Tag Archives: kahuzi-biega

How losing gorillas and elephants changes an ecosystem – VIDEO

Here’s another of Ian Redmond’s YoG interviews, this time with John Kahekwa at the Kahuzi Biega National Park. The park has lost most of its gorillas and elephants to poaching related to coltan mining and the war which started in 1994, and the absence of their ‘gardening’ activities has led to profound changes in vegetation cover and other ecosystem features.

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Go to www.yog2009.org to find out more about the campaign and how to support.

Ian Redmond – Fish and gorillas

August 28th – Imagine you are an ant watching the ripples of a small mountain stream flowing over pebble – that is how you feel looking at giant standing waves of the Kinsuka Rapids, formed as the smooth wide waters of Stanley Pool squeeze through the narrow exit with tremendous force, en route for the Atlantic at Banana. The Congo River is unlike any other in this regard – instead of broadening into a gentle estuary or delta in its lower reaches, this immense volume of water powers through a deep crack in the rock.   

Shovelling sand near standing waves, Kinsuka Rapids, Kinshasa, DRC, small. Picture Ian Redmond.

In the foreground, battered lorries are being filled with sand by gangs of men with long-handled shovels.  Kinshasa is witnessing a building boom as stability brings investment, and the massive sand-banks are bit by bit being converted into a high-rise city.  I asked my host Melanie if she would like to say something about the links between fish and gorillas, and with the rapids behind her, she gave a great YoG interview.  “Everything that happens in the forests of the Congo Basin ends up in the river” she pointed out, “and if you lose the forests, you lose most of the fish in the river, and also in the in-shore marine fisheries that feed so many people.  So, to save the gorillas, you save the forests… and so save the fish.  It is all connected.”   What better message for the Year of the Gorilla?  

Dr Melanie Stiassny links fish and gorillas, Kinsantu Rapids, DRC side, small. Photo Ian Redmond.

Any study in a little-known habitat is likely to yield species new to science (usually well known to local people but not yet formally described) but I had heard that Melanie had found a fish so unlike any other that it needed not only a new species and genus, but a new Family. But despite jokes about fishermen’s tales, she admitted it was quite a small fish – exciting news for ichthyologists nevertheless.

By chance, one of the ichthyologists’ neighbours turned out to be Inogwabini, one of Congo’s foremost field scientists, now working with WWF.  He gave me a lift into the WWF offices, which conveniently were in the same compound as UNEP, and he also gave a bi-lingual YoG interview.  Ino had taken part in the census of Eastern Lowland Gorillas in the early to mid-1990s which came up with the widely quoted 1996 estimate of 17,000 (+or- 8,000), 86 per cent of whom lived in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and surrounding forests.  One of the big questions hanging over gorilla conservation in the DRC is how many of these animals have survived both the coltan boom at the turn of the century (see http://www.bornfree.org.uk/animals/gorillas/conservation-research/) and the on-going occupation of the lowland sector of the park by armed militias who fight to control the lucrative flow of minerals?  

Inogwabini, Congolese conservationist with WWF, Kinshasa, small. Photo Ian Redmond.

Thanks to the monitoring of 11 gorilla groups in the 600 square km montane sector by ICCN with support from WCS (now aided by a grant from the Spanish Government through GRASP), we know that the number in this relatively well-controlled sector was reduced by half during the conflict, but is recovering.  The lowland sector (ten times bigger) is not yet secure for census work, and the fear is that the decline will be greater than in the montane sector.

Across the Mighty Congo (and even mightier bureaucratic hurdles)

After making the best of these opportunities for meetings and YoG interviews, I tried one more time for an Angolan visa. No luck – if only this honorary Ambassador title came with a diplomatic passport, there’d be no problem and the visas would be free!

Crossing the Congo River by ‘Canoe Rapide’ takes but a few minutes; getting through the various stages of buying a ticket (there are several competing companies), having your bags checked, declaring your currency and avoiding contributing to the daily income of everyone standing within a radius of five metres, while being jostled by muscular stevedores with massive loads on their heads all shouting loudly, can take an hour or more on each side if you don’t have someone to guide you through the ‘protocol’.  It is the sort of busy scene one would love to capture on video, but the mere hint of a camera emerging from bag or pocket would add yet hours to the ‘protocol’ and likely cost an arm and a leg, so you, Gentle Reader, will have to use your imagination!

Speedboat to Brazzaville Beach, small. Photo Ian Redmond.

It was late afternoon by the time I walked out of the warehouses that serve as customs offices on the famous Brazzaville Beach.  My old friend Dr Dieudonné Ankara met me – he is the GRASP Focal Point for the Congo Government and Scientific Advisor for Congo to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), and he was the one who initiated Congo’s proposal to list all gorillas on the CMS Appendix 1 (before that, only Mountain Gorillas were listed), so in a way, the whole Gorilla Agreement and YoG campaign stem from his work.

Taking one of the ubiquitous green taxis that make getting around Brazzaville so easy, we went first to the Wildlife Conservation Society office to meet Dr Trish Reed, a veterinarian working on monitoring ape health who had been at the Entebbe workshop the week before. She had kindly offered the use of a spare room and logistical help for me to get around Congo.  Unfortunately, the timing was wrong – the director of WCS Congo, Paul Telford, was in South Africa with Minister Djombo, seeking investment for Odzala National Park, and no vehicles were heading out to projects. 

It seemed that the chances of my visiting the more remote gorilla habitats in Congo were, well, remote.  Instead, we called the newly appointed Focal Point of the Gorilla Agreement, Mr Florent Ikoli, and he suggested an immediate meeting.   Florent is also the Conservator of the Lésio-Louna Gorilla Reserve where the Projet Protection des Gorilles (PPG) is based.   

PPG is the pioneering collaboration between the UK-based Aspinall Foundation and the Ministry of Economic Forestry, which is rehabilitating confiscated orphan gorillas back into the wild. Its origins go back to the efforts of the late Yvette Leroi, who began rescuing baby gorillas from traders in the 1980s, and who I met on my first visit to Brazzaville in 1989, on an investigation into this trade for  the International Primate Protection League (www.ippl.org).

We drove over to the modest PPG Brazzaville office and I noted the minibus outside, beautifully painted with scenes of forests and gorilla families, clearly used for conservation education.  On the wall inside were posters and leaflets with the equally effective message that ‘baby apes + cash = PRISON’ – with a pair of hand-cuffed wrists to hammer home the point.  This campaign to stop the illegal trade in baby apes is also backed by other GRASP partners (JGI, LAGA and WCS) as well as the Ministry.  It is an essential adjunct to the more widely publicised and photogenic task of caring for the orphans.   To find out more about a related project on Wildlife Law Enforcement (supported by the YoG) for which you can donate through this blog, click here.

Orpans like this one, be they gorillas or chimps, need urgent help. The YoG supports a wildlife law enforcement project. Picture by Ian Redmond.

Florent gave us a brief summary of the success of the reintroduction work: so far eight babies have been born in the wild, and although sadly two have died, this is not considered unusual for first-time mothers (some studies report up to 40 per cent infant mortality in natural gorilla populations).  If all goes well, this disparate group of gorillas (including some born in Kent at Howletts and Port Lympne Zoos) will be the founders of a new free-living population in habitat that hasn’t seen a gorilla in decades.  Moreover, the communities are fully supportive of the project (perhaps now realising the value of what they had lost) and are already beginning to see benefits from the tourism that the gorillas attract.

As for visiting the site, this time I was in luck. Repairs to a project vehicle should be finished by the next morning, so I could get a lift.  And two groups of tourists were expected over the weekend, so a lift back on Sunday seemed likely too. 

My weekend was set, and I would see gorillas in Congo – just not the ones I still yearn to see up north, around Odzala and Nouabali-Ndoki National Parks, wading in and feeding on water plants while elephants and sitatunga stroll by in the bai.  Next time perhaps?

Coming soon:

29th – 31st August – PPG and PALF – Bottle-fed babies and prosecuting the traders

1st – 3rd September – Visa purgatory and visible progress towards LSD bushmeat.

Read Ian’s previous post here!

13th August 2009: Security and sanctuary in South Kivu

Posted (with regrettable delay) on behalf of Ian Redmond.

Today didn’t quite work out as planned.  Early in the morning I bumped into the vice-governor of South Kivu province, Jean Claude Kibala, who I’d met at the Frankfurt Gorilla Conference and who was busy making arrangements for President Kabila, who was visiting Bukavu.  I asked him whether he thought the President would give a message for the Year of the Gorilla.  He thought it quite likely, given the economic importance of gorilla tourism in the region, and said he’d call this evening if it could be arranged.

Ian Redmond.

The Australian Network 7 film crew, minus the producer and me, had already set off early to Kahuzi-Biega National Park HQ to film the morning deployment of rangers and gorilla monitoring teams.  Eleven groups of gorillas are monitored daily in the 600 square kilometre highland sector of the park, despite the dangers of ‘negative forces’ (militias) they may encounter in the forest.  As yet it is too dangerous to have this level of conservation activity in the 10 times bigger lowland sector.  Rebel militias (which effectively means armed bandits) living in the forest need the same equipment as park guards, so attacks on guard posts are all too common.   The producer, Mick O’Donnell, and I intended to visit the Bukavu base of MONUC, the UN Mission in DRC, to check the security situation for Kalehe (where we wanted to film at a mine the next day) then planned to join the crew to film community conservation projects of the Pole Pole Foundation (PoPoF) around the park.  

MONUC is a large, multi-national military operation, and to cut a long story short, we were directed here, there and everywhere by people from Poland, Niger, Pakistan and Egypt without finding the person with whom Mick had been corresponding.   By early afternoon we were out at the airport base talking to a friendly Indonesian officer (who had studied at Monash University in Melbourne so spoke Australian, and came from Sumatra where he had visited orangutans).  Bizarrely, we then found ourselves listening to a conversation in Bahasa as he called his Indonesian colleague in the area of the mine we hoped to film.   Fortunately, all was calm in that area and we got the go-ahead to drive there without the need of a UN escort.  For the first time ever in Africa, I found my self saying ‘terimah kasi’, rather than ‘asante sana’ as we thanked him for his time and called the crew to meet up.

Australian TV presenter Grant Denyer watches Andrea Edwards feeding orphan chimpanzees, Lwiro, DRC. -  Photo Ian Redmond

Frustratingly, the crew by then had finished filming the PoPoF projects and were heading for Lwiro, where a small sanctuary for confiscated primates has been created in recent years.  Although sad to have missed the tree-planting and school children singing, I was delighted to visit Lwiro because it was two years since my last visit and I have both human and non-human friends there.  The Centre for Research in Natural Science in Lwiro is a fascinating place – a large and beautifully constructed complex that now sadly looks rather dilapidated.  It was built during the Belgian colonial period with labs and offices linked by covered walkways with arches, giving a cloister-like feel, as if it was a remote monastery for science.  In recent years CO-OPERA, a Spanish NGO, has formed a partnership with ICCN and PoPoF to co-manage the sanctuary.   ICCN is responsible for all wild animals in DRC and needed somewhere to keep animals confiscated from illegal traders or pet owners.   Lwiro had some old cages and was used as a convenient stop-gap until a proper sanctuary and rehabilitation centre can be built with the aim of eventual return to the wild for any animals fit enough.

Bertin MURHABALE and Jean Jaques BAGALWA, CRSN, Lwiro, DRC - Photo Ian Redmond.

The Oz crew were keen to interview Andrea Edwards, an Australian primate keeper on secondment to Lwiro from Melbourne Zoo. I was equally keen to catch up with Carmen Vidal, a Spanish vet I’d met on my last visit soon after she had arrived to take over running the sanctuary.   I was impressed by the new, bigger cages for the chimpanzees and monkeys (though suggested that weaving some visual barriers out of branches might help the inmates deal with the inevitable ‘cabin fever’ of being locked up together in such a small space).   Carmen had a surprise in store.   A short walk from the building where the new and old cages were, she showed me a new dormitory nearing completion to better house the growing number of chimpanzees – some of whom are now adult.   Excitedly, she explained the plan to enclose two hectares of forest and two hectares of grassy scrub with an electric fence.   “The chimpanzees will be out of their cages by the end of the year!” she said. 

“And is all the funding in place?” I asked.  

Carmen Vidal of the Lwiro Sanctuary, DRC. Photo by Ian Redmond.

“Not quite,” she replied, “we are not yet approved by PASA, and some supporters will not send funds to sanctuaries that are not up to PASA standards, but of course without funds it is hard to make the improvements that are needed to achieve that standard!”

Quickly I grabbed my video camera and asked her to summarise, thinking I’d post her appeal on the Ape Alliance website (there being no confiscated gorillas at Lwiro;  sadly infant gorillas are illegally traded but when confiscated they are kept at a separate facility in the region under the care of specialist gorilla vets).  You can find out more about Lwiro at http://lwiro.blogspot.com/

While the film crew were finishing their interviews, John Kahekwa introduced me to Bertin Murhabale, a primate researcher and Jean Jaques Bagalwa, head of the Biology Department at CRSN,   I had collected a segment of gorilla tapeworm yesterday, and needed to fix it in Formalin.  They took me to see their labs where, on the bench, were piles of bags of gorilla and chimpanzee faecal samples.  Unfortunately, the primatology lab has no microscope or centrifuge, and Jean Jaques admitted that the whole research centre has only one old monocular microscope.  I invited them to give a YoG-Blog interview, which you’ll see once I find a way to upload it (but if you are reading this in a lab with old scientific equipment unused in a cupboard, do get in touch!).

Filming over, we rushed back to Bukavu (well, as fast as one can rush on atrocious roads in the dark), passing in and out of telephone network coverage, still waiting for that important ‘phone call that might add the first Head of State to the YoG Blog interviewees.  But as you might have guessed, the call never came;  maybe another opportunity will arise when I pass through Kinshasa….

Cheers, Ian

Read Ian’s previous post here.

12th August: Arboreal Gorillas and Philosophical Guardians

Posted for YoG Ambassador Ian Redmond.

The excitement was palpable on the drive up to Kahuzi-Biega National Park HQ.  For several of the Australian Network 7 TV crew, this was to be their first gorilla encounter and they had been planning for months and travelling for days to get here. The chief warden had agreed to give an interview, and I wanted to ask him to give the first of my YoG Blog interviews.   Only then would we head into the forest in search of gorillas.

The warden, Mr Radar Nishuli, was ready for us and I guess we expected a typical warden’s interview about the problems of running a World Heritage Site over-run by militias and rebels.  Standing in front of a pile of elephant and gorilla skulls, evidence of bushmeat poaching from the vicinity of the HQ during the war, the camera started rolling.  Radar didn’t disappoint, but it was pretty standard fare until he was asked why he did what he did;  he thought for a moment (English being his fourth language) and explained that he had been working in the park for 25 years and had come to know and admire the gorillas; it would be difficult to express to someone who had not experienced a gorilla encounter but – and he searched for the words – there is something about the way they behave with each other and how they use the forest, “God gave us intelligence and what do we do?  We destroy things.   Gorillas don’t have the intelligence to make cars and guns and things, but they have their families and live in harmony with nature…”   I’m paraphrasing here, but the meaning was so clear and so profound, we were all taken aback by his eloquence.   Afterwards I asked him to summarise what he thought of the UN Year of the Gorilla in the light of what he had said… as soon as I have worked out how to compress a massive HD video file down to a size that can be up-loaded to the internet you’ll see what he said.

Afterwards, I was delighted to greet one of the unsung heroes of gorilla conservation, the venerable old pygmy tracker Pili-Pili.  He began working with the Park’s founder, the late Adrian Deschryver, in the 1960s and although long retired and now showing his age, he still seemed fit – indeed after our chat he began picking weeds off the stone steps to the park visitor centre.   When I asked about his health, he told me he is usually hungry (there being no such thing as a pension scheme) but the weeds he was picking had medicinal value;  I paid him something for his weeding and asked a friend to take my photo with him – I hope someone sits down with him and takes down his oral history, for he has lived an extraordinary life.
Ian Redmond with retired gorilla tracker Pili-Pili, Kahuzi Biega, DRC. Picture by Mick O’Donnell
It was then just a short drive along the road through the park to a trail leading to where the advance party of trackers had already located Chimanuka’s Group.   Perhaps it was because we were so late starting, but the trek was long and it was mid-afternoon before we reached the gorillas.   For the producer’s and presenter’s first gorilla sighting it was pretty impressive – Chimanuka the silverback and several females and young were high up in a Myrianthus tree feeding on fruit.   As we peered upwards and dodged falling fruit, Chimanuka clambered to the main fork and carefully embraced the trunk for a controlled slither down to the ground.   At a leisurely pace the females followed, some finding more acrobatic routes down, and one reaching to a neighbouring tree with a long slender branchless trunk and sliding down like a fireman’s pole (video to follow).   So much for the wildlife books that still talk about gorillas being too heavy to climb trees – they are excellent if careful climbers and do so whenever there is fruit or other food to be had in the canopy.   The group continued travel-feeding on the ground for a while as we struggled behind untangling tripods and buckles from vines and thickets.

The vines are very thick nowadays, it is thought, because of the absence of elephants. As John Kahekwa of the Pole-Pole Foundation explained in my second YoG interview, the vines are now over-running fruit trees, bamboo and other favourite gorilla food-plants.  A few elephants were recently spotted for the first time in a decade, but before the war this part of the park was home to about 350 and it will likely be a long time before numbers recover to the point where the ecological balance is restored.  We can only wait and see how the gorillas cope with this degraded habitat.
Chimanuka, Eastern Lowland Gorilla silverback, Kahuzi Biega National Park. Picture by Ian Redmond.
Eventually the group settled down and the cameraman got some beautiful shots of Chumanuka grooming an infant (silverbacks often babysit with the kids while the females have a quiet nap – very ‘new-man’ in their approach to family life!). John explained that the infant has been named Pili-Pili after the retired tracker.

Soon after the group moved off, searching for food plants, we came across an old antelope trap just where they had passed.   Fortunately, the trigger mechanism had rotted and the pole had no noose on the end, but I cut it with my trusty panga to prevent anyone re-setting it – many young gorillas and chimpanzees have lost hands or even died from gangrene after being caught in these indiscriminate snares.  It highlighted the dangers gorillas still face, even in patrolled areas.  And as Dominique Bikaba, coordinator of PoPoF pointed out, it is also why surrounding communities need to be engaged in the protection of their park – patrols can never cut every trap if there is a constant setting of new ones – we need potential poachers to understand how the rain that waters their crops comes from the forest, and that by protecting it they will get more benefits in the long run.  As we left the park, however, we saw the dangers the local communities face too.   Right where we had left our vehicles we found broken glass and empty brass cartridge cases where only two months ago, a band of ‘negative forces’ (as militias are referred to here) ambushed a lorry.   Ten people died and many others were injured and traumatised.   It is not easy living in such insecurity, but some of my oldest friends continue to protect the gorillas and the forest despite the danger.   Their dedication is an inspiration to me – surely they need our support now more than ever?

Read Ian’s previous post here.

Year of the Gorilla Project – Eastern Lowland Gorilla – Rebuilding Surveillance and Monitoring in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DR Congo

Another of the expert-selected YoG projects – this one focuses on the currently hardest-hit subspecies: the Eastern Lowland Gorilla.

Introduction: The Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) has probably suffered the greatest losses, in relation to its total population, of all gorilla species over the last 10-15 years. War and conflict in eastern DR Congo are to blame for this, as militias invade protected areas making long-term, steady conservation work practically impossible, and the civilian population is forced by hardship to turn to poaching and habitat destruction for firewood.

Chimanuka, an Eastern Lowland Gorilla silverback. Picture by Ian Redmond.

Project summary: The main goals of this important project are to reinstate regular monitoring and effective surveillance of the remaining Eastern Lowland Gorilla population throughout the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in eastern DR Congo, which has been largely inaccessible to researchers and rangers due to instability and the presence of various armed factions in this region. The last reliable data on population size and distribution were recorded in 1995, and it is suspected that the population has shrunk dramatically since. New, precise information will be one outcome of this project, enabling intelligent and effective approaches to the conservation of this rare species.

Implementing partners: Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature with experienced international partners: GTZ (German Development Cooperation), WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature), WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and MGVP (Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project).

Budget: € 283,250 for 12 months

Please support this project, crucial for the survival of the remaining Eastern Lowland Gorillas, by donating.

For all the details, please click here.