Bili Coffee Project:

4th Update – June 2004
By Jason Meir and Richard Carmichael

Elephant Surveys
For a number of reasons the elephant survey we wanted to carry out in the Bili region did not proceed as well as we had hoped. Before leaving UK, I (Richard) had planned to do a survey based on dividing the area into high, medium and low elephant-density ‘strips’. The data could then be analysed using the ‘ELEPHANT’ and ‘DISTANCE’ software programs to get figures for the elephant density, calculated from the density of dung along with rates of defecation and speed of decay of collected dung specimens. However it soon became clear that the large area and limited manpower and resources would make this unfeasible and so we merely carried out a general reconnaissance of the area.

The surveys were further delayed because it was an unusually dry season this February, and there is little known about where elephants go when it is this dry. There was in fact such a scarcity of water, that elephants were difficult to find at all. I therefore decided to follow river beds which should have water in them rather than ‘strips’ of country.

Our first training and field trip base camp was near Nambale. As the elephants would be near the remaining water sources at the far away Gangu River, this first trip to collect elephant dung took longer than planned. When we reached the Gangu River even the experienced trackers were surprised to see that it was dry and totally devoid of elephants. During one two-day period on this trip we even had problems finding adequate water for drinking and cooking.

In all we did two trips of a week to 10 days in the Sasa, Boso and Gbiamange regions, as well as a trip to a well-known salt-lick site with multi-coloured clay by the banks of the river Bili near Nambia. Some dung piles were filmed and GPS points taken but as we were merely reconnoitring and keeping largely to trackers’ and elephant trails it was difficult to measure the distance between dung pile and path walked. We saw and filmed elephants on only one trip, Futiyo in Boso. Other signs of elephants were filmed: tracks, tusk gouge marks in clay and marks on trees, but it will not be possible to calculate elephant densities from these surveys.

Other wildlife seen in the bush
I saw surprisingly little wildlife: Baboons (three times, near a road); hippo (once, Bili river); large antelope (4 times); bush pig (once); monitor lizard (once); various birds large and small; monkeys (4 times); pangolin (one, dead); tree hyraxes (heard only); snakes (small). Tracks seen: lion, hyena, crocodile, hippo (many along Bili River), otter (?) and aardvark burrows (I think). The trackers do not know many species names in French and are poor at describing animal species.

Confiscated Chimps
During our three months stay in Bili, three chimpanzees were confiscated, two in the first week of February in Bili, one in the first week of May in the village of Mbibili, Ango Territory. We consider this an achievement both in terms of being good for the chimps themselves and in so far as it showed the chiefs and people that the laws protecting chimps will be enforced. The parents of all these chimps had been killed. One chimp had had its teeth knocked out for amusement, one had been stabbed in one eye and is now blind in that eye because it took food (not surprising, since it had not been fed properly) and the third had lice, picked up from the people that kept it.

The chimps confiscated early on were about two and five years old and they did well at camp. The smaller of the two appeared to be in poor health and was thin but both improved quickly, put on weight, and increasingly got along well with each other as their fighting gradually became more playful. The third chimp, about one year old, was already getting along fine with the others after just a few minutes. It is good that these three chimpanzees can now live out the rest of their lives in the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia, were they will be taken to, but it would have been much better if they could have just stayed in the forest as they were supposed to. I (Jason) also saw many relatively new chimpanzee skulls including one that was killed in Boso in January 2004, right before we started to buy coffee in that area.

This aspect of my time in Bili was very frustrating, depressing, angering, as I have lived and worked with chimpanzees for the past several years. It was not a good feeling to see people breaking their own laws without being able to do much about it and to watch government officials and chiefs do nothing about it at all. All three of these chimpanzees were known to exist by various chiefs, none of whom did anything to rectify the situation even though they agreed to stop this kind of thing in the convention they signed. We were even confronted by people demanding money or threatening us when the chimpanzees were confiscated and never were any of the hunters or owners prosecuted or jailed.

I (Richard) tried to get some good footage of the three confiscated chimps but found it difficult to film interesting chimp behaviour, for various reasons: I had other priorities; the harsh daytime light creates deep shadows; the chimps tend to stop what they’re doing and come over to inspect the camera; the speed with which they change activities means they rarely do one thing long enough to be filmed. Although I was unable to film it, on two occasions I saw the two year old chimp walking around holding a butterfly delicately between its lips. Other interesting behaviour in the wild, seen by trackers over the years, includes catching fish (in pools left in the dry season) and the use of Safari Ant-fishing sticks.

The trade in bushmeat does not yet appear to have been reduced. For example, both the chief of Doruma and a man who used to sell in the Nabiapay market explained that guns and ammunition are readily available for a small price and that elephant and chimpanzee meat, along with ivory, is sold at the weekly Saturday market. The refugee camp near Doruma also creates its share of problems. The chief of Doruma as well as the Sudanese refugees confirmed that they too hunt, that chimpanzee meat is often available for sale in the camp, and that there had been a captive chimpanzee in one of the refugee houses that was knowingly taken to Sudan. The chief of Doruma also said the refugees put battery acid in the rivers to kill fish that are later sold or eaten, and the same is done with larger animals in the salines and salt licks, the acid poisoning the ground so the animals collapse and can be killed and eaten. There also needs to be continued action to discover more about the European woman involved in cross-border trading in chimpanzees. It is bad enough when people ignorant of the laws do it, but one can assume she knew full well it was illegal.

I (Richard) was given a total of about 30 names of people involved in poaching, which is rather demoralising, especially when I know of no single poacher who has been convicted and is serving time in prison. Local officials have to learn to be much more active in doing something about poaching. A major stumbling block is that they say they do not want soldiers acting as official ‘eco-guards’ to come in, yet are very reluctant to accept the responsibility for mounting anti-poaching operations within the population. Much is made of the risk to life and limb and of the need for the Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation to pay extra for anti-poaching activities. It needs hammering home that it is a normal responsibility of officials to protect the animals and their people from poachers without any extra payment from TWWF. The guaranteed sale of their coffee is the extra encouragement (they repeatedly forget about TWWF’s coffee buying commitment).

Perhaps some combination of an organised local campaign of operations plus trained eco-guards would be worth trying. There can be problems of locally-recruited eco-guards not enforcing the laws on people they know, but there are people who would do the job well. One we met was Palagako who would be very interested in working as an eco-guard. And Mr. Damar, though not honest about his heavy involvement in elephant poaching and ivory dealing in the (possibly recent) past, claims that he now wants to and can put a stop to it. He would like a permanent position running the anti-poaching operations. He knows many poachers in the Gbiamange and especially the Boso and Gama areas and also has the confidence to deal with officials as well as dangerous situations. He was very concerned in the beginning that people should not know that he was now working to go after poachers, but people seem to have guessed and he was less concerned by the time we left. Mr Damar’s colleague, Lieutenant Theo and his ten soldiers are available in Bondo, and are ready and willing to do anti-poaching work. I believe it was Lt. Theo who sent soldiers to arrest the poacher Captain Gbeganga, who I last heard is still detained in Buta.

Another person who might be useful would be Josafat, the Commandant de Police at Bondo. He came with us to confiscate the last chimp in May, seems to have a very decent and co-operative nature and speaks pretty good English. The Commandant de Police at Zapay (called John) is also brave and smart enough to go after poachers (he is the one who caught Sodio and his group).

A survey to measure local awareness of TWWF’s anti-bushmeat program has revealed some useful if not wholly encouraging information. The awareness of the coffee buying project and its aims was reasonable except in Sasa where the chief had obviously not talked to his subjects. The awareness of the responsibilities and obligations of people involved, however, was low everywhere. Attitudes towards elephants and chimps were more negative than positive. Elephants were commonly seen in terms of their dollar value and chimps as being dangerous. Having a good attitude towards a chimp seems to hinge on knowing the individual animal and does not necessarily transfer to wild chimps. Women and children often seem to be afraid and/or enjoy pretending to be afraid of chimps, which leads to teasing, even baby, chimps. People treat them badly and in the end, as the chimps become difficult, often think it’s acceptable to just kill them. One of the problems is paternalism. The chiefs themselves (even the system of chiefs and subjects) keep the people in a child-like state of ignorance, preventing them from taking responsibility for things themselves. Clearly education has a long way to go.

Logistics and Health
Finding enough water on trips in the bush was a potentially serious health issue. But even the water in the well-hole near the camp ran dry for a month or so and we had to organise delivery of water from the village 9 km. away. Though not very expensive, delivery from the village was not always reliable. Relations with this village were generally good though.

The two biggest factors limiting me (Jason) were my language abilities and my health. I was able to learn quite a bit of Lingala and French, although my French is terrible. Towards the end I could communicate effectively with a mixture of Lingala and French. I am going to try to focus on Lingala as it is simpler in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary. I can do little to improve my health. I had many days with backache or headache or general fatigue and would just have to put up with them, even having to walk many kilometres or ride the motorcycle for hours. The worms in the skin and the insects in the feet were not major problems and once I was aware of them they were easily avoided. I had no serious illnesses: a fever/vomiting once and many insect bites (mainly bees). The Tumbu Fly maggots were the worst, of which I had a few, two of which got badly infected and needed antibiotics. It seems to be worst in camp and the chimps had quite a few (about five each which got very big before the larvae came out), though they did not develop abscesses.

There have been some improvements to the camp carried out this year: the toilet and shower enclosures were re-built in bamboo; the dining hut got a new leaf roof and storage shelves were added under the eaves and inside, with ‘chimp-proof’ closeable cabinet doors. There is now also a large flat rack for drying clothes/laundry at midday (when it should be safe from Tumbu Flies).

The Sony laptop ran down very quickly so needs to be changed for a more energy-efficient model. The smaller, hand-held Satellite phone (Thuraya) with a folding solar panel is also by far the best model for use there. Lots of spare fuses would also be useful (for AC-DC inverter). A good water filter with a high flow rate is essential.

The Future: Coffee and/or Eco-Guards?
Purchasing coffee does help out a large portion of the population and me (Jason) feel that is our best wildlife preservation tool and gives us more leverage on the people than anything else. TWWF bought coffee from more than 1000 people, all of whom benefited directly. Also all our workers and the workers employed on the plantations received payment. There is nothing wrong with the basic idea and the actual process of buying and transporting the coffee, although it could be made more time efficient and cost effective. Generally most sellers are accommodated and get a chance to sell their coffee.

However, in my opinion, the coffee project has so far failed to produce the results and benefits to the wildlife for which it was originally designed. I believe that there are many people with coffee who were unable to sell it or really profit from it in any way, with some admitting that they have had to turn to poaching as they have lost their income from coffee. It was hoped that the benefits of selling their coffee would make the population want to do all they could to stop poaching. During the time I was in Bili, this was definitely not happening. The government officials, chiefs, missionaries, and foreigners living in Bili were all either neutral or negative as far as their work and involvement with the coffee project is concerned. There were many times when agreements were knowingly breached and no one in Bili wanted to correct the problems or even acknowledge that they either were or could be in the wrong. This goes as far as blatant corruption by government officials and chiefs, to elephants being killed, orphaned chimpanzees being kept in the protected area (with the chief allowing one to stay just a few meters from his house for approximately six months) and illegal weapons being given by the police commander to known poachers. For whatever reason, the people in Bili with whom we most often have to deal and have agreements with see the coffee not as a benefit to them or their community, but as a tool to blackmail us into doing what they want, whether their demands are logical or not.

How do we feel TWWF might best proceed in the future? To stop the coffee buying project completely would be the least desirable of all the options. There are some good local workers and there has been some progress in preventing poaching or at least making it more difficult. However there are still major problems that will not be solved without some change in tactics. Might using the funds currently spent on buying coffee for other purposes, such as creating eco-guards, be of more benefit to the wildlife in preventing the population trading in bushmeat?

What TWWF has decided is to develop a program of ‘correction, education and enforcement’ by combining a moratorium on buying coffee during the 2005 season with an intensive communications program and the establishment of a team of eco-guards.

Whilst suspending coffee buying in 2005 may lead to an ‘open season’ on all wildlife, it would give the villagers the motivation to improve the situation. It needs to be clearly explained that the cessation of coffee buying is the direct result of the on-going poaching and that buying will not resume if the poaching situation and lack of co-operation by villagers and their officials does not improve. Specifically the communications program will need to make it clear to the entire population that the coffee will not be bought in 2005 and what conditions have to be fulfilled in order for TWWF to resume buying in 2006. It will:

  • underline how the project has been benefiting the area;
  • point out that TWWF will not offer the added benefits (e.g. the purchase of other crops or the bringing in of other merchandise);
  • provide information about the decline in elephant population (people still think there are vast numbers);
  • explain that TWWF is merely supporting national laws not making new demands - the hunting restrictions were set up by their own government;
  • point out that instead of eating/trading in bushmeat they need to raise their own livestock;
  • encourage them to continue to grow or collect wild coffee for sale in 2006;
  • emphasize, however, that the project will stop completely if poaching continues.
The eco-guards will be trained to enforce the local hunting laws and to fight the often well-armed elephant poachers, thus constituting a direct effort to protect the animals in the area. This would probably do more to reach the wildlife protection goals than merely buying the coffee and relying on the chiefs and population to monitor themselves, though we anticipate that the combination program will prove to be the best bet.