As War Ebbs, Conservation Partnerships Are Key to Ape Survival in DRC National Park

September 23, 2015
In spite of a simmering armed conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and challenges in halting poaching and deforestation, the population of endangered Grauer’s gorillas in the highland sector of Kahuzi Biega National Park rebounded to 191 in 2014 after falling by nearly half during the war, from 250 to 131.

“We’re experiencing a rebirth,” says Radar Nishuli, director and chief conservator of the 2,316-square-mile park, where, in addition to the Grauer’s gorilla, some of the world’s rarest and most endangered species were nearly wiped out during almost 20 years of fighting.

“Knowing that we still have the key species that triggered the creation of the park itself has been a major accomplishment,” Nishuli says. “In the last two years, there has been enormous progress.”

In addition to the Grauer’s gorillas, the park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to other primates including the eastern chimpanzee as well as elephants, buffalo, forest hogs, and many species of antelopes.

Although the gorilla population has grown in the park’s high-altitude areas, where armed militia and poachers have been expelled, conservationists in lower-lying areas still confront direct attacks against park officers, poaching of animals for food and sale, and small-scale mining and farming.

The gorilla population in the park’s lowland sector is estimated to have dropped by 80 percent from 7,800 in 1994.

“Teams have been able to enter the park with support from communities over the past three years, and wildlife assessments are now underway,” says Stuart Nixon of Fauna & Flora International. “Hard work and the holistic vision of participative conservation are having very positive results in the lowland sector.”

Through a combination of the creation of a joint action plan by the chief nongovernmental organizations working in the region1 and greater cooperation with government, major obstacles are being tackled.

Among the central accomplishments in Kahuzi-Biega has been the delimiting of the park’s borders, whose lack of clarity was long a source of conflict with local residents, and the establishment of 13 community conservation committees in villages surrounding the park. During the past three years, patrol stations have reopened, and rangers—now active over more than 60 percent of the land—are monitoring 12 gorilla families.

“As for tourism, visitors are starting to come to the park to see species that can’t be found anywhere else in the world,” says Nishuli, noting that the number of tourists has risen from zero during the war to 1,971 in 2014.

Rangers now guide tourists through dense jungle paths to view gorilla families and to climb Mount Kahuzi, one of the two inactive volcanos for which the park is named. Each year, the park supports the attendance of 200 children at seven schools in the area, where among their academic studies they learn the basics of conservation.

Along the park’s periphery, donations by conservation organizations of fruit trees, livestock, and farm equipment are intended to provide new incomes and reduce reliance on hunting.

Local communities need not only education but the resources to expand farming and other types of revenue-generating work, according to Walemba Mulosanibwa, who formerly hunted chimpanzees and monkeys to feed his family and for sale, but stopped after receiving conservation training by the Jane Goodall Institute.

“Since most of the youth do not have an opportunity for schooling, the only means of livelihood are small-scale farming and hunting in the forest,” he says. “Life is this way because this is how our parents taught us to cater to our families.”

Mulosanibwa now provides sensitivity training to other hunters in the Walikale territory north of Kahuzi-Biega, and he calls on the government to sensitize communities in other parts of the country while helping them move toward more sustainable livelihoods.

In Shabunda, southwest of the park, where Mulosanibwa is from, “sensitization has not reached this place. The area had so many chimpanzees and gorillas; and so many elephants have been killed in that area,” he says.

“The message I give people is to stop destroying our environment. It is very valuable to us.”

1 Members of the coalition in 2014 were: Fauna & Flora International, Jane Goodall Institute, Wildlife Conservation Society, Centre de Rehabilitation des Primates de Lwiro, and Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.

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