Kindu and Katopa, 2011-2015: Three and-a-half years distinct

In the region of the Congo where the Harts have established a provincial park, soon to be upgraded to an official National park, the makeup of the landscape is intimately connected to three rivers: the Tshuapa, Lomami, and Lualaba (another name for the Congo River south of Kisangani). They refer to the general landscape in and around the park as the TL2 landscape. In the three and-a-half years that has passed since my last TL2 visit, much has changed in Kindu and the park. Right as the Compagnie Africaine d’Aviation (CAA) plane landed in Kindu, the new tarmac airstrip was apparent; the tarmac even continued onto a few of Kindu’s main roads. This construction was all through Chinese contractors, of course, completed in 2014, and in no way connected to a centralized DRC government effort to improve its abysmal country-wide infrastructure. The Chinese are interested in Congolese resources—particularly minerals—and  in a “gesture of good will” might offer to build a road for a small price. They convince the Congolese they will benefit from this road, and forget to mention that the tarmac quality is terrible and the road will collapse without any maintenance within a few years. In actuality, Kindu has no need for tarmac (it’s not a big city, ca. 200,000 people), and the majority of important transportation is via the Congo River anyway. A growingly-common case of international extortion and local naiveté, unfortunately, and a clear indication that the Chinese are interested in planting a foothold here in DRC for future resource extraction.

Other new construction I find more appropriate is underway on the Harts’ compound in Kindu. Several months ago they acquired the vacated property adjacent to their own, and since my end-March arrival there have been numerous renovations in progress. This includes a new property fence, improved electricity, and maybe even plumbing (I saw a sink carried into the house a couple days ago, which implies running water, but I’ll believe it when I see it). Whereas in 2011 I slept in a tent next to the house, this new building has more room to accommodate visitors so I now have a room with a bed. Of  course construction in DRC is not very timely, and workers often leave for the evening with everything they disassembled—like the entire bathroom—still disassembled. Following, I have not been able to open my bedroom windows the past couple of nights due to the open septic tank nearby. But TL2 work in the property’s “office space” progresses nonetheless: whereas in 2011 the only internet access in Kindu was at a single public internet cafe, we can now use USM modems through cellular provider Vodacom and access internet right from the Harts’ house. This is the same sort of internet setup I used in Uganda, and it works pretty well.

My comparison with 2011 doesn’t stop at Kindu: although the route to access the park is the same—6-hour motorbike ride to village Chombe Kilima and 40km walk across park to Katopa—the process runs more smoothly and deliberately now. Following a severe accident in 2012, everyone wears helmets on the motorbikes. The Kasuku River crossing (where my motorbike fell into the river in 2011) is also more methodological: the heavy bikes are leaned on opposite sides of the dugout to balance it, and they usually make two trips so some people cross after the bikes. John and I arrived in Chombe Kilima at about 8:20PM on April 14th, and crossed the park in 11 hours the next day to arrive in Katopa late evening.

TL2’s Katopa camp, right on the banks of the Lomami River, was a welcome and largely familiar sight, although the camp itself has seen its share of changes since 2011 as well. First, to reach the camp, we need to cross the Lomami River. The camp (and namesake village next to it) are on the western bank of the river, and our walk delivers us to the east bank. The Harts own two large dugouts with motors, and one of them is now based at Katopa, so this time we could cross the river by power of machine. The immediate obvious difference at the camp was the number of people. Currently the Harts have four different projects with operations in Katopa: surveillance, botany, camera traps, and now parrots. The botany program in particular requires many staff members, so at its most crowded there were about 15-18 people at camp. When compared to 3 or 4 people, as was usually the case in 2011, a large group presents some significant logistical problems: most notably, food and water.

Most of the April Katopa team, including TL2 staff from 4 different projects. For the botany project, TL2 also hired several Mbuti pygmies from the Ituri Forest, North Kivu (4 of them in this picture, front and center). They are extremely capable tree-climbers, and the project depends on them to collect samples from the canopy.

Most of the April Katopa team, including TL2 staff from 4 different projects. For the botany project, TL2 also hired several Mbuti pygmies from the Ituri Forest, North Kivu (4 of them in this picture, front and center). They are extremely capable tree-climbers, and the project depends on them to collect samples from the canopy.

When I arrived at Katopa in 2011 I asked John if they boiled the drinking water, and his answer was a casual “Mm, I think so.” Good thing I had iodine tablets with me at the time. Since then, they are devoting much more attention to water quality, and all drinking water goes through a two-stage purification process: boiling, to take care of biological contaminants, and filtration, to remove the silt and all other particulate matter. Well, there is quite a bit of particulate matter in the water, which clogs up the filters and significantly slows the filtration process. With 15 people drinking filtered water, this is a problem. The solution? Fill up when you can, and wait when you can’t. Likewise for meals, it is very challenging to organize the amount of food required for 15 people in such a remote location. I didn’t realize just how challenging, in fact, until I attempted to organize an overnight trip for myself and Max (a German intern with whom I overlapped at Katopa for a few days) to the Lomami rapids, a 3-hour hike upstream. I thought it would be easy enough to pack up some food our cook would prepare at Katopa, and leave the camp early-afternoon. After some frustrating back-and-forth with the cook and the camp manager, I finally understood that this arrangement would not be possible because the food for dinner would not even arrive in camp until early evening. With 15 people eating and going in all different directions for different amounts of time, the food stock isn’t even day-to-day—it’s meal to meal. As it turned out, we took a small amount of rice with us, and bought some fish at the village Badinga next to the rapids.

We had a long discussion with the chief of Badinga about whether or not we could pitch our tents right along the river; he was strictly against it unless we paid an exorbitant fee of $35. (By American standards, $35 is rather minimal, but a small fortune for a single payment to a remote village chief. The fact that we objected to was not due to the amount of money per se, rather the precedent it sets for how TL2 is represented: we do not just want to hand out significant lump sums for no good reason. The chief may think he owns the forest, but he does not.) So, we opted to sleep in the village and paid the chief about $3.5 for his “hospitality.” Fortunate for us, it turned out, not to have slept deeper in the forest, because that night I experienced one of the most severe thunderstorms I can remember. The next morning a very large tree, at least 100ft tall, had fallen about 50ft from my tent. Walking down to the rapids that morning and, later, back to Katopa, we had to scramble and hack through/over/around numerous large tree falls. It was the sort of storm a tropical rainforest experiences only once in a great while, and is responsible for most of the clearings in the canopy which allow enough sunlight for ground regeneration.

A large tree uprooted and blown over about 50 feet from my tent, and almost on top of several houses in Badinga.

A large tree uprooted and blown over about 50 feet from my tent, and almost on top of several houses in Badinga.

The rapids were a great place to visit, in part to see the specialized fishing traps designed to catch fish as they swim upstream against the formidable current.

The rapids were a great place to visit, in part to see the specialized fishing traps designed to catch fish as they swim upstream against the formidable current.

Much of the forest in TL2 is secondary rainforest characterized by dense undergrowth that makes bushwhacking difficult under normal circumstances. Add other factors on top of that, like new windfalls and seasonal swamps, and trekking through the forest becomes very slow exhausting work. Before the overnight at the rapids, I had spent 4 days traveling on the Lomami River and bushwhacking through the forest on an exploratory mission to find new, potentially important parrot sites. Essentially, I would look at satellite imagery through ArcGIS and/or GoogleEarth, identify possible locations based on what the aerial appearance of the forest composition, mark those points on my GPS unit, and then navigate to those points. I began my trip with 12 sites to visit, but time restrictions allowed access to only 6 of them. Overall it was great to spend time traveling on a dugout, in the middle of a tropical forest to boot, and we discovered several sites which are likely very important for parrots and other park wildlife.

There were many recent elephant paths inside this clearing we visited, which is inside the Lomami park boundary. These would be forest elephants, taxonomically distinct from the more widespread savannah elephants. Elephants are an exceptional species to observe and monitor because of overwhelming targeted poaching operations. Especially here in the southern sector of the park, where there are fewer elephant observations, clearings like this one are extremely important to document.

There were many recent elephant paths inside this clearing we visited, which is inside the Lomami park boundary. These would be forest elephants, taxonomically distinct from the more widespread savannah elephants. Elephants are an exceptional species to observe and monitor because of overwhelming targeted poaching operations. Especially here in the southern sector of the park, where there are fewer elephant observations, clearings like this one are extremely important to document.

Wading through a flooded swamp forest (no pictures of the deep sections--not going to risk my camera!)

Wading through a flooded swamp forest (no pictures of the deep sections–not going to risk my camera!)

A peaceful ride downstream on the Lomami River.

A peaceful ride downstream on the Lomami River.

All romanticisms of 4 days on the river aside, it was pleasant to return to Katopa for a bit more substantial food (again, relatively) and a set of dry clothes. Obtaining dry clothes/shoes at Katopa is now easier following the advent of TL2’s botany program, for which John and Terese built a dedicated dry room. This dry room is a brick building, and seems very out of place situated perhaps 100s of kilometers from the next brick building. Although it was designed to dry out plant specimens, the hot, moisture-free interior also begs to accumulate sopping field gear, and I was happy to oblige.

A goliath tigerfish, straight from the Lomami, that a fisherman brought into Katopa camp the day I walked out. Quite a different size than the one I caught on rod and reel in 2011.

A goliath tigerfish, straight from the Lomami, that a fisherman brought into Katopa camp the day I walked out. Quite a different size than the one I caught on rod and reel in 2011. Mine was maybe 1 pound; this one they estimated more than 60.

TL2_20150504_581

Unlike 2011, when I spent a continuous 2 months based in the park, I am doing more back-and-forth for the parrot project. This past trip lasted for 3 weeks, and I have another park visit loosely planned for about 10 days. Later on, I hope to travel to a significant parrot trapping site south of Kindu before leaving Maniema province and heading north to Kisangani. Even with these shorter periods away, however, the first cold drink in town still tastes pretty good, the resurgence of various loud-noise producers is still grating, and it’s still a joy to open email and see how popular I am among spam generators. Even with these more frequent (relatively speaking) periods I have access to email, I will not have time to describe my adventures in a comprehensive way, and I have not even mentioned many of the events occurring over the past few weeks. Still, I hope to keep these updates as current as possible, and look forward to my next opportunity to write!

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