‚Äôs identified two years ago. But we saw no elephants. John explained why at a clearing created by foraging elephants. It was beginning to grow back.
‚ÄúThe amount of vegetation growing in around the edges tells me it has been at least a decade since elephants have passed through here,‚Äù John said. ‚ÄúPart of that‚Äôs because of poaching, but part of it‚Äôs because TL2 is the size of West Virginia. Elephants could be anywhere.‚Äù
We returned to Obenge last night, and though comforted by hot plate of rice and beans, we couldn‚Äôt help feeling a little defeated and a lot exhausted. We‚Äôd been in Congo for three weeks and didn‚Äôt have a single sample to show for it. There is some good news though. That night, the second team returned to camp with five vials of dung. They‚Äôd headed farther in the jungle and located elephants. It‚Äôs a relief. We‚Äôre taking tomorrow off to rest. The next stage of the expedition depends largely on the situation with Colonel Gui and his prisoners. We‚Äôll fill you in on that story, and the story of Moses the cross-burner poacher, when John returns to Kisangani at the end of the week. Stay tuned by following us on twitter @EPFilmsTV and @amaser. Pictures from the expedition and an account from Andy coming early next week.
–Trip Jennings and Kyle Dickman
Thanks very much to Terese Hart and the Bonobo in Congo Project for the photos.
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.
It’s been a fortunate few days. We arrived in Kinshasa on Monday exhausted from 36 hours of transit and found the Congo just as hot as we left it two years ago. On Tuesday morning, we met with Dr. Terese Hart, a 30-year veteran of conservation in the DRC. Terese first came to the country as a Peace Corp volunteer in 1974. She‚Äôs now in her tenth year studying bonobos, an ape found only in the DRC, in a 25,000-square mile block of forest known as TL2. The region’s an elephant sanctuary on paper but animals are disappearing there faster than ever.
‚ÄúResearch here leads to advocacy because it‚Äôs all being destroyed,‚Äù says Hart.
To that end, she brought bad news. TL2, one of the four conservation areas we hoped to sample, has come under threat of a notoriously violent poacher and rapist: Colonel Toms. A decade earlier, Toms was sentenced to 20 years in a maximum-security prison for crimes against humanity. He recently escaped and restarted his poaching operations in TL2. MONUC, the UN’s DRC specific security force, has made a commitment to apprehend the Colonel, but no action has been taken yet. It’s like the Wild West. Stability means a calm between warring bandits and rebel groups.
She had come to Kinshasa from her home in Kisangani in part, to speak with the Administrative General of the ICCN, the DRC’s equivalent of a wildlife management agency. She wanted to garner support from the government to get Colonel Toms re-arrested. She also had work to do to make TL2′s designation as a National Park official. Depending on when President Kabila signs the proposition into law, it may happen as soon as this year. Lucky for us, we needed Cosma Wilungula Balongelwa’s approval to make the Elephant Ivory Project a success; and Terese‚Äôs French is better than ours.
With Balongelwa’s blessing, we’re heading some 500 miles up the Congo River to Kisangani tomorrow morning. Terese and her husband John, a researcher in Kisangani for three decades, will decide if the bandit situation is safe enough for Andy and I to go via motorbike 225 miles south to TL2. If it isn’t, we’ll head north to Maiko National Park, another un-sampled area. For Dr. Samual Wasser, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology and the reason we’re here, TL2 may be the most important of the remaining un-sampled regions in the DRC.
Wasser has scat samples from elephants across most of Africa, and in the regions he doesn’t, he’s able to estimate the genetics of un-sampled populations using a technique known as genetic smoothing. The technique’s success depends upon the distribution of populations Wasser has reference samples from. Elephants that live close together share more genes.
“I have samples from elephants in Salongo National Park in western DRC and Virunga National Park in the east.” says Wasser. The parks are 600 miles apart. TL2 sits right between them. “If I can get samples from TL2, I can estimate with much greater accuracy the genetics of elephants all across the DRC.”
Which could translate into less poaching. If Terese and John decide it’s safe enough to head into the bush, we’ll spend three weeks in TL2 collecting 30 samples for 30 different elephant groups. We’re boarding a plane for Kisangani this morning and will let you if we’re going in as soon as we find out. Huge thanks to the Center for Conservation Biology, the Lukuru Foundation, and the Harts. As always, follow our progress on the Spot Messenger Maphere at the Elephant Ivory Project and our tweets at @EPfilmsTV and @amaser.
–Trip Jenning and Kyle Dickman
Alright folks, it‚Äôs official: On Sunday we‚Äôre jumping on a plane bound for the Democratic Republic of Congo to begin the Elephant Ivory Project! It‚Äôs been a long two years of preparation, but all the effort will pay off on Monday night when we touch down in Kinshasa, the capital of DRC. Our bags are nearly packed, and our malaria prescriptions are filled.
The expedition has two parts‚Äîcollect elephant scat samples to help conservation biologist Dr. Sam Wasser pinpoint illegal elephant poaching, and document our adventure to help raise awareness of the rapid decline of wild elephants. Elephant populations are being wiped out at a rate of about 10% a year right now to fuel the illegal ivory trade, so cracking down on poaching is critically important. To learn more about how the project works, click here.
Our mission looks like this:
Week 1: Fly into Kinshasa to meet with government officials, pick up permits, and meet veteran Congo field researcher Terese Hart. After a few days in Kinshasa we‚Äôll fly to Kisingani to meet up with Terese‚Äôs husband John, and make final plans to head into the field.
Weeks 1.5-4: Exact plans are unknown at this point, but we plan to collect scat samples from two specific areas‚ÄîTL2 (directly south of Kisingani) and Maiko (southeast of Kisingani).
Week 5: Once we have the samples we need, we‚Äôll head east to the Virunga National Park to drop off the samples with conservation officials. From Virunga, we‚Äôll make our way to Goma, then across the border to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. From Rwanda, we jump on a plane headed back to Portland, OR!
Media inquiries: Kyle Dickman
The Elephant Ivory Project is an EP Films forensic biology expedition to the remote jungle of the Democratic Republic of Congo with the goal of saving wild elephants from the illegal ivory trade. Live updates made possible by SPOT Satellite Messenger.