Between 2004 and 2007, I was privileged to have the opportunity to explore one of the last great wildernesses in central Africa, the savannas and forests around Bili, in the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (The DRC). Deep in the Gangu Forest I was able to observe, photograph and film chimpanzees who showed little fear of humans; who slept on the ground despite an abundance of big predators like lions, hyenas and leopards; who smashed open snails and termite mounds on tree buttress anvils; and who used 2.5 m long sticks to dip for fiercely-biting driver ants.
Elephants traveled along the banks of the Gangu River in great herds. I worked with Azande trackers to follow and film the chimpanzees and other wildlife; among the people of the Earth, the Azande strike me as having one of the lightest ecological ‘footprints’. Their use of the Gangu Forest was mostly limited to dam-fishing by hand; no poles or lures are necessary.
In later explorations, we found that the chimpanzees’ material culture (consisting of frequent construction of ground nests and leaf cushions, ant-dipping, snail, termite mound and turtle-smashing, and a failure to fish for termites in the way of their cousins at Gombe and elsewhere) was spread across an enormous area: a bare minimum of 35,000 km sq. The existence of this ‘mega-culture’ suggests to me that the chimpanzees in the region have been free for millennia to spread their memes from one community to the next across vast tracts of forest and woodland, apparently little-impeded by the actions of Homo sapiens.
Tragically, the Bili-Uele chimpanzees and their unique culture, along with many other rare and endangered species, are now under imminent threat of destruction by the rapidly-emerging commercial bushmeat trade that is sweeping across the northern DRC. This illegal commerce is intimately linked to the expanding artisanal mining industry, which is radiating outwards from the town of Buta into previously untouched forests and savannas (one of these mining enterprises is called ‘Le Juif Noir,’ or ‘The Black Jew’).
Irreparable damage caused to ecosystem
The Bili area was invaded by thousands of gold miners in June of 2007; our research and conservation project there came to a quick end. Heavily-armed commercial poachers have already cut a swath of destruction through the okapi, elephant and chimpanzee-rich forests of the Rubi-Télé Domain de Chasse to the immediate south of Buta. There is little doubt that, as we speak, irreparable damage is being visited upon the Bili ecosystem following the gold miners’ invasion.
Since then, we have conducted a survey of forests 200 km south of Bili. The news there is grim. Between September 2007 and November 2008, we encountered 34 chimpanzee orphans and 31 carcasses for sale in the Buta/Aketi/Bambesa area. My colleagues Laura Darby and Adam Singh have seen another seven orphans and two carcasses since.
Over the past year and a half, we confiscated five chimpanzee orphans and cared for them in a refuge just outside of the town of Aketi. On March 31, they were flown to the Lwiro Sanctuary in eastern DRC. It needs to be stressed that in no case did we ever pay money or give gifts in exchange for chimpanzee orphans, as this would only drive the trade and sentence more apes to death!
Photo: Cleve Hicks
In addition, we have documented the ivory or meat of 13 elephants, 10 okapi skins, nine leopard pelts, meat and skin from two hippopotamuses and hundreds of monkey carcasses and orphans. Okapi skins are being used to make the backs of chairs and elephant ears to make church drums. In contrast, during my one and a half years of work at Bili, although we did see a small quantity of ivory and elephant meat, we saw no chimpanzee meat or orphans. Unfortunately, in 2008 we received reports of chimpanzee orphans as well as a greater quantity of ivory being shipped out of the forests of Bili. The slaughter is clearly spreading with the gold miners.
Hunted down with poison arrows
In the forests near Buta and Aketi, chimpanzees who, until about 15 years ago, must have lived in relative peace with their human neighbors are now being pursued relentlessly through the forest by poachers with large packs of dogs. Although the apes are often killed with shotguns, the preferred weapon of choice seems to be the crossbow with poison arrows. The silence of this traditional weapon allows hunters to kill entire parties of chimpanzees without alerting them to their presence. Fearsome 2.5 m high ‘bomb’ traps, made of wire and intended to snare everything from yellow-backed duikers to okapis, pose a serious danger for chimpanzees as well.
Traditionally Azande and Babenza women refused to eat chimpanzee meat. The Barisi people did not eat chimpanzees due to a belief that chimpanzees and humans were related. These taboos are breaking down rapidly under the onslaught of commercialism.
Local informants have named several factors that have led to the recent escalated slaughter of chimpanzees and other wildlife: the expanding mining industry (bringing with it a large number of immigrants), societal devastation and a lack of jobs following the civil war, the falling price of coffee and other crops on the world market, and the spread of a sect of Christianity called Brahnamism (according to my sources, these followers of the American ‘prophet’ William Brahnam are encouraged to ‘eat all of God’s creatures’).
Photo: Cleve Hicks
Those orphan chimpanzees who survive the deaths of their mothers suffer a worse fate - wasting away of illness and malnutrition, treated as disposable playthings to be cooked once they become too big and strong to be kept. Many are rushed on motorbike to Kisangani or Bumba, where they can be sent down the Congo River for sale in Kinshasa. They are kept as pets by a wide range of people, including peasant farmers, government officials, Catholic bishops, commercial traders and wealthy businessmen.
Little time left before it's too late
The chimpanzee orphans that we have found have been generally kept in abysmal conditions: tied to short ropes, sitting alone in the dirt and sometimes with their front teeth knocked out to prevent biting. In one case, we found a hunter and an orphan chimpanzee with massive festering wounds, on the heel and arm respectively. The hunter explained what had happened: after his companion had shot the orphan’s mother out of a tree, he had moved in with a machete to finish her off. Instead, he struck her baby in the arm; the dying mother sank her teeth into his heel before expiring.
It is hard to think of a better path for the exchange of diseases between chimpanzees and humans (as happened with AIDS in Western Africa decades ago). Local Congolese officials seem to be completely unaware of these risks, or of the illegality of buying and selling chimpanzees. Chimpanzee meat is sold openly in markets, and in two cases the ‘owners’ of baby chimpanzees showed us official stamped documents allowing them to buy, keep, and sell ‘their’ apes.
It is clear that the commercial bushmeat crisis is only just beginning to sweep across the Buta/Bili area; otherwise, we would hardly be finding large populations of chimpanzees, okapis and other big mammals so close to towns. But it is also clear, from the number of chimpanzee orphans that we have been seeing, that we have very little time left before the population is decimated (as has recently happened in West Africa).
The same can be said of hippopotamuses, okapis, elephants, lions and the entire amazing fauna of northern Congo. The question remains: Will the world respond before it is too late?
UPDATE: The Evacuation of the Aketi Five
By Laura Darby
March 31, 2009
Waking up at 3 am, the air was tense. The chimpanzees had been brought over to the house the night before and were sleeping, unaware of the day that awaited them. Though we had all the legal paperwork
for transferring the chimpanzees to the Center for Primate Rehabilitation in Lwiro, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (The DRC), we’d been having problems with local officials who were keen to thwart our efforts. The cover of night and the element of surprise were our best allies – only the Director of Immigration knew the date and time of the arrival of our plane, and we were hoping to keep it like that!
I’d procured valium at the local pharmacy, and at 4:30 am we administered it to the chimps in milk. They seemed sleepy already, as they’d been woken up early, and we didn’t even have to cage them to get across the river to the airfield. We nestled ourselves in a grove of trees off of the main path and let the chimps sleep. By 8 am, however, they were already awake again, playing in the trees.
When the plane arrived, we nearly didn’t believe it. We’d caged the chimps with some difficulty already, but a crowd had gathered around the airfield and I worried for the safety and health of the chimps.
We started loading everything onto the plane, when a local official came to the field, trying to stop us.
One of his men (not wearing a uniform) seized the orphan Aketi Kigoma by the leg as he tried to open the cage door, causing the baby chimpanzee to scream. This man risked receiving a serious bite. We had spent the previous four months fostering this orphan - and we had to act. We yelled at this man, insisting that for his own safety as well as that of the chimpanzee’s he MUST stop touching the orphan, but he refused to listen. Adam protectively blocked the man from the cages and stood stalwartly between him and the chimpanzees.
Though much arguing ensued, we gained the support of an official from the ANR, the equivalent to the CIA in Congo. After his blessing and handshake, we boarded the plane, the chimpanzees already in the back. Kathé the escape artist gave us a panic when she nearly succeeded in escaping, but we managed to secure her in her cage. The noise inside and outside the palne was deafening, and the chimps, stressed and scared, called and reached for us. We did our best to reassure them. Finishing the pre-flight tasks, we were ready to leave when additional policemen came to the field, demanding that we get out of the plane. The pilots told them they were on a schedule, and during the argument we managed to close the doors. We did finally take off, the crowd only clearing once the pilots turned on the propellers. As we felt the wheels leave the ground, we cried as we exhaled after nearly a month of struggling, knowing that
the chimpanzees were finally safe.
We were met in Kavumu, the Bukavu airport, by a bevy of ICCN officials who helped us load the chimpanzees onto a series of trucks for transportation to Lwiro. The roads were rough and bumpy, and, sitting in the back of the pickup with Kathé, Django, Bolungwa, Aketi and Mangé, holding their hands, it was all I could do to keep from falling out!
The Aketi Five are now in quarantine at Lwiro, in their new dormitory as it is being constructed. They spend all of their time with their new caregiver, Claude. They aren’t used to being confined indoors, but they’ll be able to play outside soon! They’re certainly excited too about all of the new foods they’re being offered – Eastern Congo has famously fertile volcanic soil and a much larger gamut of delicious fruits and vegetables! A bucket of passion fruits and mangos was brought to their enclosure, and Aketi Kigoma promptly crawled INTO the bucket and sat inside it, eating his choice of fruits, and refused to leave the inside for nearly 3 hours!
They continue to be tired from the exhausting journey, as we are, but are in such safe and capable hands that we know whatever battles we fought were entirely worth it.
Cleve Hicks is working on his PhD thesis on the the distribution and behavior of the Bili apes at the Univeristy of Amsterdam, with the Institute for Bidiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics. He has a master's degree in Experimental Psychology from Central Washington University
See his new ebook, Trading Chimpanzees for Baubles (3 volumes) at www.wasmoethwildlife.org