The Many Surprises of Lwiro in Eastern DR Congo

Article from the series: Staying Safe and Healthy in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo

Ladies and gentlemen,

Greetings from Lwiro, a village on the edge of Kahuzi-Biega National Park that routinely surprises visitors to eastern Congo. I have been employed here for 30 years, at the enormous colonial-era Centre for Research in Natural Science (or CRSN, a French acronym for Centre de Recherches en Sciences Naturelles) next to the impressively modern primate rehabilitation sanctuary.

Since I’m writing this article during the Gorilla Highlands Experts’ Staying Safe and Healthy theme, I shall begin with the obvious: Should you be concerned about your security if you visit our neck of the woods?

How Safe is Lwiro, Bukavu, Eastern Congo?

As much as eastern DR Congo is notorious as unsafe and I know of some unfortunate incidents, I haven’t personally been exposed to anything — and I do fieldwork in places like Kahuzi-Biega and other wild areas. We are in the South Kivu province with Bukavu as our capital, and we have significantly fewer problems than North Kivu around the city of Goma.

You probably know that everywhere in the world there are places where security can be an issue. For instance, I did my MSc. (Conservation Biology, University of Cape Town) and PhD (Zoology, Stellenbosch University) in South Africa. Everybody claims the country is unsafe but I never experienced anything dangerous there. You just need to assess conditions, use common sense and not expose yourself to unnecessary trouble. Do what is safe, where it is safe and when it is safe, and you will be alright.

In our city of Bukavu you will be totally fine if you do your activities during the day or in the early hours of the evening. In some parts of Bukavu, it is safe until 10 pm, in others not so much. Generally, the police shouldn’t be relied on — most of the time they arrive late and can’t really be trusted.

But the vast majority of foreign visitors pass through our part of Congo without any trouble at all, and enjoy it thoroughly.

How I Ended Up at Lwiro

I was born in the former Bandundu in western Congo and did all my education, from primary school to the undergraduate level, there. I moved to Bukavu for my Bachelors honours and then taught at a city secondary school.

Even before my university years, I knew I had a passion for research — I loved the biology lectures by my American teachers. Later on, research activities by an undergraduate professor inspired me even more. We have truly endless opportunities for this kind of work in Congo. For biologists, there are many wild places to explore, many more to still discover. The last few years there have been many completely new species identified, and we expect to find more in the future.

In 1991 when I was 31 years old, I was given a position at CRSN in Lwiro after a test organised to recruit researchers. I worked at the Mammalogy Laboratory on ape eco-ethology and conservation, then became focused on small mammals. During my training at Makerere University in Uganda and at the Field Museum of Natural History of Chicago, I developed a particular interest in rodents, bats and shrews. I have visited many of the sites in the Gorilla Highlands region, in all the three countries, for sampling.

Natural and Historical Wonders of Lwiro

I have been involved in both large and small mammals census projects in eastern Congo, giving me broad knowledge of primates in this area. I therefore find it special that we have a sanctuary just next door. It is officially called the Primate Rehabilitation Centre or — in French and in short — CRPL. This very attractive set of three enclosures has many chimpanzees of all ages, numerous monkey species and some other wildlife such as tortoises and parrots. The animals living at CRPL have been confiscated from illegal owners from across the country, and visitors here can learn about the essential rehabilitation of these beautiful wild beings.

But my place of work is the Centre for Research in Natural Science (CRSN) itself. Created in 1947 by Prince Charles of Belgium, it was assigned the following mission that remains valid today: “To motivate, promote, carry out and coordinate research in humanities and natural sciences in the Belgian Congo and Rwanda – Urundi.” Nowadays it employs 102 researchers and is divided in five departments: biology, documentation, environment, geophysics and nutrition.

The Department of Biology has several fascinating collections: a large variety of mammal skulls and skins; intricate skeletons of bird specimens covering many families and genera from central and eastern Africa; and an important collection of herps (reptiles and frogs), most of which are preserved in fluid. Some laboratories such as the Herpetology Lab have live snakes and tortoises on site for scientific experiments. In our modern herbarium you also find living specimens of unique plant species, used by many researchers from around the world. And finally, our wooden library is a cherished historical monument.

Nearby we have many sources of thermal water (approximately 60ᵒ-70ᵒC/140ᵒ-160ᵒF) and the trio of Tshibati waterfalls (60m/200ft, 30m/100ft and 20m/65ft high). There is even a charming and peaceful Lwiro guesthouse for our visitors.

All in all, Lwiro is a unique and totally safe destination for curious people, surrounded by a rich green landscape. It all makes for a comfortable, educational and very fun adventure.

Come visit us during the Gorilla Highlands Mega Trek, or any time you want an unparalleled experience. Watch the video below for more!

non-drone photos by Marcus Westberg