Posted on 04 July 2004
Over the last two months, 1,500 hectares of prime mountain gorilla habitat have been cleared by illegal settlers in Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site.
Gland, Switzerland – Over the last two months, 1,500 hectares of prime mountain gorilla habitat have been cleared by illegal settlers in Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site, according to evidence uncovered by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, one of WWF's partners.
Since April, convoys of people from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have destroyed large tracts of the park, home to mountain gorillas and other endangered species, to create agricultural and pastoral land.
Located in DRC on the border with Rwanda and Uganda, Virunga National Park is home to more than half the 700 remaining mountain gorillas — one of the world's most critically endangered species. According to WWF, encroachment into their habitat reduces the gorilla’s breeding area and limits their main source of food.
According to information received by WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and their conservation partners, most of the destruction took place from early May to June. Several thousand people moved in to the area to farm illegally in Virunga, with support from local influential individuals who sold plots of land within the park. The mountain gorilla generates around US$2 million for the region annually from tourism. The forest has been entirely cut down and turned into timber or charcoal before crops were planted.
“Recent meetings between administrative and military authorities from DRC and Rwanda have been very positive and have apparently led to the removal of illegal settlers and a cessation in forest clearance," says Dr Peter J. Stephenson, Coordinator of WWF's African Great Apes Programme.
"However, WWF remains very concerned that if clear instructions are not given by the highest levels of government in Rwanda and DRC to their local authorities, the destruction will restart and expand even further. WWF and its partners are working to improve the livelihoods of local people around Virunga through community projects — destroying the park is not a solution and in the long-term will cause even more suffering to people as well as gorillas,” he adds.
WWF is asking the governments of Rwanda and DRC to take appropriate action against illegal farming in Virunga National Park, and to instruct their respective local authorities to ensure that no incentives are given to farmers for clearing forest in the protected area.
The conservation organization urges the two governments to take measures to enforce the UN World Heritage Convention that protects this unique site. WWF is also calling on the international community to fund park patrols, the peaceful evacuation of illegal settlers, and the restoration of destroyed areas.
"What is happening in Virunga is a disaster," says Marc Languy, Coordinator of WWF's programme in the Albertine Rift. "The park is one of the most important conservation areas in Africa, harbouring over 200 species of mammals and over 700 species of birds, many of them endangered. Thanks to conservation efforts during the past decades, the mountain gorillas have survived civil unrest and war in the region. Loss of habitat is however the worst threat to this species. It is also a loss for the local communities as the forest provides many ecological and economical services to the neighbouring population, and many local people benefit from gorilla tourism revenues". Notes Mountain gorillas
A subspecies of eastern gorilla
, the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei
) became known to science on 17 October 1902. Uncontrolled hunting, destruction of its forest habitat, and capture for the illegal pet trade, soon led to a dramatic decline in numbers and fears that the mountain gorilla would become extinct in the same century it was discovered.
However, despite these dire predictions, ground-breaking work by conservation groups has seen the population growing from 624 in 1989 to approximately 700 today. Half of these gorillas are found in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the rest are in the Virunga Mountains, in habitat shared by Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, Volcanoes National Park in Northern Rwanda, and the southern sector of Virunga National Park in DRC.
Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park, created in 1925 as Africa's first protected area, extends over an area of 8,000km2. It is located in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), bordering Rwanda's Volcano National Park to the south and Uganda's Mgahinga National Park. It is characterised by largely unspoiled tropical montane forests that are extremely rich in biological diversity, including some of the remaining populations of the endangered mountain gorillas. Virunga National Park is now a World Heritage Site
The park has suffered the effects of political tension and on-going conflicts since 1994 as manifested by dilapidated infrastructure. Encroachment for farming and settlement, as well as by warring rebel factions, is rife, leading to uncontrolled exploitation of the natural resource base. IGCP
(The International Gorilla Conservation Programme; a joint initiative of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF
), Fauna and Flora International (FFI
), and WWF founded in 1991 to conserve the endangered mountain gorillas and their forest habitats) works with the community and private sector on conservation enterprise business to ensure profitability from park conservation. This includes community lodges (Kinigi and Nkuringo in process), handicrafts to sell to tourists, beekeeping near the park, a mushroom business, and agriculture. Environmental Programme for Virunga National Park(PEVi)
WWF, in collaboration with the Institut Congolais de Conservation du Nature (ICCN), initiated the Environment Programme for Virunga National Park (PEVi
) in 1987. The programme aims to raise awareness of the value of conservation among local communities, based on rural development activities such as agroforestry and buffer zone management. It is also actively working in demarcation and monitoring of the boundaries of the National Park and in peaceful removal of illegal settlers in many other areas. Its activities have been disrupted several times by the civil unrest in the region but the work has nonetheless continued, with remarkable accomplishments. For further information:
Head of Press, WWF International
Communications Manager, WWF Species Programme