When I got off my bike from Ngenengene a breeding center for fish, poultry and pigs, an agriculture Projet LUC of the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Kisangani (Democratic Republic of the Congo), I got a call from Professor Ulyel Ali-Patho. He asked me to replace a colleague for a scientific mission to Aketi (Northern DR Congo). I was hesitant, but Ulyel encouraged me and said it was a matter of trust and that he trusted me to lead this mission. He also said that someone would pick you up in 30 minutes. This was another concern that added to my hesitation, how to conduct a scientific mission with foreign partners (from Germany) in only 30 minutes? I obeyed despite my increasing anxiety. One hour and thirty minutes after this call I found myself at kilometer 32 of the road to Yangambi (N4) where I found my colleague with a broken leg who had had an accident preparing for the same mission.
After 21 hours, I found a team of 5 people, including two Germans and three Congolese, initially motivated for the mission but disheartened by the accident’s colleague.
Who are these brave people who form a team?
When I arrived I recognized Dr. Ulrich Schliewen whom I had known a year ago (2008) in Kisangani, on his first trip to Kisangani. Uli works at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in the Department of Ichthyology in Munich. He has written extensively on African cichlids. I immediately recognized also Julia Schwarzer who accompanied Dr. Schliewen, Julia was a PhD student who conducted her doctoral research at Inga in Bas-Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo) on Cichlids rapids, she spoke German, English and was doing very well French, the official language of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I also found Hamadi who repairs motorcycle in Kisangani. He is a very nice gentleman and serious, Kadangé next to him who was lying with a broken foot and John that I got to know along our journey to Aketi.
In road to Aketi on Itimbiri river
The following day around 5.00am, we took our luggage on the bikes. The luggages comprised mainly food, fishing equipment and fuel. We took the road to Aketi via Yaekama and Basoko on Aruwimi river. The region of Yaekama was special for the mission because we were looking for a small cichlid described but not collected and exhibited at the Royal Institute of Natural Sciences (RINS) in Brussels. To ensure we had a good mission, we had to work with some local fishermen through one enumeration. A week before we arrive at Yaekama, the village had managed a team of pre-expedition "Boyekoli Ebale Congo 2010"1 that included Belgians and Congolese, Upon our arrival I heard the villagers say in local dialect ‘they are back, but this time on AG100 motorbikes.
The trip was not easy, we used a map, but the reality on the ground was different than the map, the entire national road became difficult trails and we drive normally. Sometimes we were obliged to draw our own road, that’s the reality of the country. Apart from this inconvenience, we took advantage of the freshness of the Congolese rainforest that our German friends had discovered for the first time.
At Basoko we spent the night in the convent of Catholic priests and other times we had to sleep under the stars in the middle of the field, there our prayer was for the sun to rise fast so we could continue quickly on to Aketi in Itimbiri river.
From Basoko to Aketi we were also housed in a convent nearly empty because it was so large.
The monastery was built by the colonizers with Belgians bricks; our German friends were amazed, because alongside these great buildings of the church where the priests lived in "luxury", a very poor population lived in mud and straw houses. We made more than 1500 km between Kisangani and Bumba where our friends took their flight to Kinshasa.
Democratic Republic of the Congo is really rich
I knew the DR Congo was rich in mineral and its forest, but I did not imagine that we could have also good fish diversity, I took me this expedition to realize the variety of small fish we have. Lately the scientists are claiming they discovered a new species of monkey living in the remote forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they call Cercopithecus lomamiensis (http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0044271).
In school we learn for most fish of economic interest, which is normal for the case of an underdeveloped country the food has become a problem for the population, but we should also learn that this fauna (aquatic insects, molluscs, and small fish) contributes in one way or another to the trophic chain. In the field we set up a makeshift lab needed for this purpose. It allowed us to take pictures of fish, take biopsies of fish tissues (conserved in ethanol) and place the fish in the preservation fluid (formaldehyde).
It happened several times that we had to make ourselves understood toy the local population. They simply did not believe that the European left would be interested in small fishes which have no commercial value. They thought we had come looking diamonds. It took the intervention of village elders to make it clear to the people.
Overall, we were satisfied with this mission, because we have reached our goal and it also allowed us to discover 5 undescribed species. Here are some common fish names we captured during this mission:
Brycinus grandisquamis (Alestidae) ; Phenacogrammus sp. nov. « rotrücken » (Alestidae) ; Ctenopoma maculatum (Anabantidae) ; Lamprologus sp. nov. (Cichlidae*); Barbus candens (Cyprinidae) ; Opsaridium ubangiense (Cyprinidae) ; Kribia nana (Eleotridae) ; Schilbe sp. nov. (Schilbeidae) ;
In conclusion, we say that the Congo Basin in general and the DRC in particular remains a black hole for science. Much remains to be discovered, not only for the ichthyofauna but also for other groups (molluscs, crustaceans, insects, birds, primates,...). It is important that outside researchers who are interested in a research project involve local academic institutions create a good partnership.
*(for more explanation, you can read this article of J. Schwarzer et all.) : Speciation within genomic networks: a case study based on Steatocranus cichlids of the lower Congo rapids