Photograph by David Kenfack
Congolese botanist Corneille Ewango has risked his life to defend his country's extraordinary wilderness. As director of the Okapi Reserve's botany program, he led efforts to protect the forest and its people during civil war years marked by mass murder, rampant rape, and widespread destruction.
"For me it was impossible to imagine leaving," Ewango remembers. "I'd spent half my life there developing infrastructure and building long-term programs to monitor the forest dynamic." So, as the reserve's offices were looted, habitat destroyed, animals killed, and all other senior staff evacuated, Ewango refused to leave.
He rallied 30 junior staff members and 1,500 forest residents to stand up to marauding militias and preserve crucial reserve data throughout years of war and chaos. He divided irreplaceable plant specimens, secretly distributing them to friends for safekeeping. Research materials and data files were strategically buried in the forest. For three months he hid in the dense vegetation himself, foraging for food alongside the very wildlife he sought to protect. "I knew if I left, everything could be lost. And I wanted to be there to rebuild immediately after the situation normalized."
In recognition of his courageous efforts, Ewango received a scholarship and earned his master's degree in tropical botany from the University of Missouri-St. Louis in the United States before returning to Congo's forests. He now continues research linking tropical ecology with the conservation of protected areas. By analyzing plant collections and producing vegetation maps he provides tools for conservation and insight into the diversity and distribution of local species. His findings reveal that the reserve's highly diversified forests abound with more than 700 species of plants, 400 species of trees and shrubs, and 300 species of forest vines. "Discovering new species is a passion," he says. "A day without collecting plants is painful for me."
This passion extends to the reserve's Pygmy population, whom he describes as "walking dictionaries of nature." "The Pygmies rely on the forest for their very life. They know everything about finding and using plants, animal behavior, and forest survival. Working with these wonderful people has been incredibly valuable."
But despite the forest's bounty, humans and wildlife in Okapi face serious threats. Elephants are poached for ivory; habitat is cleared for farming; and gold, diamonds, and coltan (a mineral used in cellular phone technology) are mined more and more aggressively. "We are putting conservation plans into action and working with the government to reduce these threats," Ewango explains. "We've also created community programs to help farmers learn sustainable agriculture practices. But it's not enough. There is a great need here and around the world for decision-makers to provide more support, money, and power for conservation efforts."
Ewango also highlights the need for more scientists to study his nation's undiscovered botanical secrets. "Congo has vast stands of biologically important forests as well as remote areas still waiting to be explored, yet we have very few botanists. I'm working to expand training for young students and inspire a new generation to make discoveries, spread the word about conservation, and increase protected areas throughout our country."
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I'm working to expand training for young students and inspire a new generation to make discoveries, spread the word about conservation, and increase protected areas throughout our country.
Corneille Ewango discusses his work protecting the Okapi Faunal Reserve from poachers and miners.
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