Bili-Aketi Field Project Research Update, June 2008
Cleve Hicks

Summary of our work from October 2007 through June 2008:

  1. We have surveyed an additional 12,000 km˛ area on the south side of the Uele River (leading to a total of 30,000 km˛ surveyed on both sides since 2004). We found evidence of a large population of chimpanzees across the region, and also pockets of forest containing okapi, elephants and hippopotamuses.
  2. We have verified the existence of a chimpanzee ‘Mega-culture’ across the 30,000 km˛ area, on both banks of a major river (The Uele), consisting of ground-nesting, snail/termite mound/tortoise-smashing and ant-dipping, but with some interesting subtle regional variations. Further research in the area should provide us with valuable insights on how chimpanzee cultures were spread across time and space prior to the fragmentation of their populations by humans in recent times. In additional, a wider sampling of chimpanzee genetic material has been acquired, which will allow us to test whether or not this cultural homogeneity is matched by genetic homogeneity. Many more hair samples have been collected from ground and tree nests, allowing us to test whether or not there is a sex difference in frequency of ground-nesting.
  3. We have continued to lobby the DRC government to protect the enormously valuable Bili-Uele Game Reserve, one of the last great expanses of wilderness in Africa, from the predations of diamond and gold miners. We have unfortunately documented an enormous and newly-emerging bushmeat trade emanating from the Aketi-Buta-Bambesa area, which threatens to wipe out the largest remaining population of chimpanzees on the planet, probably quite rapidly (detailed below). We have seen 13 chimpanzee orphans and 5 carcasses in 7 months, in addition to 2 okapi skins and dozens of dead monkeys (this should be compared to no observations of chimpanzee orphans or meat during my 1.5 years at Bili). This meat trade is quite clearly tied to the diamond and gold mining industries centered on the town of Buta, and will no doubt spread to Bili with the new wave of gold miners (indeed, a traveling merchant told me that he bought a chimp orphan near Chief Zelesi’s house in February 2008, and we also have evidence that Buta gold merchants are again shipping large loads of ivory out of the area). I have also photographed documents sold to chimpanzee-traffickers by local Congolese officials allowing them to keep and sell orphan apes. Despite all of this, in my estimation it is not too late to protect the Bili chimpanzees, if action is taken now.
  4. There are certain areas in the Buta/Aketi area (in particular Liguga, Kulu and Bongenge) that have much potential not only for conservation and research, but for tourism as well. Liguga in particular offers friendly people, beautiful waterfalls, easy transport on the Uele River, a nearby airstrip, and abundant fauna such as ground-nesting chimpanzees, okapi and hippopotamuses. Its proximity to Buta may be good (ie. less lawless and easier to protect if the will is there), but also bad (ie. hunters from Buta wiped out all elephants about 15 years ago). Elephants can be found at Bongenge, Mbange and Kulu, while okapis are still abundant at Mbange, Kulu and Liguga. Chimpanzees are found everywhere except in close proximity to major towns such as Aketi and Buta (UPDATE: our June survey to Yoko revealed chimpanzee nests within 25 km of the town of Aketi, but elephants have been completely eliminated from the area within the last 15 years).
    The following is a list of the areas which we have surveyed, and their pluses and minuses for conservation, research and possibly tourism.



NORTH OF THE UELE RIVER:

ZAPAY (N 04 56 965 E 025 13 434):

POSITIVE POINTS: Chimpanzees are still abundant in the region, right up to the CAR border, as well as buffalo and bongo.
NEGATIVE POINTS: All of the Zapay elephants were wiped out several decades ago (and they are currently being finished off in the Dume Region to the SW – Jeroen Swinkels encountered a caravan carrying out elephant meat in late 2006, near Dume). Soldiers from across the border in CAR have easy access to these forests and are actively shipping out chimpanzees (we encountered an orphan offered for sale in December 2007). The Mbororo are also moving into the area, and, in the days when TWWF was buying coffee from them, the local chiefs showed themselves to be completely unreliable and incapable of protecting their fauna.

BILI / GANGU (N 04 19 362 E 024 41 577):

POSITIVE POINTS:
Until recently, Bili remained very isolated. As of 2007, it still had abundant elephants, chimpanzees, bongo, lions and hyenas. The Gangu Forest, protected on paper as part of the Bili-Uere Hunting Reserve, is a pristine wilderness, absent of humans and full of elephants and naďve, ground-nesting chimpanzees. No chimpanzee orphans were seen in the area between August 2004 and February 2007 (although 3 had been confiscated in the Bili-Api region prior to my arrival in August 2004). The low human population density and lack of a serious commercial bushmeat trade mean that the fauna can be protected with very little investment. Bili is also rather famous thanks to ‘The Bili Apes’, which may aid in efforts to protect the area.
NEGATIVE POINTS: The isolation of Bili means that it is a relatively lawless area, and that even if the DRC government wants to protect the reserve, it will be very difficult to do so without lots of ‘encouragement’. The proximity of Bili to the CAR border makes it easy for armed gangs of poachers to enter the country, smuggle out ivory and then flee into CAR. In addition, at least during my time at Bili, the authorities, both local and federal, were extremely corrupt, unfriendly to research and unappreciative of our community conservation efforts. Unfortunately, in 2007 the local chiefs opened the area to illegal gold mining, and until the DRC government acts to protect the reserve, it is pretty much off-limits for conservation and research.

There is strong evidence that the chiefs have now abandoned all pretense of protecting their fauna, and we have had reports of chimpanzee orphans and ivory being shipped out of the forest along with the gold. However, there is also evidence that the local population is suffering from the loss of income from the TWWF coffee project, and is becoming resentful of the actions of their chiefs. There is also currently talk of military action to protect Bili, but we must wait and see if this actually materializes.

SOUTH OF THE UELE RIVER

KULU (N 03 36 924 E 023 49 266) and LINGO (N 03 27 939 E 023 31 131):

POSITIVE POINTS:
Despite its close proximity to the gold mining town of Bondo on the opposite side of the Uele River, we observed that the forest NE of Kulu still has a relatively large number of elephants and okapis. I am told that hippos are also abundant in the Uele River approx. 20 km N. The locals tell me that there are stiff penalties for killing elephants and okapis here, and that these laws are enforced by the police. Chimpanzees are also present in modest numbers and make ground nests (implying a relative lack of hunting pressure). 30 km W, at Lingo, chimpanzees are even more abundant but are also heavily poached and make no ground nests. There are no okapis in the Lingo forest, but elephants are found in small numbers in the forest to the N of the road.
NEGATIVE POINTS: but elephants are found in small numbers in the forest to the N of the road.
NEGATIVE POINTS: The area is not officially protected. There are numerous gold mines in operation around Kulu, and a very large one to the N of Lingo. Hunting seems to be focused on monkeys at the moment, but we confiscated a chimpanzee orphan at nearby Likati, and it seems that the authorities fail to place the same importance on protecting chimpanzees as they do on okapis and elephants.

MBANGE E (N 03 11 675 E 024 10 756) AND MBANGE W (N 03 10 141 E 024 02 893):

POSITIVE POINTS:
Mbange Forest still guards large numbers of elephants, okapis and chimpanzees, and evidence of Nile crocodiles and buffalos was seen along the Likati River. The local authorities in Dulia, concerned by our reports of seeing okapi snares in the forest and chimpanzee meat in the market (see below) responded by raiding an okapi-hunting camp in January, cutting snares and confiscating an okapi skin; I also observed the ATAR lecturing the local bushmeat venders to cease selling chimpanzee meat at the market. The proximity of Mbange Forest to the Rubi-Tele Game Reserve and its large numbers of elephants and okapis give this area conservation potential, despite very heavy hunting and snaring pressure.
NEGATIVE POINTS:The presence of 2 large and not-quite-abandoned gold mines in the forest E of Mbange has clearly had a nefarious effect on the local wildlife. During our survey, chimpanzees proved to be elusive and were apparently not very numerous, and they did not make ground nests even at a distance from the road. We found a 2.5 m high okapi trap, as well as a hunting camp full of heavy-duty wire snares intended for okapis. It was in this forest that we had a grey-cheeked mangabey shot out of a tree over our heads. Merchants from Dulia and even Buta regularly visit this forest to hunt, and our team found chimpanzee meat openly for sale in nearby Dulia.
In the forest W of Mbange, across the Likati River, we found an enormous number of wire snares. There were very few traces of okapis and elephants. The chimpanzees were very elusive and never nested on the ground. In all, this was a very degraded and heavily-poached forest.

AKETI (N 02 44 024 E 023 47 276) / AKUMA (N 02 33 957 E 023 55 107) / YOKO (approx. 50 km SE of Aketi):

POSITIVE POINTS:
As our current base of operations, Aketi is a friendly area and we have received very little harassment by officials compared to at Bili. TWWF representative Michel Mokede and our local assistant Polycarpe are from the region and have a great deal of power and a large number of contacts here. Chimpanzees are apparently abundant in the forests of Yoko to the S, as Polycarpe confirmed on a survey in September 2007. A 6-day mission to the Akuma Forest area in June 2008 revealed a surprisingly large number of chimpanzee nests to within 25 km SE of Aketi. Further from the town, we found ground nests as well as the same chimpanzee culture as is found at Bili.
NEGATIVE POINTS:Apparently the forests of Yoko are under a massive assault by poachers from the neighboring collectivity of Basoko. According to Polycarpe, the elephants of Yoko have been nearly exterminated, and chimpanzees are frequently hunted using dogs. Sadly, we have seen 3 chimpanzee orphans in Aketi, and confirmed 4 cases of chimpanzee meat being consumed by villagers (this meat is sold openly at the market). A long-term chimpanzee research project here is out of the question, until we can somehow put the protection of this species on the radar of the local government. Elephants and okapis were exterminated from the area surrounding Aketi about a decade ago, according to Polycarpe.

On our 6-day survey of the Akuma Forest in June 2008, we found no evidence of elephants except for dozens of ancient elephant pit traps scattered throughout the forest. According to locals, elephants were eliminated from the area by invading Bangalema poachers about 15 years ago. We were told that they are still found further SE in the heart of the Yoko Forest. We found no evidence of okapis, buffalo or any other large mammals other than chimpanzees.

LIGUGA (N 03 21 067 E 024 58 182):

POSITIVE POINTS:
Of all the regions that we have surveyed south of the Uele, I think that this area offers the most potential for research, conservation and even tourism. Liguga boasts friendly people, beautiful waterfalls, easy transport on the Uele River, a nearby airstrip, and abundant fauna such as ground-nesting chimpanzees, okapis and hippopotamuses. Its proximity to Buta may be good (ie. less lawless than Bili and easier to protect if the will is there), but also bad (ie. people from Buta wiped out all of Liguga’s elephants about 15 years ago). The local chiefs are very friendly and enthusiastic to preserve the health of their river and forest, and no poaching evidence of any kind was found in our forest survey. I am told that this is because the locals are fisherfolk and have very little interest in hunting. The chimpanzees here make more ground nests (28% of all nests) than even at Gangu, indicating low hunting pressure. We are told that elephants are still found in the nearby forests of Agameto and across the Uele River, and they may be induced to return if the area is officially protected.
NEGATIVE POINTS: In addition to not being officially protected, this forest is within 100 km of Buta, and thus vulnerable to commercial poachers (it was apparently Buta people who wiped out/chased off the elephants a decade out). I was also told of a major bushmeat road approx. 50 km to the W of Liguga.

BAMBESA (N 03 26 257 E 025 48 125)/ BONGENGE (N 03 14 194 E 025 52 065) / LEBO (N 03 30 410 E 025 23 632):

POSITIVE POINTS:
As at Liguga, we found a large number of hippopotamuses along this stretch of the Uele River, as well as an abundant number of chimpanzees in all but the most densely-peopled areas. The tourism potential in this region is second only to Liguga, thanks to the beautiful and easily-navigable Uele River. The locals are very friendly and the officials eager to help us. Although the forests near the towns and road are heavily degraded, with an absence of elephants and the chimpanzees just barely hanging on, the forest of Bongenge in particular is near-pristine, with ground-nesting chimpanzees and a large number of elephants. Near Lebo, approx. 50 km W, chimpanzees are numerous and even make their nests within 15 m of the road!
NEGATIVE POINTS:Chimpanzees are hunted here and the orphans are frequently sold by traffickers. Over the course of our visit, we found an orphan at Titule (the ‘owner’ showed us his official papers, signed by local authorities in Andoma, authorizing his buying, keeping and selling of the baby) and another near Bambesa, which we confiscated with the help of the local chiefs. Farming takes priority over mining here; thus there is increasing resentment shown by farmers towards hippopotamuses, baboons and red river hogs for crop-raiding. However, the area seems to remain less heavily-penetrated by the commercial bushmeat trade than the Buta/Aketi region.

Okapi are not found here at all (it is unclear if they were ever here), and elephants were mostly exterminated years ago (except for in the Bongenge Forest by the Bima River). Even the sizeable elephant population at Bongenge was recently targeted by a poaching police officer from Bambesa, we were told.