Story from the Elephant Crisis Fund March 2015 Progress Report.
Ray of Light in the Heart of Darkness. Deep in the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo lies a remote landscape that is one of the few remaining ‘hope spots’ for forest elephants. Across Central Africa, this subspecies has lost two-thirds of its population in just a decade, but here – thanks largely to the Lukuru Foundation, founded by John and Terese Hart in 2007 – there is a ray of hope.
The 23,000 square mile area does not yet have formal protection, or even a formal name. Dubbed the Tshuapa-Lomani-Lualaba (TL2) landscape after the three river basins that form its drainage, the area is home to an estimated 670 elephants. When a funding shortfall threatened to derail the Lukuru Foundation’s work, the Elephant Crisis Fund stepped in.
In 2008, poaching pressure in TL2 began to increase. Guards from a nearby national park were drafted in as reinforcements but proved ineffective. Poaching gangs strengthened their occupation of the northern sector of the region. Intimidated and outgunned, guards and project staff became reluctant to venture far from their field base. Elephant populations declined by an estimated 28% between 2008 and 2012.
Things changed in early 2013 when a company of 200 soldiers from the 10th brigade of the Congolese military special security force arrived at the TL2 base camp. They had come on a short-term security mission in pursuit of army deserters suspected of being anti-government rebels. But the deserters had joined forces with the poachers, so the poachers became a target too.
The poachers were led by Colonel Thoms, an escaped convict who belonged to the infamous Mai Mai militia. Following a number of shoot-outs and deaths on both sides, the military settled semi-permanently next to the Lukuru Foundation’s Obenge base camp. Their involvement in patrols has improved security and provided protection for elephants in the sector.
This is dangerous work. To the northeast, in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, a field station of the Institute for the Congolese Conservation of Nature was attacked by the Mai Mai in retaliation for its success in elephant protection. Six people were killed, including two wildlife rangers. To the west in Salonga National Park, it is endangered bonobos that are paying the price – they are being targeted by ivory poaching gangs as a source of food during raids of the park.
From February 2013 to the present, Lukuru has recorded no case of elephant poaching, nor any evidence of elephant poaching in the areas patrolled. This improvement was only possible because the Lukuru Foundation was able to keep the TL2 teams on the ground and supply logistical support and rations to the military.
In the southern sector of the landscape, ECF support has focused on protection for remnant populations of elephants in areas where they had been depleted during Congo’s civil war a decade ago. With the return of security and patrolling, this area has the potential to host a significant elephant recovery in the future. The ECF supported legal pursuit of a poaching gang that had links to traditional chiefs and military from garrisons in Lodja, in East Kasai Province, and has helped to strengthen relations with security services and provincial authorities.
Lukuru’s work in DRC highlights the difficulty of providing security over more than a small area in the forest and the complexity of working with the civil and military authorities in a nation with the challenges that DRC presents. Their success hinges on their inside knowledge of local power-brokers and complex politics and on cooperation with government forces, a partnership made possible by Lukuru’s deep roots in the region.
The ECF’s grant was timely and, having weathered this difficult period, the core elements of the project will now be self-financing.