Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The July/August issue of Wildlife Conservation magazine highlights the dedicated work of the Congolese people, with the assistance of the Mbuti, in preserving a scientific research facility in the Ituri forest.

Twenty-five years ago, Terese Hart and her husband John Hart, field scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, began studying the rare okapi, an elusive African animal found only in the the Eastern Congo. The Ituri Forest is rich in important wildlife species. In addition to the okapi, the forests of the Eastern Congo harbor northern white rhinos and bonobos, both endemic species in the country.

The scientists helped the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature run the Okapi Reserve, headquartered in Epulu. With the assistance of the local Mbuti, perhaps some of the same people that Colin Turnbull wrote about, the Harts radio-tagged the shy okapis, giraffe-like animals, and studied the forest antelopes that the Mbuti hunted.

The training and research facility that the Harts and the Congolese scientists established and developed at Epulu attracted scientists and students from Tanzania, Uganda, the United States, Denmark, and the United Kingdom to study the wildlife and plants of the Ituri region. However, when the war began, Terese fled the war zone on the last plane out of Bunia, leaving a young Congolese college graduate, Robert Mwinyihali to remain in charge of the operation. Robert’s story of the struggle to preserve the research station provides the fascinating second half of this article.

Within days of Terese Hart’s departure, the marauding armies flooded into Epulu, sacking and looting everything they could find. Four vehicles belonging to the WCS, plus spare parts, fuel, motorbikes, and other items were quickly stolen, and much of the facility was ransacked. But Mwinyihali and other staff members managed to save the collections of dried plants, probably the most valuable resource at the research facility, by spiriting the specimens off in trunks to their homes.

The Mbuti assisted the WCS Congolese staff by helping them take refuge in the forest. As Mwinyihali explains, “the Mbuti provided us with food and information from the village on a daily basis. They helped us move from hiding place to hiding place,” and they kept the staff informed about the equipment that had not yet been stolen so that the staff could assist, from their hiding places, by suggesting how to conceal the materials.

When the armies had dispersed, the Mbuti let the WCS staff members know so they could carefully return to Epulu. A motorbike and a gallon of gasoline had been successfully hidden, so Mwinyihali used the bike to flee east across the border into Uganda, where he met up with the Harts and they could plan further how to help the Okapi Reserve survive the war.

After Mwinyihali left, Corneille Ewango was left in charge of the continuing struggle to preserve the research facility. Ewango, whose struggle during the continuing fighting will be related in the September/October issue of the magazine, was awarded the globally prestigious Goldman Prize in 2005 for his contribution to the environment.

Hart, Terese and Robert Mwinyihali. 2005. “DR Congo’s Ituri Forest Has Survived Seven Years of Civil War.” Wildlife Conservation 108(4), July/August 2005: 42-45.