The miracle of new primates in Congo

Hard to resist anthropomorphizing the mournful Lesula

Introduced to modern science in 2012 by John and Terese Hart (and reported here), the Lesula is the second of two major African primate discoveries over the last quarter century. With exponential population growth, armed conflict, demand for bushmeat and lucrative poaching markets across Central Africa’s forests, the discovery is remarkable.

Identified only last month, a third one—‘Inoko’ in local dialects—still seems miraculous. John and Terese offer an amusing account of the surrounding events on their blog. Scientific confirmation is pending, and photographic studies of the animal are still being completed.

In the eastern forests of DR Congo, the growing militarization and commercial reach of the bushmeat trade are abetted by local authorities, security and border officials. In this murky and rapacious version of man versus nature, outside reporting is rare. Lasting solutions require high level political will and enforcement capacity from regional governments, not just the Congolese. Yet biodiversity takes a backseat to managing insurgencies, the ‘conflict minerals’ racket, and a high demand for bushmeat and ivory in Africa and Asia. For the Harts, bottom-up approaches to this crisis are more attractive (see profiles by Nat Geo and myself) not only because the state is complicit but because African conservation without local investment has proven itself largely ineffective.

In the forests of Maniema province where the Lesula and Inoko were identified, the Harts are collaborating with traditional chiefs and villagers to demarcate a protected area within Africa’s largest continuous forest canopy—also its last unmapped area—with negotiated access rights for specific uses, including hunting. The work is hands-on, intensive and political, pitting locals against armed poachers for whom collusion is easily bought or coerced. But without local ownership, conservation in fragile, kleptocratic states like Congo is unthinkable.

Lesula and Inoko range; planned protected area

Species ‘discovery’ is of course a misnomer but in the emergency context of African conservation such announcements attract international attention and can catalyze support. As the Hart’s account of finding the Inoko shows, however, locals don’t always know these new species. Yet the Harts have been relying on local knowledge to track, map and decipher the habits of little known species such as the forest giraffe, or Okapi, since the early 1970s. “We didn’t do anything solo; pygmies were integrated from the word go,” John recalled in reference to his early encounters with Colin Turnbull, the influential British anthropologist whose popular account of life among the Mbuti pygmies, The Forest People, romanticized their existence and perpetuated the western myth of primitive utopias among indigenous peoples.

Festive occasion. (C) John Hart

The Hart’s working relationships with pygmies and other local tribes in species mapping would turn that perspective on its head. Their innovation lay in this melding of interests—the local knowledge of subsistence hunters with scientific hypotheses, data collection, and evidence — that not only advanced science and conservation but buried the traditional model where western field biologists sat alone in the forest and worked on their own.

While their scientific discoveries and innovative conservation tactics comprise an exceptional legacy on their own, a whole book could be written on western engagement with Congo’s pygmies to various scientific ends, real or imagined. How the Harts have inverted the power differential inherent to this dynamic, elevating indigenous knowledge to the role of teacher, is a humane conclusion to a protracted, extractive relationship inherited from colonial times.

The outsiders who have lived among Congolese pygmies for scientific purposes were each public figures of influence in their day, and the lineage between them was personal and direct. John and Terese knew Turnbull and were influenced by his vision, ultimately transforming it. Turnbull in turn knew the mad Patrick Putnam, an American who lived among the Mbuti for three decades in the early 20th century and accumulated an invaluable store of folklore, relationships and artifacts from pygmy society that were legendary at the time. That each of these relationships began as a fraternal introduction to pygmy life and livelihoods — a passing of the baton between generations of scientists — and ended in interpretive revolution shows a more personal side to the transmission of scientific ideas and to intellectual history generally.

I hope to tell this story one day; it might sound like this, the Lesula’s forest ‘boom’.