Since fighting began six years ago in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), more than 3 million people have died, mostly from disease and starvation. Millions more have been driven from their homes, many beyond the reach of refugee relief groups. The roots of the conflict in Africa’s third largest nation lie in the struggle for control of natural resources, particularly the vast mineral wealth. Biodiversity conservation in the midst of such misery and chaos has been all but impossible.
A new multimillion-dollar initiative by CI and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI) symbolizes a gradual return to normalcy in the DRC. The agreement will protect a 7.4-million-acre conservation corridor in the eastern region. Stretching from Maiko National Park and the Tayna Gorilla Reserve to Kahuzi-Biega National Park, the corridor is home to all but a handful of the roughly 5,000 remaining eastern lowland gorillas, down from about 17,000 in 1994.
Helping to guide the project will be the leaders, or mwami, of eight tribal nations. Despite the wars and political turmoil, mwami have been a relatively influential and stabilizing force in the region. “These traditional leaders are resilient and have a strong following among their people,” says Juan Carlos Bonilla, senior director for CI’s Central Africa program. “This provides the authority critical to lasting conservation.”
Most of the eastern DRC lies in the Congo Forests high-biodiversity wilderness area, a largely intact region of primary rain forest sheltering high numbers of species found nowhere else. In addition to the gorilla, the area harbors healthy populations of chimpanzee, forest elephant, Congo peafowl, and leopard. These species have been under constant threat from recurring conflicts, bushmeat hunting, unregulated mining, and human encroachment.
Gorillas, however, are critical for the initiative. “These imposing primates are very charismatic,” says Patrick Mehlman, DFGFI’s director of Africa programs. “When people in the area hear about them, they become interested and want to learn more. This enhances conservation awareness for all of the floral and faunal species in their habitat.”
Financed by CI’s Global Conservation Fund and the US Agency for International Development, the project will build on the work of DFGFI. For the past two years, the Fossey fund has successfully mobilized the support of local mwami for conservation efforts in the Tayna Gorilla Reserve. The key to their cooperation has been making human welfare a priority concern. The reserve permits a limited amount of sustainable farming and hunting but prohibits the killing of threatened species.
“You cannot undertake conservation efforts in the region without considering the needs of the people,” says Karl Morrison, corridor strategies director for CI’s Central Africa program. “They have very little, yet are very energetic and entrepreneurial. They’re just looking for some opportunities. The trick is to channel this energy into sustainable activities.”
The project will create eight communal reserves modeled on the Tayna Gorilla Reserve. Following established tribal boundaries, project planners aim to establish a seamless corridor of protected areas across the region. As lead nongovernmental organization in the corridor, CI will explore sustainable economic activities with reserve communities and will develop infrastructure to monitor and control natural resource extraction such as bushmeat hunting, mining, and logging.
“Ultimately,” says Morrison, “we want to build a framework that protects biodiversity, provides for the people and, like the mwami and their customs, can stand up to the wars and instability that recently have become widespread in the region.”