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Floating Down the Lopori River

We are in a small town called Djolu. Never heard of it? I am not surprised. This is a village in the central part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Actually, if you look at a map of Africa, Djolu looks like it is smack dab in the middle of the continent. We arrived here from Kinshasa via plane. There are no regularly scheduled flights to Djolu. We flew the approximate 900 km from Kinshasa to a small town called Basankusu, where the Lopori and Maringa Rivers meet. We have an office in Basankusu; it is a key logistical location as access to our interior projects is via the rivers. People always say that working in the Congo is very challenging. That is an understatement. The landscape is vast tropical forest with winding rivers. The terrain is difficult, and there is little to no infrastructure, making the implementation of projects a challenge.

[caption id="attachment_1831" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption=""River life is busy with kids traveling to school via canoe, fishermen, and wooden rafts with structures—people traveling for weeks to get to a town to sell their produce.""][/caption]

AWF has been working in this Congo Heartland since 2004. Our focus is to work with the local communities to protect wildlife and habitat and to provide economic incentives. Here in Congo we are focused on a variety of species, but the bonobo is a focal species. The bonobo is a great ape that only lives in DRC, and like most of the great apes, the bonobo is endangered.

In Basankusu, we woke early and jumped in a canoe. When you think of a canoe, perhaps you think of a fiber glass two person canoe. This is a wooden canoe carved out of a tropical tree that is about 12 meters long, with an outboard engine. We travel along the Lopori River passing villages that are carved out of the thick rainforest. River life is busy with kids traveling to school via canoe, fishermen, and wooden rafts with structures—people traveling for weeks to get to a town to sell their produce.

Our target destination this morning is to find bonobos. Twelve of them have been reintroduced by Friends of the Bonobos (Les Amis des Bonobos du Congo—ABC), a group dedicated to rescuing bonobo orphans, victims of the bushmeat trade, and reintroducing them into the wild. Looking at this thick forest I am not getting my hopes up for seeing the bonobo. A staff person from ABC travels with us in the boat, a young, impressive Congolese woman dedicated to this ape. People on the river tell us they have heard the bonobos, we follow their advice and have the great fortune of seeing these awesome apes. An amazing story of recovery—returning the bonobo to the wild. A sign of hope.

[caption id="attachment_1834" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Bonobos are closely related to humans, sharing 98.4 percent of our genetic makeup. "][/caption]

Had we carried on 18 hours in the canoe, we would have reached AWF’s research center in the Lomako Forest Reserve. The declaration of this reserve was the result of years of effort on behalf of AWF. We host a bonobo researcher who is helping us understand more about this unique ape and support scouts protecting the reserve in coordination with the Institution for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN). With time constrains we are unable to make the journey to Lomako—next trip!

We return to shore and head to the village market for coffee. I love visiting markets as you get a real feel for the community. You can get anything you need in this market—fish, vegetables, clothing, suitcases, nail polish…you name it, they’ve got it. One area of the market is bushmeat including stacks of monkey. The starting price for a monkey is $15. This can probably be negotiated down to $5. The demise of wildlife because of the bushmeat trade is a severe challenge.

Flying into Djolu the forest changed from an intact carpet of vegetation to a patchwork of burns, cuts, and forest. The threat in this area is slash and burn techniques that are used to clear forest for agricultural development.  The morning after we arrive in Djolu, we take motorbikes 20 km east along a single-track trail through the thick forest to get to an area that AWF has been working on a zoning project. Motorbikes are the only way to get around. I firmly grip the bike as we wind through the forest, crossing thick sandy areas, mud flats, and rickety bridges; hoping not to crash.

[caption id="attachment_1835" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Floating hut on the DRC's Lomako River"][/caption]

Firmly believing that with good planning, the forest can be protected and community livelihoods improved, AWF is working with local communities on a zoning plan. The community helps to map agricultural zones and in exchange for assistance with agricultural development and intensification, they agree to stop farming and burning in the forest interior. MOUs are signed, GPS points taken, maps produced, and the project is rolled out. We meet with the first village who signed the MOU and listen to how the program is progressing. Our target is to expand the program to cover a much larger area.

The greatest challenge in these areas is access to the market. These areas are extremely remote without roads. AWF has a boat that we send up river twice a year, according to the produce cycle, as well as the water levels. Farmers with whom we work can sell their produce to the traders on board, and we then bring the produce back to Kinshasa.

[caption id="attachment_1836" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="AWF's Djolu Staff"][/caption]

There are always two ways to look at things. DRC is no different. After years of war, the country has suffered immensely. Development is minimal, infrastructure limited, education levels low, and the ability to operate programs is severely challenging. However, DRC with its vast resources has a chance to get it right. With proper planning and conservation actions, AWF hopes that in another 50 years, DRC be a place where its people, land, forest, and wildlife thrive.


Kathleen Fitzgerald
About the Author

Kathleen Fitzgerald is AWF's Vice President, Programs East and Southern Africa. She works closely with staff to design and direct land and habitat conservation projects across the continent, including establishing community conservancies, securing wildlife corridors, and improving management of protected areas and community lands.

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AWF Blogs bring you to the critical landscapes we work in, where conservation benefits both wildlife and people alike. The blogs are written by our staff - men and women who have dedicated their lives to Africa's wildlife, people and wild lands.