News - December 2, 2010

Biologist held his ground during the Congolese war

Joris Tielens

Biologist Corneille Ewango risked his life to protect research data and a nature area from the Congolese rebels.

Jungle photo by Terese Hart. Caption: Ewango with his son in the Ituri jungle in Congo
Biologist and forestry warden Corneille Ewango received his doctorate on 29 November for research into three hundred varieties of liana in the tropical rainforest of Ituri in northeast Democratic Republic of Congo. He concluded that climate change had not had an effect on the biodiversity of lianas in Congo, in contrast to the findings of research in Latin America. Ewango spent thirteen years on his research and was also a warden of the nature reserve in Ituri.He almost lost his research data when war broke out in Congo in 1996. Eventually the militias came close to where he was, looking for gold or coltan but also hunting elephants for their ivory and Okapis for their bush meat. Many of Ewango's colleagues fled to safer areas but he remained. 'I couldn't leave the reserve, the buildings, the wild animals and the results of years of research.' At one point the soldiers were looking for Ewango because they suspected him of sending information about the appalling state of affairs from this remote area to the outside world. That was when Ewango went into hiding in the jungle, staying there for months. He buried the research data with his own hands in a concealed spot in the forest. 'There were ten large plastic crates with hard copies. I also buried the engine of a 4WD car and I asked pygmies to climb into the trees and tie the four wheels high up in the trees so that the rebels would not be able to take that car away.' Ewango received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2005 for his work on behalf of the jungle.
Almost too late
Ewango was almost too late for the defence of his own doctoral thesis in Wageningen as he had great difficulty in getting a visa. 'I had all the documents but the EU has new, stricter rules and Congo is on the red list. All EU countries had to approve my visa and I had to wait twenty days at Kampala for that.'