Odzala-Kokoua is a remote, beautiful national park in northwestern Congo. A tropical rainforest in a thousand shades of green, with drifting mists on the rivers and a loud soundscape broken by sudden silences, as if the forest is holding its breath.
A single muddy vehicle track goes barely a quarter of the way through the park. The rest is a roadless wilderness with western lowland gorillas, various species of rare antelopes and birds, forest buffalos, crocodiles, hippos and a large number of forest elephants. The animals are hard to spot, but that just makes every sighting more valuable, each one a special gift from the deep dark forest.
I spent two weeks there, shooting photos for Elephant Crisis Fund and African Parks. I went on foot and river patrols with the anti-poaching rangers in the jungle and on the myriad streams and rivers that drain the Congo basin.
Poaching, both for elephant ivory and ’bush meat’(essentially anything that can be eaten) is a serious problem, and the rangers have a tough job. We hacked through the jungle, balanced on slippery logs in endless swamps and slept in the forest surrounded by a nighttime chorus of insects, frogs, birds and monkeys, plus the occasional elephant crashing through the trees. The heat and humidity take their toll, and my cameras need intensive care after this trip. My shirt simply fell apart after being constantly drenched, and the sole of one boot came loose in a deep mudhole.
African Parks manages Odzala-Kokoua in cooperation with the Congolese government, and the park director Patrick Darcis and his partner Rebecca Attwood are doing a fantastic job in a highly complex situation. The logistics of patrolling and safeguarding this vast area are a nightmare, and the local communities still feel they have the right to hunt and use the forest as they always have. It’s a delicate balancing act between the desirable and the possible.
The Elephant Crisis Fund supports several anti-poaching projects in Malawi. I volunteered to document two of them, in Liwonde National Park and in Thuma & Dedza-Salima Forest Reserves.
Liwonde National Park is managed by African Parks, a non-profit conservation organisation based in Johannesburg. AP takes on long-term management of national parks and reserves in partnership with governments to save wildlife, restore landscapes and ensure sustainable livelihoods for local communities. AP manages 10 parks and reserves throughout Africa, often in remote areas and under difficult conditions. Elephant Crisis Fund has provided funding for a helicopter team temporarily deployed in Liwonde, which has been vital against poachers and in stopping elephants breaking through newly-built fencelines around the park.
In Thuma & Dedza-Salima Forest Reserves, an ECF grant has provided funding for 20 anti-poaching scouts, nearly doubling the team working to protect elephants and other wildlife. The two reserves are managed by Lynn Clifford of Wildlife Action Group, a private NGO, in partnership with the government of Malawi. Thuma & Dedza-Salima are rugged and roadless, and the anti-poaching work is done by endless foot patrols and by building an intelligence network in the local communities to get advance warning of poaching incursions.
I spent nearly three weeks in Malawi working with anti-poaching teams on foot, in 4x4 vehicles and on helicopter missions. It was a fascinating assignment in a beautiful country.
RWANDA & CONGO (DRC)
Rwanda - an iconic name, forever linked to the mass killings in 1994 when perhaps 800,000 people were systematically slaughtered by their friends, neighbours, and units of the police and army. The roots of the genocide are, at least in part, a legacy of colonial policies that selected and promoted a minority ethnic group as a ruling elite. But Rwanda is also a breathtakingly beautiful country of lush green rolling hills, and a densely packed population trying to carve out a future together with the ugly ghost of the recent past.
I rented a jeep in Kigali and drove through the country, stopping to ask for directions in the absence of road signs. I stayed at recently renovated guest houses, with optimistic entrepreneurs who sketched out plans for a bright future of high-end eco-tourism, IT-services and a regional free-trade zone. Those plans may hatch some day, but for the moment Rwanda seems to be backsliding to a repressive one-party state, with ambitions to control large parts of neighbouring Congo DRC through various militia groups.
Congo DRC, or Congo Kinshasa, is a very different story. If Rwanda in some ways is Africa’s Switzerland - a little too well-organised and controlled, clean, virtually free of corruption, and with excellent infrastructure, schools and hospitals - then Congo DRC is Africa’s Chechnya, on steroids.
Most of the time the eastern part of Congo is a no-go zone, where warlords and an alphabet soup of poorly disciplined militias rape, loot and kill at random. The UN had 6,700 troops in North Kivu province at the time, but were barely able to maintain peace in their immediate surroundings. However, as in almost all conflict zones, it isn’t bad everywhere all the time. Even in North Kivu, the epicentre of the ongoing disaster that is Congo, there are brief spells of calm, when life goes on as best it can.
I happened to be in the area during a quiet period and decided to cross the border from Rwanda. I wanted to meet the wildlife rangers struggling to protect the Virunga Park, one of Africa's most difficult conservation tasks. Over the last decade, more than 150 rangers have been killed in the Virungas. I also wanted to climb the active volcano Nyiragongo to shoot photos of its bubbling lava lake, one of the wonders of this world. Nyiragongo is a constant threat to the city of Goma, squeezed between the mountain and Lake Kivu. The unstable volcano is one of the reasons National Geographic named Goma the most dangerous city in the world. During a recent eruption, large parts of the city were covered by a lava flow that also shortened the local airstrip.
Another threat is Lake Kivu itself. Full of methane and carbon dioxide from volcanic activity, the lake is a catastrophe waiting to happen. If the gases trapped in dense layers on the bottom should explode as a result of a volcanic fissure under the lake, roughly a million people living on the shores around it could die instantly.
At the Bikini Tam-Tam bar on the Rwanda/Congo border - a dimly lit affair full of thumping loud soukos music and massive congolese men with heavy gold wristwatches - I enlisted the services of two armed guards, Emmanual and Janvier, and a porter named Moïse, and arranged to meet them early next morning on a street corner in Goma. For some reason they were delayed, and I spent a few hours talking to various people who stopped and asked what an obviously out-of-place ‘blanc’ was doing in Congo. I met a man who claimed to be Dieudonné the Bandit. In excellent French he told me it was good that we met in daylight, when we could talk as civilised men. At night it would have been a different matter, since “his profession necessitated some unpleasant things”.
Eventually our little armed expedition climbed Nyiragongo, narrowly missing a fire-fight when a militia group tried to hold up travellers on the road from Goma. We heard the shooting start and moved quickly up the mountain to spend the night at the crater rim in bitter cold, rain and a brief hail storm. We warmed ourselves at the gates of Hell, while the volcano rumbled and hissed.
KENYA - MAGAZINE FEATURE ON THE POACHING CRISIS
The Swedish current affairs magazine FILTER commissioned a 25-page feature on the poaching crisis, and on Kenya’s recent success in reducing the numbers of elephants and rhinos killed by poachers. Journalist Michael Tjelder and I spent 2 weeks in northern Kenya to get the story, meeting with a number of people engaged in the struggle against the poachers. In Nairobi we met with Dr. Richard Leakey and wildlife activist Paula Kahumbu, who both gave us valuable insights into the future of conservation. We spent time in the bush up in Samburu with Save The Elephants' founder Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton and David Daballen who knows over 400 elephants personally, and in Nasuulu with Northern Rangelands Trust, as well as in Laikipia with Ol Pejeta’s armed rangers and special dog section. Sadly, a pregnant white rhino was killed on Ol Pejeta just hours after we left, underlining the fact that, while Kenya seems to have a highly successful strategy to reduce poaching, the battle is by no means over.
Karamoja, in northern Uganda, is a beautiful but tragic landscape where low-level warfare and deadly cattle raids are part of daily life. Many of the ethnic groups who live in the region, e.g. the Gie, Karimojong and Dodoth, are semi-nomadic pastoralists, which is at odds with the Ugandan government’s desire to settle and control the area. The UN runs an on-again, off-again programme of disarmament in the region, hampered by accusations of atrocities, torture and extra-judicial killings by the army.
I travelled through the region from Kidepo on the South Sudan border and south through Nakapiripit. It’s a tough, unforgiving land of dry scrub and rocky hills, inhabited by people who have adapted perfectly to their environment. We found some areas with abundant wildlife, but also several carcasses of elephants killed for their ivory, and a buffalo probably killed by a poisoned arrow. We saw a mountain range we want to explore more thoroughly after hearing tales of isolated elephant herds, massive buffalos and black leopards. There may also be surviving pockets of the Ik people, a farming culture pushed back to a stone-age existence up in the high mountains by the marauding cattle raiders on the plains.
ZIMBABWE - INTERNATIONAL ANTI POACHING FOUNDATION
The International Anti-Poaching Foundation (www.iapf.org) is based close to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Originally started by Australian Damien Mander, operations on the ground are now run by Steve Dean. IAPF has provided professional anti-poaching training for game scouts and rangers from many different countries. They currently manage a team of rangers in a private game reserve in the middle of a poaching ’hot-zone’ in Zimbabwe, and offer co-management services to protect national parks and game reserves in difficult areas.
I joined IAPF’s ranger team on day and night patrols in the bush. They are a highly dedicated and wholly professional group of individuals who risk their lives to protect a small number of rhinos that would otherwise undoubtedly have been killed by poachers. Their efforts have been successful so far, with no rhinos lost and two calves born in the last two years.
KENYA - THE BIG TUSKER PROJECT, TSAVO
Tsavo Trust (tsavotrust.org) is a Kenyan non-profit organisation that works closely with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), as well as research and conservation partners such as Save The Elephants, in support of wildlife, habitat and communities in southern Kenya's Greater Tsavo Ecosystem.
‘The Big Tusker Project’ focuses on protecting Tsavo’s small number of very large elephants, some with tusks that reach the ground, from ivory poachers. In January 2013, 12 of these giants were shot near Tsavo’s Tiva River, and in May 2014, the well-known old bull Satao was killed. If this continues, Tsavo’s giant tuskers and the unique gene pool they represent will soon be gone forever.
I volunteered to support The Big Tusker Project with photos for websites and fundraising, and worked closely with a team from Tsavo Trust to find and get close to the big tuskers. They are wise and extremely wary of people, which is understandable, and the assignment was a real challenge.
ZIMBABWE - HWANGE NATIONAL PARK
Hwange National Park is the largest game reserve in Zimbabwe, but it is relatively unknown and has few visitors. Hwange is huge, with a total area of roughly 14,600 km2, compared to Kenya’s more well-known and relatively crowded Masai Mara with 1,500 km2. Located in south-western Zimbabwe, the park borders the dry Kalahari ecosystem, but Hwange is mostly mopane woodland. The area has several water systems that provide favourable conditions for large herds of plains game, elephants, and different species of carnivores.
I wandered through northern Hwange on foot with Eleckson Ndlovu, a former game ranger and an expert guide, doing research for an ongoing photo project on the rapid rise in rhino and elephant poaching, and taking photos for future exhibitions.
KENYA - OL PEJETA & LEWA CONSERVANCIES
Ol Pejeta and Lewa are two non-profit private wildlife conservancies in Laikipia in northern Kenya. Both support endangered species such as white and black rhinos, and provide safe havens for herds of elephants under pressure. Ol Pejeta and Lewa also work closely with the surrounding communities and help to provide health care and education.
Ol Pejeta and Lewa are separate entities, but they cooperate on conservation issues and marketing. I worked with their field staff to renew their image banks for media contacts, fund-raising and research,
Poaching of rhinos and elephants is a constant threat, and two rhinos were killed at a nearby conservancy while I was at Lewa. Both Ol Pejeta and Lewa have professional anti-poaching teams, and I participated in exercises with the armed ranger units.
KENYA - SAVE THE ELEPHANTS, SAMBURU
Save The Elephants (www.savetheelephants.org), led by renowned elephant expert Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, serves as a protector and advocate for elephants globally. In Africa, STE does groundbreaking research using sophisticated GPS-tracking technology to provide crucial details on what land and resources elephants need, and how to reduce conflicts between humans and elephants.
I worked with STE’s research team in Samburu in northern Kenya to build a new image bank for their websites, printed materials and presentations. It was a few weeks of fascinating close work with both elephants and people, including difficult situations with cattle herders grazing on land set aside as a nature reserve, and violent conflicts between different ethnic groups in Kenya’s arid north.
LOS ANGELES - ELEPHANT CRISIS FUND GALA
On May 10, 2014, a gala evening was held in Malibu, California, hosted by Erica Beeney and Rupert Wyatt, and co-hosted by Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Save The Elephants and Wildlife Conservation Network.
I donated a signed limited-edition print, and a selection of elephant photos that were shown on multiple large screens during the evening as an inspiration to donors. The evening raised more than $ 2 million, of which $ 1 million as a grant from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.
“Elephant poaching is a brutal crisis, with more than 30,000 elephants killed last year alone,” said Leonardo DiCaprio. “The decimation of these animals is something we have the power to stop, and the Elephant Crisis Fund is a crucial part of the solution.”
© Frank af Petersens