Oliver Nelson was park director of Salonga in Democratic Republic of Congo from February 2015 until February 2016. He tells us about what drew him to this vast forest reserve, and some of the challenges of managing Central Africa’s last refuge for forest elephant and bonobos.
At 33,350 square kilometres, Salonga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in DRC, is Africa’s largest tropical rainforest, and yet many have never heard of it. Home to the bonobo, a highly-sexed and endangered species of great ape, as well as species thought to be unrecorded in modern science, it is only accessible by boat, or by light plane.
How did you end up in Salonga?
I was working in Myanmar as an interim Conservation Manager when the job [at Salonga] was advertised. As they had got through three previous park directors who didn’t last long, I knew it would be a tough gig but then I have always been up for a challenge. The Amazon is the largest forest national park in the world, and Salonga is the second. The Amazon is being eaten away, Salonga isn’t. I thought this is a fabulous opportunity to put my mark on a hitherto undeveloped national park, but it was daunting because of the access, the complex politics and the very large number of staff.
How do you get there?
You spend up to a week in a dug-out canoe, or fly in by aircraft. There are no roads. That’s what has protected Salonga: it’s inaccessible. It’s an area of forest so large that it’s virtually unexplored. It’s probably the last place in Africa that hasn’t been thoroughly explored.
What resources did you have?
There were 300 eco-guards [rangers], and 300 members of the Congolese army under my control. We also had a $30 million budget [over five years], which was extraordinary. It’s a co-management agreement between the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Because the capacity of ICCN is quite low, WWF was invited in to co-manage. I was recruited as a full director of ICCN with the full authority [it entails]. On paper, anyway.
Why such a large budget?
Salonga National Park is of huge importance. When everything else goes pear-shaped in central Africa, and the [African] forest is lost, the Salonga will be the last refuge for Central African wildlife. Salonga holds 10 percent of DRC’s forest elephants, 40 percent of the world’s bonobo population. We suspect there is a whole plethora of unrecorded species: birds, amphibians, insects, reptiles. We had a butterfly expert come in who on his first day thought he’d found two new species of butterfly never recorded before.
Do tourists visit?
There was not one tourist in the time I was there. The park isn’t geared up for tourism. One of our plans was to promote pioneering hard-core expeditions but you’d have to be tough. There’d be medical evacuation available, but you’d have to carry all your own food and camping equipment. But if you did, you could claim in all honesty that you were of the few who’d ventured in there.
Tell us a little about the communities living there.
I spent my first five days on a dug-out canoe visiting various sectors of the park. The deeper you get, the more isolated and undeveloped it gets. There’s a heavy-handed police presence. I went to a very isolated village, where a contingent of police greeted me in full riot gear, with rocket launchers. It was very intimidating. It’s about control. There were always stories of extortion, theft, rape and beatings. They were a law unto themselves, as were the Congolese army assigned to the park to control poaching. They did a good job reducing poaching, but in a rather heavy-handed way.
Was there much poaching?
Elephant poaching in Salonga is well organised, often by well armed gangs from Kinshasa. We managed to intercept only a tiny fraction of ivory and bushmeat that was leaving Salonga on its way to markets. Dense forest environments are incredibly difficult to patrol and protect and while there are bottlenecks where ivory and bushmeat can be intercepted by park staff, by then the animal is already dead.
I realised a large amount of bushmeat was going out of Salonga from the river near the park headquarters on canoes, so I organised a river blockade downstream. I was rapidly informed that all government departments had to be involved – the police, army – and of course they were all involved [in the poaching or trading] themselves. As a result, we had very few results. It was extremely frustrating.
How do you effectively patrol a park this big?
Most of our patrols were done by river. There were foot patrols, too, of up to two weeks, but sometimes they’d only manage five miles a day, and had to hack through tropical forest. We had many confiscations of bush meat, and ceremonies to burn it. We would arrest poachers with AK-47s, with ammunition got from the army. I had rangers shot and killed, rangers with fingers blown off. It was very dangerous. Most donors will not allow us to spend money on firearms and ammunition, so we had to use old firearms, which barely worked.
It’s a dangerous business managing a Congolese national park. Two Western park directors in DRC have had attempts made on their lives in recent years. Did you ever feel threatened?
There were veiled threats against my person if I asked too many questions, or was being too effective. Someone influential told me one day: “Oliver, if you ask too many questions, accidents happen in Congo.” I’m used to that kind of thing. It does make you worry though, but it didn’t stop me from doing what I felt was my duty.
What were some of the challenges working in Salonga?
The eco guards were receiving $60 a month in salary, their managers a little more. We struggled to get enough uniforms and field equipment, and I can only guess at their frustration. With such a large budget, we had to tell them every week, “We are buying tents, uniforms,” but it got embarrassing after a while when the equipment did not arrive. NGO and donor [procurement] procedures are a hindrance. It would take nine months for a consignment of uniforms to arrive. It would be so much better if I or a colleague could fly down to Johannesburg and buy 1,000 shirts and pairs of trousers, and fly them back. One of the biggest challenges was feeling powerless, like a figurehead.
In a park that size, how did you get around?
Salonga is huge, and divided into seven sectors, each with their own ranger station. If you want to visit one, it can take days or weeks to reach. I wanted each sector to have an airstrip, and we would have one light aircraft, and visit each sector within hours, pay salaries, discuss workplaces, bring in medicine. But the procurement process for a light aircraft was appallingly complicated, and would have taken at least 12 months. There is often a disparity between what the park management team feels it needs and what the donors or hierarchy think we need.
Part of the vision was to build roads into the Salonga, which would help economic activity but also bring in loggers and poaching gangs. So it’s a dilemma. If you open a park up to better access, you risk losing that pristine remoteness.
Were there successes?
We finally got one of our donors to pay top-up salaries to the eco guards, so it increased to more than $100 a month from $60. It took a long time, and had to be performance-based. Every month, 300 eco guards had to be assessed, and it was a mammoth task, especially when there is very little access to those seven sectors. [After the raise], they were much more motivated because someone had bothered to think about their personal needs. You can’t expect a guard to risk their life for $60 a month. This is not unique to Salonga. Throughout Africa, rangers are asked to do the most dangerous of jobs for very little remuneration.
What do you feel was your main achievement?
I would like to think my greatest impact was working with colleagues in the park to instil a sense of self worth in being a ranger, and instil a sense of self reliance rather than waiting for someone else to provide it, but by making do.
How do you see the future of the park?
If we can promote Salonga as one of the last vestiges of unexplored, untouched parts of Africa, we could put Salonga on the map and help to protect it. There’s a vast amount to be done to study fish, insects, amphibians, it just needs experts to spend time there. I see the short-term threat as poaching – bush meat and ivory – and until rangers have more resources and capacity in terms of transport, equipment and personal benefits, that poaching will not be addressed. Long-term, unless the park management team has full authority over strategy and managing its budget, it will not work and a very large amount of donor money will be wasted.
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