This is the third installment of a series of posts from Dr. Cleve Hicks. Cleve did his PhD research in the DRC studying chimps in the Bili Forest. Read Part 1 of this story and Part 2 first! (To add some context to the story, look at the map of the “Bushmeat Highway” here).
Our stay in Titule was prolonged an extra day due to an illness suffered by one of our Ecoguards. Fortunately we were able to sleep at the house of my old friend Chief Mangay of Lebo. Upon departing from Titule, we veered north towards Bili, crossing the mighty Uele River on pirogues. Villagers on the south bank of the Uele proudly showed us a large eagle they had captured from its nest. On the north bank of the river, we left behind the continuous cover of forest to the south and entered into savannah / forest mosaic territory. This road was, as it had been in 2006, much less heavily trafficked than the roads to the south of the Uele. Not only did we see no monkey or duiker carcasses or monkey orphans, but just to the north of the Uele we got of first glimpse of free-living monkeys in the trees above the road: a black and white colobus and a bit further along a tree-full of chittering red-tailed guenons. Lukuru researchers Ephrem Mpaka and Gilbert Paluku had noticed the same pattern (no monkey or duiker meat) on their trip from Buta to Bili two days earlier. This was encouraging, but there were also signs that times and circumstances were changing. In the north bank riverside town of Lisala, as we stopped to snack on binyes (simple concoctions of flour, sugar, and palm oil), we were confronted with a bustling herd of long-horned cattle, about 15 in number, munching on bamboo and riverside herbs. They were being herded by local Congolese, whom we were told had recently bought them from Mbororo herders to the north. We watched the bovines munch their way through the roadside forest and the lush vegetation lining the Uele River. Are these cattle destined to replace the abundant hippopotamuses that forage under the cover of night along the river’s edge?
A large herd of cattle purchased by local Congolese from Mbororo herders, on the north bank of the Uele River, Lisala.
Cattle feasting on bamboo at the forest edge.
Further to the north, in the shadow of a collapsed bridge across the Api River, we were told by a local man that Mbororo herders were massed just 30 km away from us, with tens of thousands of cattle ready to sweep across the savannahs. In their wake, he claimed, sometimes travelled child soldiers of the dreaded Lord’s Resistance Army (although according to him, the two groups were not friends). Later, as we travelled north, we would hear from a number of Azande that the Mbororo would frequently raid their fields for crops, leading to pitched battles. Such observations reinforced my impression of an inherent contradiction in the policy of the authorities of Northern DRC. Government officials were both sending military to confront Mbororo herders but at the same time buying cattle from them. Where this will lead is impossible to say.
Sadly, although commerce in monkeys and duikers seemed to be much less common in this region, as was the case at Bili 5 years ago, we did hear the distressing news that the traditional chief of Lisala was keeping an orphan chimpanzee at his house about 1 km north of the Uele River. In the past, we had received a number of reports of orphan chimpanzees having been captured from this narrow belt along the north bank of the Uele River. Henri and I paid the chief a visit. Henri carefully explained the ICCN mission and asked the chief if we could see the orphan. He sent someone up to his house, and in a few minutes we heard a shrill, near-human scream. Shortly after, we watched as a tiny infant chimpanzee was dragged down to the paillote on a leash. I readied my camera and began taking photos as the orphan was placed onto a bamboo pole beneath the chief’s paillote.
On my previous mission south of the Uele River I had looked into the desperate eyes of over 35 orphan chimpanzees, but one never really gets used to the shock of it—the unimaginable sense of loss and helplessness registered in those haunted, searching brown eyes. Although in the past we had been able to save a number of the orphans we had encountered on our travels, today there was nothing I could do for Lisala, only photograph him as he raised his eyes skyward and emitted a plaintive pant-hoot to which he will never hear a response.
Henri got the story of Lisala’s capture from the chief: about two months ago, in the forest about a two hours’ walk east from the town, a group of local bow-hunters came across a party of chimpanzees. According to the chief, the apes fled in terror, abandoning the baby for the hunters to capture. This is often the story given, but I find it extremely unlikely that a mother chimpanzee would desert her baby. Far more likely, she was shot for bushmeat, which the chief would not want to admit to the ICCN. Indeed, Lisala had a vivid red bruise on his right brow ridge, possibly acquired when he tumbled out of the trees clutching onto his dying mother.
Lisala the orphan chimpanzee, kept by a traditional chief just north of the Uele River.
The hunters presented the baby as a gift to the chief. Now the chief wanted cigarettes and / or money from us for the privilege of seeing his baby chimpanzee. We politely deferred, of course, and went into our standard speech about the danger of keeping chimpanzees as a pets, and the damage that such a practice inflicts on populations of free-living apes. As we left his parcel, the chief called out after us in Lingala as a parting shot: ‘Ezali mabe te – ey ko batela mboka ya mokondji!’ (It isn’t a bad thing – he will guard the chief’s village!’).
As we sped northwards on our motorbikes, I was left with a heavy heart. There are only a limited number of times that this tragic situation can repeat itself before the African forests will be emptied of our closest evolutionary cousins. We have little time left to come up with a solution.
What can we do to keep this tragedy from repeating itself over and over again?
A few hours and a couple of motorbike breakdowns later, near sunset, we crossed into the hinterlands of Bili, 12 km south of the town center. We stopped to stretch our sore backs and munch on some soft pink peanuts offered us by a friendly villager. A tiny and rather brazen kitten approached us and made fast friends with Karsten. We wondered what awaited us in the frontier town just over the horizon. The last time I set foot in Bili was over five years ago. Although at that time bushmeat was certainly consumed locally, there was little evidence that, with the exception of ivory, it had become linked to the commercial trade networks proliferating rapidly to the south. But will the situation remain the same in 2012? We shall see…
The outskirts of Bili at sunset.
Also by Dr. Cleve Hicks, The FARDC ‘Petting Zoo’ at Bili
This mission was made possible by the generous support of the Max Planck institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, The Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation, The US Fish and Wildlife Service, l’ Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature, The Lucie Burgers Foundation, and The African Wildife Foundation.