“Don’t share this image with anyone,” John Hart wrote after our first meeting, attaching a photo of a newly discovered species of primate. “The official scientific announcement isn’t out yet.” We had met in Washington as John was presenting his vision for a new national park in eastern DR Congo. The three river basins of the Tshuapa, Lomami and Lualaba Rivers (the ‘TL2’ in Hart-speak), all tributaries of the continent’s massive aquatic artery, the Congo River, contain the country’s most remote forests. Straddling Orientale and Maniema provinces, the planned protected area forms part of the largest continuous canopy remaining in Africa. Living almost continuously in these forests since 1973, John and Terese now devote all their time and resources to the TL2 project. “We have the largest forests on the continent,” the couple explained when I met them later in Kinshasa. “And these contain the only unmapped areas left in Africa.”
What makes conservation in Congo unique is that many of its protected species exist in no other country. Among the best known are the Congo peacock, bonobo, Grauer’s gorilla, northern white rhino, and okapi, though there are many others. It has the highest diversity of mammals in any African country (415 species); 28 of these are found only within its borders. Of more than one thousand bird species, 23 live only in DRC. More than 1300 species of butterfly have been identified, the highest for any African country. Of the more than 11,000 documented plant species, 3200 grow only on Congolese soil.
The TL2 project is the result of participatory demarcation involving lengthy negotiation and education of local communities, the vision being a bottom-up approach to conservation and park management. For the Harts, bottom-up means investing in “the people who will be here forever,” thus offering a better chance of lasting results. In many ways, bottom-up is the only way left to work in Congo given that the government’s official conservation body “can’t put together a research team to find out the state of gorillas today.” Last year’s BBC reports of silverback populations ‘stabilizing’ after years of rebel activity in their midst were premature and ill-founded. Parks like Garamba on the Sudanese border have seen their elephants hunted out entirely. Sub-species like the white rhino are functionally extinct (two males in Garamba, non-breeding females in zoos abroad), because efforts to save them by evacuation to neighboring countries were blocked by zealous local officials. Most international conservation efforts here are directed from abroad, and do not rely on or invest in local expertise.
From the beginning, John recalled, Terese and he always worked “from the people out,” his arms gesturing in a wide embrace. This meant relying on living stores of pygmy knowledge, who partnered with the Harts to map the biodiversity of the Ituri forest, in particular its okapi and duikers, in the mid-1980s. “We didn’t do anything solo; pygmies were integrated from the word go.” This melding of interests—living local knowledge with scientific hypotheses, data collection, and evidence—buried the classic image of “western field biologists watching and working on their own,” he reflected.
This human-centric, bottom-up approach has informed nearly 40 years of research and practice. Throughout the war and since, it has proven an effective operating model, able to deliver results in the face of weak national conservation institutions, intense poaching by armed groups, many of whom use the parks as a rear base, civilians seeking refuge in the parks, and increasing government implication in the giant resource grab at the core of Congo’s dysfunction. Replicating the model in similar ‘fragile states’ and ‘conflict countries’, labels that have applied to Congo for the last 15 years, is another possibility. There are nearly twenty such states in the sub-Saharan region, all witnessing a steady erosion of their parks and wildlife.
With a Congolese team of 30 to 40 trackers, field guides, dugout captains, cooks and porters, the Harts have been exploring TL2 on foot since 2007. There is no aerial access; Congo’s long war precipitated a violent and definitive return to nature for much of the country’s interior. Bush has reclaimed the colonial-era infrastructure, particularly roads, cutting off rural towns and villages, now islands of subsistence farming with little contact or exchange with the outside world. Produce and small manufactured goods—paracetamol, machetes, children’s clothes and Chinese flip-flops—circulate by bicycle to be sold or traded for local produce, including bushmeat. The near-total isolation of the interior has not spared Congo’s wildlife or its numerous rare and endemic species. The proliferation of armed groups, particularly across the East, means an abundance of small arms and a booming trade in bushmeat, minerals and exotic timber, all exported via Uganda and Rwanda.
The TL2 is accessible via a three to four-day journey from Kisangani or Kindu, the two closest towns. The sequence of movements involves dugout canoes, motorcycles and long treks on foot. Already identified in the TL2 are the bonobo, Congo’s own great ape, the okapi, its endemic rainforest giraffe, and the rare Congo peacock. On an administrative level, TL2 aims for 30,000 km2 of protected landscape to buffer a national park (3000 km2) at its central core. Once established, the Harts may consider seeking UNESCO World Heritage status, which they obtained after creating the Okapi Faunal Reserve in 1993, the culmination of years of radio tracking and habitat mapping with the Mbuti.