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DRC declares first new national park in 40 years

  • The Democratic Republic of Congo has been losing more and more forest every year to subsistence activities, mining, and farming. Continuing conflict is exacerbating the situation.
  • The creation of the new 2.2 million-acre Lomami National Park grants protection to a remote, relatively unscathed area home to an abundance of wildlife.
  • A decade of surveying in the region led the way to the creation of the park, with researchers discovering an expanded bonobo range, as well as a new species of monkey: the colorful lesula (Cercopithecus lomamiensis).
  • Conservationists and government officials are working with local communities within and around the park to ensure protection of the region and promote sustainable livelihoods.

Late last week, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) government announced the creation of the country’s first new national park in more than four decades. Spanning an area of Congo Basin almost twice the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, Lomami National Park brings stronger protections to an area home to unique wildlife threatened by increasing human disturbance.

For the past 20 years, the DRC has been wracked by one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II as fighting for mineral riches, the fallout of independence, and collateral damage from the Rwandan Genocide tore the country apart. Between 1996 and 2003, 100,000 people were killed by combat and 5 million more died from starvation and disease. Skirmishes continue today, mostly in the country’s eastern regions where rebel groups and warlords vie for territory.

In addition to the massive loss of human life, the DRC conflict has led to the destruction of habitat and wildlife populations as militias razed forest for timber and minerals and the lack of infrastructure forced residents to turn to bushmeat and other forest resources to survive. Even the end of the major war period may not have brought relief for forests, with research finding a ramp-up in mining activity in the DRC right after major bouts of conflict.

This has led to severe environmental disturbance in many parts of the Congo Basin that continues to this day. Containing an area of rainforest second only to the Amazon in size, the Congo is considered one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. The DRC contains most of this, providing habitat for endangered animals like chimpanzees, forest elephants, bonobos, and okapi. The latter two are found only in the DRC – and are declining due to habitat loss and poaching from encroaching human activity.

From 2001 through 2014, the DRC lost nearly 80,000 square kilometers (31,000 square miles) of its tree cover, according to the forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch. In other words, the DRC lost an area of forest the size of Austria in 15 years. Over that time, deforestation trended upward, with more tree cover lost in 2014 than in any year prior. Of that loss, 67 percent occurred in primary forest.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is experiencing increasing deforestation, with 2014 (the last date for which data are available) seeing the most tree cover loss in the past 15 years. The new Lomami National Park is situated in a region that has been left relatively untouched. Source: Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA, accessed through Global Forest Watch.

One of the few areas that have remained relatively unscathed is a swath of rainforest in the DRC’s heart. Due to flooding and soil that isn’t readily farmable, this region has escaped large-scale human development typically driven by agricultural conversion. Until recently, this area the largest forest block in the DRC unknown to outside world – even to scientists. Then in 2007, researchers set out to finally survey it through a joint effort called the TL2 Project after the Tshuapa, Lomami, and Lualaba rivers that flow through the region.

What they found was a wildlife paradise, with more Congo endemics (species found nowhere else) than in any other protected area in the country. The team recorded okapi, forest elephants, Congo peacocks, bonobos, and others. The project found species only suspected of being in the region and expanded the known range of bonobos. The researchers even uncovered a new monkey unknown to science: the lesula (Cercopithecus lomamiensis), a uniquely colorful member of the guenon family with a strangely human face.

“And adult males have a huge bare patch of skin in the buttocks, testicles and perianal area,” John A. Hart, a researcher with the TL2 Project, told the New York Times. “It’s a brilliant blue, really pretty spectacular.”

The lesula (Cercopithecus lomamiensis) was discovered in 2007. Photo by Terese Hart.

After nearly a decade of surveying, Lomami National Park was officially established last week, July 7, by DRC Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo. The new park covers 9,000 square kilometers (3,400 square miles) of Congo Basin rainforest.

“The declaration of Lomami National Park is coming at a crucial time as threats to its spectacular rainforests are rapidly accelerating,” said Rainforest Trust CEO Dr. Paul Salaman.

Rainforest Trust was one of many organizations that worked with DRC agencies like the Congolese Nature Conservation Institute (ICCN) towards the establishment of the park. The Arcus Foundation, Abraham Foundation, Lukuru Foundation, FCF, Wildcat Foundation, Edith Mcbean, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) were also key players in the initiative. The Woodtiger Fund, Elephant Crisis Fund, World Parrot Trust, and Canadian Ape Alliance provided support, as well.

The call for creation of the park came resolutely in 2009 from ICCN director Cosma Wilungulu on the basis of researchers’ initial discoveries. Regional leaders added their voices, and the governors of Tshopo and Maniema provinces issued a joint letter last year pushing for national agreements.

TL2 team members ford a river while doing fieldwork. Photo by Terese Hart.

Local communities were also involved in the Lomami project, and will continue to be engaged in the park’s development and management, according to sources working on the ground.

“The TL2 Project has engaged local communities surrounding the park from the early days of participatory mapping of the park’s boundaries to current efforts to support managed hunting zones,” USFWS representatives told Mongabay. “The change has been noticeable – from initially being run out of some villages to getting assurance of widespread support for the protected area through traditional community-organized ceremonies (tambikos) across the region, and, most recently, setting up alternative livelihoods projects in key villages in the park’s buffer zone.

“Community and provincial buy-in was evident early on in the process of creating Lomami National Park. In 2010, the southern study area was declared a protected area by provincial decree, which was an important step in the right direction. Six years later, we are elated to see the efforts paid off and nearly 2.2 million acres declared a protected area across two provinces.”

Alternative livelihoods include village fish ponds and jobs managing the park; park guards recruited from local communities are currently stationed in seven surveillance camps in Lomami and along its border. Many of these guards used to hunt wildlife to provide for their families. There are plans to recruit and train more guards in the near future.

Okapi are related to giraffes and are listed as Endangered by the IUCN. Photo by Terese Hart.

This increased surveillance has already helped more effectively protect the new park’s wildlife, team members say. Monitoring results indicate a drop in hunting activity around the park’s periphery. The USFWS says Lomami’s new status as a national park will hopefully attract increased funding for more monitoring and enforcement.

“This will be the first protected area in the DRC that was set up in a participatory manner and involved all levels of the community and administration, from village to province to national entity,” said Dr. Terese Hart, director of the TL2 project and longtime DRC researcher. “It sets a new standard. It also sets a basis for moving toward an even larger protected area.”

Efforts by the TL2 team won’t end with the creation of Lomami. Team members emphasized the importance of community connection: “A National Park is only as strong as the surrounding communities are supportive,” they wrote in their statement. In pursuit of this goal, conservationists and officials will be furthering collaboration with communities in the park’s buffer zone in the next few years to reduce hunting pressure on the forest.

“There is no uniform solution or model for doing so, and what works with one community may not work in another,” said USFWS reps. “Local communities rely heavily on bushmeat, or wild-sourced meat, for protein. The TL2 Project’s goal is to work in an inclusive, transparent, and participatory manner to help these communities manage their own forest to maintain its hunting value over time.” They said their efforts will be assisted by a recently passed law that expands land rights for local communities to include conservation areas.

Plans are also in the works to establish Balanga Forest Reserve, which would abut Lomami National Park’s western border. If successful, the initiative would expand protection across a region the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut.

But for now, those involved are celebrating the culmination of their years of work towards a national park.

“We checked sources, got second confirmations and are slowly readjusting our view of the Lomami wilderness in which we work,” Hart told Mongabay. “But even more important we all reacted with gratitude.

“There are so many people that are cheering this development and so many people that worked to make it a reality. I think that this shared realization has brought us together as an even closer family than we were before.”

Correction: an earlier version mistakenly stated Lomami National Park was the DRC’s first new national park in 20 years, not 40.