UK funding to help five of the World's most valuable nature reserves in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Monday 14 May 2001
The UK Government’s Darwin Initiative is helping to fund a two year conservation project to protect five World Heritage sites in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
In conjunction with The Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the vital funds from the Darwin Initiative Scheme are providing training and technical support, so that the unique wildlife of Congo continues to be effectively protected, and that the Congolese wildlife staff are able to enjoy some benefits from the extraordinary commitment that they have shown since the beginning of the war.
Currently eight sovereign states are actively involved in a conflict that has gripped DRC since 1996. Perhaps the most defining feature of the war is the cost in human suffering; at least 250,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed and over a million displaced. Behind the human tragedy also lies the threat of a major ecological disaster.
"Five of the world's most valuable nature reserves are contained within the conflict zone, each containing some of the world's most charismatic, and endangered, large mammals such as gorillas and rhino," comments Dr Emmanuel de Merode, field research associate for ZSL. "We are working together with a number of conservation organisations, who work in Partnership with UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, to maintain a lifeline to conservation staff on the ground, many of who have not been paid for several years and yet have continued to carry out their work."
The project is focusing on: Garamba National Park, under rebel control and home to the last wild population of about 30 northern white rhinos; Virunga and Kahuzi Biega, which contain the world's most important populations of mountain and eastern lowland gorillas; The Ituri Forest, recently declared a faunal reserve to protect the okapi and salonga, under government control and home to the rare bonobos or pygmy chimpanzees, genetically our closest living relatives.
In the context of the human tragedy, the ecological cost of the war can only be considered a secondary issue. Yet the remarkable success of the small team of conservationists in carrying effective programmes on the ground is beginning to get noticed, not just in conservation circles, but in the more complex world of international relations and peace-keeping. Their ability both to maintain effective field programmes under war-time conditions, but also to negotiate effectively with warring factions is now gathering momentum.
"Both rebels and government forces recognise the conservation of the World Heritage Sites as a neutral activity that must continue uninterrupted throughout the war," comments Dr Kes Hillman-Smith, who co-ordinates support for the five World Heritage Sites. "As a consequence the Congolese wildlife authorities enjoy full recognition by both the Congolese government in the west, and by the rebel alliance in the east."
Indeed, the consensus that has been reached over the neutrality of conservation has resulted in joint patrols (to protect the wildlife) consisting of wildlife officers, of the National Institute for Nature Conservation, and military personnel from the rebel alliance. "Not only that," says Hillman Smith, "but it is giving real strength to the international commitment to protect sites that have been recognised as World Heritage and the programme has unified a collaborative effort which, we hope, will make the whole support effort bigger than the sum of its parts."
The lessons that can be drawn from this experience for peace and reconciliation in the Congo are only beginning to be grasped. Conservation as a tool for peace is beginning to capture the imagination of political actors at a higher level. It is a consequence of this success that the United Nations Foundation, using the funds contributed by Ted Turner, has contributed nearly US $3 million to the partnership of conservationists working in the five world heritage sites.
The project, which falls under the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO is providing the National Parks’ staff with basic salaries, uniforms and training to build their capacity to maintain their wildlife protection activities, even through periods of armed conflict. "Providing aid to a country at war is not easy" says Dr Guy Cowlishaw of ZSL, "but because Congolese wildlife officers have been so committed to their work, we hope to provide them with training so that they can collect and present information which can be used to assist the donors to channel funds to those who contribute the most to protecting these exceptional nature reserves."
The benefits for the wildlife are also beginning to become apparent; a recent survey at Garamba National Park revealed that seven baby rhinos were born last year. This suggests that this extremely vulnerable population of about 30 rhinos has not been wiped out as had been feared, but has remained stable, or may even have increased. At Virunga, reports suggest that not a single mountain gorilla in Congo has been killed since the beginning of the war and this is mainly due to the commitment of the Congolese wildlife staff.
Notes to Editors
- A list of the many projects to receive Darwin funding can be found at : www.press.detr.gov.uk
- The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is a registered charity and it aims to promote the world-wide conservation of animal species and their habitats by stimulating public awareness and concern through the presentation of living collections, by breeding endangered species, by relevant research and by direct action in the field.
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