Czech scientist to explore remote wilderness in the Congo

Photo: Arthur Sniegon

Young Czech scientist and traveller Arthur Sniegon has devoted much of his life to protecting Africa’s wildlife. Among other things, he took part in undercover operations focused on capturing wildlife poachers and established an NGO called SaveElephants, focused on protecting Central Africa’s elephants. This year he received a prestigious grant from the Neuron foundation to explore a remote part of wilderness in the Congo.

Arthur Sniegon,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
I spoke to Arthur during his short stay in Prague, just a few weeks before he sets out on the expedition, and I first asked him what draws him to the African continent:

“I first visited sub-Saharan Africa in 2010 with my father and we went to Cameroon, Gabon and Central African Republic. It definitely was an emotional and a cultural shock, but I somehow felt fine in this remote and abandoned part of the world.

“In less than a year I was back again, this time in the saddle of my bicycle, and I discovered more about the poaching crisis, which was at its peak in 2012. It is still very high today and very brutal towards much of the African wildlife as we know it.

“I have been trying to join several conservation projects and several awareness projects and one of my main targets was to link the real problems in Africa with the human potential and material and financial means from Central Europe, particularly from the Czech Republic.”

Why have you decided to focus on saving elephants, of all the endangered species?

“It’s true that there are other species which are even more threatened than elephants, such as pangolins or several types of primate species, and many little-known animals, where we are not really aware of the real population numbers. So indeed there are other species than need our attention.”

“There have only been a few occasions of such a massive genocide in human history, but these elephants face it right now, every single day.”

“But the elephant, because of its role in the ecosystem and because of its body mass and his way of life, can be considered a flagship and an umbrella species: its role has a far-reaching effect on the whole society of other plant and animal species. So when saving elephants, we don’t only focus on this particular animal, but on the ecosystem in general.

“And why I personally got involved in elephant protection, I can’t really say. I guess I was lucky and met the right people at the right moment. Originally I was more interested in other species, mainly birds and insects. But somehow, the elephants hit my heart so strongly that I couldn’t let them down and I wanted to do my best to be involved and make a difference.”

How serious is the situation today and what is currently the biggest threat to elephants?

“Definitely, human encroachment into the habitat, more specifically the poaching for ivory, is the number one threat for elephant survival in Africa. Overall, a vast majority of the sites in Africa witness decrease of the elephant populations.

“There are some exceptions, mainly in the southern tip of Africa, but what I know from Central Africa and what is a reality also in the eastern African national parks, is a steady decrease of the African elephant population.”

“As I said, the poaching crisis was peaking in 2011 and 2012, when a monitoring of illegally killed elephant showed us then seven to eight out of 10 dead elephant bodies come from unnatural cause, mainly poaching.

“The proportion has dropped a bit to five or six elephant out of 10 being killed by humans, but this is still an enormous impact, which we humans can barely imagine. There have only been a few occasions of such a massive genocide in human history, but these elephants face it right now, every single day.”

In 2012, you established an organisation called Save-Elephants. How do you want to achieve its goal?

Photo: Arthur Sniegon
“By creating this uniquely volunteering NGO in the Czech Republic, I wanted to open the topic of the elephant poaching and African wildlife which was not really well addressed in the Czech society.

“So the first objective was to inform about these problems, through my personal experience and me being a personal witness of these tragedies, and of course involving more volunteers who later joined me on my missions.

“But of course the main focus was really on bringing some actual help in the conservation needs in Central Africa, which is the least developed of the whole continent. We wanted either support the existing conservation projects in these countries and also try and initiate some other methods, which might be used for supporting the survival of elephants.

“For example, since the very beginning, in 2014, we supported the first canine unit in the Republic of Congo, using sniffer dogs for detecting smuggled ivory, firearms and many other living animals or animal products.

“Today, these dogs constitute part of the anti-poaching strategy in one of the biggest National parks of the whole region, in the Odzala-Kokoua national park in the Congo, and in the coastal area in the Jane-Goodall Institute in the Umhloti Nature Reserve.”

Where do these dogs come from? Where have they been trained?

“The current pack of dogs is a blend from donations from the Czech Republic and purchases from a conservation organisation in Israel and our own litter, made in Congo. We trained those puppies, which were born in 2015, and nowadays they work regularly in the field.

“This project is still not hundred percent active. We still lack proper logistic means and in some areas the mandate. So basically some paperwork needs to be done so that these units are hundred percent operational. They already have regular seizures of wildlife products, but the rate of success can climb much higher once we achieve some stability.”

You have also been developing a smart collar for elephants. How far have you gone with his development?

“Originally, I was more interested in other species, but somehow, the elephants hit my heart so strongly that I couldn’t let them down.”

“This project has not been completed yet. We seek urgently seek support. We still need to install the software into a good-working hardware, which is not easy. These projects don’t exist, so we have to blend what is available.

“We are volunteers in Save Elephants, so we lack the manpower to push this project forward a little bit faster. We are still looking for experts who would be able to implement the sound detector and a GPS localisation into the already existing elephant collars, which can serve as a first alert in case of shooting.

“They might not be able to save the entire herd or the particular elephant individual, but to have information that is instant is a big advantage to the anti-poaching efforts.”

You also took part in some under-cover operations that were focused on capturing wildlife poachers. How did that work?

“At the very beginning of my permanent stay in Congo, Cameroon, and Chad respectively, I got involved in these undercover operations run by Eagle network (Eco-activists for Governance and Law Enforcement). These projects focus exactly on mitigating international wildlife trade.

“Because of my young age and communication skills I was able to approach the traffickers quite closely. We created strong bonds which later allowed us to set a scheme which allowed us to arrest those people.

“Very often it’s a question of several weeks, if not months, which is quite tough because you constantly pretend to be someone else, you are creating false stories, you lie.

“I don’t really judge the people I helped to convict. Of course, they are my enemies, but there is no hatred. We have to consider the education level and the social circumstances in these countries. They are not necessarily really bad people, of course.”

Where are you actually stationed in Africa?

Photo: archive of Arthur Sniegon
“I still keep on moving in a nomadic way of life. I still can afford it, not having family in Africa. But the situation is not easy. I am involved in several projects already within one country, the Republic of Congo, and then in some rural development initiatives in northern Cameroun and southern Chad, which is quite far. Not only by looking at the map, but also by travelling this distance, you realize how huge is the continent and how bad the roads are.

“So the movements between the sites are quite challenging but we keep moving forward. My base right now is the Odzala-Kokoua National Park, which will be also target of the expedition in August of this year.”

You were awarded a special grant from the Neuron fund carry out an expedition in the Congo? What are its main aims?

Within this Neuron expedition, we want to achieve a better state of knowledge about particular part of the Odzala-Kokoua National Park, mainly the western edge, adjacent to the Gabonese border.

“This area is particularly rich in the remaining wildlife, mainly Forest elephants, western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees and any other primates and terrestrial animals and birds.

“We would like to confirm the presence of two rare species, one bird and one primate, and of course also focus on signs of human presence. So we will keep records of human paths, of poacher camps, of signs of poaching and all this information will also help the national park to create more intelligence-led anti-poaching strategy.

”I just want to remind the listeners that the Congo is a lowland rainforest, very thick jungle, and the conventional anti-poaching fight that we know from eastern Africa or South Africa is not doable. Aerial support is not of big help, because you don’t see anything through the canopy. And terrestrial patrols on foot are very challenging, very slow and in some instances you don’t see even five metres ahead, so it might be also risky.”

How many people will take part in the expedition?

“The expedition will consist of seven people from the Czech Republic and seven or slightly more locals from the Congo. We will set a line of camera traps, we will try to do as many direct observations as possible and we are pretty curious about what we are going to see and encounter.

Photo: archive of Arthur Sniegon
“This is not a totally unknown area. These barely exist in Africa any more. However, only poachers or maybe some lost anti-poaching patrol have recently been to this area. So there are no direct evidence of wildlife and human presence.”

What kind of dangers you will be facing there?

“We have to be ready and well-equipped for different diseases, number one being the malaria. Most of the expedition members, if not all of them, already have thorough experience from central Africa or elsewhere in the tropics, so we know what we can expect.

“Of course there are some dangerous animals, namely snakes, but it’s not a huge threat and we will be equipped with anti-venom doses. We also have to be careful about forest elephants and forest buffalos.

“They are also called dwarf elephants and dwarf buffalos, because they are slightly smaller than the bush or the savannah subspecies. But they are still big enough to rip you apart.

“But we believe that we are equipped well-enough and we are experienced that we will avoid all these types of problems.”

When exactly do you set out for your expedition?

“We plan to start in the first days of August and the expedition might take a full month. So in the beginning of September we should be back in the infrastructure in the Congo.

Of course the analysis of the results, mainly from the camera traps and other observations, will take another few weeks or months, before we can present the hard data.

“But of course just after the expedition we will publish our recent experience on the FB page and on the Neuron foundation website. So everybody who is interested in this part of the world or our activity particularly is welcome to follow us. “