Dr. Cleve Hicks has written a very moving story about his encounters with the bushmeat trade and bushmeat orphans in central Africa as part of our guest blogging project. Dr. Hicks earned his master’s degree working with the chimps just down the road from us at the Chimpanzee & Human Communication Institute, and continues to study chimps in free-living Africa. He has worked for several years in the northern DRC studying chimps in the Bili Forest. This story is going to be split into three segments, so check back over the next few days for the continued pieces. WARNING: some disturbing images included in this entry (the most graphic ones are included as links in their caption).
LUKURU MISSION TO BILI, JULY 2012
As our caravan rumbled along the recently-repaired dirt road leading from Kisangani to Buta, I felt a sense of relief. We had temporarily left behind us the flurry of stamps, signatures, and copies in triplicate necessary to get us back to the forest of Bili, and I felt the same sense of expectation I had when I first arrived in DR Congo back in 2004. Every kilometer we put behind us was getting us closer to the chimpanzees of Gangu Forest. Our caravan consisted of four motorbikes and a Nissan rented from the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), which was brimming over with bicycles, trunks, researchers, and Ecoguards.
Team Bili, 2 July 2012, preparing for our departure from Kisangani (together with TL2 researcher Dino Schwa; photo by team member Gilbert Paluku).
Our truck had briefly broken down back in Banalia, putting us several hours behind schedule, and it was now clear that we would not reach our destination, the frontier town of Buta, by nightfall. Project Pro-Routes had done an excellent job repairing the road since I last suffered to travel over it back in 2008, but we had been told that the final 35 km before Buta remained a morass of muddy pits, lurching divets, and lop-sided gulleys, which we could not risk getting stuck in at night. Fortunately at around sundown we found ourselves pulling up at the road block set up by ICCN guards at Sukisa, the guard station established to check vehicles for bushmeat as they passed through the Rubi-Tele game reserve. As Lukuru team leader Henri Silegowa and I watched our six ICCN guards greet their Rubi-Tele compadres, Henri said, “Nous sommes chez nous.” (“We are at our house.”) The Rubi-Tele guards were sharply outfitted in new uniforms, carried arms, and projected a highly motivated and professional demeanor. The station had come a long way since Terese Hart visited it in 2007 on her faunal survey of the forest (Hart 2007). After having spent so many years working to raise awareness about the neglected wildlife of northern DRC, it was exciting to see that the region was no longer being ignored.
We stretched our cramped limps, wiped the red road mud off our faces, and happily accepted the chairs offered us by Monsieur Jean Robert Lobela, the station’s Chef des Gardes. He apologized that the chief conservateur was away in Kisangani, but then enthusiastically asked us if we would like to see some of the items they had confiscated here recently. He led us across the road to a mud building, from out of which his men pulled two tattered but still gorgeously-striped okapi skins confiscated within the last year from poachers’ camps inside the game reserve. We could see from the tag attached the ear of the first horned skin, which belonged to a male, that it was taken in 2011. The female skin beside it was only three months old. With the distressing news from the previous week of the slaughter of park guards and okapis at Epulu still fresh in our minds, it was disturbing to see the killing taking place here as well, but at the same time heartening to see that someone was taking the problem seriously.
Next, Monsieur Lobela brought us two scarred, blackened skulls of chimpanzees, each tagged and inscribed with the date and location of confiscation. One, tagged from 2012, had belonged to a small male with large pointy canines, and came from a poachers’ camp about a day’s walk to the north. I then inspected the tag on the larger skull, that of an adult female. Her incisors had been charred black from being slowly smoked over a campfire, and a dingy ring of soot circled her mouth.
Chimpanzee skulls recently confiscated from hunting camps within Rubi-Tele.
I was startled to see a familiar name on her tag: Ephrem Mpaka, 4 September 2011. Our very own Ephrem, TL2 researcher and now part of our Bili team, who was part of the group gathered around this macabre collection of carcasses. Later, in his typical animated style, Ephrem recounted the story to us:
In September 2011, Ephrem was on a mission for Lukuru Foundation to collect okapi dung samples inside Rubi-Tele, but he was also interested in other protected species. One evening he was on a patrol with ICCN guards about seven km west into the forest. They had already spotted a number of fresh chimpanzee nests in this region, and heard their pant hoots and drums. As he and the guards walked down a hunters’ trail, they heard resonating through the still forest the whacks of a machete against a tree. Someone was gathering firewood. Following the trail to the sounds, they arrived at a small hunting camp, for the moment occupied by only one woman. Spread across a smokestack above a smoldering fire was the blackened carcass of a female chimpanzee along with two monkeys. Acting quickly before the woodchoppers returned, the guards grabbed the 12-gauge shotgun they found by the hunting shack, apprehended the woman, and then fanned out into the forest to arrest the two male residents of the camp. The poachers, Basoko people from a village located within the reserve, offered no resistance. When asked why they had decided to hunt inside the reserve, they explained that there was a mourning ceremony taking place at their village, and they had been sent out into the forest to bring back meat. Ephrem documented the scene with the following disturbing photographs which he kindly shared with me. He later returned with the chimpanzee skull to Sukisa base and tagged it.
In September 2011, Ephrem Mpaka of Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation took this photograph of the confiscation by ICCN guards of a smoked chimpanzee (along with an Angolan colobus and a red tailed guenon) at a poachers’ camp inside Rubi-Tele DC. In addition, during the month he was there, Ephrem documented 11 okapi skins that had been taken from the reserve in addition to the ones we had just been shown.
Is this the best use we can think of for the beautiful okapi? An okapi skin church drum in the Rubi-Tele region in 2011. Perhaps religious leaders could be convinced to speak out against this custom. Photo courtesy of Ephrem Mpaka.
It was clear that the large-scale killing of chimpanzees and other primates which I had documented in the area between 2007 and 2008 (Hicks et al. 2010) had continued unabated in the intervening years. But one question remained unanswered: had it spread to the forests of Bili in the north?
TO BE CONTINUED…
This mission was made possible by the generous support of the Max Planck institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, The Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation, The US Fish and Wildlife Service, l’ Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature, The Lucie Burgers Foundation, and The African Wildife Foundation.
Hart T. 2007. Evaluation de l’Etat de Conservation Domaine de Chasse de Rubi-Télé : Inventaires fauniques, contexte historique et recommandations pour assurer la conservation du site en rapport avec la réhabilitation de la Route National 4. Un rapport soumis à l’ AGRECO dans le cadre de la mise en oeuvre de l’Etude d’Impact Environnemental et Social dans la Zone du Projet PROROUTES.
Hicks TC, Darby L, Hart J, Swinkels J, January N, Menken SBJ. 2010. Trade in orphans and bushmeat threatens one of The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s most important populations of Eastern Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii). African Primates 7 (1): 1-18.