Bili Coffee Project: Last Update – February 2008
It is with great regret that we have to announce the ending of the Bili coffee project. In June 2007 the chiefs of Guamonge and Bossou decided to break their long-standing agreement with us in which we bought their local-grown coffee at well above market prices in exchange for their help in protecting Bili’s spectacular fauna. The chiefs also broke Congolese law when they opened a large gold mine within the hunting reserve of Bili-Uere. This action has resulted in a rush of people from all over the area to the new mine to seek their fortunes. The opportunity to ‘get rich quick’ has so fired the imaginations of the coffee farmers that some have apparently exchanged harvesting their beans for digging for gold. Our supply of coffee for the ‘buy Mbala! coffee to save the elephants’ project has, therefore, dried up and, worse, the massive increase in the number of mouths to feed has resulted in a dramatic increase in the poaching of animals for bushmeat. TWWF has made it clear to the chiefs that we cannot tolerate such an abuse of our trust and a disregard for Congolese law. We have therefore withdrawn our field staff and shipped out the remainder of last year’s coffee. The Bili ape research project has also, at least for the time being and in this region, had to be suspended.
More mines to open?
It was, as you can imagine, an extremely disappointing moment when we heard in June 2007 that officials from Buta had attended the opening of the Babolo gold mine 30 km west of Adama between Bili and Gangu. The mine is within 50 km of the research site in the Gangu Forest, an area full of elephants and naïve chimpanzees, and until this invasion almost completely absent of humans. Miners began pouring into the Bili area from distant towns and villages and local people have also been seen joining in the ‘gold rush’. Currently we do not know how much gold has been found at Babolo. We have evidence that the results of previous efforts to mine in the area were unimpressive. However, we have heard that there are plans to open another mine at Nambala, and even to begin prospecting in the pristine Gangu Forest. This must be viewed as nothing less than a crisis for the fauna of Bili.
Sadly it seems that even some of our previous partners in the ‘Mbala! coffee for elephants’ project are involved in the gold mining, including many high officials and both the local chiefs with whom we signed firm agreements. Some of these men are also suspected of trading in ivory.
People pouring into the area
It seems almost as if a modern version of the ‘gold rush’ of the American West is now taking place and many diggers, porters and dealers have been observed passing through Bili. Some of our contacts there estimate an influx of between 1500 and 2500 miners, porters, traders and the like into the Bili area since the mine opened in June. There is also evidence that ivory hunters from the Central African Republic are taking advantage of this opportunity to enter the reserve and kill elephants and other wildlife, both to feed the gold miners and to obtain ivory. It is high time the government of the DRC acts to protect this invaluable national forest area before it is too late.
Dramatic increase in poaching
As the mining population grows a supply industry is being established to support it. “The gold miners send hunters to get meat for them….often buffalo, sometimes elephant.” we were told. One of our contacts in Adama (a town near the Babolo Mine) told us that he “…saw two elephant corpses in the town….as well as …lots of buffalo meat, possibly from 10-15 animals.” Another of our contacts reported a hike in the number of elephant carcasses seen in Bili since the opening of the mine. Given the proximity of the Babolo Mine to the Gangu Forest, it can only be a matter of time before the elephants there are also put on the menu. It may even have happened already. So far no chimpanzee meat or orphans have been seen in Bili, but given the huge number of chimpanzees being slaughtered as a result of the diamond mining boom towns 160 km south near Buta (see below), it is very unlikely the chimps will be safe for long. Chimpanzee orphans are being offered for sale at $20 per baby at Buta (a baboon goes for $10).
What are we doing about this?
Now that the chiefs have abandoned their commitment to stop poaching in Bili and the planters are failing to live up to their agreement, we are no longer able to support them by purchasing their coffee beans at generous prices. The project has become unsustainable. This is doubly hard to bear since our Bili chimpanzee research team at Gangu has documented a clear difference in poaching pressure between the Bili area and the neighbouring collectives where TWWF has not been active. In some of these collectives the elephants have been completely eliminated, and chimpanzee orphans are regularly being offered for sale along the road.
Our current approach is to encourage the Congolese government to take action to protect one of its most important and spectacular national treasures. Our field researcher Cleve Hicks, together with TWWF representative Michel Mokede, spent the month of December lobbying government officials ranging from the regional ministers of the environment and the economy in Kisangani to the CDD in Buta as well as the ICCN (Institute Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature). Cleve gave presentations of his work with the Bili apes while Michel explained the goals of the TWWF coffee project and the reason we can no longer buy the local coffee. One of the two Bili chiefs was present at the Buta meeting to defend his actions and those of his fellow leaders, but both Cleve and Michel highlighted the illegality of inviting gold miners into a hunting reserve protected by the Congolese state.
There is some evidence that this lobbying is paying off and the Congolese government is taking a renewed interest in the protection of Bili’s flora and fauna. But we will have to wait and see if this interest develops into concrete action. Cleve is currently considering a return to Bili, in order to investigate for himself the effects of the mining on the wildlife. He also hopes to develop a better understanding of the feelings of the local Azande people, many of whom we are told, feel betrayed by their chiefs for ruining their long-running collaboration with TWWF.
On Cleve’s 1000 km motorbike trip (to Kisangani and back) in December, he witnessed what he has described as an ‘Ape Orphan Highway.’ He saw two chimpanzee orphans, an okapi, a leopard skin, and over 20 monkey carcasses and orphans for sale in Buta and along the road. Some of these were within or close to the borders of the Rubi-Tele Game Reserve. In this one trip, he saw more primates for sale than during his entire year and a half in Bili!. Furthermore our staff has seen 10 chimpanzee orphans and carcasses in the Buta/Aketi area, most of them since September 2007 (we confiscated two orphans). Although much wildlife remains in the area, the amount of poaching far exceeds that carried on in Bili. During his last survey of the forests near the town of Aketi, Cleve observed a 3 m high okapi trap and had a grey-cheeked mangabey shot out of a tree above his head! It is no coincidence that there is an enormous diamond-mining industry centred on Buta (one of these businesses is called ‘Le Juif Noir’, or ‘The Black Jew’), and there are literally hundreds of gold and diamond mines scattered throughout the forests. The contrast between the level of poaching in this area and the relatively unspoiled forests and savannas of Bili and Gangu is startling, and it underscores the tremendous importance of protecting Bili. Perhaps Buta is an awful forecast of what Bili will look like in 10 years’ time. Let us hope not!
Boyoma – The Island haven for Chimpanzees
The two baby chimpanzee orphans we confiscated along the Aketi/Buta ‘Ape Orphan Highway’ we call Kathé and Kisanola. Kathé had had her front teeth burned out with a hot knife by her previous ‘owners’, and when we found her she was tethered to a rope so short she could barely lay down. Fortunately, her captors agreed to hand her over to us, as she was getting big and powerful and had recently broken a radio. We do not give gifts or money in exchange for an orphan, of course, as to do so would only encourage poachers to kill more parent chimps. Kathé has found a new role in life as the older sister of shy little Kisanola, who is learning from her how to be a chimpanzee.
Caring for two young chimpanzees in a town like Aketi is no easy business, so in order to look after Kathé, Kisanola and the other chimp orphans we are sure to come across we have decided to build a special chimpanzee sanctuary. TWWF has recently obtained an island in the Congo river near Kisangani on which we will build the sanctuary. To be called Boyoma, it will provide a safe environment where orphan chimpanzees will be able to live with others of their kind, free from the fear of poachers. The sanctuary will also present an excellent opportunity for education since young Congolese visitors will be invited to come and learn more about the chimpanzees with whom they share their country, thus helping them to understand why these intelligent and social beings should not be eaten.
The establishment, staffing and equipping of the Boyoma Chimpanzee Sanctuary will be our main priority in the coming year ….and we’ll be giving you regular reports of its progress on this or a special, new, Boyoma web site.