Rules of Engagement for Conservation

By John and Terese Hart

Illustration by Guy Billout, first published in the Atlantic Monthly, July 1998


The small plane that brought us from the Okapi Reserve to the airstrip in eastern Congo left its motor running as we stepped out to clear immigration. The soldier flipping through our passports could not have been more than 13 years old, but the Kalashnikov he carried was no toy. “Why are you running away?” he asked, looking up at us defiantly.

The answer at that moment seemed obvious enough. It was November 1996. The national administration of what was then Zaire had collapsed, and vast sections of the country had abruptly fallen into the hands of poorly organized bands of rebel soldiers. The Congo’s entire eastern border region, including four of the country’s seven national parks, was at immediate risk of anarchy and conflict. This hardly seemed the moment to remain in the field. But the question stuck. Now, looking back over three decades of working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), including the last 6 years in a country at war, we have learned that the single most important way to protect parks and reserves during anarchy is by being there. By this we mean staying engaged at all levels—from local on-the-ground staff to national and international support and investment.

We first came to the Congo in the early 1970s as young college graduates exploring the country’s stunning landscapes and inspiring diversity of wildlife. Despite its tumultuous past, the Congo still contained species found nowhere else on earth: okapi (Okapia johnstoni), bonobo (Pan paniscus), Congo peacock (Afropavo congensis), Grauer’s gorilla (Gorilla gorilla graueri), and northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). When we returned in the early 1980s for our doctoral research in the Ituri Forest, we worked closely with local people as well as several graduates of the national university in Kisangani. This was the start of what would become a remarkable team of trained Congolese scientists working with nomadic Mbuti hunter gatherers and slash-and-burn farmers in the heart of the forest.

Over the 20 years that we were based in the Ituri Forest, supported mainly by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), our base camp at Epulu evolved from a motley collection of leaf-thatched mud and wattle shelters into a research center (CEFRECOF, Centre de Formation et de Recherche en Conservation Forestière) associated with the Congolese National Parks Institute (ICCN). By 1996, we had a cement block dormitory, a half-dozen houses, a library, a lab and computer center, and a herbarium containing over 2000 pressed plant specimens. When war broke out, CEFRECOF was providing training and research opportunities to over 20 Congolese biologists and employed scores of local people. Field teams from CEFRECOF played a leading role in developing the information base that in 1992 led to creation of the Okapi Reserve, the Congo’s newest protected area and World Heritage Site covering nearly 14,000 km2 of the Ituri Forest.

After we left the Congo at the outset of armed rebellion in 1996, nearly two months passed with no direct information from the Okapi Reserve. Reports in the international media of continuing battles left us desperately concerned for the fate of our staff and colleagues. Then, in early 1997, we received a phone call in New York from Robert Mwinyihali, one of the university-trained staff of CEFRECOF. Calling from a pay phone in Uganda, Robert reported how defeated government troops had looted the two-way radios, four-wheel drive vehicles, motorcycles, and even bicycles from the reserve and the center. He recounted his harrowing and dramatic trip out of the forest across a no man’s land of armed and desperate military deserters to the Ugandan border. Robert had come out on the back of the center’s last remaining motorcycle, driven by one of the local field assistants, a self-taught mechanic who had disassembled the motor and hid it in the forest from the pillaging soldiers.

Over the phone, Robert described how just a few weeks after the retreating military had swept through Epulu, the staff at CEFRECOF had already started to pick up and reassemble what was left of the field station. They joined the ICCN warden and park guards to negotiate with the rebel commander for protection of the reserve from poaching and marauding militias. Normal park patrols were impossible because the guards had been disarmed by the rebels, but the first trained field team had already left for the forest to investigate reports of incursions. By the time we hung up the phone, we realized that the on-the-ground presence of dedicated national staff was one of the most important assets for the survival of imperiled protected areas in the Congo—especially when expatriate personnel of supporting international conservation organizations were forced to leave. What we did not know as we boarded the plane to leave in 1996 was that this is what we had been building over the past two decades. It took the outbreak of war to make it obvious.

In the sections that follow, we lay out three necessary conditions to advance conservation during armed conflict. They all serve one ultimate purpose—to push back the operational horizon permitting the protection of parks and reserves in crisis. In other words, these elements allow national park staff and their nongovernmental organization (NGO) partners to operate under conditions of escalating anarchy and violence. This is an unfinished story, and not all these lessons are drawn from success. We speak from both our own experiences and those of our local and international partners. (1)

Emerging Leaders

If the parks survive this anarchy, it will be the Congolese inspiration and the Congolese commitment that will hold them together. When Robert Mwinyihali called from Uganda, he recounted many astonishing reports of individual initiative and bravery in the Okapi Reserve. Kahindo Bafumoja, an unarmed ICCN park guard, along with an Mbuti tracker, confronted illegal miners in the CEFRECOF study areas. He was captured and severely beaten. But eventually he returned with an armed military escort and forced the miners back. Eleme Saambili risked physical abuse to feed captive okapi at the station even as it was falling into rebel hands. Reports of exceptional valor came in from other protected areas as well. In the Virunga National Park, Norbert Mushenzi, the head warden, opposed a mob of belligerent squatters he accused of occupying the park under militia cover. And in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, ten ICCN staff and local assistants were ambushed and killed as they led a survey team to reestablish the park limits.

Why did these individuals make these efforts at such risk? How is such dedication and professional integrity developed and supported in locally based staff? Training plays a role. The ICCN and international NGOs have long recognized that well trained guards are essential to protect parks, especially in the face of armed conflict. Valor emerges at all levels. But university-trained staff stood out as leaders in negotiation, information gathering, and reporting.

The Congo had a particular advantage in this respect. In the early 1970s, a group of idealistic, inspired Belgian professors established the University of Kisangani’s Department of Ecology and Nature Conservation. A number of graduates of this department were eager to tackle the challenges of on-the-ground conservation in the parks. The WCS, Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund International, and others supported postgraduate study abroad for a select group who became professionals in a variety of scientific disciplines and management. These people have traveled a long road from backgrounds as fishermen, farmers, petty traders, and gold miners. Among them is a former elephant poacher, an itinerant actor, and an evangelical pastor.

But training is not enough to assure leadership. For broad-based leadership grounded in consensus, structure is required. As expatriate staff retreated before violent anarchy and as communication with the national park headquarters in Kinshasa was cut off, local staff became isolated. The challenge was to delegate responsibility effectively and encourage personal initiative without fostering a kind of personalized authority on a par with the warlords.

One of the pivotal initiatives to this end was the formation of locally based site management teams called CoCoSi (Comité de Coordination du Site). Spontaneously in several protected areas, consensus-based groups were formed to advise and support the wardens. These groups became official when, recognizing the danger of a power vacuum, the national park administration along with committed NGOs called an emergency meeting in November 1999. Prior to the war, several NGOs with independent programs worked in a single protected area. Once under siege, collaboration became essential. The CoCoSi, led by the head warden and including representatives of all major programs supporting the site, became the vehicle for decision making and action.

Decisions—and action—were urgently needed. Elephants and gorillas were being brashly hunted down, and gold and coltan mines were being opened in the center of protected areas. In the first months of 2000, the CoCoSi in the Okapi Reserve brought together field researchers, village education teams, and park guards to share their information. As they compiled and mapped their results around the table, the extent of the mining and poaching emerged. Their joint report documented that the Ugandan soldiers occupying the reserve were providing guns and ammunition to local poachers. The warden, with NGO backing, confronted Ugandan authorities with the evidence. Threatened with the embarrassment of bad international press and diplomatic pressure, the Ugandans and their allies agreed to help dislodge poachers and to rearm the park guards with recovered weapons. Protected areas that did not have international conservation investment prior to the war had neither the leadership nor the financial support to make decisions and act on them. Not only was there no CoCoSi, but the wardens and other top ICCN staff often retreated at the first invasion.

The individuals who took the greatest risks had a clear sense of their professional mandate and had confidence that they would continue to receive outside support to fulfill that mandate. Corneille Ewango, a CEFRECOF botanist, was the only senior staff left in the Okapi Reserve as it tumbled into chaos at the end of 2002. First one warlord then another dominated. Ewango remained with a satellite hook-up for email and a small solar panel. He faithfully reported bloody battles, destruction, and eventually hunger. Everything physical around him that represented his professional life was destroyed, yet he continued to believe in the international commitment to the Okapi Reserve and to himself personally. During three months, isolated from any outside support, he reported often from hideouts in the forest where he had been forced to flee. The email missives, sometimes idiosyncratic and often understating his own role, provided essential information on military movements, staff safety, and the status of the reserve. We learned who was poaching elephants, how many were killed, who was buying ivory, and who was opening new mining camps in the reserve. Thanks to Ewango’s efforts, there is now a factual basis for a growing global effort through the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to put pressure on rebel leaders to control their militias and respect the integrity of the Okapi Reserve. Congolese stand by their parks with unflagging determination if provided the long-term security that loyal workers, in most countries, are afforded even in low-risk jobs. The immediate international contribution should be to get funds, rations, and supplies to the sites and to mobilize a global movement in their defense. However, success requires more. Essential workers must have guarantees that despite a bankrupt national parks system and an unstable government, their efforts are recognized and supported. It is not just a pageant of bravery on the ground. It costs real money to protect these sites.

Vital Signs

The first accurate information on the impact of war on Congolese parks came in a report presented at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in 1999 by Kes Smith, field staff for many years in Garamba National Park. Kes and her husband Fraser Smith, working for the International Rhino Foundation, managed to use a lull in the conflict to conduct an aerial census over the sector of the park occupied by endangered white rhinos and an important portion of the park’s elephant population. Referring to a series of tables on computer printouts taped to the wall in the UNESCO conference room, Kes showed that despite the war almost all the rhinos and over 6,000 elephants had survived. This report galvanized the UNESCO World Heritage Commission, which promptly declared five of the Congo protected areas World Heritage Sites in Danger and made them candidates to receive support through the privately funded United Nations Foundation.

Many donors assume that under war-torn circumstances it would be impossible for such large and vulnerable wildlife to survive. But some of the results of surveys done in the parks since the onset of conflict have been counterintuitive—evoking at least a cautious optimism. Herein lies the necessity of accurate information. It shows not only what has been lost but also what remains to be saved and, in some cases, how to save it. The reports that make compelling international headlines are the ones about the fate of well known individual animals such as those in the gorilla families that have been habituated for tourist viewing in the Virunga and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks. Many of these animals were monitored on a daily basis before the war, and dedicated guards continued the close contact throughout all but the most violent phases of the conflict. Births among these gorillas are celebrated and losses treated like deaths in the family. The challenge is linking the protection of flagship individuals with the conservation of the entire park. There is an understanding on the part of warring militias that destruction of closely monitored populations could have negative consequences. Troops invading the Okapi Reserve were proud to announce that they did not kill any of the 14 captive okapi although they were oblivious to the fate of the more than 4,000 free-ranging animals in the forest. Likewise, in the most recent eruption of violence in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, warring factions have agreed to respect the territories of habituated gorilla families even though the same militias are wreaking havoc on an unknown number of nonhabituated and unmonitored gorillas in the lowland sector of the same park.

Only with information concerning the status of these populations can support be mobilized. Large-scale monitoring of gorillas, elephants, and other large mammals was initiated before the war. After 1996, some important areas such as the Garamba National Park and Okapi Reserve were resurveyed. In the Garamba savanna sites, aerial surveys are used to census both vulnerable fauna and presence of poachers. But 50 percent of Africa’s closed equatorial forest is in the DRC, three of the five World Heritage Sites are entirely forested, and aerial surveys cannot be used to census forest animals. Prior to the war, collaborative teams carried out inventories of forest animals, with conservation personnel from international NGOs working closely with Congolese counterparts. Many teams were needed to run transects counting dung, tracks, and/or nests. In forest areas, war often made reassessments impossible. Highly visible research and conventional monitoring teams became targets. Under conditions of anarchy and lawlessness, intelligence gathering and reporting by undercover teams are the only sources of information.

In early 2002, Guillain Mukombozi, a researcher in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, began operating undercover in an area of the lowland sector of the park controlled by rebels and off limits to organized park patrols since 1996. He traveled with bushmeat traders and itinerant pastors who ply the remote mining camps that sprang up in the park at the outset of the war. Despite being looted of his food and operating funds, Guillain managed to gather specific information on several notorious poachers, where they were located, and who was supporting them. His were the first reports that gorillas persisted in some of the areas that have been occupied by illegal miners and militias and not visited by monitoring teams in over six years. Even more importantly, Guillain made contact with rebel leaders who expressed some willingness to cooperate for the control of poaching gorillas and elephants in the park. If he had not been there, no one would have known that this was possible.

Guillain is one of a whole network of Congolese conservation workers who know that they are contributing to a grassroots effort where no other effort is even conceivable. All wardens in occupied parks depend on undercover informants to know, at the very least, what is being lost and what can be held.

International Responsibility

A new paradigm for conservation is emerging from the conflict in the DRC that looks more like enterprise development than gift giving. Like enterprise development, it recognizes the fundamental importance of continuity and a long-term perspective. This includes adequate start-up capital, continuing investment, and staff development. Such a system is nationalistic in that its consistency and stability reside in a single unified and permanent authority.

During war, immediate problems can seem insurmountable. For instance, just physically getting funds to the field is complex and dangerous and can become a major preoccupation of international partners. True, moving money demands a particular resourcefulness and ingenuity. In the Congo, banks have collapsed, so only cash is useful. American dollars are the only tender, and only recently minted bills without nicks or rips avoid suspicion of counterfeit. Money must be divided in small packets, tucked in underclothing and socks or under the rusty chrome frame of a motorbike. But if money is firmly committed, even if it can’t be sent quickly, the people on the ground are reassured and work continues.

The real challenge is to assure continuity. According to the old paradigm, conservation funds were a short-term and conditional gift. All too frequently there would be abrupt, complete withdrawal. Loss of a legitimate government and the threat of violence were the signals to leave; it was as if protected areas and all they protected also lost value. Indeed, at the outset of conflict in the DRC most bilateral support was pulled out of the parks. Guards were left unpaid. Vehicles had no fuel. None of the Congo’s protected areas had trust funds to ensure even minimal operations during war, and most national parks were cut off from what remained of a national administration, so even the pittance it could provide was denied. Other revenue sources, mainly tourism, collapsed. Under these conditions, how could wardens continue to manage parks?

The most immediate solution is a rogue response. The easy recourse for park wardens is to tap park resources right outside their door. This might mean transporting bushmeat in park vehicles or taxing miners and hunters for the privilege of using the park. What loss is too much loss? What compromise is treachery?

In some protected areas, funding was maintained. This was money raised by committed individuals and their NGOs. Often devoted to flagship species or a single site, these individuals refused to be discouraged. As the war in the Congo drag-ged on, these conservationists joined forces to create a platform that allowed other contributors and a few bilateral donors to participate. This collaboration provided enough structure for the United Nations Foundation (UNF) and UNESCO’s World Heritage Center to become involved.

The UNF project has some elements of the new paradigm. It provides continuity of conservation funding during the war. The project spanned the entire country and all five of the Congo’s World Heritage Sites. It depended on a collaboration of international conservation NGOs that had continued presence on the ground, the national parks administration (ICCN), and UNESCO. The project’s success lies in its ability to:

1. use the conservation NGOs to funnel money directly to the sites and assure proper accounting and monitoring,

2. strengthen the national parks conservation mandate across rebel lines uniting all ICCN staff for a single purpose, and

3. provide diplomatic intervention through UNESCO and at an international level based on the World Heritage Convention.

What the UNF project cannot yet guarantee is long-term continuity. Ironically, Congo’s conflict-born vision for conservation may not survive peace. Extractive industries held back by anarchy are poised to spread quickly. Political stability will favor the expansion of economic and demographic frontiers into the country’s remaining wild lands. As the Congolese government seeks to become a legitimate international partner for trade and investment, conservation must be integrated into the country’s economic development or risk a whimsical, uneven financial base. Such a base is not consistent with enterprise development or the building of a legitimate national conservation authority.

The very same inputs to conservation that were essential for protecting the parks during conflict (trained personnel, up-to-date information, and secure financial backing) remain essential during the nation’s rebuilding. Conservation must now become part of the new nation’s financial and planning priorities. There must be continuity. Without it, the parks so arduously saved will be plowed as guns are dropped for machetes and hoes, uniforms are exchanged for picks and shovels, and the sound of mortar fire gives way to the whine of chainsaws.

Suggested Reading

Draulens, D. and E. Van Krunkelsven. 2002. The impact of war on forest areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Oryx 36(1):35-40.

Hall, J.S. et al. 1998. Distribution, abundance and conservation status of Grauer’s Gorilla. Oryx 32(2):122-30.

Hall, J.S. et al. 1997. A survey of elephants (Loxodonta africana) in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park lowland sector and adjacent forest in eastern Zaire. African Journal of Ecology 35(3):213-224.

Hart, J.A., and J.S. Hall. 1996. Status of eastern Zaire’s forest parks and reserves. Conservation Biology 10(2):316-327.

Hart, T.B. and J.A. Hart. 1997. Conservation and civil strife: Two perspectives from central Africa. Conservation Biology 11(2):308-309.

Hart, T.B. and R. Mwinyihali. 2001. Armed conflict and biodiversity in sub-Saharan Africa: The case of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Available at

Kalpers, J. et al. 2002. Gorillas in the crossfire: assessment of population dynamics of the Virunga mountain gorillas over the past three decades. Oryx. In press.

Kalpers, J. 2001. Volcanoes under siege: impact of a decade of armed conflict in the Virungas. Available at

Shambaugh, J. et al. 2001. The Trampled Grass: Mitigating the Impacts of Armed Conflict on the Environment. Biodiversity Support Program, Washington, DC. Available at

Wolfire, D.M., J. Brunner, and N. Sizer. 1998. Forests and the Democratic Republic of Congo: Opportunity in a time of crisis. World Resources Institute, Washington, DC.

Van Krunkelsven, E., I. Bila-Isia, and D. Draulans. 2000. A survey of bonobos and other large mammals in the Salonga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. Oryx 34(3):180-187.

References for survey data

1. Kalpers, J. et. al. 2002. Gorillas in the crossfire: assessment of population dynamics of the Virunga mountain gorillas over the past three decades. Oryx. In press. 2. Mubalama, L. 2000. Population and distribution of elephants (Loxodonta africana africana) in the Central Sector of the Virunga National Park, Eastern DRC. Pachyderm 28:44-55. 3. Omari, I., A. Basabosa, and P. Kaleme. Gorilla and large mammal census in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DR Congo. Unpublished. 4. Carlos Schuler pers. comm. 5. Hart, J. and J. Hall. 1996. Status of Eastern Zaire’s forest parks and reserves. Conservation Biology 10:316-327. 6. Beyers, R., L. Thomas, J. Hart, and S. Buckland. 2001. Recommendations for ground based survey methods for elephants in the Central African forest region. MIKE Central African Pilot Project Report 2, CITES/MIKE, Geneva. 7. Mubalama, L. and J.J. Mapilanga. 2001. Less elephant slaughter in the Okapi Faunal Reserve, DRC, with Operation Tango. Pachyderm 31:36-41. 8. Hillman Smith, A.K.K., M. Atalia, and G. Panziama. 1998. War and White Rhinos. Unpublished. 9. Brooks, M. 2001. African Rhino Specialist Group Report. Pachyderm 31:7-10. 10. Hillman Smith, K. 2001. Status of northern white rhinos and elephants in Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, during the wars. Pachyderm 31:79-81. 11. Hillman Smith, A.K.K., F. Smith, E. de Merode, M. Atalia, A. Ndey, and G. Panziama. 2002. Monitoring protected area conservation in war and peace. Unpublished.


Organizations that support staff in protected areas of the DRC during ongoing conflict include: Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund International, German Technical Assistance, Gilman International Conservation, International Gorilla Conservation Program, International Rhino Foundation, Lukuru Wildlife Research Project, Max Planck Institute, Wildlife Conservation Society, World Wide Fund for Nature, Zoological Society of London, and Zoological Society of Milwaukee.


Leslie Bienen, a freelance writer based in Montana, helped with the editorial research for this article.

About the Authors

Terese and John Hart are Senior Scientists at the Wildlife Conservation Society and have worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since the mid-1970s. Their early research included the first field study of the okapi. Since the outbreak of war in 1996, their work has focused on the protection of the DRC’s parks and reserves. The Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Charitable Trust has been a source of continuous support for the Hart’s work in the DRC.