David Stanton’s Adventures and Misadventures in TL2 - Part 1

ARRIVAL IN KINDU

Hi, my name is Dave Stanton and I am a PhD student at Cardiff University and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). My PhD is on an animal called okapi, which is a rainforest giraffe that lives only in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRCongo). I have teamed up with the ‘TL2 Project’ (see http://www.bonoboincongo.com) to try and find out more about this little known species in a part of the country called TL2 (the area between the Tshuapa, Lomami and Lualaba Rivers, in the heart of DRC).

This is the incredible okapi, big as a small horse, but a type of giraffe. Photo credit: Kim Gjerstad.

The okapi is a species under threat from habitat fragmentation, human encroachment and poaching. They are also highly elusive and nearly impossible to see in the wild. To get around this problem, I am investigating questions about okapi ecology and conservation status using okapi DNA from dung found in the forest, and skins of hunted okapi that we find in villages. Genetic analysis can give us information crucial to conservation such as home-range sizes, movement patterns, and how population fragmentation is affecting the species.

Dung like a pile of gems © Dave Stanton/ZSL-Cardiff University

TL2 is a particularly interesting area because TL2 okapi are separated from the rest of the species’ range by the Congo and Lomami Rivers and, therefore, may be genetically unique. (See map below.)

For this expedition I will be heading into the southern half of TL2 on motorbike, bicycle and foot to survey villages about okapi presence. I will then be heading into the northern half of TL2 to carry out a survey in the remote “Tutu Basin” to look for signs of okapi and hopefully to collect some samples.

At the moment I am in a town called Kindu, which is where this expedition will start. My first experience of Kindu is not a favourable one! I arrived with my assistant researcher, Chryso Kaghoma from ZSL, on a UN flight. We had barely left the safety of the UN compound in Kindu when I was accosted by the head of the local immigration service (DGM). Despite already having my DRC visa, I am required to visit the immigration office. The head officer informed me that we have a “grand problème”.

“This is very serious. A legal matter,” he tells me gravely.

Despite only two options on the visa form that I filled out in London (transit and ordinary), in Kindu I need a “working visa” rather than the “ordinary” visa that I have. I am obliged to see what seems like every official in the building, one of whom is in a tiny wooden office, so small that after the assistant spent five minutes officiously squeezing a chair in for me, there was no room for me to get into it except by clamouring over the back! The DGM eventually tells me that he can sort out my “grand problème” if I give him $700. I definitely did not plan to do that!

The next two days are spent trying to find a solution to my problem. I go for a meeting with the DGM and the provincial Minister of Environment, interrupted every couple minutes by the DGM’s dog-bark ringtone cellphone. We eventually find a solution, which is to pay $100 to the DGM as a “fine”. Suddenly all my problems evaporate, I get my passport back from the DGM who had been looking after it.

I am eager to leave for the forest.

Next day: I head north and west from Kindu on a motorbike, wedged somewhere between my rather large driver, our extensive baggage and a live chicken. Welcome to my adventures in TL2.

Finally — to the forest… © Dave Stanton/ZSL-Cardiff University

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