Notes From the Field, October - December 2009
November 24, 2009
E-mail from Dr. Gay E. Reinartz:
Back at Etate
A little update for BCBI.
Sorry that I have not been in touch more, but we have had to cram everything into one month, and we only have about 10 days left at Etate. We are getting ready to leave for the forest for about 6-7 days. I wanted to send you an overview of what we have done and what we foresee doing in the near future.
As you know, we haven’t been to Etate in a year because last spring we were in the Lomako region doing a large bonobo survey in the community forest near the Lomako Faunal Reserve. So, we could not get to Etate that season. Therefore, the first thing we had to do this trip was to evaluate the state of the research station and get an overview of what has happened here in the past year. Frankly, I was somewhat apprehensive about what we might find; I feared that the Etate guards would begin to lose motivation during our long absence. On our arrival, however, even though it was about midnight when we landed, I could see that Etate was as she has always been – beautifully arranged, clean, and well-maintained. No one had cut any trees, the guards had planted grass as I had requested, the buildings were clean and repaired, and flowers surrounded the yards.
Etate in spring 2008
The next day, we began our evaluation. We met with Bunda, the Chef de Poste de Patouille of Etate. Bunda is an ICCN guard [Institut Congolais pour la Conservacion de la Nature] who lives at Etate with four other guards and oversees all the operations on site. He is also responsible for patrolling the Etate sector. We worked with Bunda to verify the patrol activity over the past year. We downloaded his GPS waypoints that he took and noted what animals and human signs he encountered during the patrols. We entered these data on our laptop and placed them on a satellite image. To our delight, Bunda and his team had the best patrol report since we began the patrol analysis and guard training in 2005.
Cutting New Trails, Connecting the Dots
Many people, including park authorities, don’t realize that most guards of Salonga can’t find their way in the forests; without a map and a compass, they can only follow trails, and they can’t bushwhack to other areas without getting lost. Therefore, the patrols are fixed to certain routes and trails; the patrolled area is thus minimal throughout the park. Moreover, poachers know too well the normal patrol routes, and it’s easy for them to evade the guards.
During our training, we take the guards out on transects and reconnaissance walks, making new paths as we go. We teach them to navigate using maps, compass and GPS. In this way, they learn to cut new trails, connect the dots, and go anywhere without getting lost. Later we and they can see their routes (waypoints) on a map and the locations where they observed wildlife and illegal human activities. We teach the guards to use the information from their patrols to direct their next anti-poaching activities. For example, if they find more human signs on a given trail, then they know to increase the number of future patrols in this area. We also point out to them where there might be a shortage of patrols – holes in the route map where they need to familiarize themselves with the terrain.
On a previous trip, Dr. Gay Reinartz and a guard use a Global
Positioning System (GPS) in Etate.
Signs of Elephants and Bonobos
When we evaluated Bunda’s patrol reports and looked over the scattering of waypoints, we found that the Etate patrol routes spread evenly over the 500 km2 area. There were new pathways, no holes, and there were more patrols at locations where poaching had occurred in the past. The guards discovered that elephants were increasing their visits to Etate. We have observed this trend over the past few years, but never did we imagine that the number of elephant signs at Etate would increase this dramatically. We can’t yet estimate elephant density, but now elephants have come within 3 km of the camp, and their signs are visible on all the bonobo transects. Of course, the guards also documented bonobo distribution during their patrols. The patrols encounter bonobos regularly; bonobos seem to be doing fine (a completely unscientific conclusion). More importantly, the guards have found no major signs of poaching – that is, no elephant carcasses, snare lines, or large hunting camps.
In brief, Etate remains one of the best protected sites in Salonga, and the guards continue their work despite our long absence. There is no better test of our work and training than to witness the guards’ self-sufficiency! Bunda and his guards deserve the credit; it is rare to find their level of dedication. It also confirms that we have a good thing going, but more area should be effectively patrolled. The next step will be to build on the Etate model and train more guards in bio-monitoring. We have plans for this. We have tentative approval from the ICCN Chef de Site or Chief Warden to use Etate as a training center for the purpose of training more guards in bio-monitoring. To help us with the training and to augment our presence, we have hired two new staff members, Basele Michel and Ngomo Mozart, two members from our previous team in the Lomako.
The Zoological Society's survey team at Etate were trained in using a
Global Positioning System unit on a previous trip. Bokitshi Bunda holds the unit.
Michel and Mozart have joined us as advanced trainees. While working with us last spring; Michele and Mozart each excelled as survey team leaders. They demonstrated a large capacity for learning and leadership (and enthusiasm). Their future job will be to train the Salonga guards and assist us with our bonobo research. Neither Michel nor Mozart had ever used a telephone, never touched one, until a month ago when I asked Mozart to make a call for me. It’s a thing that does not exist in most of the interior, but they learn fast and eagerly. Already we have started lessons in Excel! I hope to train them to do everything from organizing surveys to operating a laptop to doing accounts. They will shadow us in all aspects of our work so they can gain the necessary experience to become independent – perhaps as independent and self-reliant as Bunda has become in his guard bio-monitoring.
To be Continued
We head out now for the next 6 days to search for bonobos.
All photos provided by Dr. Reinartz.