The animal world has been my passion since childhood. Conservation of nature, specifically the protection of species, has since become my career. For five years, I worked in the Lomako–Yokokala Faunal Reserve in western Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Today, I am AWF’s technical advisor in the Bili-Uele Protected Area Complex in northeastern DRC. I support the Bili managers in management planning, biomonitoring, and data collection during anti-poaching patrols.
“Working in the field” can mean working alongside communities, heading into the forest to identify wildlife species or some other activity. My experience in Lomako is certainly different from Bili-Uele. In Bili, priority has been on recruiting, training and equipping eco-guards and securing the area. We are working in partnership with security firm Maïsha Consulting and the Armed Force of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Congolese army.
The challenges? They are huge. First, there are safety concerns. In Lomako, we could circulate through the reserve without fear or anxiety. In Bili, the presence of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is a major handicap for conservation. Every kilometer we traverse in the forest, we do so under stress, as there is always a risk of encountering them—and if we cross paths, it will not be friendly. I have been lucky in that I have never personally encountered the LRA on patrols, but it is a permanent risk in this area. Our patrol in June actually coincided with the presence of the rebel group, and we had to bring all the rangers in to avoid confrontation.
Nevertheless, securing the central Bili-Mbomu part of the complex is our top priority. We organize joint patrols between the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN, the Congolese wildlife authority) and army to track down poachers. The army’s presence provides assurance that we may be able to combat the LRA if we run into them.
Another big challenge is the communities. This is a very poor and isolated part of DRC where people’s primary livelihoods are hunting, agriculture and artisanal mining. With lingering ancestral beliefs, including a belief in mysticism, residents have little to no knowledge about conservation. So we had what French speakers would call, “Pain sur la planche,” or bread on the board—basically, a lot of hard work. (The idiom comes from the old days when bakers had to “work,” or hand-knead, their bread before baking.)
But there is hope of success in the medium to long term. To date, with 25 eco-guards trained, we have conducted more than 2,000 km of anti-poaching patrols, covering about 5,000 sq. km of this protected area. We have established five community conservation committees and already educated more than 300 men and women on the country’s conservation laws. Finally, we conducted the first census of large mammals in the area. The census confirmed the area’s rich biodiversity, with a large population of chimpanzees, buffalo, various antelope species, primates and carnivores, including leopard and hyena. We were also able to confirm the return of the “king”: the forest elephant, whose once-strong population in this region had very nearly become nonexistent due to poaching.
So important is some of the wildlife here that earlier this year, an NBC News team visited to film Bili’s chimpanzee population. The 14-day expedition involved a team of NBC reporters, a primatologist, a mixed team of ICCN and the army, trackers and porters. It proved to be an interesting mission that also left me wondering whether the mystical beliefs of the Zande people here are perhaps not so misplaced!
We had arrived in Gangu Forest on day 3 of the trip, with plans to film the chimpanzees in the following days. Ten days in, we were finding chimps—but unable to film them because they always fled. On one of the last days of our expedition, we got a tip from the head of the chiefdom—one that we were not sure to believe. We trekked to a location 4 km from the village and bedded down for the night. In the morning, we followed in the direction of some chimpanzee calls. If we could not capture the chimps on camera by 8:20 that morning, the NBC team leader said we would return to the village. The morning progressed, with no success. But just when we were about to head back, the cameraman observed some chimps watching him quietly—allowing him to finally get them on film.
Was it just chance—or could it have been Zande mysticism?