Congo Conservation with 
Wildlife Biologist Joe Wasilewski

I've filmed with Joe for a few years and during this time he has enlightened many of my videos with his professionalism and his expertise on wildlife conservation. I look forward to continue our film collaboration for many years to come. Below you'll find some of Joe's impressions on his conservation work in the Congo.

Well, I have been here in Yafunga for almost 20 days now, with 7 to 10 more to go, depending on logistics. Below is a brief description of the journey from Kisangani to Yafunga---reverse it for the return trip. To get here from Kisangani, the nearest large city, about 160 km away is quite a trip. The roads in this area of the Congo are horrible and with even the slightest rain, almost impassable. After departing Kisangani, it is a 2 hour drive to the Lindi River ferry where we usually have to wait for the ferry captain, as there are few vehicles crossing the river and no need for him to be there all day. Once the river is crossed, the real drive begins. It is about a 5-6 hour drive, again depending on the weather/road conditions and the load the truck is carrying. There is a road tax of 5-6000 cgf's to pass through the town of Yangambi, which is about a 45 minute drive to the next ferry crossing on the Congo River. Again after a wait of a few minutes to an hour the ferry crosses to the town of Isangi. (By the way, the charge for each ferry crossing is 25 liters of fuel.) The ramps of this ferry do not even come close to reaching the ramp, so the ferry people have some wood planks in order to have the vehicles drive up to the ferry. It is a very tricky operation and vehicles have been known to slip off the boards. 

Once safely in Isangi, you must check in with the Atte, or politically connected leader for the province. Besides checking all your paperwork, a gift (whiskey, money) is usually given to him for whom you are guaranteed your safety while in his province. From here it is another 1 1/2-2 hour drive to the Safbois base camp, located in the village of Yafunga. Again, parts of the road are extremely poor and there are homemade road blocks along the way. (Some villages clear vegetation from the road or attempt to fill in holes and expect payment from the few drivers in return.) Along the way while passing through the numerous villages, everyone comes out to greet the vehicle, most wave and the children all scream "MONDELE", (some just louder than others) or simply put, white man. If for any reason you happen to stop at a village, within 3 minutes, there are 30-60 children standing staring at you----followed up by all the adults---and children that happen to be in the village at the time.

 The villages are simple and have all the necessary tools for a basic survival. The huts themselves are built from small diameter trees, usually forming four walls, a door, a few windows than covered over with several layer of mud, which dries as hard as a brick. There is usually a small garden in the front of the house, sometimes fenced, sometimes not. Goats, chickens and pigs all roam about the compounds. The main occupations consist of farming, whether working your own farm or working at another, hunting, and some type of trade, selling goods, palm wine, farm vegetables, etc. A grave stone is in almost every village, as a memorial to some past chief of the village. There is basic furniture in and around the huts, consisting of chairs, a table and bed frame---most is home made from materials of the forest.

The people are for the most part, happy living their lives in the respective villages. They are poor, some not having clothes or shoes for their children. They work hard with the bulk of the work burden placed on the women. Men with the means have multiple wives and 6-8 children with each wife. As for food, they subsist on several staples, the most common being manioc, which is prepared in several manners. Rice is commonly grown and traded as is corn and many type of fruits/vegetables, the most notable being several varieties of bananas, pineapples, mangoes, avocados, papaya, eggplant, beans and onions. Meat/fish is consumed approximately twice a week. The bulk of the meat is fish from the rivers and bush meat, as domestic grown animals are too expensive to purchase. It is no wonder that so much bush meat is consumed as it is readily available at a cheap price. Hunters will sell or trade it to fellow villagers or if they obtain a large load will take it to larger markets where it will fetch a better price. They will take a bicycle with a full load of bush meat or vegetables 150km to a market! 

Their worldly goods usually consist of the clothes on their back with maybe if one was well to-do, could have a set of dress clothes for special occasions. Equipment consists of some basic farm implements, household/kitchen items such as pots, plates, cups, etc. The most used item is a machete and many people are in possession of one. In fact, driving through the various villages it is noticeable that children, some as young as three-four years old carry around sharp knives/machetes.

It hit me hard the other day, as I went out with my interpreter on a motorcycle, 15-20km south, looking for possible areas where I can find crocodiles. The road ended and we traveled 10 or more km on a bike path----to a series of 5 villages. They do not even have a road linking them to the outside world. Their world consists of the very area they inhabit---no more. And they are so poor, much poorer than the people described earlier. They seldom see a motorcycle, let alone a white man on one---it is so exciting for them. Every time we stop, I am asked for money---they know that I am rich---but how can I explain that I am not rich. In their eyes I am and I have to learn to deal with it. But I cannot give 500-1000-10,000cgf’s to everyone----although when I visit a chief, I leave some cash for him as a token of my appreciation.  It is sooo sad----

Sanitary conditions are very basic and hospitals/health clinics have bare bones supplies. Many people still visit the local healer rather than visit the local clinics. We have visited several markets in the area, 5 to be exact. We are buying staples such as beans, rice, onions, fruits, etc. The markets are basic and simple. There are only the very essentials sold there, and we couldn’t even find onions after searching two markets. Some of the markets have bush meat for sale while more have fish, some fresh---some smoked. One thing we can always get at a market is a wife. I have been asked to marry women in every market I have visited so far, without taking a wife home (yet!).  We did find the saloon in Imbolo where one could purchase an almost cold beer---it is in a town that has the palm oil plant and most everyone from the nearby villages works there or one of their relative works there. Some have the discretionary money to purchase a beer, coke or ice cream.

The work of Jadora seems very strange to these people. Jadora is not here to take from the forest as everyone else does. Jadora is here to simply collect forest data, find out about living conditions of the local inhabitants and study the health of the biodiversity in the forest. We try to explain our mission and most people politely smile and nod their head, but while talking among themselves, they continue to question our motives. The three principals from Jadora could not be any more different----there is Ethan Freid, the botanist who would be happy working with his team(s) in the forest and never go into a village. Next comes Duncan Earle or MAC as he is known by the locals----he is the cultural anthropologist and travels from village to village visiting people, talking to them, finding out the secrets to their daily lives and he would be happy to never set foot in the forest. Now comes Joe Wasilewski, the biologist of the group. His job is to study the biodiversity in the forest and is completely strange to the people. He does not take any of the animals, just photographs and releases them. Stranger still, he has been known to travel along roads and in the forest at night, completely unheard of in this area. He must certainly be up to something, many of the people feel. 

In fact just the other evening one of the interpreters, Julien came to our quarters very disturbed. He heard from a local villager (from Yafunga) reports of the white man in the forest at night. Rumors are flying about and the chief got word of this. We must make an appointment to visit with the chief and clear up this problem before it grows out of proportion. Between motorcycles breaking down, rain, etc, we didn’t get to see the chief for two days. In the meantime we stayed out of the forest at night. We met with the chief on Sunday. The meeting lasted about 40 minutes, was attended by the chief, the village elder and a host of other men (about 35 of them). The hunters we hired from Yafunga, Gelango and the Pastor also were in attendance. Philemon gave a speech any politician would be proud of, and after his speech we handed out some of the laminated photos I brought---animals from around the world, me with crocodiles, apes, iguanas, cats, elephants, etc. They were very amused, surprised and shocked---all very positive. The outcome of the meeting was that I am free to enter their forest, both day and night. No one will say anything and they will guarantee my security. I hand an envelope to the chief in thanks (5000cgf) and give him a packet of tomato seeds. He is very happy and we go on our way.

I am in the forest at night because that is when the herps are out. It has been raining the past few days (off and on), and the frogs are out en masse. I have been getting some good frog shots, many that I cannot find in the field guide book. This area has been isolated for so long with civil unrest, difficulty of reaching it and a host of other problems. There may certainly be some undescribed species here---at least range extensions for some. I am going to get the best shots I can and send them off to a few people I know that may be able to identify them.

To be continued...

1 comment:

  1. Since grade school, I've been interested in nature, especially trees and birds. Your site is most interesting, and I look forward to reading more.

    Best wishes in your endeavors,

    Charles Smart