For this last post, I reached back into the past to explore the life and work of Corneille Ewango, a Congolese botanist and conservationist who began his work in the DRC’s Okapi Wildlife Reserve in 1991. Called “a hero of the Congo forest,” he received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2005, the world’s largest prize honoring grassroots environmentalists. Ewango shared his incredible story of protecting a richly diverse region of the Congo Basin amid unconscionable violence and oppression in a TED Talk in July of 2008.
Growing up in a family of soldiers, poachers and fisherman, Corneille Ewango spent his youth helping support his family by collecting the tusks of elephants and the meat of animals that were killed by his father and uncle. Corneille knew he wanted to go to University, and began poaching elephants to pay his way through school. While at first he wanted to become a medical doctor so he could serve his village, at University he discovered his passion for botany, and completed an internship with the Wildlife Conservation Society to supplement his studies. Researching the flora and fauna of the Congo Basin, he found his calling: conservation.
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve spans roughly one fifth of the Ituri Forest, located in the north-eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. After surviving intact as rainforest during the last Ice Age, this region became a center of endemism, meaning that species spread as the climate warmed and forests were able to expand once again. With this incredible history, it remains an area of exceptionally high biodiversity today, boasting more diurnal primate species than any other African forest, as well as a high level of species endemism.
With roughly 20% of the planet’s Okapi within its boundaries, the reserve is home to the highest density of Okapi in the world. Also known as forest giraffe, Okapi are only found in the DRC, and are strictly protected by national laws. Today, the reserve protects myriad species including elephants, leopards, forest buffalo, antelope, and many bird species, as well as thirteen primate species and over 1,300 plant species. The reserve is also home to the Mbuti and Efe ethnic groups, which are among the few traditional hunter-gatherer pygmy tribes left in the world. Early on, Ewango established a strong relationship with the Mbuti and Efe people built on trust and mutual respect. Both tribes have an almost intrinsic knowledge of the region’s ecology, and have been indispensable to the conservation of the region. For instance, the Mbuti help the Congolese National Parks with the feeding and veterinary care of the Okapi. Ewango calls them “the big book of nature’s knowledge.” The Mbuti King has said: ”The forest is our life. The very air we breath comes from the forest. That’s why we work to protect it. Because without the forest, there would be no Okapi, there would be no world.”
Coinciding with the DRC’s tumultuous civil war, from 1996 to 2003 Ewango was responsible for the Okapi Wildlife Reserve’s botany program. Ewango stayed on the reserve throughout the six-year civil war, helping lead the effort to protect the reserve’s fauna and flora through grassroots mobilization, despite the turmoil and violence that raged beyond its borders. By 2001, most of the reserve’s senior staff had fled. However, 30 junior staff remained along with almost 1,500 local residents. Rallied by this support, Ewango stayed with them to defend the reserve. Illegal poaching, mining and logging were rampant during the war, and Ewango risked his life confronting military officials about the regulations prohibiting these practices.
Perhaps most remarkable is that Ewango continued to make ecological discoveries during this brutal time. By marking and measuring large research plots, he uncovered 600 tree species and 270 species of lianas (tropical vine plants) by the end of the civil war. With the knowledge that the reserve’s resources would be destroyed if found, Ewango hid the reserve’s herbarium collection, computers, research and data in the canopy of 380,000 trees. At one point, he and several others embarked on a four day bike ride, carrying roughly 4,000 botanical specimens to hide in a village outside the reserve’s borders. During a particularly volatile period of the war, Ewango hid within the forest for three months to save his own life.
After nearly a decade of fighting, the civil war came to a close in 2002, with the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in much better shape than it would have been without Ewango’s courage and resourcefulness. Incredibly, he had protected the lives of the 14 Okapi living in the reserve’s zoo, despite the widespread poaching of the reserve’s wildlife. With his help, a number of poachers were arrested or exiled after the war, and the government issued injunctions against mining within the reserve. For his efforts, Ewango received a scholarship to the University of Missouri and went on to complete a master’s degree program in tropical botany. After graduating in 2005, he returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo to continue protecting his nation’s rich botanical resources.
Corneille Ewango’s plight to protect biodiversity continues today, and in his words, so does his fight against “the language of guns,” or the pervasiveness of war that plagues his country. Conservationists are not always safe within the walls of a university, and scientists are not always safe behind the doors of a lab. Heroes like Corneille Ewango have risked their own lives to protect those of the flora and fauna they care so deeply about, and their bravery should not be forgotten.