The magnificent Congo Basin is made up of patchwork mosaic of rivers, forests, savannas, swamps and flooded forests. This tropical wonderland is home to forest elephants, lowland and mountain gorillas, bonobos, and buffalo, as well as the enigmatic okapi and a multitude of monkey species. The Congo Basin is an ancient refuge for biodiversity on the equator that has hidden the beating heart of Africa in the dense, green foliage. Gabon and Cameroon have shown glimmers of hope, but the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Republic of the Congo, and Equatorial Guinea have consistently fallen into unrest, civil war and disorder. This vast river basin is one of the most important wetland areas on earth and the second-largest tropical forest on earth that is home to over 10,000 plant species, over 30% if which are considered endemic to the region. These forests have been as they are for millions of years, encouraging the proliferation of over 400 mammal species, over 1,000 bird species, and, unbelievably, over 700 fish species. The lower Congo River is considered to have the highest concentrations of endemic fish species of any river on earth. Modern people have been living in the Congo Basin for over 50,000 years, depending almost entirely on the forests for food, fresh water and shelter. Today, these forests support more than 75 million people spread unevenly over an area larger than Alaska. There is no doubt that pressure is mounting in the deep forest and the “African silence” seems inevitable. Africa is currently on the verge of a massive slaughter of not just elephant and rhino, but all animals that can be caught and sold and/or eaten.
In October 2012, fieldworkers working for John and Terese Hart (www.bonoboincongo.com) weer able to apprehend a poacher with a shot gun and a porter, but missed five other poachers that fled into the forest. Their field team was shot at and stabbed during the altercation. The poachers had killed 8 forest antelope and 11 monkeys (including the protected black and white colobus). Scenes like this are common throughout Africa and I have found poacher’s camps on almost all of my expeditions across Africa. If you go off the beaten track you will find poachers. These are not people hunting for their families. These are camps designed to turn a profit and convert natural heritage into dollars. There is nothing sustainable about poaching and no added benefit to local communities. Local communities that sanction the exploitation of wildlife are almost always in a desperate situation with low literacy and zero opportunities. The new salve trade is rampant urban migration of working age people in Africa, leaving depleted rural communities to be exploited by profiteering middlemen and traders. Many local cultures feel a kinship for bonobos linking them to their forefathers. This ancestral and spiritual link has protected bonobos even through the most trying times over the later part of the last century when mad armies shot their way through the jungle and left many of their weapons behind to continue the destruction they had started. Why are we eating bonobos? Can we save Africa’s remaining wildernesses from destruction? See blog: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/10/14/why-are-we-eating-bonobos-can-we-save-africas-vast-wildernesses-from-destruction/
Elephant populations have been decimated over the last 100 years with local extinctions throughout their former range. Human-elephant conflict over food resources and water has been recorded wherever elephants and people interact and results in thousands of deaths each year. On January 2012, hundreds of elephant were killed by several hundred poachers on horseback in a single raid of Bouba Ndjidah National Park (Cameroon). Before the global ivory trade ban was adopted in 1989 armed raids like this were commonplace in Tsavo, Luangwa, Kafue and elsewhere. The raid in January was, however, the most concentrated killing of elephants since the 1989 ban and stories like are becoming more and more common with over 25,000 elephants being kille for the ivory in 2011. Where are these tusks going? On the 7th December 2012, over 1500 tusks hidden in two containers were discovered by customs officials in Malaysia. This extraordinary seizure of 24 tonnes of ivory worth over $20 million demonstrates the sheer volumes of ivory coming out of Africa. This is the tip of the iceberg with over 48,500 tusks outstanding… These tusks had not surprisingly come from Togo in West Africa. The consistent and unrelenting rise in global demand for ivory, rhino horn, bushmeat, wildlife products and traditional medicines (especially in emerging markets like China), as well as the recent militarization of much of the underground wildlife trade has Africa’s wild places under siege. Millions of monkeys, elephants, buffalo, bongo, okapi, pigeons, parrots, pangolins, duiker, forest hogs, and much else are caught, smoked and sent off to distant markets. More elephants have been killed than at any time in the last two decades. Many people are calling this a war and they are not far off…
Peter Matthiessen’s “African Silences” is a powerful and sobering account of the cataclysmic depredation of West African landscapes and the wildlife that depend on them. Matthiessen went to the savannas and jungles of West Africa to see the wildlife described in field guides and travel information. What he found was an ominous silence in forests that looked like the Amazon jungle and should have sustained unparalleled biodiversity. These changes on the African continent have occurred over the last 150 years and the first naturalists to explore this vast continent surveyed the abundance of life. The unrelenting exploitation of Africa for its vast natural resources has left the continent in a state of disrepair, ill-equipped to pick up the pieces that remain and build a restored future. The slave trade, “scramble for Africa”, Cold War, civil wars, revolutions, child armies and genocides have beaten down our people and reduced many on the continent to a point of desperation that causes them to destroy their natural heritage. The frontline today of this destruction is central and eastern DRC where much fo the wildlife trade has been militarized and most traders are protected by corrupt officials. There are glimmer of hope in the governments and in the willingness of conservation NGOs to invest time and funds into solving the burgeoning “wildlife war” in the heart of Africa. This sequence of images from “Search for Bonobo in Congo – Field Notes from Dr Terese Hart” (www.bonoboincongo.com) show us a window into the secretive lives of the wild animals that persist on the forest floor of remote protected areas in the DRC. These individuals photographed in the camera traps are the ones that survived the snares, shotguns, clubs, nets, wires, arrows, spears, knives and poisons of commercial trappers, poachers, traditional hunters, and human refugees. Rapid population increases in very unstable times have made the remote, tropical forests of the Congo Basin far more dangerous for wildlife.
“I first got word of the ambush on Sunday, by satellite phone, while still in Kinshasa: “today, poachers ambushed TL2 team. Boni was stabbed with machete.” I flew to Kindu the following day, October 9th. I went with Salumu, our TL2 coordinator in Kindu, to explain the case at army headquarters. The lieutenant assigned Major Bashimbe and two other military to accompany us to Chombe Kilima…” [http://www.bonoboincongo.com/2012/10/22/ambush-by-armed-poachers-in-congo/]
We need to support John and Terese Hart in their mission to protect the three river basins of the Tshuapa, Lomami and Lualaba Rivers (TL2), a faraway enigmatic forest in the geographic heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They have explored this remote forest since 2007 and discovered great apes (the Congo’s bonobos), the okapi, an endemic rainforest giraffe, and the rare and elusive Congo peafowl. Today their challenge is to bring real protection to these forests before the bonobo and everything else are hunted out… and we are left with the “African silence”…
Message from Dr Terese Hart: “The TL2 Project has a budget of $780,000 for 2012. It is a large project that we run efficiently, fairly and transparently. One month ago we were still missing $339,000 for 2012, but because of your generosity and a proposal that was funded we are now only missing less than $99,000. We are encouraged and sure that we will make it through the end of this year and start 2013 at full strength.”