Reports of mass deforestation in the Southern Sector of the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), habitat of the endangered mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), were confirmed in June of this year. As a result of extensive habitat destruction and land conversion by people accompanied by Rwandan military personnel, a total of 15 km2 of natural habitat, including bamboo forest and mixed-forest (which forms the diet of mountain gorillas), was cleared for conversion to pastoral and agricultural land. The reason provided by Rwandan authorities for these activities was to clear the land to enhance security and to prevent rebel groups from hiding in the forest in order to avert ambushes and continued insecurity in the region. Fortunately during this time mountain gorilla families were not inhabiting this part of the park.
In response to this situation, conservation partners working in the region, including the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), AWF, WWF, WCS, UNEP and GRASP, united to create a joint action plan to deal with the crisis with a focus on bringing this incident to the attention of the international community. Additional activities to resolve the immediate situation included the construction of a dry stone eco-wall along the vulnerable boundary of the park, efforts to exert pressure on the governments of Rwanda and the DRC to find a lasting solution to this crisis, and emergency support (equipment and rations) to the ICCN for patrolling the site and protecting field teams.
The International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP), a coalition of the African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna and Flora International and World Wild Fund for Nature, has led the efforts of regional conservation partners to engage protected area authorities and the surrounding communities to prevent additional deforestation and land conversion. And these efforts have proven to be successful: since June the human population has moved completely from the deforested site. The IGCP team has been working together with community organizations on the construction of an eco-wall to restore the park boundary and to keep cattle out of the protected area. Over the past two years, communities in areas around the Virunga National Park in DRC and the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda have worked to construct a 120 km2 eco-wall to help demarcate the park boundaries to allow for crops to be protected from wildlife. This effort now includes the expedited construction of 20 km2 along the newly deforested area. The wall will allow for forest rehabilitation through uninterrupted regeneration of natural vegetation cover.
IGCP is working hard to empower the communities living around the parks and to encourage their participation in natural resource management decision-making. IGCP believes this is key to reversing the impact of the deforestation and prevention of other threats to mountain gorillas. Local NGOs and community-based organizations in DRC and Rwanda have been the best channel for reaching communities, especially due to the current lack of a reliable governmental framework. As such, IGCP will continue to carry out activities with Rwandan and Congolese leaders and communities surrounding the deforested areas in the Virunga National Park including:
Increasing, training and supervising human-animal conflict groups (HUGO);
Organizing sensitization meetings, workshops and study tours for communities and their leaders;
Conducting meetings with political leadership and decision makers (VIP meetings); and
Supporting the wardens' committee for the sensitization of partners on the illegal trafficking of wildlife through trainings, meetings and workshops.
These efforts aim to enhance awareness of invaluable forest resources in order to proactively prevent possible emergent destructive activities related to regional insecurity. This sector of the park has great potential to contribute to both national and regional economic development. IGCP will continue to facilitate participatory collaboration efforts with various regional stakeholders to ensure decisions related to the protection of key mountain gorilla habitat are politically, ecologically, and economically sound.
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