Protect and Serve: John and Terese Hart on Preserving Congo’s Wildlife

Installment #1

by Edward B. Rackley

“Don’t share this image with anyone,” John Hart wrote after our first meeting, attaching a photo of a newly discovered species of primate. “The official scientific announcement isn’t out yet.” We had met in Washington as John was presenting his vision for a new national park in eastern DR Congo. The three river basins of the Tshuapa, Lomami and Lualaba Rivers (the ‘TL2’ in Hart-speak), all tributaries of the continent’s massive aquatic artery, the Congo River, contain the country’s most remote forests. Straddling Orientale and Maniema provinces, the planned protected area forms part of the largest continuous canopy remaining in Africa. Living almost continuously in these forests since 1973, John and Terese now devote all their time and resources to the TL2 project. “We have the largest forests on the continent,” the couple explained when I met them later in Kinshasa. “And these contain the only unmapped areas left in Africa.”

What makes conservation in Congo unique is that many of its protected species exist in no other country. Among the best known are the Congo peacock, bonobo, Grauer’s gorilla, northern white rhino, and okapi, though there are many others. It has the highest diversity of mammals in any African country (415 species); 28 of these are found only within its borders. Of more than one thousand bird species, 23 live only in DRC. More than 1300 species of butterfly have been identified, the highest for any African country. Of the more than 11,000 documented plant species, 3200 grow only on Congolese soil.

The TL2 project is the result of participatory demarcation involving lengthy negotiation and education of local communities, the vision being a bottom-up approach to conservation and park management. For the Harts, bottom-up means investing in “the people who will be here forever,” 2823986068_d5d1612a73_mthus offering a better chance of lasting results. In many ways, bottom-up is the only way left to work in Congo given that the government’s official conservation body “can’t put together a research team to find out the state of gorillas today.” Last year’s BBC reports of silverback populations ‘stabilizing’ after years of rebel activity in their midst were premature and ill-founded. Parks like Garamba on the Sudanese border have seen their elephants hunted out entirely. Sub-species like the white rhino are functionally extinct (two males in Garamba, non-breeding females in zoos abroad), because efforts to save them by evacuation to neighboring countries were blocked by zealous local officials. Most international conservation efforts here are directed from abroad, and do not rely on or invest in local expertise.

From the beginning, John recalled, Terese and he always worked “from the people out,” his arms gesturing in a wide embrace. This meant relying on living stores of pygmy knowledge, who partnered with the Harts to map the biodiversity of the Ituri forest, in particular its okapi and duikers, in the mid-1980s. “We didn’t do anything solo; pygmies were integrated from the word go.” This melding of interests—living local knowledge with scientific hypotheses, data collection, and evidence—buried the classic image of “western field biologists watching and working on their own,” he reflected.

This human-centric, bottom-up approach has informed nearly 40 years of research and practice. Throughout the war and since, it has proven an effective operating model, able to deliver results in the face of weak national conservation institutions, intense poaching by armed groups, many of whom use the parks as a rear base, civilians seeking refuge in the parks, and increasing government implication in the giant resource grab at the core of Congo’s dysfunction. Replicating the model in similar ‘fragile states’ and ‘conflict countries’, labels that have applied to Congo for the last 15 years, is another possibility. There are nearly twenty such states in the sub-Saharan region, all witnessing a steady erosion of their parks and wildlife.

With a Congolese team of 30 to 40 trackers, field guides, dugout captains, cooks and porters, the Harts have been exploring TL2 on foot since 2007. There is no aerial access; Congo’s long war precipitated a violent and definitive return to nature for much of the country’s interior. Bush has reclaimed the colonial-era infrastructure, particularly roads, cutting off rural towns and villages, now islands of subsistence farming with little contact or exchange with the outside world. Produce and small manufactured goods—paracetamol, machetes, children’s clothes and Chinese flip-flops—circulate by bicycle to be sold or traded for local produce, including bushmeat. The near-total isolation of the interior has not spared Congo’s wildlife or its numerous rare and endemic species. The proliferation of armed groups, particularly across the East, means an abundance of small arms and a booming trade in bushmeat, minerals and exotic timber, all exported via Uganda and Rwanda.

The TL2 is accessible via a three to four-day journey from Kisangani or Kindu, the two closest towns. The sequence of movements involves dugout canoes, motorcycles and long treks on foot. Already identified in the TL2 are the bonobo, Congo's own great ape, the okapi, its endemic rainforest giraffe, and the rare Congo peacock. On an administrative level, TL2 aims for 30,000 km2 of protected landscape to buffer a national park (3000 km2) at its central core. Once established, the Harts may consider seeking UNESCO World Heritage status, which they obtained after creating the Okapi Faunal Reserve in 1993, the culmination of years of radio tracking and habitat mapping with the Mbuti.

Signs of decline

Prospects for another remarkable landscape of international recognition are high. In late 2009, the Harts ran across a terrestrial primate they had never seen before, a guenon, or species of monkey, known to locals as the ‘Lesula’. The Lesula, unknown to modern science, is a poignant reminder that unmapped areas can and do still contain unknown species. The discovery also underscores the inherent global value of parks and non-human species, an intrinsic good not unanimously recognized by the planet’s dominant species.

My own first encounter with the Lesula happened more prosaically. During John’s presentation in Washington, I was struck by a strange primate face amid a mosaic of photos taken in the TL2. In a follow-up email I asked its identity and requested another meeting in Kinshasa, where we would overlap the following week. John proposed a date, and attached an image with the caveat not to circulate. I opened the file to find the very image etched in memory from the slideshow. With its curiously Caucasian face, narrow nose, thin lips, and almond-shaped, amber eyes, the Lesula looks part monkey, part lemur, part person. In this particular photo, publishable one day soon, the eyes are cast in a downward glance, doleful and resigned to captivity. The tired eyelids and faint wrinkles around its diverted gaze reveal something else—a soul, a glimmer of self-consciousness, a vestige of humanity … or so I wished to see. [Photo: Elephant ear left by poachers in camp]

Elephant ear

Taking a step back, the stark epiphany of the Lesula is of a different order altogether. The battlefield of conservation in Congo, with its enemies on multiple fronts—ongoing civil conflict, a rampant bushmeat trade and the demographic pressures of a population that doubles every twenty years—marks the Lesula as a conservation accident, a freak survivor, because it should be extinct. When an already underdeveloped country fails to provide infrastructure and services to a rapidly expanding population, nature must provide. Congo grew from 30m to 60m people between 1980 and 2000, and will be at 120m before 2020. The Harts can cite many forests that have been emptied of timber, protected species hunted to depletion, lakes literally fished empty, since they first fell in love with the country in the 1970s.

Terese and John are not desk-pounders by nature, and there is no shrill righteousness when they talk conservation. In private, they vacillate between pessimism and faith in the country’s ability to right itself, to protect what cannot be replaced. Terese emphasizes local people’s understanding that species loss is permanent. And if the bottom rung of Congolese society—the massive numbers of rural poor who depend on the land—support protective measures, surely this is adequate ammunition to win single battles, and maybe the larger war. John contends that politicians are incurably myopic: with no immediate connection to nature, unchecked resource exploitation seems to them a natural right. For now, the logic of short-term gain prevails; predation by the political elite spans across all public sectors, including wildlife management. There is weight to both arguments.

Internationally, wildlife has to compete with the many other facets of Congo’s crisis, each a complex emergency capable of generating sufficient concern to attract millions in foreign aid. With conservation low on the totem pole, alarmism affords little leverage, particularly with local politicians, whose buy-in is essential for enforcement of moratoria on bushmeat, hunting seasons, timber laws, human habitation in parks, and similar prohibitions. But where there is no state, there can be no enforcement. The government has little reach outside of Kinshasa and the eleven provincial capitals. [Photo: Okapi in enclosure, Kim Gjerstad]

Okapi sunlight

So losses to Congo’s natural heritage continue to mount, in tandem with increasing evidence of official involvement in illegal logging, unregulated mineral extraction, even the upsurge in poaching. “The country has never been in a greater period of natural crisis. There is no national capacity to respond—animals are the first to go.” The scale of disappearance would be unknown were it not for long-time researchers like the Harts, who’ve been training local people to tag and track various protected species for nearly three decades. Research combined with new protected areas, particularly where enforcement is weak, cannot outpace the speed at which Congo’s wildlife is disappearing, its natural habitats dwindling.

Remember ‘Outbreak’, The Hot Zone?

I met John and Terese in Kinshasa as the setting sun cast an orange light on the city’s dilapidated port facilities along the storied Congo River, now a graveyard of rusting barges and towering inoperative cranes, poised against the fading light like giant origami forms. Dugout canoes, identical to those used upriver for the Harts’ expeditions, poled their way between the massive metal carcasses of half-submerged vessels. Exposed hulls now provided makeshift shelter for homeless families and roving military, for whom the river is an international border to be defended. The tableau of changing hues, naval silhouettes and human voices floating on the water was bucolic, even romantic. Yet it sanitized nothing of Congo’s gritty realities. Africa’s greatest river and a timeless sky above framed a snapshot of human survival amid the sleeping steel giants of a once robust riverine economy, now fossils of a bygone era.

We drank our beers near the waterfront, perched high inside a converted shipping container stacked atop others like it, all parked around the industrial compound from which the Harts organize their expeditions. As the last light faded, a swarm of tiny bats the size of swallows charged from their roost in a nearby hangar to feed in the cloud of airborne insects hovering above the water’s surface.

The sight triggered a technical discussion about the possibilities of bats as disease vectors in areas of human habitation, even the tiny insectivore Microchiroptera or microbats feeding before us. This was one Hart project for which I could help find funding. It would track forms of wildlife suspected of transmitting lethal diseases to humans, or triggering epidemiological outbreaks. Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers are recurrent in Congo, and development aid is available to track zoonotic vectors, among them many of Congo’s protected species, including primates, antelope and other small ruminants the Harts have been studying for decades.

As John drove me through Kinshasa’s empty streets after a marathon evening discussion, a particular parallel between the Harts and their subjects came to mind. Their relationship to conservation in Congo resembles the ways their friends the Mbuti know the Ituri forest—as an instinctive medium, their most familiar element, even as it resists, threatens and sustains them. With so many years in the field, the Harts maintain a vast network of relationships at all levels of Congolese society, from pygmy trackers to provincial governors, local conservation activists, and park guards around the country.

Last week as John and I lingered in the large waiting room of Kinshasa’s airport, I watched person after person stand and come forward to shake his hand, reminisce and wish him well. Terese and he know the politics of conservation in Congo’s eleven provinces, each with its own intricate network of plant and animal species, their habitats, and the causes swirling around them, better than any other expats working on Congo today.

In the line of fire

While they are not alone in defending Congo’s interests, their persistent research and the publicity it generates has yielded unexpected dividends. One example is the Alexander Abraham Foundation, which in 2005 selected Congo for its annual awards program. It recognizes local citizens who demonstrate heroism and sacrifice in defending Congo’s seven national parks and 59 reserves, five of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One evening, Terese handed me a recent catalogue from the awards ceremony. I opened at random to the story of Nepo Kimonyo, a guard in the Maiko National Park.

“At the outbreak of the war in 1996 he was in Mangurujipe when Tutsi soldiers came through and killed six guards judged to be of Rwandan descent. Nepo was saved by the population who hid him. Later when Mai Mai rebels came through the region he was again condemned to death but the population bought back his life with two goats. In 2004 he again escaped death at the hands of the Mai Mai who burned down his house and looted his possessions. During this period of Mai Mai devastation he managed to save the life of several National Park Service colleagues and retrieve equipment recently donated to the park service by the Diane Fossey Gorilla Foundation.”

Winners come from across the conservation spectrum and include game wardens, tribal chiefs and administrators, leaders of local conservation groups, and local citizens who stand up to armed poachers. Reading through the short biographies of the other awardees, many of which are obituaries, the cumulative effect of the atrocities committed hit me hard. Contextualized within an individual’s life, their actions to defend animals, a fragile ecology or the conservation institutions they represent personalized Congo’s ongoing tragedy in a way that so many human rights communiqués and UN Security Council reports fail to do.

John and Terese continue to lead the Foundation’s selection process every year. Judging from the number of posthumous awards, the search serves as a running tally of defenders lost in battle, an annual testament to how desperate and violent the fight over natural resources has become. [Photo: Mbuti woman in paint, John's collection]Mbuti1


The next installment in this series delves deeper into the Harts’ work with the Mbuti and Efe pygmies of the Ituri forest, tugs at the layers of mystery surrounding the molimo ritual, and considers the tensions in John’s relationship with Colin Turnbull, his quasi-mentor and author of The Forest People.

For more information, see the Harts’ website:, and watch this documentary of Okapi trapping, tagging and tracking with the Mbuti called, appropriately, The Heart of Brightness:

For a previous 3QD article on my reflections on working with Congolese pygmies, see: