- Thursday, June 23, 2016

The splendor of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s natural resources can be experienced first-hand in its many national parks, wildlife refuges and endangered-species sanctuaries, including two of the largest national parks in the entire African continent.

According to the United Nations’ Office for Project Services, “The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most important countries in the world in terms of biodiversity.” What makes them special is the multitude of wildlife they support, the variety of their landscapes and most of all, the pride of the local people who want to protect their homeland.

At three of the DRC’s national parks, efforts to boost security and add infrastructure are being accomplished in collaboration with local communities, state governments and international aid groups, in order to help save what the world cannot afford to lose.

Support for Salonga

Conservation efforts in the DRC received a boost at the end of May when the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) signed an agreement with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to co-manage Salonga National Park, as reported on the WWF website.

Situated in the heart of the central basin of the Congo River in the center of the country, Salonga is Africa’s largest forest park, as well as the second largest tropical forest park in the world (after Tumucumaque National Park in northern Brazil).

According to the WWF, Salonga is made up of two vast blocks of protected forests. Totaling more than 36,000 square kilometers (13,899 square miles), it is four times the size of Yellowstone National Park. It supports a huge variety of threatened and endangered wildlife and birds, including forest elephants; Congo peacocks; giant pangolins (a burrowing mammal that resembles a scaly anteater); and bongos, one of the largest of the African forest antelopes.

Salonga also represents the largest expanse of legally protected habitat for the bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee in the DRC, according to the Bonobo & Congo Biodiversity Initiative — approximately 15,000 of the endangered apes or possibly 40 percent of the world’s bonobo population live in its protected lands.

“Wild bonobos are uniquely found in DRC, south of the Congo River,” states the WWF. “They share 98.7 percent of their genetic code with humans, making them, along with chimpanzees, our closest living relatives.”

Yet Salonga also is on the list of World Heritage Sites in danger, due to decades of poaching and civil unrest that has decimated wildlife and local people alike.

“The co-management agreement we now have with ICCN will breathe new life into this emblematic park,” said Jean Claude Muhindo, WWF’s DRC director, who was quoted in the May 30 article on WWF’s website after speaking at the ceremony at the park headquarters in Monkoto when the collaborative agreement was signed. “We will work closely with our partners and local communities alike to stave off the large array of threats to Salonga.”

According to the article, expanded recruitment and training of park rangers are among the plans to stabilize and improve park management and protection. Although nearly 300 eco-guards are employed at the six ranger stations, it’s not enough in an area this vast.

Another goal is to improve engagement with neighboring communities in conservation work and in sustainable alternatives to bushmeat hunting and fishing. Finally, it is crucial to secure the vital ecological corridors between the park’s two blocks.

Funds for Salonga and the surrounding areas are coming in from USAID, the European Union and German Cooperation KfW, with the hope of creating the Salonga Foundation that can provide ongoing financial security and protection.

“This new management approach is the last chance to upgrade communities around the park to 21st century living standards, and this will only be possible if Salonga has something to protect, meaning elephants and all its other emblematic species,” Mr. Muhindo added. “Therefore, these species must be treated with the utmost respect because the future of the communities around Salonga will be much brighter if their futures are secured.”

The value of Virunga

Virunga, in eastern DRC, is the African continent’s most biologically diverse protected area. Its website lists a multitude of endangered species under its protection, including okapi (in the giraffe family), hippopotami, chimpanzees, both forest and savanna elephants, lions, and 50 species of birds. They range across some 3,000 square miles (7,800 square kilometers) of forests, savannas, active volcanoes and lava plains, lakes and rivers, swampland, the Rwenzori Mountains, and the only glacial peaks on the continent.

In the past few years, tourism at Virunga National Park has received endorsements from highly acclaimed travel-destination publications, including Travel + Leisure, The New York Times Magazine and Town & Country, which describes the park’s Mikeno Lodge as a “jewel.”

The park offers intimate guided treks to view its majestic mountain gorillas and cheerful chimpanzees as they feed, rest and play. But there are other unique ecotourism activities at Virunga. According to the park’s website (Learn more at visitvirunga.org), these include:

• The Rwenzori Mountains

With peaks rising to 16,795 ft. (5,119 meters), the Rwenzoris have the largest glaciers left on the African continent. Visitors will encounter bamboo forests, alpine meadows, lakes and snow-capped peaks, and will encounter forest elephants, okapi, chimpanzees and numerous bird species. The best weather for climbing and trekking in the Rwenzoris is usually January through mid-March and June to late August.

• The Mount Nyiragongo stratovolcano and lava lake

While chimpanzees, monkeys and bushbuck make their homes in the forests on the lower slopes, Mount Nyiragongo’s summit rim is bare, allowing visitors to look down into the fiery molten lava lake. Although predictable and safe for tourists, Nyiragongo is still a live volcano and is dangerous during eruptions.

• Tchegera Island Camp

Located on the northern shore of Lake Kivu, Tchegera offers spectacular views of the lake and four volcanoes. On clear nights, Nyiragongo and Nyamulagira volcanoes light up the night with their red-hot glowing lava. The island is also a haven for African eagles, cormorants, herons, and gulls. Visitors can explore other parts of the island in a sea kayak or by paddleboard, or choose to relax on the beach.

Yet the park’s marvelous diversity is under siege. One filmmaker brought the realities of the park’s present-day dangers to millions of viewers in his film named simply, “Virunga.”

Among the film’s messages are the devastating consequences that poaching and struggles for power have had upon the park’s most peaceful residents: the mountain gorillas, one of the three species of Great Apes found at Virunga. There are only 880 alive in the world today. (See sidebar, “Documentary Film Nominated for Academy Award.”)

The desire to save the mountain gorillas has led to international support and made them a worldwide symbol of both civil unrest and civic pride in the DRC. (See sidebar, “A Moving Musical Message.”)

Caring for the community in Garamba

The value of supporting the local community is nowhere more evident than at Garamba National Park, in the northeast corner of the country on the border with South Sudan. Established in 1938 as one of the first national parks in Africa, the park was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.

The park’s variety of terrain, including grasslands, rivers, forests and swamps, are home to four different large mammals, according to UNESCO: elephants, giraffes, hippopotami and white rhinoceros; of the latter species, only some 30 individuals remain.

African Parks explains on its website that Garamba has been a hot spot for poaching since the late 1970s, when the park’s elephant population began to plummet due to the illegal ivory trade. From an estimated 22,000 elephants, the park has only 5,000 today.

The Kordofan giraffe that lives there is also critically endangered, with only a handful remaining. Elephants and giraffes require vast tracts of land to roam in search of food and water. In all of Congo, Garamba’s 4,900 square kilometers of protected land may very likely be “the last stronghold” for these iconic African animals.

This is why the partnership that has been formed by African Parks and the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) to manage the park is of such great importance — and why efforts to increase security of local communities and wildlife alike have taken a dramatic turn since Garamba became an African Parks project in 2005.

For example: In 2014, park managers were able to purchase a helicopter so rangers could easily and quickly monitor all areas of the park. Aircraft runways throughout the park, as well as miles of interior roads, received repairs as well. Radio collars for some of the giraffes also are allowing rangers to monitor their movements.

The people who call Garamba home have also benefited in the past few years, as attention to education, employment and medical care have greatly improved the quality of life. For example:

A new school constructed in 2012 has been a boon to educational opportunities in the region. Environmental education programs are helping thousands of students and their teachers stay informed about the valuable natural resources all around them. In addition, the State has organized the distribution of four tons of textbooks to 20,000 students.

Jobs created by the park include law enforcement and community relations. Especially useful are the “livelihood diversification programs” that create sustainable sources of income for the communities that live in the areas surrounding Garamba, including training on agricultural practices, bee-keeping, fish farming, and best practices for reforestation and animal husbandry.

The Nagero Hospital opened its doors in 2013, and for the first time, local people are receiving medical care. Proper equipment and medical supplies enable hospital staff to perform surgeries and run laboratory tests on-site. Free medical care and medication are benefits of employment with the park, while people in nearby communities receive free consultations. A visitor lodge and new housing for staff and volunteers also have been built.

Through leadership and dedication, the park managers, the rangers and the local citizens of the DRC are rekindling the charge to protect and enhance their country’s wildlife and ecosystems.

With financial and moral support from local and international people and organizations, and with a cessation of civil violence, it can be hoped that the land and its residents will thrive for many generations to come.

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