One of the Congo’s most passionate defenders discusses the triumphs and challenges of her conservation work in Central Africa.
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Terese Hart (featured above) has worked in, studied, and fought to protect Congolese rainforest for 30 years. Hart, who serves as National Administrator for Rainforest Trust’s conservation partner the Lukuru Foundation, is leading efforts to create a new national park that will protect 2.1 million acres of intact rainforest habitat in the Congo Basin.
How did you begin work in the Congo?
I came to the Ituri Forest in 1974 as a Peace Corps volunteer. Those two years I taught high school biology, lived in a Swahili-speaking family and collected dragonflies. Afterwards, I married a friend from college, John Hart, who was also living in the Congo. In 1980 we returned to the Congo together to do our PhD research, John studied rainforest antelope while I focused on the trees.
And this sparked your interest in conservation?
It was a process. The longer we worked in the Congo, the more interested we became in its forest. A big turning point came in 2001 during a conference for Central African conservationists, which put things in context for us. Compared to a tiny country like Gabon, which had designated about every area lacking humans for some sort of protection, the Congo had huge empty areas with no protection. One of the most mysterious of these areas was the Lomami Basin.
Is that how your interest in the Lomami Basin came about?
Yes. This area was a complete mystery. Nobody had ever done any inventory or exploration there. So that’s what we set out to do. The idea was to go up the Lomami River and do circuits on both sides to see what was there in terms of animals and human activity. We did that for about three years. During this time we discovered a new species of primate, discovered bonobos where no one knew there were bonobos, and confirmed the presence of okapis.
So what is Lomami like?
It is home to very diverse forests. Not only do we have new primate species, we also have the Congo Peacock, the Bonobo, and Okapi. In fact, Lomami has more endemics than any other protected area in the Congo at this time. It also has an important population of Elephants. And we are just beginning botanical work. We keep finding more reasons to protect this area.
Do you expect to continue finding new species?
Certainly. There will be new amphibian and reptile species. I doubt there will be new species of large mammals, but we continue to see strange things and there is a lot more genetic work to be done before we can say for sure about primates.
Is Lomami threatened by logging?
Logging is not an immediate threat. The Congo is home to a huge rainforest and many areas that are much closer to a means of transportation have not yet been logged. Poaching is our biggest problem. Hunters have already emptied the forests around the proposed park and continue to kill Bonobos. Inventories, however, have shown that primate numbers are higher in the proposed park than outside its borders. Local people realize that many of the hunters are from outside areas and oppose them.
So local people have been supportive of your conservation efforts?
Convincing local people about preservation values can be challenging, but we have enjoyed some really incredible collaborations that more than make up for the difficult parts. We work with some visionary local people. Like the chief of the Bangengeli, a local tribe. She is the hardest working person in the traditional administrations we have on our side.
Can you tell us about her?
She has worked with us since the beginning, denouncing bonobo hunters, actually arresting them herself, going out very far on a little motorcycle – and this is no small woman – to the farthest reaches of her chiefdom to talk to people, to convince them to conserve part of their land. She also provided us with insight to improve our conservation efforts.
What kind of insight did she give?
She basically said to us, “All the meetings and outreach you are doing is 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.”
How did that go?
We had two Tambiko ceremonies with the Bangengeli. The first didn’t succeed, but the second went really well. Once other ethnic groups heard about them, they wanted their own and we ended up having five ceremonies.
What were the ceremonies like?
There was a lot of dancing, everybody danced, even the old men. There was drumming, and lots of singing. We were allowed to watch but couldn’t take part. Although at one point we were spit upon – but it was a traditional spitting. All of them went on for more than a day, but the ancestors were represented slightly differently in each ceremony.
So they were successful?
The Tambikos ended up being the whole basis for the park. Subsequent to them, the park existed in the minds of local people.
Visit Rainforest Trust’s Lomami project page to support or learn more about this initiative