Gorilla conservation in the Green Heart of Africa

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Virunga National Park Park guide, Murasira Oswald with mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei). Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY

Protecting gorillas in a conflict zone

Illegal hunting, habitat encroachment and armed conflict threaten mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) with extinction.
In several places across the Congo River Basin, WWF is engaged with efforts to protected the different subspecies that are only found in this region.

To make sure the species has a future in the wild, WWF is part of the International Gorilla Conservation Project (IGCP), a partnership to protect the mountain gorilla and its habitat in northwest Rwanda, southwest Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) - an area historically fraught with violent conflict.

Who is on board

The International Gorilla Conservation Programme is a consortium of WWF, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), and Fauna and Flora International (FFI). On the ground, this programme works closely with national wildlife authorities from each country; the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), the Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORPTN) and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).

This partnership focuses on:

  • Institutional support
    The IGCP places primary emphasis on the equipping and training of park staff to increase and maintain their capacity to protect the gorillas in a collection of transborder national parks.
 / ©: CARPE
Virunga landscape [Click to enlarge]
© CARPE
  • Protected area management
    In areas such as the Virunga-Bwindi region, where poaching activities and encroachment remain major threats to the park, law enforcement to protect these areas is a priority. Daily patrolling of park borders and regions of human encroachment are conducted by ICCN, UWA and ORTPN with the support of the IGCP, and often with military reinforcement in zones of recent conflict, such as in eastern DRC.

    However, the most pressing community-park activity is to address crop damage caused by gorillas that routinely leave the National Park to feed in adjacent farmlands.

Managing local people's needs

The IGCP also prioritizes partnerships with communities bordering the national parks. Community activities may include public works, such as the construction of a water-flow scheme in Buhoma, Uganda for the benefit of thousands of residents living near Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY
Park guards patrolling on the boundary of Virunga National Park. Democratic Republic of the Congo.
© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY

  • Getting support among interested groups
    To provide for community economic development activities connected to the presence of the National Park, the IGCP supports community managed tourism activities and facilities. For example, in the Virunga-Bwindi zone, IGCP initiated an enterprise development programme with the support of the African Wildlife Foundation, to build business management skills for community enterprises.

Conservation in the crisis zone

The IGCP project is located in a part of the world that is often prone to unrest. There are recurrent tensions within and between the 3 countries where the IGCP works (DRC, Rwanda and Uganda). To protect themselves, the IGCP staff must follow the IGCP security strategy and maintain coordination with the United Nations base in Goma, DRC.

Despite the situation, the IGCP has been able to carry out most of its activities. A key factor has been that project officers in the field have secured the buy-in of all the actors involved in the area: traditional, political and military leaders, park authorities and community opinion leaders.

WWF in Kahuzi-Biega

The eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) is only found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but it is estimated that more than 50% of the population disappeared during the last war. The stronghold of the species is in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, a World Heritage Site in eastern DRC where WWF has a field project.

There, WWF works with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to:
  • Carry out surveys: These contribute to the review and updating of the park’s existing Managament Plan.
  • Train staff from the Congolese Institute for Nature (ICCN) to monitor gorillas and chimpanzees: Biological data, gorilla and chimpanzee locations, forest cover distribution, park boundaries as well as fragile habitat are being recorded. Socio-economic data is also being captured.
  • Build the capacity of ICCN to reduce poaching: WWF supports the training of park guards in anti-poaching and effective law enforcement practices.
  • Rehabilitate key infrastructures in the lowland sector of the park: Patrol posts are being rehabilitated and park boundaries demarcated.

Hurdles along the way

In Kahuzi-Biega, funding is tight and the context is difficult to operate in. Under these circumstances, pushing the agenda of a conservation project can sometimes feel quite daunting.

Persistent insecurity, impassable roads, insufficient scientific equipment, illegal mining, people encroachment, lack of capacity are just some of the constraints faced by park authorities and WWF project staff. But WWF’s achievements in the area suggest we are making steady progress.

Taking back the park

When the DRC descended into chaos during the last war, significant areas of Kahuzi-Biega were taken over by different groups of rebels.

Through increased patrols, WWF and partners are slowly bringing this ‘lost’ area back under the control of the park authority - with worthwhile results. Now, more eastern lowland gorillas are being monitored by the project, shedding insight into their behavioural patterns and requirements.

Defusing tension on park boundaries

The boundaries of Kahuzi-Biega are a contentious issue. In the lowland sector of the park, a technical committee is involving local actors to clarify park boundary establishment and maintenance, as part of the conflict resolution process.

Expanding the protected area system

Efforts are also under way to assign protected area status to Itombwe Forest, an area of exceptional biodiversity which also harbours lowland gorillas. There WWF is conducting socio-economic surveys and engaging with traditional authorities and villages to find the best way to gazette the area under the new Forest Code, with the support of local communities.

Thanks to these socio-economic and land rights studies, along with proposed alternative activities for the people, WWF is in the process to clearly identify the area and assess its legal status. This involves the participation of decision-makers, local and park authorities and the government.

 

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