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Virunga Heartland Is Biologically Rich--but Embattled

  • Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Shrouded in mist and hanging moss, the mountain forests of the Virunga volcanoes are home to the magnificent mountain gorillas. The chain of eight volcanoes runs along the western branch of the Great Rift Valley, forming part of the border between Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. These spectacular mountains and the nearby Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda are the last refuge of the mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei), the world's most endangered primate. Only about 620 of these fabled creatures remain.

The Virunga Heartland is one of the world's most important biodiversity sites. It constitutes the last remaining afromontane forest habitat on the planet for mountain gorillas and hosts a spectacular array of other rare and endangered animals and plants.

The Heartland is anchored by four irreplaceable protected areas:

Rwanda's Volcano National Park encompasses the upper reaches of five dormant volcanoes. The lower slopes, the gorillas' primary habitat, are covered with dense montane forest and bamboo; higher up, moors are thick with giant heath, lobelia and groundsel. Golden monkeys, yellow-backed duikers (small antelopes) and 200 species of birds live in the park. Lake Kivu, 56 miles long, lies southwest of the park in the western Rift Valley.

DRC's Virunga National Park, at almost 2 million acres, is an enormous park rich in landscapes and wildlife. Mountain gorillas, chimpanzees and monkeys live in the park's southern sector. Elsewhere in the park, grasslands and lakeshores host elephants, buffaloes, impala-like kobs, topis (antelopes), waterbucks, lions, black-backed jackals, hippos, yellow-billed storks, hammerkops and pelicans. The raucous call of large forest hornbills echoes through the forest.

Uganda's Mgahinga National Park protects montane forest and bamboo on the northern slopes of peaks whose southern slopes are in Rwanda and DRC. A small alpine lake is at the top of one volcano, 13,000 feet high. The area is home to mountain gorillas and other endemic species, such as golden monkeys and Ruwenzori turacos.

Also in Uganda, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park protects much of the Impenetrable Forest, which features both mid-altitude and montane forest in a nonvolcanic mountain range, with more than 120 species of mammals. The forest, one of the most species-rich in Africa, boasts a large number of primates as well as clawless otters, side-striped jackals, golden cats and more. The park also hosts hundreds of species of birds and butterflies.

This mystical slice of Africa may sound idyllic, but there's trouble in paradise, and the dimensions of the challenges are daunting.

Threats to the Gorillas' Habitat The forested homelands of the mountain gorillas are endangered by clearing trees for agriculture: The rich volcanic soil of the Virungas is excellent farmland. The region's human population density, the highest in Africa, threatens the gorillas with encroachment on their habitat and transmittal of human diseases, to which mountain gorillas are highly susceptible. Poaching of other forest animals also has a brutal impact on the gorillas. Some have lost limbs to wire snares.

But the most fundamental challenge to protecting the mountain gorillas and their habitat is that all three nations; DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda, have experienced conflict and war in recent years.

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which as many as one million people were killed, and the ongoing civil war in DRC have caused massive human migration. Gorillas have been caught in the crossfire, and their habitat has lost probably 36 million trees chopped down for firewood by the million-plus Rwandans encamped in eastern DRC from 1994 to 1996.

The March 1999 massacre of tourists and a senior park warden in Bwindi harmed Uganda's tourism and, ultimately, the gorillas. "Tourism is critical to the mountain gorillas's urvival," explains Annette Lanjouw, director of the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP). "Tourist dollars are a powerful economic incentive to preserve the forests where these gorillas live."

Effective long-term protection of the few surviving gorillas and their habitat demands cooperative conservation work among all three countries. And local communities must be involved in decision-making about how to manage nearby protected areas so that they have a stake in conserving the gorillas and their habitat.

Conservation Through Cooperation The importance of protecting the Virunga Heartland has been recognized by other conservation and humanitarian organizations. The Bwindi and Virunga National Parks have been designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, and Volcano National Park has been named a Biosphere Reserve.

The Virungas are also a priority site for "Peace Park" designation. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) believes that the 100 protected areas throughout the world that straddle national borders as do the Virungas' present a unique opportunity for regional collaboration and can promote political cooperation and avoid conflicts over shared resources. IUCN has begun promoting the role of these transfrontier parks as "Parks for Peace," and the Virungas particularly as a priority for conservation action.

AWF's own experience working on the ground in much of the Virunga Heartland for more than two decades confirms IUCN's perspective. Throughout the many civil conflicts, IGCP, a joint program of AWF, Fauna and Flora International and the World Wide Fund for Nature has provided consistent support to the region's parks in all three countries.

One of IGCP's chief successes is fostering cooperation among DRC, Rwanda and Uganda to safeguard the mountain gorillas and their habitat. Despite tensions among the three countries, IGCP regularly brings together park staff, government officials and other partners to discuss common issues: for example, how to work effectively with surrounding communities and how to foster safe ecotourism. IGCP also helps to coordinate regional activities such as joint patrols and a shared ecological monitoring program and supporting database.

"Nowhere in Africa is the need more urgent, the case clearer and the long-term prospects for success greater for the AWF Heartlands approach than in the mountains of Central Africa's Great Lakes region," says Cary Farley, AWF's Virunga Heartland coordinator.

To implement the Virunga Heartland Program, AWF will build on IGCP's success in protecting mountain gorillas and will expand to address other conservation priorities. While continuing to collaborate with colleagues in the government, AWF also will work with communities, the private sector and local and national organizations to protect the extraordinary forests and species of this unique Heartland.

Fortunately, AWF is in an unparalleled position to meet this challenge.

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