Amid political corruption, economic instability and a civil war that lasted from 1996 to 2002, Ewango applied scientific fact-finding and grassroots mobilization to protect the reserve. For example, by marking and measuring large research plots, he uncovered 600 tree species and 270 species of lianas (tropical vine plants). In the United States and Canada combined, there are 700 species of trees.
Commonplace during the war was the illegal land grab for timber and gold, diamonds, and coltan, a mineral used in cellular phone technology. Chaos spread and, by 2001, most of the Okapi Reserve’s senior staff had fled. Ewango stayed, bolstered by 30 junior reserve staff and 1,500 local residents who rallied around him. Courageously, he helped rebuild the confidence of those who had witnessed mass murder and rape, and together they worked to protect the reserve during the region’s worst fighting. Ewango also ensured the survival of the 14 okapi living at the reserve headquarters’ zoo.
In the very forest that Ewango sought to protect, he hid the reserve’s herbarium collection, computers, research and data on 380,000 trees. To save his own life, he also hid himself in the forest for three months. As fighting in the reserve continued, poaching of primates and elephants became rampant. Ewango directly confronted military commanders and informed them of regulations prohibiting poaching. The practice was curbed.
When the war ended in 2002, the reserve was intact. Due in part to Ewango’s bravery, a number of poachers were arrested or exiled, and injunctions against mining within the reserve were created. In recognition of his noble efforts, Ewango’s international colleagues insisted he continue his studies. He received a scholarship for a master’s degree in tropical botany at the University of Missouri. In 2007, he gave a TED talk about his conservation work.