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CORNEILLE EWANGO: A poacher’s sidekick turned award-winning conservationist

Curtis Abraham


Curtis Abraham


You started not as an award-winning conservationist but as a poacher's assistant in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Yes. As poachers, my uncle and I hunted large mammals like forest elephants and hippos in some of the rivers in our home area of Bomongo, in Equateur Province. I was about 12 when I used to go with him. But hunting was not just for sport or leisure. It was a socio-economic activity that allowed us to improve our family income. Thanks to it, I had the opportunity to get organized and attend university and to specialize in nature, tropical botany, and environmental conservation.

What was it like on your first real hunt?

It was, for me, a moment of victory and confirmation of being a man. A rite of passage. My first real hunting day, I remember, I shot five monkeys with only five shots. The real success story was the first elephant I killed with only three shots. According to our tradition, killing an elephant, leopard, hippopotamus, chimpanzee or buffalo means you’re considered a real man with all the responsibilities that go with it. If a hunter kills an elephant or leopard, it’s celebrated with traditional ceremonies that bestow upon you the respect and social consideration of the rank of traditional king and strengthen you as a warrior.

What made you change from hunting to wildlife conservation?

When I was assisting my uncle on his hunting safaris, I was about to finish secondary school, and had no idea that I would study conservation one day. But I had already become interested in biology and chemistry. The poaching we did provided me with financial support to start my university studies for the first year. When I applied to university, I wanted to do biomedical sciences but I was admitted into the biology department. As I progressed in biology, I discovered a passion for botany and forest ecology studies. In retrospect, I think also the observations of wildlife made while poaching in the Congo forest also nurtured my enthusiasm for conservation.

Why study botany?

Few young Congolese have dedicated themselves to learning what is in the large forests in their country and even fewer are studying the flora of their country. This makes me sad but it also makes me more determined to fill the gap. I know I will not achieve this alone but great progress has been made and I think my life will be an inspiration to others. I remember we were four students who got our degrees at the University of Kisangani's Department of Ecology and Nature Conservation in 1995. We studied phytosociology and plant taxonomy. Later we started doing practical work in botany and conservation. Since then the number of students has doubled and even tripled. I think we pioneers were an example for later students to follow.

Why is the okapi so special that it should have its own world heritage faunal reserve?

The okapi is one of the 28 mammal species that are endemic to the DRC. It’s a strange species of giraffe that has a zebra’s stripe patterns on its legs. Its origin is probably the savannah. It's very shy and very beautiful to see either in the zoo or in its natural habitat. Congo had been at war with itself for over a decade, so many poachers entered the reserve and some other protected areas. We know that during the wars of the late 1990s and early part of the new millennium, the okapi were hunted by rebel soldiers. Our last estimate of their population was around 1996 when we recorded about 4,500 5,000 okapi in the wild. It's an endangered species so the Okapi Faunal Reserve was created to protect it and its environment, the fabled Ituri Forest. The flora of the reserve is also rich in plant species. The Ituri Forest is also home to pygmy hunter/gatherers, Africa's first inhabitants. Their lives depend entirely on forest resources. Within the reserve, okapi numbers have slightly increased. But the reserve is facing rising poaching pressure from militia and army soldiers who are operating directly or by organizing and supporting some professional poachers. Poachers kill okapi not often for their meat, but more for the skin, saying that it is worth more than USD 20,000.

What is it like living and working among the Ituri pygmies?

I found their knowledge of the forest resources incredible for a people for whom modern life and education is meaningless. The importance they have for forest conservation and long-term resource exploitation is very admirable. For a naturalist, they are like discovering a great book of nature and the mysteries of forests.

Do they understand the work you are doing?

By using their knowledge and promoting their integration into local communities, they are learning a lot and are more enthusiastic about working with us. Not only do they have an interest but they understand what we are doing. However, the results of our research are difficult for them to grasp since it involves complex ecological principles.

When did the area start becoming dangerous for you and your staff?

The danger began in 1996 but from August 2001-2002 was the worst period. This period was the heart of the escalating violence that embraced the Congo. Daily life was ruled either by the occupying militia or army, being government or rebel forces. Everything has been controlled under military law that in most cases was oppressive if not brutal. It was difficult to stay and help with the soldiers and militias looting and destroying infrastructure every day while they pretended to liberate the country and people. Every single day that passed plunged us into darkness and it was unclear where the country was headed.

What did you do when your colleagues started fleeing the reserve?

Some of us had to assume leadership roles, to fill the void of those who left. The first thing we did was to define our priorities and build working strategies that were accepted by all who remained. Through it all we continued to remain optimistic and dedicated to the cause of saving the reserve. We remained organized, functioned as a unit and kept in close contact with all our workers and junior staff, who remained at the station. Of course, saving the Centre de Formation et de Recherche en Conservation Forestiere's (CEFRECOF's) scientific equipment and data was one of our main concerns.

What finally made you flee the reserve and hide in the forest?

The insecurity was growing and everything that I was doing was suspicious to the rebel soldiers. My every move was scrutinized and I was kept under constant surveillance. Then they started concocting all kinds of lies, that I had a lot of money to run the project and they wanted me to give them the money along with gold, coltan, ivory, etc, things that I didn't have, of course. The soldiers humiliated me and I was witness to their atrocities, I felt that I had to escape to save my life.

How did you survive while living in the forest?

Saving my life was more important than sleeping. But when I did sleep, I slept on the bare ground with the clothes I had on. Sometimes I slept on the rocks or under the rocks and so on. Fortunately, I am a botanist, so know which wild fruits in the forest are edible, and from time to time I wandered in the nearby vegetable gardens to collect some sugar cane, sweet potatoes, and cassava tubers, which I ate raw because the smoke from a fire would alert the rebels to where I was hiding, then they could have tracked my footprints. It was important to adopt a primitive life to survive.

Yet through your ordeal you managed to communicate to the outside world with a satellite link for email and a small solar panel.

My security and my family's safety were not guaranteed. So I didn't want to let the warring factions know what I was communicating, I could have been executed. Even though the war has formally ended, different rebel armies that had control of those areas continue to exist today. But what I can tell you is that I was sending emails to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) headquarters in New York; to Drs. John and Terese Hart, who were the directors of CEFRECOF and who were also the coordinators of the Wildlife Conservation Society-DRC programme; to the director general of Congolese the Institute of Nature Conservation Kinshasa; UNESCO; and to Gilman International Conservation, one of the international NGOs managing the reserve with WCS staff in New York. I also sent messages to many other colleagues in the conservation community abroad.

How did you feel when you received a Goldman environmental prize back in 2005?

I was thrilled. This was not only recognition of our commitment and hard work but now we have more responsibility in the world to protect our environment. It makes me eager to do more and I think my award will inspire more students in the DRC and elsewhere into the field of nature conservation. As a winner, I do not set limits on myself. I still have further goals and objectives to achieve. My hope is to bring a new concept to forest conservation in a country of a vast wealth of natural resources. To me the award is not only for the Okapi Faunal Reserve but for all the national parks and other protected areas in the Congo.


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