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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dispatches from the Congo

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Shepherd readers are well acquainted with the Bonobo and Congo Biodiversity Initiative, launched 10 years ago by the Milwaukee Zoological Society to study and help protect the elusive, endangered bonobo (human DNA is 98.4% identical to that of bonobos). The project’s leader, Dr. Gay Reinartz, is currently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to deliver supplies and collect more data on the great ape. Reinartz reports that they are seeing many bonobos at Etate, the project’s research park. But, as this dispatch shows, she and her crew are also finding disturbing evidence of elephant poaching.

Today we walk in the footsteps of elephants, their tracks deep, flat depressions in the leaf litter of the forest floor. With room to spare, I can place both my feet in their circular form. Bunda tells us that elephants passed here yesterday after the rain. The elephants are headed toward the YengeRiver, where they go to bathe in one of the many tributaries. Elephants need water, and they congregate in swampy places called bais. Similar to bogs and thickly covered in sedges and aquatic grasses, bais are open expanses located within the rain forest, often on the edges of small rivers. We are following one of the many ancient elephant boulevards—deeply worn, hard-packed paths cut through the forest—that will eventually lead to a bai on the Yenge. The SalongaNational Park once had thousands of elephants, but during the 1980s, fueled by the lucrative ivory trade, unrestrained poaching nearly exterminated the park’s elephant population. Today, small pockets of elephants remain in this poorly protected wild-land, but ivory poaching continues. The park guards of the Salonga are ill-equipped to confront professional hunters that continue to infiltrate the park and slaughter the planet’s largest land mammal for its two teeth.

Bunda stops on the path and listens intently. We halt motionless behind him. To come unexpectedly upon a forest elephant could lead to an attack, but after a second Bunda resumes his whistling and saunters down the boulevard with Edmond, Wema, Patrick, Nathaniel and me following in single file. Up ahead I hear the tink tink of Eddy’s machete as he effortlessly cuts the branches and vines that block our path. Few patrols ever frequent this area, and this is among the reasons we are here: to scout out the terrain and the wildlife that exists here, as well as inform our guards about where to intensify their patrols. As we move closer to the Yenge, elephant signs increase in number as the animals journey toward water, but we find fewer bonobo nests as compared to the central lands between the two rivers. While bonobos are our primary target for conservation, elephants play a major role in maintaining the forest structure, clearing out the understory, moving the earth, fertilizing it and dispersing seeds. They are also what draw poachers to this area, being one of the most persecuted animals on Earth. Our ongoing reconnaissance between the Salonga and Yenge rivers will document the distribution of bonobos that are endemic to this region, the occurrence of elephants and the presence of hunters and their points of access into the park.

The terrain we cover is hilly this close to the Yenge. It is marked by many springs nestled deeply between ridge tops. Following our preplanned route into an unknown section of the park, the six of us plunge down into a gorge thickly clotted with vines. The bank is too steep to stand, so I sit down and ride out the last 10 meters on the seat of my pants and plop onto the hard floor of the shallow spring that flows from fissures in the rock bottom of the hill. While filling my water bottle, Bunda points to the nearby clay bank pocked by elephant footprints made a few days ago. How do they manage to get their hulking bodies way down here and back up again? Immediately on the other side of the stream, the ground rises straight up. I grab at small trees and roots to pull myself up. How many more of these earth-cracks do we have to cross today? They are not evident on the satellite images we used to plan our route. This is our sixth day of backpacking in air thick enough to stir with a spoon. Sweat runs into my eyes and down my chin. If we hurry, we should make it to the bai and afterward to our final campsite on the Yenge, where Redo and Jeremy wait with the pirogue to ferry us downriver and back to our research station, Etate. Eventually the ground levels and a breath, just a breath, of air fans our faces.

Progressing from ridge top to ridge top, the number of intersecting elephant trails intensifies, and fresh footprints appear. As we approach the bai, the landscape levels out.

Suddenly, the fortress of the forest gives way, in one breathtaking second, to a prairie-openness. Without a word between us, we each plow forward and fan out into the bai, hungry to find whatever lies ahead. The sudden contrast to the closeness of the forest is like a magic door, and we can’t help but gorge ourselves on the light, open air and inherent mystery. In the grassy space stretching before us, there are no elephants, antelopes or apes—only the early morning sun glistening off wet plants and the sure sense that something was here just moments ago. With no trace of disappointment, we set to work, take pictures and record what we find.

In places, the bai is a spongy mat of interlaced aquatic plants and roots suspended in water; in others places, black mud supports dense hummocks of sedges and grass. Elephant trails radiate throughout. A small, pristine, tea-colored river about waste high bisects the bai.I wade in to join Edmond in his exploration of the river. He points to the white sand bottom. “There, Madame, there are footprints of elephants.” Resisting the river current, plate-sized depressions aligned in the sequence of stride define the path of great beasts that came here very recently to drink, wade and surely enjoy the change in scenery. Enjoying the cool water, I follow Eddy as we discover more and more prints in the sand. I come upon a deep hollow, proud that I found the biggest one—“Probably a bull,” I exclaim. “No, Madame,” he says, smiling, “that’s a fish hole.”

Under blue sky and billowy white clouds, for the next hour we explore the mud, the trails, and find many fresh elephant signs: fresh dung and places where the water is still turbid, meaning that elephants had been here only moments before our arrival. We discuss the possibility of erecting a viewing platform here to watch the animals that gather at the bai. Maybe we could even install a camouflaged camera trap somewhere safe from floods and get clandestine photos of animals as they visit the bai. With renewed energy and big plans in our heads, we leave this beautiful, rare scene, and trudge back toward the forest and make our way to camp.

Winding uphill, we arrive at our destination on the Yenge plateau. Redo and Jeremy, a welcome sight, have tidily prepared the camp and tarp shelter. Breaking into the chatter of greetings, Redo reports that during one of their excursions upriver they found two elephant carcasses—two elephants dead on the edge of the Yenge. “How far away is it?” “A few minutes upriver, Madame.” Stashing our backpacks, we mount the pirogue, Redo guns the outboard engine and we fly upriver to check the discovery.

After several bends, we come onto a wide stretch of river bordered by sandbars that reflect intense white sunlight. Redo slows the engine, and we putt-putt into a shallow lagoon. Immediately three eagles take flight and soar above the pirogue. Below the tree where other eagles perch, the partially decayed body of an elephant lies, its rib cage and spine spread clumsily over the mat of vines.There is the head, there is the femur; yonder, the lower jaw detached and half-submerged in the water. The eagles have eaten and the sun has baked away most of the flesh left behind by the poachers. We descend on this grim sight.

The men examine the skull; they turn it over. Bunda points out the hole in the cranium where a large slug dealt the death blow—probably from a military issue AK-47. He points out hack marks on the side of the giant head where the poachers have chopped off the ears and entered the skull to remove the tusks. While three men heft the heavy cranium into the pirogue to take back to our patrol post, Edmond and I collect other bones and skin samples for genetic analyses. It is clear from the scene that poachers laid in wait in their pirogue until the elephants came out of the forest, probably at night, to drink and bathe in the river. All they had to do was open fire.

Few words pass between us as we step into the pirogue and head deeper into the lagoon to the second smaller carcass of either a cow or a younger male. This one is nearly submerged. The men estimate the first carcass to be 2 months old, but I have my doubts—it looks more recent. Once more Bunda finds the bullet holes—this elephant certainly was shot in its face and upper trunk and who knows where else. My stomach turns as I imagine the sight: the pristine wilderness, the quiet river, the birds, elephants bathing and the horrible sounds uttered here by man and beast. All for money—probably not local hunters, but strangers traveling long distances in motorized pirogues like ours to rob the natural treasures of Salonga. We again collect the long bones and head of the second elephant, and our pirogue sinks lower in the water with the added weight.

With our foul loot, we duck into yet another lagoon to find the poachers’ campsite. After searching 30 minutes, we find it just on the border. The campsite is a small clearing in the woods. Whoever camped in this spot must have left in a hurry. What looks like a woman’s blue purse lies discarded next to the water’s edge. Beside the purse is a huge flap—a partially decayed elephant ear. What is the purpose of that, I ask Bunda. People make drums from elephant ears. Nathaniel searches the purse—empty. Meanwhile Bunda examines the rack structure where the meat was smoked and searches in the ashes underneath. He finds small charred chunks recognizable as the meat of elephant and red river hog. Edmond finds a beautifully spiraled horn of a sitatunga antelope—a hole crudely chopped into its hollow form to make a trumpet. Bunda exclaims angrily that he will patrol this area himself, that this is his domain. The Etate guards, however, are already stretched to their limit covering more kilometers on foot than any other Salonga patrol.

After collecting more samples, we return to the pirogue and head back to our camp. The wild YengeRiver spreads open, her swift currents a tangle of eddies and sunken logs. The bones of elephants we carry unbalance our pirogue, and to navigate safely, Redo has to stop the pirogue and reposition the fetid cargo. The team is quiet, each of us lost in thought, revisiting the sunlit bai where we found elephant paradise, footprints of babies and momma elephants and big bulls, and the susequent reality of the moment.

How many more times will this tragedy recur? Until the last elephant is left standing? The business of conservation is difficult to assess: Are we making progress or losing ground? I think of the legendary Dutch boy who saved his country by sticking his fingers in the holes of a dyke during a storm. We are holding back the waters, but running out of fingers. When we get back to Kinshasa and the United States, we will advocate making a new patrol post on the Yenge. There is nothing left but to keep trying to conserve what is left, to focus on that bai and the promise that nature can heal with time and the will of those who care for it.