Who would have known that one day the African green pigeons of the enigmatic and seemingly infinite Congo forests would ever need our help? Just the same as New Yorkers cannot imagine Central Park without their pigeons, we should not consider a Congo forest without green pigeons flying high above the forest canopy and congregating in the forest clearings. Over the last few decades, as wildlife becomes more and more depleted by war, unrest, and the booming bushmeat trade, millions upon millions of green pigeons have been caught in nets laid over “salt mud” in forest clearings. Alarmingly, they are left in the nets for hours and sometimes stored alive in sacks overnight, before being plucked alive, skewered and then smoked over a fire after having your neck broken. In case you were wondering? They are kept alive during this process to maintain freshness without refrigeration. Hundreds of skewers with smoked pigeons are then bundled off on makeshift backpacks and bicycles to distant markets. First the elephants disappeared, then the buffalo, then the bongo, then the bushpig, the duiker, the monkeys and smaller forest inhabitants are poached out of the forest by hungry, desperate people. Eventually all the grey parrots have been captured and shipped off alive or been eaten, and the trappers are left with thousands of green pigeons… We need to support John and Terese Hart in their mission to protect the three river basins of the Tshuapa, Lomami and Lualaba Rivers (TL2), a faraway enigmatic forest in the geographic heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They have explored this remote forest since 2007 and discovered great apes, the Congo’s bonobos, the okapi, an endemic rainforest giraffe, and the rare and elusive Congo peafowl. Today their challenge is to bring real protection to these forests before the bonobo and everything else are hunted out… and we are left with the “African silence”.
In my mind’s eye I see an African green pigeon silhouetted in the dense canopy of an old, buttressed fig tree near the water’s edge. All of a sudden you see another pigeon, and another, and another, all feeding contentedly on figs. You suddenly notice the bits of fig falling to the ground as they hit the leaf litter, look down, and then look up again to see all of them fly away without much fuss. You cannot take chances as a forest pigeon… They circle around above the high canopy and make off across the open clearing towards a favored roosting or feeding tree. A calm, aware life in the primordial forests and savannas of Africa. I expect to see emerald pigeons adorning beautiful fig trees, dispersing fig seeds to the ground from under a cool canopy, not skewered, decapitated and smoked. A waste of a successful, more than likely breeding, adult green pigeons that was integral to the health and stability of their local population.
In the beginning, long ago, the local people snared small antelope to feed their families, grew crops, and lived off the natural bounty of the forest. War then arrived from the east with foreign fighters that wreaked havoc on local villages and settlements, destroying agricultural fields and killing all large wildlife with their AK47 rifles. Due to this ongoing instability, these people cannot depend on crops and need money to buy food, supplies and possibly even weapons. Suddenly the remote villages, camps and settlements in the deep Congolese jungle have “traders” with wads of cash for bushmeat, pigeons, scales, skins, bones, teeth, genitals and much else. Suddenly everything they had come to know so well living in the forest sustainably had a price tag. As unrest and turmoil persisted families and communities became more and more stressed, starved and desperate as they start tearing down their “mother”, the forest.
Dr Terese Hart explains: “ Even when people switched mainly to salt imported from elsewhere, they still did not disturb the culture of the elephants. They hunted only small animals with snares. And then war swept out of the east into the town of Kindu and people fled into the forest, and foreign soldiers with military guns followed into the forest. Lots of guns followed into the forest. The last elephants were killed at this clearing in 1999. Then the last of the buffalo were shot. Then the bongo. But still the pigeons came for salt; Pigeons came by the thousands. In 2000, they started capturing pigeons and smoking them for the market in Kindu –small, skewer-sized bushmeat.”
As director of the TL2 Project, Dr Terese Hart, represents an outstanding team of Congolese field biologists. Terese and her husband, John Hart, set out in 2007 to explore an unknown forest. They found bonobos, a new species of monkey, forest elephant, okapi, Congo peacock… Their mission today, with their TL2 staff, is to build effective conservation from village-base to national administration for TL2 and other critical conservation areas of DRC.
Members of the TL2 Project visit the salt spring in the forest clearings with military personnel to halt the decimation of the green pigeon population in this relatively untouched tropical forest. The military have a heavy hand in the region and halting this trade is in large part about controlling and owning resources, as opposed to looking out for the well-being of the wildlife populations or local communities. Here is a series of photographs by the TL2 Project detailing a successful mission to find and destroy “pigeon camps”. We need to support Terese and John Hart in their ongoing quest to save the wildlife that depends on this amazing forest. With more funding they will be able to get into the forest more to effect change…
Message from Dr Terese Hart: “The TL2 Project has a budget of $780,000 for 2012. It is a large project that we run efficiently, fairly and transparently. One month ago we were still missing $339,000 for 2012, but because of your generosity and a proposal that was funded we are now only missing less than $99,000. We are encouraged and sure that we will make it through the end of this year and start 2013 at full strength.”