It is about 12 o’clock and the small propeller plane emerges from thick clouds beginning to make its descent onto the Monkoto airstrip. A look through the plane’s window reveals the vaste green cover on the ground formed by the tops of trees extending as far as the eye can see. The spectacle of the dense vegetation is striking. A passenger on board does not believe his eyes. He says, “I could not imagine that the world from the sky was so beautiful and that the forest of Salonga had this unimaginable aspect.”
The small village of Monkoto
The small town of Monkoto is home to the headquarters of the Salonga National Park. Monkoto, located in the province of Tshuapa, is the capital of what in the Democratic Republic of Congo is called a “territory”. A territory is the lower level administrative division after the province. The territory of Monkoto covers an area of 36,000 km² and has 390,000 inhabitants.
Monkoto is almost lost in the middle of a green sea of the lush and very isolated forest. The only connections to the outside world are a small road that leads to Boende, the capital of the province located at 225 kilometers to the North which takes between 8 to 10 hours on motorbike. Or one takes the Luilaka River to Mbandaka, the nearest major town located 700 kilometers downstream. That journey takes at least four days on an average boat!
Connection via airplane
The plane is therefore essential to quickly move people or equipment to and from the park. Only heavy equipment is transported by boat. Without charters organized about twice a month, the logistical challenge of overcoming the park’s isolation would be even more difficult.
The small aircraft reaches the end of the grassy airstrip. Its engine slows down and eventually stops. The presence of the plane is always an event for the children of the area who never miss a landing to admire the flying machine from the sky. Passengers who disembark from the aircraft are usually returning staff of the park. However today a passenger is the main attraction. He is surrounded by his relatives who came to greet him triumphantly.
Without charters organized about twice a month, the logistical challenge of overcoming isolation would be even more difficult.
His name is Joel Itombo, 24, from the village of Iyongo, near Mondjoku Station, located in the northern block of the park, 50 kilometers from Monkoto. In January 2018, because of increasingly severe eyesight problems, the doctor he consulted diagnosed him with a serious eye condition. Untreated it could have evolved inexorably into complete blindness. Only an emergency surgery in a better equipped health center than the small hospital of Monkoto could save his sight. But how to get out of Monkoto quickly? His family sought help for him from the Park Management Unit to be transported to Kinshasa.
Support to the population
Indeed, the Park Management Unit agreed to facilitate the transport by air for patients from the local community, when their condition can not be treated by doctors in the Monkoto hospital. As Pierre Kafando, the Park Director explains, “we show the public that the park is no stranger to the life of the community. We are aware of the social role played by the park, which is why we provide this type of assistance when our means allow it. In 2017, we helped evacuate more than 60 patients free of charge to Kinshasa, which is the equivalent of more than six charters worth about $ 7,000 each.”
»In 2017, we helped evacuate more than 60 patients free of charge to Kinshasa, which is the equivalent of more than six charters worth about $ 7,000 each.«
When he boarded the chartered plane in January, Joel almost could not see anymore. After a successful operation, he is back home with his eyesight recovered. Without the conservation program, it would have been very difficult for him to go to the capital for proper care. The flight over the vast forest of the Salonga really impressed him, “You can not imagine how beautiful it is!” Sharing the story of these memorable moments to his relatives will certainly last evenings!