Our friend of the month is Adams Cassinga, a pioneering conservationist in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Adams is the founder of Conserv Congo, the EPI Foundation’s partner in the DRC. Conserv Congo will help us assess and improve management and security of ivory in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Goma, in an exciting expansion of our Gold Standards programme.
You were born, we understand, in the eastern part of the DRC. Please tell us what your childhood was like, and whether you were interested in nature and conservation while you were at school.
I was born into a middle class family, and attended one of the best Jesuit schools around.
Every week I used to see a big truck with tourists going to see the gorillas in Kahuzi Biega National Park, which we knew very little about. When it came to primates, we just read about them in books. In my school we were not allowed to speak any languages except French and English. So if one spoke in a vernacular, they were punished. Girls were shaved and boys wore a chimp skull around their necks for the whole day. This made some pupils reject the idea of even considering conservation as a career. I remember that conservation was dominated by non-Africans. In fact, many people, local and foreign, still believe subconsciously that conservation concerns everyone except Africans. Wild animals were associated with shame and being a non-civilized person. Conservation was perceived as a career that dosen’t pay well, and was looked down on, and that myth endures until today.
I personally was very interested in wildlife, but at the time I didn’t know what conservation was. All I knew was I was fascinated by nature, and animals in particular. I had my own collection of invertebrates that I selected and named from my zoology classes. I wanted to know more about wildlife, but was limited to literature, as the only time we saw animals was in the market, ready to be served as food.
My father told me that if I wanted to be a butterfly chaser, he would not pay my school fees. He wanted me to be a pilot in the air force.
My childhood was interrupted by war in the 1990s and that's why I had to go into exile in South Africa.
Please tell us why and how you returned to the DRC from South Africa?
After spending many years in South Africa, working as a journalist, I had an accident when I was shot while investigating a story. I had to go back to college and change career paths. An opportunity came up to work in a large gold mine in north eastern DRC. I took the opportunity as I was home sick, and discovered a lot about my country when I returned. I flew over that green canopy of tropical forest, and I had never seen anything so amazing. My heart remained in that forest, and I started nurturing the idea of doing something to mitigate the effects of deforestation and the unsustainable use of natural resources. I had to make the difficult decision to leave a well paid executive position in mining, to embrace a volunteer career, in a sector I knew very little about.
So you established your NGO, Conserv Congo, using your own savings. Tell us about this.
I was motivated by the love of nature but also a fear of failure. When I started Conserv Congo I had no idea of the work that lay ahead. I also did not know the discrimination and challenges that I'd encounter along the way. It turned out that conservation drains not only your energy, but your pocket too. We had over five years of existence without receiving a single penny from donors. I exhausted my savings and also sold a few personal items to keep the organization afloat. I believed in Conserv Congo and its objectives. Being a leader, everyone was looking at me. I didn’t want to disappoint my team, and I didn’t want my family and friends to be proved right when they had warned me against quitting my job in the mining sector. I fought for what I believe is the right cause and I still do so today. Along the way, I lost many friends, because they believed I was out of my mind in quitting a dream job to chase after wild animals.
What do you think have been Consev Congo’s greatest achievements? And your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge for me is to be an African and a conservationist. I have to work thrice as hard to have credibility in the industry. People treat me as if it is extraordinary that a black person is part of conservation. There are not many black faces in the decision making places.
The second biggest challenge is the lack of funding to accomplish the difficult task we have assigned ourselves.
The DRC is one of the countries most affected by poaching and trafficking, but it receives very little international support to turn things around.
Maybe the greatest achievement of Conserv Congo is that it is a role model for young Africans. It shows other young Africans that if you can dream it, you can achieve it. We have shifted the paradigm and shown that as Africans we can take charge of our own affairs and manage our natural resources. Meanwhile, we’ve had a number of tangible achievements in the field: in 2017 the first prosecution of a wildlife case in the DRC since colonial times, large ivory and pangolin scales busts in 2022 (two tons of ivory and four tons of scales), and also saving almost a thousand live animals, including primates, birds, and reptiles.
Conserv Congo is made up of young Africans from all walks of life and the mission is to leave a positive mark in saving our natural heritage.
Conservation in the DRC is critical for the whole planet, to protect biodiversity but also to mitigate climate change. Do you think we can save the Congo rainforest, while also meeting the aspirations of millions of people who live in and around it?
Yes, we can make conservation work for everybody. In fact our forefathers made that possible before colonialism. In Africa, humans have always cohabited with wildlife in harmony. Today people are trying hard to separate the two, and look at the consequences. Our forest does not just benefit us, it benefits humanity. This is the second largest natural rainforest in the world and it requires and deserves our support. It is possible to save this forest and let it benefit the millions of people whose lives depend on it. All it takes is that we work together, with the same goal, educate people on how to utilise resources responsibly, give these communities alternative ways of survival by teaching them crafts, new methods of agriculture, equipping them logistically, and lastly, actually apply the many laws and legal treaties which are meant to protect our fauna and flora.
Finally, the DRC is a vast country, full of natural wonders. Do you have a favourite place to visit?
The DRC is a massive country and each corner has its specific attraction. You can see so many beautiful wonders, including the Congo river, the silverback gorillas and the active volcanoes. However, my favourite place is the Virunga. If paradise had a name, it would be Virunga. I also love to escape into the thick forests of Tshuapa, near Salonga Nationa Park.
I encourage tourists to visit the Congo. Not every negative comment you hear in the media about the Congo is true!