Rainforest Trust supports our passionate conservation partners around the world who dedicate their lives to protecting threatened species and the habitats that are their homes. Two incredibly inspiring partners are Terese and John Hart, who work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and who with support from Rainforest Trust played a key role in the recent declaration of Lomami National Park.
The time had come to wake up the forest.
Deep, echoing vocals announced the presence of something out of the ordinary: sometimes accompanying a death, sometimes a portent dream. Conservationist Terese Hart recalled listening to the sonorous melody as she drifted to sleep with her daughter Sarah at their home and research site on the bank of the Congo’s Epulu River, while her husband John remained by the campfire with the Mbuti Pygmies.
“The song was so full of life… it reached out across the darkened river… it was a resonating echo by the edge of the forest, it penetrated deep through the trees,” Terese wrote in her autobiography Ituri Story.
“The forest was awake and listening.”
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Terese and John met at Minnesota’s Carleton College in the autumn of 1969, a time when the Vietnam War seeped into every aspect of student life. Amid the political turmoil, John, an avid bird watcher, viewed the world from a different perspective: through the lenses of binoculars. Terese would join John on his birding trips, and while reverently silent together in the field, they would passionately discuss politics once back on campus. With a shared interest in community relations, Terese and John took an anthropology class where they learned about the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Forest in what was then named the Republic of Zaire, and is currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This, too, added a different angle to the pressing war sentiment.
“The Mbuti communities lived in an apparent peace so different from the West: close to nature, material simplicity, non-aggressive,” Terese wrote. “This was a perfect vision for a generation that doubted the material wealth we grew into and felt thrust into a war on the other side of the world.”
John had the opportunity to learn firsthand about this Zairian community through a Watson Fellowship that provided funding for finishing undergraduates to pursue a self-guided project outside of the United States. Accepted into the program, John packed his bags and left for the Ituri Forest in northeastern Zaire after graduation. Still at Carleton, but planning for her post-graduation work, Terese applied to the Peace Corps and was assigned a teaching position. Her placement? Zaire.
“I delayed a year,” Terese wrote. “It seemed too much like a pre-written script to follow on [John’s] heels.”
Still recovering from the ache of Belgian rule, the newly independent Zaire had been subjected to a series of conflicts during the early 1960s. Terese’s 1974 work with the Peace Corps began in Bukavu in eastern Zaire, in a section of town that still showed the grandeur of the colonial period with its stucco houses and stately gardens. A month into her assignment, and more than a year and a half since they had last seen each other, John rode from the Ituri Forest atop a cargo truck transporting beans and cassava flour to visit.
John described to Terese how he had immersed himself in the forest to see how life had changed for the Mbuti Pygmies during the time of political instability. He witnessed how certain impacts, such as road closures, had swept through the region, making life more difficult for the inhabitants, but not directly influencing Mbuti culture. Instead, John had begun to see changes coming from eastern population expansion into the forest. Encroachment, not war, seemed more likely to threaten the Mbuti way of life.
John stayed in Bukavu for a few weeks before returning to the Ituri Forest, and reunited with Terese in 1975. The couple embarked on a two-month bicycle trip along the biodiverse Albertine Rift during Terese’s school break, swerving in and out of the lowland and montane forests. One evening, as the two sat under the stars and poked at embers in the fading fire, John proposed.
After the end of John’s grant and Terese’s Peace Corps assignment, the couple returned to the U.S. and enrolled in Michigan State University. Terese’s graduate studies focused on the dominant trees of the Ituri Forest, and John’s research concentrated on game animals hunted by the Mbuti, specifically small forest antelopes called duikers. While “part-time students, part-time laborers and plotting full-time a return to the Congo,” Terese and John were married, their first daughter, Sarah, was born and their Ituri Forest flora and fauna dissertation projects received funding. The Harts were heading back to Zaire, this time with one arm full of research papers and a small wide-eyed girl holding on to the other.
After driving an aged Land Cruiser through the dirt roads and villages of Zaire, the Harts settled in northeastern Epulu near the Ituri Forest, an area used as an Okapi capture station by the colonial Belgians in the 1950s. After independence, the Zairian Park’s Institute (Institut Zairois pour la Conservation de la Nature –
IZCN) maintained the station to house Okapi, herbivores closely related to giraffes that are the size of horses with zebra-like markings on their legs. Epulu, with its proximity to the station and Ituri Forest, was the ideal location for John’s studies of how hunting pressures and diet affected wildlife in the area.
Outside the station and into the Ituri Forest, the Harts followed the Mbuti’s hunting movements to collect information about forest game such as duikers. Though focused on the species, the Harts also had the opportunity to learn about the Mbuti’s relationship to the forest, and they formed close bonds with the indigenous community. They found that while the prevailing Western assumption had been that the Mbuti were completely dependent on the Ituri Forest, the reality was much less simplistic. Though agricultural development in the form of encroaching gardens cut away at the forest edge, it did not directly undermine Mbuti forest life. The Mbuti had established relationships with indigenous farmers, who harvested agricultural produce and exchanged the goods with the Mbuti for forest game and protection.
“It was a very symbiotic relationship… between the [different] ethnicities, where the ethnicities worked together but maintained a certain division of labor,” Terese said.
While the Harts learned about the Ituri Forest wildlife as well as the Mbuti community, they also focused on Terese’s dissertation research, which involved comparing forest plots and tree cataloguing. Measuring the growth of the forest, the couple also nurtured the growth of their daughter Sarah. While in Epulu, Terese gave birth to their second child, Rebekah, with John’s announcement of, “It’s a museka!” “It’s a girl!” The Harts remained in Zaire until 1983, when they returned to the U.S. after completing their fieldwork.
“Although we had more than enough in our notebooks to complete dissertations, we easily admitted we had barely touched the mysteries of forest duff, forest canopy and all the living energy in between,” wrote Terese.
Throughout the following decades, the Harts frequently returned to Zaire. They continued their research in the Ituri Forest, where they tracked the movements of Okapi in the region via radio collars and helped build a local training and research center. During this time the Harts’ third daughter, Eleanor, was born in Epulu. In 1992, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, located near the Epulu capture station, was established with support from the Harts. During the First and Second Congo Wars, Terese worked with an international conservation NGO in the capital Kinshasa, while John continued research fieldwork.
The Harts joined the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation in 2006 to work on the TL2 Project, which refers to the Tshuapa, Lomami and Lualaba rivers. The following year, Terese as the Project Director, John as the Scientific Director and their team surveyed more than 40,000 square kilometers in the central forested region surrounding these rivers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose name had been changed from Zaire in 1997.
“The Lomami River area was a complete unknown,” Terese said. “Nobody had ever done any inventory or exploration there… the idea was to go up the Lomami River and do circuits on both sides to see what was there in terms of animal and human activity.”
During their three year survey, the Lukuru team confirmed the presence of Okapis in the forested area, found Bonobos in locations that were thought to be uninhabited by the apes and documented the Lesula monkey, a species of primate that was previously unknown to the science community though familiar to local residents. The team also came to understand how extensive the bush meat trade was in the region and how, when paired with unregulated hunting, it drastically impacted local wildlife.
“In the TL2 landscape, only about a third of the region still has important concentrations of the large mammals targeted by hunters,” the Harts wrote in a 2011 report. “The pattern we found in the TL2 region mirrors results of surveys conducted elsewhere in Congo over the last 20 years.”
Hunting of the Bonobo, Forest Elephant and Okapi used to be minimal; in some areas the killing of them was forbidden, and the capture success rate was low with hunting tools such as nets. With the country’s recent wars, two prominent forces were introduced to the region that raised the vulnerability of these animals: outsiders with little concern for local taboos and accessible military-grade weapons. The Harts’ report acknowledged that the Congo’s conflicts and poverty influenced wildlife decline, but warned that to assume poaching was unavoidable oversimplified the situation and “prevents us from recognizing opportunities for action to stop losses that would otherwise seem to be inevitable.”
To combat this continued onslaught, the Lukuru team developed a conservation model that included monitoring animal populations and hunting pressures, engaging in community outreach and training local people to safeguard the threatened areas. In 2008, the Congolese Nature Institute (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature –ICCN) agreed with the Lukuru team that a formally designated protected area was needed to guard against mounting poaching and unregulated over-hunting pressures in the TL2 area. The next step was to approach local communities about the creation of a national park. Terese described meeting with the chief of the Bangengeli tribe, a woman known as Mama Chieftaine:
“[The chief] basically said to us, ‘All the meetings and outreach you are doing are very good and people understand, but you will not have a national park this way. To have a national park, it has to be the people themselves who talk, and the people can only talk when they consult the ancestors.’ That seemed to us like a dead end, but she said, “No, you just need to have a tambiko ceremony so that the elders and the chiefs can confer with the ancestors.’”
A tambiko ceremony brings together the traditional authorities in a tribe, including those from the past; ancestors are consulted through rituals so that they too are involved in the decision making process. In numerous villages, the chiefs explained the need to protect wildlife from overhunting and poaching, and the tribal representatives invoked the ancestors through a series of ceremonial practices. There were also discussions among the provincial authorities, village chiefs, indigenous leaders, ICCN agents and Lukuru team members regarding the park borders, forest usage and status of protected areas.
“The birth of a park in the minds of the people and the changing traditions of a place are not a single series of signatures,” Terese explained. “It is many village meetings; it is discussion, negotiation, scratches in the bark of trees, song and spit in the sand.”
During five separate tambikos, the local leaders — and through them, the ancestors — agreed to support the creation of Lomami National Park.
The park proposal then had to be approved by the provincial governments, the national environmental minister, President Joseph Kabila and finally signed into existence by Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo. The nearly 2.2 million-acre Lomami National Park was officially declared July 7, 2016, by the Ministers’ Council (Conseil de Ministres) of the DRC. It was the first national park in the Congo, and one of the few in Africa, to be established with major support from local communities.
In addition to the dedicated efforts of the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation, local communities and the Congolese government, the national park was made possible through the efforts of various partners, including the U.S.-based nonprofit Rainforest Trust which has helped protect more than 15 million acres of wildlife habitat in over 20 countries.
“The declaration of Lomami National Park is coming at a crucial time as threats to its spectacular rainforests are rapidly accelerating,” said Rainforest Trust CEO, Dr. Paul Salaman.
The Lomami National Park in the Congo Basin — which is nearly equal in size to the Yellowstone National Park in the northwestern region of the U.S. — provides much-needed protection for wildlife and brings a measure of stability to the Lomami region. Trained and well-equipped teams of park guards patrol the new protected area, and the Lukuru team also monitors the park through camera traps and wildlife surveillance. The involvement of local communities, such as those who participated in the tambikos, is crucial in safeguarding the park’s buffer zones.
“This will be the first protected area in the DRC that was set up in a participatory manner and involved all levels of the community and administration, from village to province to national entity,” said Terese. “It sets a new standard. It also sets a basis for moving toward an even larger protected area.”
Bolstered by the success of Lomami’s protected status, Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation and partner Rainforest Trust are currently working to create the Balanga Forest Reserve beside Lomami National Park. As was done through the new park’s establishment process, the creation of the Balanga Forest Reserve will include the voices of local communities. Reserve stipulations will clarify that the indigenous groups living in the protected area will have land tenure rights, with controls on hunting and immigration as well as a management system that addresses the needs of the various ethnic groups.
With strengthened enforcement and anti-poaching patrols in the region, the proposed Balanga Forest Reserve will provide additional safety for wildlife adjacent to Lomami National Park. This addition will expand protection to nearly 3.4 million acres of central Africa’s rainforest and will form one of the largest refuges for wildlife such as Okapis, Forest Elephants and threatened primates in the Congo Basin.
The slender, elevated signs delineating the borders of the new national park can be seen across the vast expanse of wild grass, spilling out from the forest edge. Drawing closer, gazes are raised skyward to read the lettered marker: PNL. The Parc National de la Lomami. A testament to collaborations transpiring from leafy villages to the president’s desk, and a reminder of what can be accomplished when tradition, authority and determination unite to conserve nature in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Help support the Balanga Forest Reserve and the continued work of the Harts and Rainforest Trust in the DRC.