A group of six park rangers was ambushed and killed at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The park, home of about a third of the world’s mountain gorillas, has been subject to repeated attacks over the years from poachers, loggers, rebels, and militia groups, with no clear solution in sight.
The attack was attributed by DRC officials to Mai-Mai fighters — an umbrella name for a loosely affiliated group of local militias who are fighting for power and resources in Congo. Two of the fighters were killed alongside the six park rangers. In addition, a ranger was seriously injured and is currently recovering at a local hospital.
The wardens were patrolling on foot in the morning near the town of Kabuendo when they were taken “by surprise” by the attackers and had “no opportunity to defend themselves,” the park said in a statement. All of them worked for the Institute for the Conservation of Nature, the agency in charge of safeguarding protected areas.
The park authorities said they lamented the “tragic loss of life” among the rangers, who “work tirelessly and with dedication to protect both the park and the neighboring communities from the tyranny of armed groups.” In a statement, they said that “the sacrifice” of the group of rangers “will not be forgotten nor be in vain.”
The assault against the park and its rangers comes only a year after a group of assailants killed 17 people in the same park. The victims included 12 park rangers, four civilians, and a driver. Virunga’s director, Emmanuel de Merode was shot and injured in 2014, and tourists have been repeatedly kidnapped during arranged visits to the park.
With a population of over 100 million, the DRC is Africa’s second-largest territorial state after Algeria and is almost seven times the size of Germany. It’s also home to the largest remaining rainforest areas in Africa. Virunga park was created in 1925, covers some 7,800 square kilometers (3,000 square miles), and houses a quarter of the world’s mountain gorillas — but it’s also home to some of the world’s most violent guerilla groups.
Mountain gorillas have been struggling for decades, with their forests destroyed by deforestation, civil war, and agriculture expansion. As a result, the population has significantly diminished and their population remains threatened. Conservation efforts such as the one carried out in Virunga has raised hope for the species but poachers remain as a big problem.
The park is guarded by almost 700 armed rangers, at least 200 of whom have been killed in the line of duty over the past decade. It draws thousands of visitors per year, making it the top tourist destination of DRC. Many got inspired by the 2014 documentary “Virunga,” which tells the story of the park and its protected gorillas.
Virunga decided to shut down for almost a year after a local guide and two British tourists were kidnapped in 2018. It reopened in 2019 with more strict security measures and following an audit. Visits only last an hour and tourists have to have a surgical mask in the presence of gorillas to minimize the risk of disease transmission between the two species.
The DRC authorities also took measures to improve security in all its national parks, creating a special force in charge of securing national parks (CorPPN). They have been deployed in the five DRC World Heritage sites, including Virunga. Still, violence prevails, as seen with this new assault, which forces to rediscuss the approach.
Almost a century ago, biologists described an odd new mouse genus, called Nilopegamys, that lived in Ethiopian streams based on a single collected specimen. By the looks of it, it is one of the most adapted rodents to aquatic living, having a beautiful water-resistant fur and relatively long, broad feet. No other specimen had been sighted since then, and scientists now fear it is extinct.
But, in a new study, an international group of scientists led by biologists at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History claim they’ve identified two new species belonging to a related genus of African semi-aquatic mice, known as Colomys.
“We embarked on this study to understand the evolutionary relationships among the two genera of African semi-aquatic mice. These include: the genus Nilopegamys, which is known by a single specimen collected almost 100 years ago in Ethiopia and the much more widespread genus Colomys, mostly distributed within the Congo basin but with populations in east and west Africa. We also aimed to determine if there was any undescribed diversity within the genus Colomys (i.e., new species),” Julian Kerbis Peterhans, Adjunct Curator at the Negaunee Integrative Research Center at the Field Museum, told ZME Science.
Swimming rodents in one of the world’s richest biodiversity hotspots
For the last three decades, Peterhans has been doing challenging fieldwork in the Congo Basin, an amazingly rich biodiversity hotspot, setting up traps and studying various rodents. In their new study, Peterhans and colleagues at The Field Museum, the University of California San Diego, DR Congo, and Kenya, focused on Nilopegamys and Colomys.
Nilopegamys, which means ‘mouse from the source of the Nile’, has been described from a single specimen in 1927, which is housed at the Field Museum. Colomys is active in the wild, but still highly elusive due to its habitat. These cute mice use their kangaroo-like elongated feet to wade through shallow streams on the prowl for water-dwelling insects like caddisfly larvae.
“After I caught my first semi-aquatic mouse over 30 years ago I was hooked. I have most often caught them at the edge of pristine shallow streams or on rocky or sandy outcrops within, often with light only trickling through. When I caught my first one I thought it to be the most beautiful mouse I had ever seen with a striking contrast between a white belly and black or grey back. Feet exceptionally elongate. Fur velvety, soft, and water-resistant,” Peterhans told me in an email.
“The genus Colomys is quite rare in collections because their density is low compared to more traditionally terrestrial mice. Collectors do not realize traps need to be placed within or on the edge of streams. But assuming their streams remain unpolluted and forest remains intact, they will not be threatened. However, mining for gold and coltan and general forest degradation are their major threats.”
“Sadly, the genus Nilopegamys may be extinct as their habitat near Lake Tana in Ethiopia is completely degraded. The only chance for their existence is to survey any intact habitats along the Blue Nile in Ethiopia as it descends to meet the White Nile in Sudan,” he added.
Stalking mice in the bush
In order to catch Colomy mice, the researchers had to maneuver through rough and swampy terrain, often traveling through water up to the waist. “And you can have torrential rain in the tropics, so sometimes half the traps get swept away, and you have to go downriver to try to find them,” Terry Demos, a postdoctoral researcher at the Field Museum and another of the paper’s authors, said in a press release. But the wet terrain was often the least of their worries.
“Memorable moments can be horrific, delightful and are limitless: medical evacuation due to depleted oxygen (histoplasmosis), local militias kidnapping and killing Congolese colleagues, 3-4 day hikes through the bush in order to find suitable habitat to collect specimens, delight in working with host-country colleagues, a hot cup of coffee at 7 am after checking traplines, crossing the Semliki River with a single outboard motor strapped to the canoes and wooden planks supporting two vehicles, the first time terror of hearing the screeching tree hyrax at nightfall,” said Peterhans.
Using specimens they collected during fieldwork in the Congo and those already in museum collections, the researchers compared the rodents’ physical traits and sequenced their DNA.
These analyses revealed two new species that hadn’t been described before: Colomyslumumbai and C. wologizi, after Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba and Liberia’s Wologizi Mountains, respectively. What’s more, genetic data enabled the researchers to promote the subspecies Colomys gosling eisentrauti from the Bamenda Highlands of Cameroon to full species status (Colomys eisentrauti).
“One new species we described (Colomys lumumbai) is nearly indistinguishable from its closest relative (Colomys goslingi) and only through the genetic work and careful morphological analyses of skull measurements were we able to tease this species apart,” Peterhans said.
That’s not all. One of the team’s members, Tom Giarla, who is an assistant professor of biology at Siena College in New York, also endeavored to sequence the DNA from the dried tissue of the skull of the 93-year-old Nilopegamys specimen. Preparing and sequencing DNA this old is no trivial task, but Giarla’s expertise shined. “I was stunned that I actually got it to work on my first try,” Giarla proudly stated, whose genetic wizardry showed that Nilopegamys is a sister genus to Colomys. In other words, the two genera are very closely related.
Learning such new things about mice living in streams in the African rainforests is just the tip of the iceberg. These areas are home to a wide range of animal species, many of them new to science. But due to the rugged habitat, poor infrastructure, and political instability, scientists face many challenges.
In the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, such efforts should be supported more. The coronavirus is zoonotic, meaning it first evolved in an animal species before jumping to humans. Such is the case for Ebola and HIV, too.
“The rainforests of the Congo Basin and surrounding highlands are incredible hotspots of tropical diversity but are also under great threat of habitat destruction. We strongly suspect many new species are awaiting discovery, including the relatively well known small mammals. Based on our work to date dozens of new species of rodents await discovery along with many species of bats, shrews and other small mammals. These findings are critical for informed conservation of the Congo rainforests,” said Peterhans.
“In this day of climate change, the spread of zoonotic disease and global mass extinction, studies such as ours are at a premium. Global biodiversity must be documented. Every species has a unique genetic toolkit in fighting disease, and interacting with the environment and competitors. Every species is also a canary in the coal-mine speaking to the vulnerability of local climates and habitats. There remains much more to explore in Africa where species numbers are greatly increasing despite severe habitat degradation. This year’s expeditions to Africa have been sadly postponed due to COVID; every year counts,” he concluded.
Bonobos, an endangered great ape species only found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have inadvertently discovered a new species of truffle, according to a new study. Researchers believe that it could have significant culinary value and is also proof of the vast reserves of undescribed fungal diversity in the region.
While truffles are commonly eaten by humans in high-end restaurants, they are also enjoyed by our closest relatives. Bonobos, which share 98.7% of our genetic makeup, regularly savor the truffle, named by the researchers as Hysterangium bonobo in honor of the monkeys that found it in the first place.
“Truffles aren’t just for gourmet chefs, they’re also for our closest relatives,” Matthew Smith, an associate professor in the University of Florida department of plant pathology and co-author of the paper, said in a statement. “There’s so much to learn about this system, and we’re just scratching the surface.”
Prized for their aromas, truffles are often essential elements of ecosystems, and H. bonobo makes no exception. It plays an important role in enabling trees to absorb nutrients from the soil and supports the diet of animals. Previous studies have reported bonobos eating truffles but this is the first to identify a specific species.
Local communities have long known of the existence of the truffle. They call it “simbokilo,” a Bantu name. The bonobos likely locate it by catching its smell floating through the air or by digging in the soil and sniffing their hands. The truffles are small enough to be eaten whole by the great apes and share features of those with high culinary value.
Alexander Georgiev, co-author of the study and a primatologist at Bangor University, gathered samples of the truffles after he observed a group of bonobos eating them in Congo’s Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve. He hoped a collaborator could identify the species, not knowing it was undescribed. While he had never seen bonobos freed on truffles, his team of field assistants instantly knew what was happening.
“It’s important to realize that even though this paper presents a ‘novel’ interaction and the description of a ‘new’ species for the Western scientific community, in reality, these are interconnected associations that have been known about for untold generations by the locals in the region,” added Todd Elliott, the study’s lead author, in a statement.
For the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the coronavirus is the least of their worries. Despite the country had almost surpassed an Ebola outbreak in its eastern provinces, health officials have announced the emergence of a new cluster on the opposite side of the country.
The outbreak started in the western port city of Mbandaka, but it’s not clear yet how. The World Health Organization first reported four deaths to the virus followed by UNICEF stating that five people, including a 15-year-old girl, had died between May 18 and Sunday when health officials confirmed they were Ebola-related fatalities.
The new outbreak comes at the same time the Congo is dealing with the coronavirus epidemic, with already 3,200 positive cases and 72 deaths, as well as a large measles outbreak, with 369,500 infections and nearly 6,800 deaths since 2019 when the outbreak began.
“This is a reminder that COVID-19 is not the only health threat people face,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, in a statement. “Although much of our attention is on the pandemic, WHO is continuing to monitor and respond to many other health emergencies.”
This is the 11th outbreak of Ebola that Congo has seen since it first emerged in 1967 and it’s happening simultaneously with the 10th outbreak in the northeastern provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri – declared in 2018 but now in its final phase.
The WHO was about to declare the 10th outbreak over when a new case was confirmed on April 10. Then, on May 14, the country started a 42-day countdown to the declaration of the outbreak’s end. Nevertheless, the WHO said new outbreaks are likely to happen as the virus is living in animal reservoirs across the country.
“It’s happening at a challenging time, but WHO has worked over the last two years with health authorities, Africa CDC and other partners to strengthen national capacity to respond to outbreaks,” said in a statement Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
A team from the WHO is already in Mbandaka supporting the response to this new outbreak, as part of the capacity built during the 2018 outbreak. The team supported the collection and testing of samples, sending them to the national laboratory for confirmation.
Understanding the Ebola virus
The Ebola virus is a severe, often fatal, illness that affects humans and other primates. It’s transmitted to people from wild animals such as fruit bats and then spreads in the human population via direct contact with the blood and other bodily fluids of the infected people and with surfaces contaminates with the fluids.
The first Ebola outbreak happened in remote villages in Central Africa, near tropical rainforests. The 2014–2016 outbreak in West Africa was the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak since the virus was first discovered in 1976. There were more cases and deaths in this outbreak than all others combined.
Vaccines to protect against Ebola are currently under development and have been used to help control the spread of Ebola outbreaks in African countries. There is no licensed treatment proven to neutralize the virus but a range of blood, immunological and drug therapies are under development.
The devastating Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is probably over, health officials report.
Scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus budding from the surface of a Vero cell (African green monkey kidney epithelial cell line). Image and captions credits to NIAID / Flickr.
On May 8, 2018, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s health minister declared an outbreak of Ebola. The highly deadly disease had killed over 11,000 people in West Africa between 2014 and 2016, so everybody was, understandably, Not Very Excited. However, I’m sure everyone will be jubilating for this tidbit: the outbreak in Congo is almost assuredly over.
The outbreak in DRC was the most severe since the 2014-2016 event, but it’s probably over. As of Wednesday, all individuals who came into contact with the last-confirmed infectee have passed the 21-day incubation period of Ebola without showing any signs of infection themselves. Because of this, health officials don’t need to monitor anyone on a daily basis. However, they want to be extra-safe — so they will keep monitoring the situation for another three weeks before officially declaring the outbreak over.
A total of 38 cases were confirmed during the outbreak and 14 deaths. A further 15 deaths may be tied to the outbreak, but the link can’t be confirmed as of yet. All suspected cases over the past three weeks have turned out to be negative.
Before the outbreak can be officially declared over, two incubation periods (42 days) must pass without any new confirmed case.
The outbreak was first declared on May 8, as a cluster of cases was confirmed in the deep rainforests of DRC’s Equateur province. The virus made its way to Mbandaka — a city of 1.2 million and an important local transport hub along the Congo and Ruki rivers, both heavily navigated — three weeks after the first cases were confirmed.
Although Ebola is endemic to Congo’s jungles — so health officials here are world-leading experts in containing the virus — it was a nerve-wracking time for health officials, as Ebola is very hard to contain in densely populated areas. The possibility of it spreading down the two rivers further complicated containment efforts.
“This outbreak has been the most challenging and complex outbreak the country has ever had to face, mainly because it started in two rural zones at the same time and quickly reached a city of more than 1 million inhabitants directly connected to Kinshasa, our capital city where 12 million Congolese live,” DRC’s minister of health, Oly Ilunga, told The Washington Post.
“Yet thanks to a rapid national and international mobilization as well as a great government-led coordination of the response, we managed to contain this outbreak in just seven weeks.”
The minister further explained that authorities tracked and monitored over 1,706 people confirmed or suspected to have contacted infected individuals. The process (known as ‘contact tracing’) required authorities to establish a vast surveillance network to track people’s movements from town to town and report any cases of fever that could be Ebola.
In this particular outbreak, however, tracing teams also worked to identify candidates for an experimental Ebola vaccine that had only been used once before, in the waning days of the West African epidemic. Over 3,300 people were ultimately administered the vaccine. Ilunga considers the vaccine nothing short of a “game-changer.”
The news certainly calls for celebration — but they are far from a definite end to the disease.
“As Ebola is a virus whose natural reservoir is located in the Equatorial Forest, we must prepare ourselves for the 10th Ebola outbreak,” said Ilunga.
“Moreover, with the greater mobility of the population, we can expect to have other outbreaks in urban zones in the future. We must learn the lessons from this response and strengthen our system in order to detect and respond even more efficiently to the next outbreak.”
It is common that most of our gadgets contain a substance by the name of Coltan, particularly our mobile phones. This mineral is widely mined in the forests of central Africa, such as the Congo. This business has erupted over the last decade and demand and prices have never been higher, unfortunately there have been some severe knock on effects that have resulted in huge proportions of the forest being erased. Many animals that have this area as their natural habitat have been slaughtered, the Eastern African Gorilla being one of them. The shocking truth is, the illegal sale of their ape meat provides additional income for the miners to profit further from the destruction of the forestry, landscape and wildlife who made it their home.
The out of control volume of the illegal miners that have migrated to Africa to mine Coltan is now in the 10,000+. These volumes can easy illustrate the effects to the landscape and the depletion of Gorilla populations. This is a vicious loop as the demand for mobile phones and other devices increases, so does the price of Coltan and the desire for illegal miners to migrate into the territory in search of work.
“Most people are unaware of the connection between the components that make up their phones and the direct impact of the health and survival of the wildlife contained in the mined areas” said Ashley Turner, owner of a phone recycling business, comparemymobile.com.
Many phone recycling companies, environmental groups and even Zoos have made a conscious effort to launch phone recycling campaigns to raise awareness and reduce the demand for Coltan. There are now 1.4 phones to every 1 person on the planet, this is caused by the vast lack of recycling and re-purposing of the devices.
Click for zoom
Europe has in excess of 160 Million unused phones
The US has 130 Million unused devices
In the UK there is around 40 Million mobile phones that lay dormant
The average person changes their phone every 12-18 months
Tips how you can help:
Reuse: Pass on old devices to a friend or family member
Recycle: Find an in store or online service to recycle your device
The key message is to not just bin or store old devices. What ideas do you have to reduce the impact of Coltan mining? Is there a local Zoo or charity you think might be interested? Please share your thoughts below and start a discussion…
This bright little fellow is known as the lesula to the local people of a remote part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and as of recently has been recognized as a new, distinct species of monkey. Lucky for the lesula, the discovery came in the nick of time for preservation efforts to be rolled, as the species faces extinction due to extensive hunting.
Though the monkey bares a cunning resemblance to the owl-faced monkey, the lesula can be easily differentiated by its blond chin and upper chest, in contrast to its dark limbs. Also It has a reddish-colored lower back and tail. The first lesula found was a young captive animal seen in 2007 in a school director’s compound in the town of Opala in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“And adult males have a huge bare patch of skin in the buttocks, testicles and perianal area,” said John A. Hart, the researcher who described the coloring. “It’s a brilliant blue, really pretty spectacular.”
Look closely in the lesula’s eyes – doesn’t it remind you of a person, a known figure of some kind? Well, some readers from CNN quickly jumped on the news and started making bets on who bares the greatest resemblance to the lesula. Finalists include David Schwimmer from Friends, Jake Gyllenhaal, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Jesus.
Laughs aside, since it was first sighted, thorough tests and analysis were performed which revealed that indeed that the monkey is a genetically distinct species, now called Cercopithecus lomamiensis by its scientific name. Researchers are worried, however, concerning the lesula’s fate as the new monkey’s range covers one of Congo’s last “biologically unexplored” forest blocks. Although the scientists involved in the study were able to identify more lesulas in the wild, “under the current trends of uncontrolled bush-meat hunting, it could become very endangered.”
“After searching for several days in the most densely populated lesula habitat, I finally got a glimpse of the species on the last day in the forest,” said Florida Atlantic University (FAU) Assistant Professor of Anthropology Kate Detwiler. “After the excitement of confirming the new species in the genetics lab, the chance to see the lesula in its natural habitat was especially gratifying. The fact that we are just finding a new species of primate in this area of the Congolese rain forest in the 21st century indicates that there is still so much to learn. We are very lucky that we found the lesula while there is still time to save it, and the discovery fuels the drive to raise awareness about and support for conservation of this incredibly diverse ecosystem.”
Indeed, as Professor Detwiler perfectly synthesizes, we’re in 21st century and still there are species, of monkeys even, which have yet to be identified. FAU’s news statement said that a significant area of the new species’ known range is now proposed as a new protected area, the Lomami National Park. ”This will be the first national park established in the Congo through consultation with local communities from the outset,” the statement added.
The findings were described in a paper published in the journal Plos ONE.
While there are still a lot of climate change skeptics out there that argue that the human influence exerted upon Earth’s climate is minimal, if not non-existent, a myriad of research studies tackling the subject would say otherwise. Fossil fuels usage yields the most greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, out of all other human-induced pollutant activities. As the industrial age boomed in the XIX so did the poisoning of the environment, spurred by a reckless and inconsiderate attitude towards the surroundings. We could argue that they didn’t know one bit what they were doing at the time or what would be the consequences of their actions, but even so in the last 50 years – a time when climate change and global warming awareness is rampant – we’ve witnessed the highest greenhouse gas emission levels in recorded history.
Where did we go wrong? Will we ever be able to ecologically repent and make up for our wrongs? Progress is being made in this direction, but just at a philosophical level, by the world’s governments, which are now fully aware of the impact of human intervention upon the climate, and thus upon their nations’ prosperity. In 2010, CO2 levels reach a record height, up 45% than in 1990. It’s expected that 2011 will slightly overthrow the previous year, after scientists have enough data to make a pertinent study.
So where did this all begin? A new paper recently published in the journal Science, describes the researchers study of sediment cores from the mouth of the Congo River, the deepest river in the world, suggests that man might have played a major role in altering the Central African environment. Analysis showed that around 3,500 years ago the river suddenly began to dump a lot more muck, despite no change in rainfall. This is a typical effect caused by farming. The researchers hypothesize that this must have coincided with the arrival of the Bantu people in the region, who also introduced farming.
The Bantu grew oil palm, pearl millet and yams. These crops require plenty of sunlight to flourish, and naturally deforestation followed, which is today the second greenhouse gas inducing factor. Also, trees were cut down for fire, which allowed for the manufacturing of tools and weapons.
The Congo river flows through one of the world’s biggest and lush rainforests in the world, however, it’s intriguing how it also suddenly transits through the savannas as well. Scientists believe that a climate shift from warm and humid to seasonally cooler and drier lead to the creation of savannas, however sediment samples that hold critical geological record from the past 40,000 years state otherwise – see the muck deposits.
The intro to this study synthesis was a bit long, however I feel it was required to give context to this importing finding, in my opinion. Tracing back our steps from the very beginning, like in the case of a individual, helps us learn a great deal about ourselves, and what pushes us to do all sort of things. Education is the key to our survival and evolution.
More and more countries are seeking to ban or at least limit the use of plastic bags or have already done so, and the latest government to go for this smart, eco-friendly move is the Republic of Congo.
The African nation has just recently passed a bill in which the production, import, sale and use of plastic bags is banned, according to country spokesman Bienvenu Okiemy. As such, the use of plastic bags to pack food, groceries, water and other beverages is prohibited.
“For some years now, particularly in urban areas, Congo has witnessed major environmental pollution caused by discarded plastic bags which block drainage systems, causing floods and landslides,” Okiemy said.
Sewage and waste management is a big issue in developing countries like Congo.
Although considerate, the motives outlined by Mr. Okiemy are quite minor compared to the overall harmful effects the use of plastic bags pose, all over the world. The main material used in the manufacturing of the bags is polyethylene, a petroleum compound which takes 1000 years to break down. Most of them usually wind up in the soil, which gets contaminated and as such the very food we ate. It’s estimated 1 billion seabirds and mammals die per year by ingesting plastic bags. These are just a few reasons why polyethylene bags should be banned out of a myriad of others.
Nevertheless, I can only salute Congo for taking the innitiative and passing this very important prohibition, although it hasn’t been yet specified from when the ban will be effective. Congo isn’t however the first African country to go for this kind move; Rwanda has lead the continent’s fight against plastic bags, banning them five years ago.