Episode #3: “A Tale of Two Villages”

King Leopold II of Belgium approached Spain and asked about acquiring their colony in the Philippines. His attempt failed due to lack of funds. So, he shifted his ambitions to colonize Africa. Leopold started a holding company disguised as an international scientific and philanthropic organization. He convinced Henry Morton Stanley to undertake a Central African expedition to scam the leaders in the area into letting his holding company operate there. He named his company “The Congo Free State”, becoming the sole owner and self-made autocratic ruler of the Congo.

People of Congo were forced to gather wild rubber under the rule of Leopold II, King of the Belgians.

At the Berlin conference of 1884, Leopold convinced the other European leaders to legitimize his claim to the Congo, and in 1886, he sent Captain León Roger (of the Belgian Army‘s Carabiniers) to Africa with orders to form the “Force Publique”. He then dispatched other Belgian officers to the Congo to form the nucleus of the officer corp. The rest of the force comprised a mixture of Belgian regular soldiers and mercenaries from other countries, attracted by the prospect of wealth and plunder. With the help of The Force Publique, he used kidnapping, forced labor, murder, and the amputation of limbs to steal the Congo’s ivory and rubber. His atrocities caused the population of the Congo to plummet by the millions. By 1908, news reports of his abuses spread, giving the Belgian government the opportunity they needed to pay 50 million francs to King Leopold II and seize control of his holding company. They renamed it “The Belgian Congo”.

Joseph Bonkile Engobo, known as Papa Joseph, near the stump of a tree he had tried to save.
Joseph Bonkile Engobo, known as Papa Joseph, near the stump of a tree he had tried to save. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Joseph Bonkile Engobo was 84 years old. He calculated the Belgians arrived in his village almost a century ago. The villagers called him Papa Joseph and part of his job as traditional chief of Lokolama was to know their history. He knew the Belgians arrived in 1922 and forced his great-grandfather to help build a road that began in the city of Mbandaka and plunged into the rainforest. He knew how the Belgians used that road to exploit the locals, forcing them into the forest to bleed baskets of raw rubber from the trees, punishing anyone who resisted or failed to meet their quotas.

In the 1920s, Belgian authorities ordered Lokolama residents to build the road where their village now sits. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Papa Joseph witnessed the timber merchants using that road that cut through his village of Lokolama and the neighboring village of Penzele, bringing chain saws whose buzzing he could hear echoing through the forest. He suspected many of these loggers did not have the correct permits.

“We are the guardians of the forest,” he declared.

One day, Papa Joseph caught a logger named Guy Mampuya cutting down some of Lokolama’s biggest and most valuable trees. Guy insisted he had already paid someone in the neighbouring village for the logging rights. Papa Joseph argued that no one in Lokolama gave the logger permission. During their confrontation, Guy pulled out a gun. Yomi Bonyele was hunting nearby, heard the commotion, and intervened on the old man’s behalf. Papa Joseph said this was the first time something like this had ever happened in Lokolama, and he had a pretty good idea about why it was happening now.

A group of Congolese and British scientists poured over satellite imagery of the Congo Basin that alerted them to the existence of peatlands. After visiting the Republic of Congo, wading through swamps, and checking measurements, their findings produced a paper which they published in the scientific journal “Nature”. This paper outlined how they discovered a vast store of carbon in previously unmapped peatlands that covered a vast area of the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

SIMON LEWIS- Professor of Global Change Science at the University of Leeds and University College London.
One co-author of this paper was Steven Lewis, Professor of Global Change Science at the University of Leeds and University College London.

Professor Lewis explained:

“Our results confirm the central Congo peatlands to be the world’s largest tropical peatlands complex. We estimate the peatlands cover 16.7 million hectares, an area equivalent to the size of England and Wales combined, which is about 15% bigger than the 14.6 million hectares estimated when this ecosystem was first mapped in 2017.”

In another article from the Guardian, Professor Lewis elaborated by saying:

“We have also found 30 billion tonnes of carbon that nobody knew existed. The peat covers only 4% of the whole Congo basin, but stores the same amount of carbon below ground as that stored above ground in the trees covering the other 96%.

“These peatlands hold nearly 30% of the world’s tropical peat land carbon, that’s about 20 years of the fossil fuel emissions of the United States of America.”

“Peatlands are only a resource in the fight against climate change when they are left intact, and so maintaining large stores of carbon in undisturbed peatlands should be a priority. Our new results show that carbon has been building up in the Congo basin’s peat for nearly 11,000 years.”

“If the Congo Basin peatland complex was to be destroyed, this would release billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.”

“When we overlayed our new map of the peatland on a map of oil concessions, we discovered that the upcoming sale of rights to explore for fossil fuels includes close to 1 million hectares of peat swamp forest. If destroyed by the construction of roads, pipelines and other infrastructure needed to extract the oil, we estimate that up to 6 billion tonnes of CO₂ could be released, equivalent to 14 years’ worth of current UK greenhouse gas emissions.”

Peat, formed from fragments of ancient branches, leaves, roots and tree trunks, is hidden under dark, filmy water. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Another co-author of the study, Dr Ifo Suspense, from the Université Marien Ngouabi in Brazzaville, had this to say: “The discovery of the Cuvette Centrale peatlands could have a large impact on the climate and conservation policies of the Congo. The maintenance and protection of this peatland complex, alongside protecting our forests, could be Central Africa’s great contribution to the global climate change problem.

“It is of the utmost importance that governments, conservation and scientific communities work with the people of the Cuvette Centrale to improve local livelihoods without compromising the integrity of this globally significant region of Earth.”

The scientists enlisted the help of a local Congolese biology student from Mbandaka named Ovide Emba. Mr. Emba became an important member of the research team, where he measured the depth of the peat, and analyzed the methane and carbon dioxide the peat produced to see whether it was decomposing. He dug out perfect half-cylinders of samples and sent them to the UK for analysis. By writing his university thesis on the subject, Ovide Emba became one of the first scientists to investigate the peatlands of the Congo.

The peat samples that Ovide Emba extracts and sends to the UK for analysis.
OVIDE EMBA- Congolese biology student from Mbandaka

Photography by Nanna Heitmann
OVIDE EMBA- A Congolese biology student in Mbandaka. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Mr. Emba took the writer Ruth Maclean from the New York Times to visit the peatlands. He brought an entourage that included him, Ruth, Yomi Bonyele(the hunter who saved Papa Joseph from getting shot), and a group of five women from Lokolama who wanted to show the reporter their special fishing technique. It is during this trip that they taught the Times reporter the local word for the peatlands: ENTOKU. They said that ‘Entoku’ meant “the big mud where people go to disappear”. The spirits of their ancestors lived there. They claimed they only heard the term “peatlands” for the first time from Ovide The Biology Student.

Fishing in a peatland pond. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Ovide Emba taught the villagers about climate change and the consequences of destroying the peatlands. The villagers used to hunt, fish, and collect mushrooms there, but the information he shared with them made the elders instruct the villagers to steer clear of the area. The science student regretted the misunderstanding the discovery created. It discouraged locals from hunting and fishing in the peatlands because they wanted to avoid disturbing it. He knew that hunting and fishing weren’t a threat. The data proved that logging, mining, oil exploration and large-scale development were the real problem.

Until recently, people from Lokolama frequently went to the peatlands to fish, hunt and collect mushrooms. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Mr. Emba set up his gas collection chambers, wading knee-deep in the water. He anchored a plastic tub and used a syringe to extract the gas. The peat beneath his feet comprising plant matter built up over eleven thousand years. As Ovide collected the carbon dioxide and methane, holding a palm tree for support, he asked the hunter if he knew what those gases were. When he said he didn’t know, Ovide Emba volunteered the layperson’s explanation of how leaves fell, went in the water, transformed into mud, and produced gas. He told how plant matter fell into an environment that is so wet that it prevented decay–trapping the carbon inside. Over thousands of years, the plants in this area lived and died, but did not decompose. Instead, the dead moss piled up, the weight of each layer squeezing the layer beneath it into a thick mud called ‘peat’. One species of sphagnum moss, for example, could hold 26 times its weight in water. It took a thousand years for a meter of peat to form, but not long to destroy it.

Ovide Emba makes excursions into peatlands for his research and sometimes brings back peat samples to the the lab at the Higher Pedagogical Institute of Mbandaka, where he is a student. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

The New York Times reporter who was with them had to admit that even she never knew that peat was such an enormous store of carbon. She acknowledged that in her culture, peat was just something they used to make whiskey, and it was also the place where archaeologists would find dead bodies preserved.

The biggest challenge for Ovide Emba was explaining to the locals the science behind why the peatlands were so important. The history of Belgian colonialism in the Congo made the locals suspicious of the scientists’ motives. Some villagers suspected the scientists were really oil prospectors. So, the project relied on Ovide to be the intermediary between the scientists and the community. He knew the people, the terrain, the language, and the local customs. But he didn’t find it any easier explaining the scientific concepts to the people to whom he spoke. “How does one explain that there are invisible gases trapped in the mud?” he asked himself. But then came his eureka moment.

When Mr. Emba visited the village of Lokolama to extract peat samples, he stayed at the home of a local named Mrs. Therese Bokinga. She took care of him and he even called her his “village mother”. Mrs. Bokinga had a friend who had a unique way of understanding the science behind the carbon stores of the peatland. Her idea was that Entoku (the peatlands) absorbed all the spirits–good and bad. She saw things that were in line with her traditions. Mr. Emba decided he would incorporate this concept into his future explanations. Ovide knew that Mrs. Bokinga, however, didn’t believe him. She suspected that the samples he took were just a cover story; that there might be something more valuable in the peatlands- diamonds.

Therese Bokinga, with her husband, lives in Lokolama and looks after Mr. Emba, the researcher, when he visits.  Photography by Nanna Heitmann
Therese Bokinga, with her husband, lives in Lokolama and looks after Mr. Emba, the researcher, when he visits. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Back in Lokolama, Papa Joseph complained to whomever would listen about Guy The Logger pulling a gun on him. The logger admitted to having a gun, but he denied pointing it at Papa Joseph. Following their altercation, instead of the logger getting into trouble, Joseph received a summons to appear before a government official. The summons accused him of uttering a death threat to Guy in response to seeing the gun, and to occupying someone else’s land. Papa Joseph intended to use his education (he was a teacher in a neighbouring village) to mount an appeal to the authorities. He knew the stakes were high. The government accused the people of Lokolama of squatting in their own village. If they lost the case, the government would evict them from their land.

Papa Joseph knew the colonial history of his village and how the Belgians forced them to move Lokolama from its original location in the forest near their hunting and fishing grounds to a spot next to the village of Penzele. The village of Lokolama was the home to a few dozen families who farmed cassava. The swamps were outside his village. He could see the swamps made it difficult to haul out trees surrounding the peatlands. If someone drained those swamps, it would open pathways for loggers and poachers. He could have sold the surrounding trees to earn quick cash, but he and his village agreed to forgo that option because they understood why the trees were important. Papa Joseph interpreted the attention the peatlands received as a sign that Lokolama sat on a valuable resource, and he noticed that the international attention made his neighbors in Penzele jealous.

Guy Mampuya, a logger from Mbandaka, in Penzele. There are large trees on the peatlands that interest him. Photography by Nanna Heitmann
Guy Mampuya, a logger from Mbandaka, in Penzele. There are large trees on the peatlands that interest him. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

It was a rainy day in Penzele when Guy the logger met with the village elders under a raffia shelter to discuss what they should do about what they called their “pygmy problem”. He noticed the elders all agreed that their neighbors in Lokolama were getting out of line and needed to be put back in their place. They needed to teach the people of Lokolama that the peatlands belonged to Penzele.

“You can’t grow crops on the peatlands because they’re too soggy,” he thought to himself. “Houses will sink if you try to build on them because the ground is too soft. The stagnant water is a potential breeding ground for malaria-causing mosquitoes. So, what did Penzele want with the peatlands??”

But farming and real estate questions weren’t his primary concern. He had his eye on some large trees in the peatlands he wanted to chop down. But the elders of Penzele told him to hold off until they had enough information to make their final decision. He hoped that once the science researchers lost interest and stopped coming to the area, he could use that window of opportunity to get the permission he needed. Listening to them, he realized each elder had a different interpretation of why the peatlands were important. One of them mentioned something about the leaves. Another said something about diamonds. And one elder felt the word “peatland” was a merely a euphemism for the entire forest. Guy responded with scorn, “Peatlands, peatlands,” he muttered to the New York Times reporter who was with him. “Everyone talks about peatlands, but in reality, no one understands a thing.”

He saw the elders point at a house. There was someone living there who could explain what the peatlands were. But that person was away in the forest. Just on cue, that man emerged from the trees with a straw hat, wet from the rain. He was called “Tout Va Bien”. Someone rose from their chair to give him their seat. Tout Va Bien frowned when he learned the elders still couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of the peatlands, so he gave them his definitive explanation. As he spoke, the elders shifted in their chairs to avoid the rain leaking through the roof of the raffia shelter.

Joseph Lombo Bokanga, known as Tout Va Bien, is the richest man in Penzele. Trees protect the peatlands. “So if we don’t cut them down,” he asks, “what can we expect from the world in return?” Photography by Nanna Heitmann
Joseph Lombo Bokanga, known as Tout Va Bien, is the richest man in Penzele. Trees protect the peatlands. “So if we don’t cut them down,” he asks, “what can we expect from the world in return?” Photography by Nanna Heitmann

“Peat is an ecosystem,” he explained. “It’s a kind of mud. Flowers and leaves fall down and do not decompose for many years. Not all swamp forests are peatlands. It absorbs pollution out of the air and stocks it inside the humidity.”

He didn’t pause for a breath.

“In environmental terms, it traps carbon, and it filters the water that goes to the Congo River. It stabilizes the climate. In economic terms, it has an impact: it produces many animals, fish, and trees. Inside, there are also spirits — that’s where we get our traditional power.”

He hadn’t finished.

“The Congo Basin’s peatlands are the world’s lungs. People say if the world exists, it’s because Congo is breathing. And Congo is breathing from Équateur Province, and especially where you find peatlands, and especially Penzele.”

Tout Va Bien acknowledged that Penzele’s survival depended on the peatland’s protection. He also saw it as his opportunity to attract attention to the poverty in his village.

“If we cut down the trees, the peatlands will let go of their carbon, and it will destroy the world,” he said, pausing long enough for an ominous crack of thunder to ring out across the rainforest. “So if we don’t cut them down, what can we expect from the world in return?”

He argued that people far better off than him, on the other side of the Earth, were asking him to sacrifice to protect the planet. He intended to receive compensation.

“As you can see, we have nothing here that pollutes,” he pointed out, gesturing at the houses of clay, bamboo and thatch, some without doors. He laughed as he pointed at the New York Times reporters observing the meeting. He knew they had flown halfway around the world, using more carbon to get to Penzele than the village had used in a year. “They are the big polluters! They keep polluting and ask us to protect the peatlands,” he thundered. “They must think carefully.”

Tout Va Bien had more to add, counting nations on his fingers. “The British, the French, the Belgians, the Italians, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Americans,” he seethed. “They are the polluters. And they are the ones who have to pay.”

Men gathering around a board game in Lokolama. Photography by Nanna Heitman
Men gathering around a board game in Lokolama. Photography by Nanna Heitmann
The chief of Penzele in his doorway. The two towns exist in a delicate balance with each other. Photography by Nanna Heitmann
The chief of Penzele in his doorway. The two towns exist in a delicate balance with each other. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

When Guy the Logger pulled a gun on Papa Joseph, he let a name slip. It was “Joseph Lombo Bokanga” aka Mr. Tout Va Bien, the richest man in the village of Penzele. Papa Joseph knew that Tout Va Bien lived in a walled compound with his own cassava field and he received the nickname “Tout Va Bien” (Everything is going well) because he was so wealthy it appeared everything went his way.

Papa Joseph knew the villages of Penzele and Lokolama had history. Both of their villages were in an area called “La Cuvette Centrale.” He knew the people of Penzele were predominately Bantu, while Papa Joseph and the people in Lokolama were mostly Bachua pygmies. The people of Penzele often treated them with contempt. In the past, Penzele villagers forced Papa Joseph’s people to work in their fields. He knew, however, that gone were the days of forced labor- sometimes people in Penzele would marry someone from Lokolama, but he still noticed that children from his village were not welcome at the school at Penzele. They had to attend a less-equipped school in Lokolama. To the untrained eye, both communities looked like they were in the same village, but Papa Joseph could see how the discovery of the peatlands upset the delicate balance between Lokolama and Penzele, widening the invisible social gap between the two communities. He received intel from someone who overheard Mr. Tout Va Bien at a meeting bragging about a map he had that proved that Penzele and not Lokolama owned the peatlands.

A map showing the villages of Lokolama and Penzele in the province of Cuvette Centrale.

Papa Joseph knew that prior to 2016, the Congolese state owned the forest surrounding the two villages and that the government changed the law to allow the communities to apply for land titles so that they could own the land on which they’ve lived for generations. They could apply for titles of up to 200 square miles each. One of the first steps in this process was for Papa Joseph and the villagers to draw up maps to submit their claims. The government wouldn’t help them with this step, so they needed expert help. Greenpeace offered help, commissioning a local environmental group to create the map for Lokolama. The World Wildlife Fund drew up the map for Penzele. It wasn’t until Tout Va Bien heard delegations were visiting Lokolama to talk about the value of the peatlands that he claimed the maps clashed, arguing that the Penzele map proved his village was the rightful owner of the peatlands. Papa Joseph blamed the World Wildlife Fund for not consulting Lokolama when they drew up Penzele’s map.

Papa Joseph rode on the back of a motorbike to the city of Mbandaka. He wanted to complain about the time Guy the logger pulled a gun on him and to inquire if the logger even had the proper permits to cut down the trees in Lokolama. He spoke with the Provincial Coordinator of the Environment and Sustainable Development. No government official would help him. The environmental officer demanded the rough equivalent of $140 just to check if the logger had the permits. The prosecutor wouldn’t send anyone to investigate unless Papa Joseph coughed up $80. Papa Joseph thought the environmental officials would do something, they did nothing. This meant that Guy the logger and Tout Va Bien could cut down the trees of Lokolama with impunity.

“We don’t have the money to protect the peatlands,” he admitted. “It’s not our fault. We want to protect it, but we don’t have the means.”

Ruth Maclean, the New York Times reporter, did some more fact-finding. She learned that in November 2021, at COP26, the United Nations conference, rich nations, along with the Bezos Earth Fund, pledged 1.5 billion dollars to protect the peatlands of the Congo Basin. They funneled the money through an organization called the Central African Forest Initiative Trust Fund. They funneled that money again through international organizations, who then sent it to local projects. So, when the New York Times reporter tried to meet with Papy Ekate Ekofo, the minister of the environment for Équateur Province (where most of the peatlands are located), she couldn’t get a hold of him to verify Papa Joseph’s allegations. He was in Kinshasa trying to convince his boss, the national minister of the environment, to allocate money to Équateur. When she caught up with him in Kinshasa, he acknowledged that there was corruption in the department that awarded logging permits and leaving little money in his budget to enforce land rights. He said that loggers could get permits to buy trees from a village, and they rarely ever stuck to the permitted logging areas or the specific trees the permits allowed. “The way they are logging is murder,” he confessed. “If they continue to log like this, the peatlands will be destroyed.”

Papy Ekate Ekofo, the minister of environment for Équateur Province, in Kinshasa, where he was trying to get government funds to rein in illegal logging. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Ruth Maclean learned that Guy the logger visited the government offices in Mbandaka, too. She convinced him to meet with her at their hotel to get his side of the story. Guy admitted that the government officials called him in to request a bigger bribe to turn a blind eye to his lack of permits. They asked for $200; he paid it and went on his way. After admitting this, he excused himself, gently pushed his chair away from his table, stood up and walked into the night. He explained had to get up early the next morning to return to the forest.

The night sky in the Cuvette Centrale. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Ovide Emba took the New York Times reporters with him in a speedboat 100 miles up the river to the village of Mpeka, another area where scientists discovered peat. As was the tradition, the chief (Chief Jean-Paul Ikolongo Sefala Yekay) greeted them with a basket of fish. But the greeting was just politeness. The chief complained that Mr. Emba brought researchers to his village to take peat samples and offered nothing in return. He had asked Ovide for a gift of a speedboat, and for someone to repair the roof of the school that collapsed in a storm. He accused Mr. Emba of coming to the village, cheating him and leaving. The science student was in an uncomfortable position. The Congolese government offered no infrastructure to the village, leaving the unfair and unrealistic onus of responsibility on Mr. Emba. Ovide knew deep down that soon new people would come – this time with chainsaws and cash to give the chief. As they continued their trip down the great Congo River, Ovide saw signs of deforestation: giant floating rafts of logs from trees cut down – headed to Kinshasa.

Jean-Paul Ikolongo Sefala Yekay, seated, the chief of the riverine village of Mpeka. Photography by Nanna Heitmann
Jean-Paul Ikolongo Sefala Yekay, seated, the chief of the riverine village of Mpeka. Photography by Nanna Heitmann
All along the Congo River are signs of deforestation. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

At their hotel in Mbandaka, the Times reporters saw a group of Chinese business people in the restaurant. They were celebrating the closing of the deal they made in the forest on behalf of their corporation. The men showed them a video they took on their mobile devices of villagers rejoicing and asking them to stay longer after they agreed to sell them their trees.

The road from Mbandaka has brought foreigners seeking natural resources. First, the Belgians came for wild rubber; more recently, others, including the Chinese, have eyed the trees for timber. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

Back in Lokolama, Papa Joseph was worried about the future of his peatlands. “If the state does nothing, in 50 years’ time, I don’t even want to imagine,” he mourned. “If there were people who cared,” he added, but then his voice trailed off. He recruited the help of his younger brother. His plan was to return to Mbandaka to appeal to the government officials one last time. He even rehearsed his speech. “We don’t have money. Can you accept the little we have?” He climbed onto the motorcycle, sandwiched between the driver and his little brother, and away they went- down the road his great-grandfather built.

Papa Joseph, squeezed between a motorcycle driver and his brother, sets off for Mbandaka. Photography by Nanna Heitmann
Papa Joseph, squeezed between a motorcycle driver and his brother, sets off for Mbandaka. Photography by Nanna Heitmann

The Gorilla Project Podcast: Episode #2

This article will give you a sneak preview of some stories we’re developing based on recent news reports and research papers.

Congo to Auction Land to Oil Companies

In the last episode of the Gorilla Project podcast, you heard the story of when a group of habituated chimpanzees attacked a group of gorillas in Loango National Park in Gabon. The chimps killed one infant gorilla during the first attack and ate another during the second attack. The episode starred the scientist Lara Southern, who witnessed both incidents and wrote the research paper “Lethal Coalitionary attacks of Chimpanzees on Gorillas in The Wild”. In it, she cited the Emma Bush paper explaining the attacks’ possible root cause. The Bush paper detailed how climate change was causing the lowest average daily temperature (in another national park in Gabon called Lopé) to rise by 0.25 degrees per decade. The trees in Lopé required the thermometer to fall below a certain threshold as a temperature cue to know when to produce fruit. Since the temperature had risen, the trees stopped knowing it was a fruiting season. As a result, researchers went from seeing approximately one in every ten trees with fruit in 1987 to only 1 in 50 fruit-bearing trees in 2018. Less fruit led to less food for frugivorous animals like elephants, gorillas, and chimpanzees. For example, the study stated that the body mass of the elephants in the park fell by 11 percent. The podcast argued that the same fruit shortage phenomenon witnessed in Lopé National Park might have caused increased food competition between chimps and gorillas in Loango National Park.

The public reaction to the episode leads to more questions

A post on Reddit linking to an article about this episode received over 1.4 million views. There was a lively discussion in the comments section in which people proposed counterarguments based on information they gleaned from the podcast. A few commenters seemed to need more clarification on the climate change findings in the Emma Bush paper, so we originally planned to follow Episode One with an episode based on her research and (hopefully) invite her to be a guest on the show.

Congo announces drilling

But then, on July 24, 2022, Ruth Maclean and Dionne Searcey released an article in the New York Times that attracted a great deal of attention titled “Congo to Auction Land to Oil Companies: ‘Our Priority Is Not to Save the Planet'”. The article’s subtitle read: ‘Peatlands and rainforests in the Congo Basin protect the planet by storing carbon. Now, in a giant leap backward for the climate, they’re being auctioned off for drilling.’ According to Searcey and MacLean’s article, the government of the DRC had planned to auction off vast amounts of land in and around the Congo River Basin to capitalize on the demand for fossil fuels. Many of you remember the film “Virunga,” which showed the trouble the rangers in the DRC’s Virunga National Park had fending off the oil companies who wanted to drill there. The New York Times article stated that the DRC government would auction oil and gas blocks affecting Virunga and the tropical peatlands. The forests and peatlands of the Congo River Basin store vast amounts of carbon. According to scientists, if they mine it for oil, they will release the carbon into the air and displace or kill the gorillas who live there.

Greenpeace predicts a global climate catastrophe

Greenpeace Africa describes the peatlands as “a biodiversity hotspot containing about 30 gigatons of carbon.” The article quoted Irene Wabiwa of Greenpeace in Kinshasa, saying, “If oil exploitation takes place in these areas, we must expect a global climate catastrophe, and we will all just have to watch helplessly.”

Congo reneges on their 10-year agreement

Eight months before making this decision, Congo’s president Félix Tshisekedi attended the global climate summit and endorsed a 10-year agreement to protect its rainforest. The deal included international pledges of 500 million dollars for Congo from the international community. Here’s a quote about the climate summit from the UN website describing this agreement:

“Through this new multi-year partnership, the DRC aims to first cap forest cover loss at its 2014-2018 average and ensure that deforestation continues to decline. The partnership will also promote the regeneration of 8 million hectares of degraded land and forests, and place 30% of national areas under a protection status, including areas where local communities undertake efforts to manage forests sustainably.”

They even signed a letter of intent. It had 12 concrete objectives. Let’s draw your attention to 3 of them:

# 1) High value forests, peatlands and community forest concessions are systematically incorporated into land-use plans, with the aim of maintaining the important role they play.

# 2) Transparency in natural resources governance is enhanced through the legal review of existing agriculture, logging, mine and oil concessions, the cancellation of illegal ones, as well as the publication of all contracts (linked to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative – EITI).

#3) New social and environmental standards are implemented to reduce the impact of mining and oil investments on forests and biodiversity, with reinforced measures in high value forests and peatlands. Any activity incompatible with conservation objectives in Protected Areas is BANNED.

According to the New York Times article, President Tshisekedi said the following at that summit:

“With its forests, water and mineral resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo is a genuine “Solution Country” to the climate crisis. To protect our forest and promote its sustainable management, our priority, backed by this new partnership, is to strengthen governance and transparency across all land use sectors.”

But then came the war in Ukraine. The European Union’s ban on Russian oil and natural gas resources made world leaders search for alternative places to source fossil fuels. For example, Norway has increased oil production and planned more offshore drilling; the US president visited the Saudis to ask that they increase the supply. It appears the DRC saw the shift in global sentiment towards fossil fuels as an opportunity to generate revenue.

Here’s a quote from the Mclean/Searcy article:

“And it raises a question asked by many communities whose very survival is based on cutting trees for sale or for cooking fires: If they protect carbon stocks of incalculable value to the whole world, what do they get in return?”

At least one DRC government official believes they should prioritize their needs against those of the planet. Tosi Mpanu, the DRC’s lead representative on climate issues and an adviser to the minister of hydrocarbons, said in an interview that their goal in auctioning off their rainforests for exploration was to raise money to reduce poverty. The New York Times article mentioned that the auction highlighted a double standard. Critics have asked: how can The West, which became wealthy by exploiting fossil fuels, demand that African countries refrain from doing the same? The article quoted Mpanu, the Congolese representative, saying, “Maybe it’s time we get to a level playing field and be compensated.”

The government posted an audacious video on Twitter announcing the auction. Despite the public outrage against the government’s decision, Congolese officials expanded the number of blocks up for auction from 16 to 30 (27 oil blocks and three gas). The post tagged Chevron and Total Energies. Total Energies claimed they didn’t intend to bid, but Chevron didn’t respond to a request to comment when the writers of the New York Times contacted them. Other significant oil producers also declined to comment.

With elections approaching, the article’s writers pointed out that the Congolese president needed to show he was doing something about poverty. The Congolese minister of hydrocarbon, Didier Budimbu, thought that the DRC could go from its current output of producing 25,000 barrels of oil a day to producing up to one million daily barrels. At current prices, that would pay out more than half of the DRC’s GDP.

The environmental consequences of oil exploration

Congolese officials didn’t know how much money they stood to make until they did seismic surveys. The article pointed out that the seismic survey process was already very destructive to the environment. The process would require trails to be cut into the rainforest and set off explosive charges. According to scientists: Oil exploration will poison their ecosystem with salt and heavy metals. It would also drain and dehydrate peatlands, leading to their decomposition and the release of the carbon trapped in them. According to Susan Page, a professor of physical geography at the University of Leicester in Britain, such a rapid release of carbon into the air could be the global climate tipping point. The road construction needed for the surveys will open previously uninhabited rainforest areas to loggers and poachers.

Dr. Simon Lewis is a professor of global change science at the University College London and the University of Leeds. Here are some quotes from a New Times opinion piece he wrote. He described the rainforest of the Congo River by saying: “It helps regulate our climate and slows climate change by removing 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.” He said, “In addition to accelerating the climate crisis, oil exploration here would be a pollution disaster for communities that depend on it and for wildlife.” He emphasized the importance of the peatlands by explaining,

“The peat stores colossal amounts of carbon, equivalent to three years’ worth of the world’s carbon emissions from fossil fuel use. Commercial hunters find reaching the waterlogged swamps difficult, so these peat swamp forests remain havens for wildlife. But oil prospecting requires the systematic cutting of thousands of miles of corridors to transport seismic survey equipment. If cut, these corridors will open up every part of the forest, with hunters and then illegal loggers following, dooming this natural sanctuary for wildlife.”

The Searcy and McLean article hinted that this auction might have been a ploy to attract more foreign aid. The writers gave the example of when Ecuador, in 2007, created a trust fund into which the international community could contribute to dissuade them from drilling for oil in Yasuni National Park. They asked for 3.6 billion dollars. However, they started drilling in 2013 when the trust fund only raised 13 million. But the Tosi Mpanu insisted the DRC weren’t bluffing and had a sovereign right to drill for oil.
Mpanu claimed oil companies could simply drill diagonally to avoid touching the peatlands. He assured everyone that they wouldn’t do anything without studying how it would affect the environment and the people in the area. But according to the New York Times, a Greenpeace team surveyed people who lived in the area. The people said they opposed the drilling and that they would protest it. He also argued that Congo had paid its climate dues by allowing the mining of minerals used in the renewable energy industry. He said, “We are part of the solution, but the solution also includes us making use of our oil resources.” He then admitted that the Congolese government would leave it up to the oil industry to decide if they wanted to drill in Virunga National Park. However, he also stated that the government could seek to protect other parcels of land to offset what they lost in Virunga. “If we lose 10 hectares, we could now protect 20,” he said. “Sure, it won’t have the same biodiversity and fauna, but the country has that right.” Asked what oil company would consider drilling in a protected gorilla habitat in an era where consumer awareness is higher than ever, Mr. Mpanu did not hesitate. He replied,

“It is what it is. We just have to see how much people value that resource.”

Dr. Simon Lewis made this point:

“It is unclear whether there really are substantial oil deposits beneath the Congo rainforest; if there is enough usable oil, it is also unclear whether getting it from such remote environments to global markets is economically viable. Yet, even if the initial survey revealed no commercial-scale oil deposits, the rainforests’ biodiversity value would still be destroyed. Once accessible and degraded, the rainforests would most likely succumb to rampant deforestation, increasing carbon emissions. In the peatlands, this disturbance would begin the release of carbon from the peat: up to 5.8 billion tons from the oil concession areas.”

Congo’s hydrocarbons minister said on their government’s website that they’ve consulted Angola, Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinea “so that the DRC can take the same path.”

We’ll continue to study the developments in this story, so stay tuned for the next exciting episode of The Gorilla Project podcast.

Climate change affects the relationship between chimps and gorillas in the wild

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Lara M. Southern of Osnabrück University in Germany went on the Gorilla Project podcast to discuss how climate change affected the relationship between chimpanzees and gorillas in the wild. She wrote the famous research paper entitled “Lethal coalitionary attacks of chimpanzees on gorillas in the wild.

“What you usually get with gorillas is you get a scent,” Lara described.

“They really smell very strong. Once you’re a chimp researcher, you can distinguish between this chimp and gorilla scent because it’s very different. We spend our whole days around chimps.”

Lara and the researchers initially thought there were levels of mutual avoidance between chimps and gorillas. Whenever they were in the forest, they could smell gorillas. They could see their feeding tracks and their footprints. So, they always knew they were there. They could also hear them sometimes. But Lara noticed that, to the chimpanzees, there was an indifference to the presence of gorillas. The scientists witnessed nine peaceful encounters between the two species. Lara even remembered seeing them eating figs together in a Ficus tree. Yet these friendly interactions didn’t surprise them because they were in line with research done at other field sites.

“So when these attacks happened,” Lara conceded. “It was something I don’t think I would have ever been expecting on any level.”

On the morning of February 6th, 2019, Lara and the researchers did what they always did- they got up very early to go to the nest site where their chimpanzees had slept the night before. At the nest site, they would begin their “focal follows,” following a different individual chimp each day.

“It’s the most exciting part about field research,” Lara thought. “Because you never know what’s going to happen.”

They set out to find the chimps (about five kilometers from the camp), and little did they know that they would walk thirty-five kilometers that day, one of the biggest “patrols” since the habituation study began.
To defend their territory, explore its boundaries, and ensure everything was in order, the chimpanzees would go on huge walks called “patrols.” They would be very silent, smell everything, listen intently, looking for neighboring communities. The researchers followed them to the very edge of their territory. At the very end of the day, dinner time, everyone was done and ready to go home.

“We were ready to put the chimps to bed and let them go nest,” Lara described.

It was around five o’clock when the forest was already getting dark.

“And that’s when all of the crazy commotions began.”

Listen to the full Gorilla Project podcast episode where Lara Southern tells the story in her own words.

Lethal attacks on gorillas by chimpanzees

Loango National Park in Gabon. The end of the day was when the chimps re-entered their territory after their patrol. Lara Southern and her team of researchers were following the day’s “focal”, an individual chimpanzee named Candy. They entered a dense part of the forest. After a while, they started to lose sight of the chimps. Then, they heard a distinctive scream of another chimpanzee named Freddy. It was immediately after that scream that they heard a bark. Lara’s head did a double take.

“Because they’re always screaming, but this bark really stuck out to me. And after that, it just exploded. A chimpanzee and a gorilla sound nothing alike. And then it was just this crazy cacophony of noise.”

The chimpanzees made alert calls, barks, and roars. The gorillas responded with roaring and barks of their own. The team didn’t have excellent visibility at first.

“We try and really keep our distance because they are completely wild animals, and we also have very high safety protocols,” Lara explained.

“There’s always these negotiations in the forest between when’s the time to leave versus your observation of what kind of data you’re going to get.”

The field guides were more interested in not getting their team injured. They tried to convince Lara that this situation was unsafe and that everyone needed to leave, but as a scientist, she felt they needed to stay and see what would happen. She repeatedly begged the field guides to let them observe for “just five more minutes… five more minutes”.

During this encounter, the chimps attacked a group of five gorillas: one silverback, one infant, and three females.

“This is unprecedented. I’ve never seen this before, I’ve never heard about this before,” Lara remembered thinking.

They tried to find a good vantage point to see what was happening. Lara and her team hid behind a massive log, peeping over the top. They made themselves known while staying far enough away to avoid interfering.

“I could describe it as kind of like a ball of chimps and gorillas, and we could see that the silverback was in the middle.”

Finally, the silverback charged the female adolescent chimpanzee named Gia (pronounced Gee-AH) and sent her flying into the air. Lara was worried when she saw the silverback attack the chimp.

“She was one of my favorite chimpanzees. She was always a big explorer,” Lara describes.

“She didn’t seem like a young female. She was really always with the males.”

The male chimps responded by surrounding the silverback and attacking him. He retreated with his family. The researchers later observed that the chimps captured the gorilla infant before the other gorillas could escape. The chimps passed the baby around for an hour and beat it to death. To this day, no one has found the body of the infant gorilla the chimps abducted.

Listen to the full Gorilla Project podcast episode where Lara Southern tells the story in her own words.

Lethal attacks on gorillas by chimpanzees

Even though Lara and the other scientists were entirely shocked by the first attack, she knew it was important to relay the information to their supervisors stationed in Germany. The most challenging part was to be thorough. Their write-up needed to capture every single detail in the exact way that it happened. Their thoroughness relied heavily on viewing their video footage over and over again.

“One thing I find very helpful is to watch animal behavior from behind the lens,” Lara suggested.

“So, when something crazy is happening or when something uncomfortable is happening, if you just film, there’s always this wall between you and what you’re seeing, and you can always remember your place as just an observer. That was something that helped me in both of those instances to document what I was seeing rather than put my own opinions on what I was seeing.”

On December 11th, 2019, Lara and her group of researchers followed the chimpanzee patrol far north of their home range territory.

“Whenever we go up there, everyone gets a little bit grumpy because there are the big swamps. And when there are swamps, it means you have to swim.”

Walking towards the northern swamps, they could see the chimps begin to change their behavior. Once they got outside their territory, they became reticent, displaying similar behavior to the lethal February 6th event. They walked in single file, sniffed the ground, and smelled the eaten fruit near a tree, searching for the presence of rival chimpanzee groups. The chimp named Freddy was in front, near a female named Joy. He stood up bipedal to get a better look at something, reacting to what he saw with alarm barks.

“My initial reaction (because I had already seen them on patrolling behavior) is that they had found a chimpanzee group,” Lara remembered.

The chimps found a family of seven gorillas feeding high up in the trees. They climbed up to attack them, forcing the silverback to retreat, leaving the mother gorillas defenseless. The silverback’s role was to protect his family, but Lara defended the silverback’s decision to flee.

“It was a pretty hard decision in that case. There were seven gorillas against a group of 27 chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are very loud, they’re very vocal, and they cooperate. This is something we talk about in the paper. They’re very cohesive in terms of behavior when they feel like their group is threatened or when they’re going into doing a collective behavior. All of them participate.”

And this occasion was no different. Every chimpanzee joined the attack- even the juveniles were barking at full-grown adult gorillas.

“Which is something that I haven’t really seen before. So, in a sense, the silverback fleeing, I think, was also just a choice of personal safety. I think it was a hard choice to make.”

Several other gorillas had already fled, so only two females and two babies were left in the group. Lara speculated that the silverback might have been attempting to initiate the movement of the remaining members of his family by trying to get them to follow him. The other two females were left high up in the canopy with their babies, allowing the chimps to climb up the tree and trap them. The chimpanzees chased one of the mother gorillas through the trees across the swamp, cornered her, and snatched her baby. Roxy, the older adult female chimp, ripped out the baby gorilla’s intestines and ate them, snacking on its body for hours.

“Roxy played everyone’s least favorite role in the second encounter because she’s the one who ingested the baby gorilla. So, she kept the prey, and she carried it with her, and she fed on it as a piece of prey for most of the afternoon after they caught the gorilla.”

Lethal attacks on gorillas by chimpanzees

The Conclusion: “Wait, but WHY?”

Chimpanzees were mostly frugivores. When they resorted to hunting, they ate things like insects, birds, lizards, and monkeys. No scientist could have imagined that a chimpanzee would ever hunt, kill or eat a gorilla. Lara M. Southern and her fellow researchers noticed these attacks were peculiar for many reasons. They shared characteristics of other chimpanzee hunts: they walked in single-file, made hunting calls, changed their direction silently, scanned the area, and other typical chimpanzee hunting maneuvers. Although it appeared that the chimps targeted the baby gorilla because it was smaller prey, this is where the similarities to other hunting tactics ended. She mentioned this in her research paper titled “Lethal coalitionary attacks of chimpanzees on gorillas in the wild“.

“That’s something we touch upon in the paper. We wanted to emphasize how different this was from hunting behaviors we’ve seen in the past and how much more similar this was to an inter-community encounter with other chimpanzees. They treated the gorillas as if they were neighboring groups intruding on their territory that they were at war with, which we’ve never seen them do with gorillas. It was very different from hunting, and we used the example in the paper where we talk about the noise levels.”

She explained that the chimps made lots of noise before they attacked, but the excitement instantly disappeared. They fell silent as soon as they captured the baby gorilla.

“And when you hunt, it’s completely the opposite,” Lara emphasized.

“There’s this very silent, coordinated hunting strategy, and feeding on the prey is the reward when they catch the prey.”

So here, the researchers saw that it was almost like the killing was the reward- much similar to inter-community encounters.

“There sometimes was cannibalism in inter-community attacks, but it was not so much as this baby as prey but as a symbol or collateral damage within a war.”

She also noticed that the incidents resembled previous attacks by chimpanzees against rival chimps in neighboring territories. For example, adults have killed infants from other communities to eliminate food competition by discouraging female chimps in the competing group from venturing into the disputed territory. However, this attack was the first time anyone witnessed chimpanzees doing the same thing to gorillas.

The researchers noticed that the event was unique due to how the chimpanzees ate the gorilla during the second attack. Chimp hunts typically involved the highest ranking male member possessing and eating the food first. They also tended to involve “food begging” by other lower ranking members and sharing based on rank. In this case, the researchers observed that a female ate the gorilla, only briefly sharing it with another low-ranking chimp. The high-ranking male chimp showed little to no interest in eating it.

How Climate Change Affected the Relationship between Chimpanzees and Gorillas in the Wild

The question remained: what caused the chimpanzees to suddenly view gorillas as rivals, attack them, and eat their baby? Lara Southern’s research cites Emma R. Bush’s paper titled “Long-term collapse in fruit availability threatens Central African forest megafauna.” The study used a rare long-term dataset of tree reproduction and a photographic database of forest elephants in Lopé National Park in Gabon. Did this long-term phenological data reveal the reason behind the high food competition between gorillas and chimpanzees? The paper-based its findings on one of the largest phenological databases in the world, indicating that the weather was getting hotter and dryer. The lowest average daily temperature in Lopé was increasing by approximately 0.25 degrees per decade.

“And that’s HUGE,” Lara stressed. “If you’re just thinking about in twenty years to come, we’re talking about a degree level of already extreme heat and extremely high temperatures for these species to cope with.”

The problem was that the trees in Lopé relied on the temperature to fall below a certain threshold to know when to begin flowering and producing fruit. Therefore, tree reproduction was cued less often due to the rising temperatures. The scientists discovered that trees in Lopé were producing fruit less often, and the probability of finding fruit was declining significantly over time. They witnessed a massive drop between 2000 and 2003. For example, September was the time for fruit scarcity in Lopé. It changed to between October and March, which was previously the historical time for fruit abundance. The average rate of finding fruit in trees went from approximately 1 in 10 in 1987 to 1 in 50 by 2018. In addition, it showed an 81% decline in fruiting between 1986 and 2018 and an 11% decline in the body mass of forest elephants from 2008 to 2018. The researchers witnessed that the decrease in fruit availability harmed the megafauna (specifically elephants, gorillas, and chimpanzees) residing in Lopé National Park.

“And I think you would see the exact same thing in Loango (National Park in Gabon) if we had that same comparable data set which hopefully we’ll be able to do soon.”

Lara explained in detail how these findings affected chimpanzees.

“They constantly know which fruit resources to go back and visit each year at a very specific time.”
Lara believed that this talent may not have been innate.

“It’s obvious that they learn, and it’s obvious that there are certain members of the group who teach others that there’s this rhythm and flow. We see this in all natural ecosystems. Nature has a problem and then a solution to everything. And it is things like climate change that really complicate these natural systems.”

“So chimpanzees, just imagine, for year after year, they’ve been going to these same sites, and all of a sudden, there’s these slight gradual changes that will have huge payoffs in their daily lives because it will affect their energy levels, their body mass, how far they’re able to travel, how tired they are, and how able they are to protect themselves against other groups. There are so many knockdown effects (that we couldn’t even quantify at this stage) that could be really harmful to not only these populations but populations everywhere.”

She went on to explain how this situation deteriorated the relationship between chimps and gorillas.

“So, chimpanzees and gorillas have a high dietary overlap,” Lara explained.

“They’re both great ape species, and they both share the same food types. Generally, we see on many other sites that there’s a level of niche partitioning. So, they’ve evolved over time to eat different species to limit these levels of competition. But what we think happens at Loango [National Park in Gabon] is that, at certain times of the year, where there are certain key [fruit] species that are favorite species of both gorillas and chimpanzees, you might get these levels of very high competition. And in this competitive atmosphere that’s already there, if you throw in a lower production season for all of those fruit species, you will get even higher levels of competition. So, we think that this might be happening, especially for certain years. This might be more pronounced. There’s a lot less ripe fruit available if it’s a bad fruiting season. And if this continually keeps happening, of course, sources of fruit become more clumped or even more dispersed and harder to find, and you’re attracting two great ape species to a limited resource. So, this creates a base for any form of conflict which you wouldn’t have if you had a larger abundance of fruits.”

There were countless researchers around the world collecting climate change information. Still, the data from the Emma R. Bush paper was a cumulative effort that took phenological data on such a precise level for decades. Then, finally, scientists began to see these critical patterns. Loango National Park researchers also had a phenology route to check the fruiting species. It was something that they monitored.

“But it’s so hard to know long-term seasonal trends in a normal variation because you really do need these long-term data sets. So what we did with the (Emma R.) Bush paper is we’ve taken a lot from that. Because I think there you can really see the drastic figures that they’re reporting: the number of things that are getting dryer, big problems with the rainy season. There are so many fruiting species that have those very specific requirements for temperature changes in order to fruit. Loango National Park, as well as Lopé, is a big stronghold for elephants, gorillas, and chimpanzees. So, it’s probably the exact same thing that’s happening. We just don’t have the data to support it. But we’re really working on getting there.”

Lara Southern and the researchers continued to study the encounters between gorillas and chimpanzees, their root causes, and piece together the data.

“We’re trying to fill in the gaps of what we couldn’t fill in in the first paper. This was really exciting research, and we wanted to get it out there and say, ‘Look! This is happening.’ There are so many angles to look at it from and why it’s interesting. It’s interesting from a species perspective just because we haven’t ever heard of this reported across any other field site where there are both chimpanzees and gorillas. They do coexist in other places, and this hasn’t happened yet. So, it seems that there must be something going on. And what you need is long-term data, so it’s an ongoing process. What I can say is that there do continue to be encounters.”

Listen to the full Gorilla Project podcast episode where Lara Southern tells the story in her own words.