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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dispatches from the Congo

The Milwaukee Zoological Society

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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 excerpted dispatch shows, she and her crew are also finding disturbing evidence of elephant poaching. To read this dispatch in its entirety, click here.

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 Yenge River, 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 Salonga National 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.

Winding uphill, we arrive at our destination on the Yenge plateau. After several bends, we come onto a wide stretch of river bordered by sandbars that reflect intense white sunlight. Below a tree where 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 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 two 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.

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.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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