Great ape conservation in Congo gets a boost

4 June 2008 General News

The news comes as the country continues to face one of the greatest environmental challenge in Africa today. The last few years have seen a rise in the killing of rare wildlife and environmental destruction as the region is caught in the crossfire of conflict.

As serious instability continues to plague eastern Congo, 500,000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) have spread across the region and rebel groups have occupied large swaths of the national parks and important forest ecosystems.

The Spanish funds will be channeled through the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) as part of UNEP's programme to help improve the conservation of endangered and economically important animals and ecosystems there as requested by the DRC government.

UNEP is assisting the national authorities in drafting and developing national environmental laws, facilitating dialogue in the region and helping boost cooperation to tackle the country's environmental challenges.

Meanwhile the first international agreement for the conservation of gorillas enters into force on 1st June, offering hope for a new era of stronger protection for the apes. The agreement was concluded among the ten gorilla range states in Paris in October 2007, under the auspices of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS).

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: "The funding by the Government of Spain is a welcome development in this troubled country and region. At risk are the nature-based assets upon which many of the people of the DRC rely for livelihoods".

"Meanwhile comprehensive environmental laws are urgently needed to ensure that these natural resources are harvested by international companies in ways that will guarantee their integrity and productivity for years and decades to come. The German government is also stepping up funding to the DRC under its new Life Web initiative. I would urge other countries to also join hands with the people and biodiversity of this key African country," he said.

The announcement of the new Spanish funding comes as 191 countries gather in Bonn for a key meeting on biodiversity this week in a bid to agree on ways to significantly reduce biodiversity loss by 2010.

The forests of DRC, which cover one million square kilometers, are a treasure trove for biodiversity. They house some of the world's rarest and most remarkable species, including the bonobo (the closest living relative of the human species) and the okapi (a unique forest giraffe) as well as the rare mountain gorilla. More than half of the 720 mountain gorillas left in the world live in Eastern DRC.

But this biodiversity is under threat as a result of the decades of instability which has racked the country. The instability has taken a severe toll on the region's natural resources and wildlife, and the situation has been exacerbated by factors including poor capacity to enforce existing wildlife laws; widespread poaching; and rapidly increasing mining activities and opening up of forests which are facilitating access to previously remote forest areas.

In 2007, seven of the highly endangered mountain gorillas were killed in eastern DRC. Virunga National Park, which is at the heart of the current tensions and conflicts, has also seen its hippo population drop from an estimated 29,000 to a herd of just a few hundred.

Elephants are also under threat: new figures from the Convention on International Trade in endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES) show alarming levels of poaching in Central Africa - in and around eastern DRC.

CITES has found that Central Africa has much higher levels of illegal killings of elephants than any other part of the continent: 73% of dead elephants in the region have been found to have been killed illegally, compared to 17% in Southern Africa, 31% in West Africa and 44% in Eastern Africa. In April 2008 alone, fourteen elephants were killed in Virunga National Park.

UNEP is carrying out a wide-ranging strategy to help DRC's government to tackle this enormous challenge. UNEP is assisting the government with the environmental framework law and is facilitating stakeholder dialogue in the transboundary Virunga region.

The organization is also assessing possibilities for boosting cooperation between the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda to stem illegal flows of natural resources such as charcoal and transboundary exploitation of oil and methane gas. In addition, UNEP is addressing the issue of the IDP camps which are heavily dependent on forests in the Virunga National Park for fuelwood and charcoal.

Once the security situation improves in eastern DRC, UNEP also plans to undertake a post-conflict environmental assessment in the area. In addition, UNEP and UNESCO have secured a commitment from the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) to carry out joint patrols with park rangers of the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) when the situation is more stable.

Other international partners are also working with UNEP and the DRC government to help boost protection for eastern DRC's critically-important ecosystem and endangered species. UNESCO's World Heritage Centre, with the assistance of MONUC, is currently facilitating a dialogue between ICCN and representatives of the armed groups present in Virunga National Park. One of the objectives is to convince the armed groups to allow ICCN to resume patrolling of the park, in particular the sector inhabited by the endangered mountain gorilla which is currently controlled by armed groups.

CITES is also collaborating with the World Heritage Convention in addressing poaching problems and illegal wildlife trade affecting DRC's five World Heritage Sites, including Virunga. This involves coordination with neighboring countries, training for enforcement personnel and distribution of intelligence information.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and UNESCO have also sent missions to DRC to investigate the gorilla killings and help devise solutions. Many other civil society groups are active at the field level.

Notes to editors

As well as many rare and highly endangered species, the Democratic Republic of Congo is home to a wealth of natural resources including large areas of arable land, water, forest products and minerals. DRC's million square kilometer forest are considered to be one of the largest and most important carbon sinks on the continent and the world. DRC is unique in being host to three taxa: gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos. The latter are found nowhere else.

UNEP launched the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) in 2001 to address the decline in all taxa of great apes, including gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans. The GRASP partnership includes UNEP, UNESCO, CMS, CITES, WHC, great ape range states, donor countries and NGOs.

In 1979, UNESCO placed five of the country's national parks on the World Heritage List: Virunga National Park, Garamba, Kahuzi-Biega, Salong and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. All five now feature on the World Heritage in Danger List.

With a wave of gorilla and elephant killings in 2007, the environmental situation in the eastern part of the country became so critical that the DRC government called for the help of international organizations in handling the crisis.

Within the framework of the 3rd World Biosphere Reserves Congress (Madrid, 4-9 February 2008) and under Spanish and UNESCO auspices, DRC and Uganda have signed the 'Tripartite Ministerial Declaration on the Central Albertine Rift Transboundary Biosphere Initiative'. UNESCO is now striving to obtain Rwanda's signature to the agreement, which aims to promote the 'Environmental Peace Building' concept in the Great Lakes Region.

UNEP's Programme in the Congo mirrors similar assessments undertaken by UNEP in the Balkans; Afghanistan; the Occupied Palestinian Territories; Iraq; Liberia, Lebanon and the Sudan aimed at assisting countries to set priorities during reconstruction and rehabilitation phases.

(Source: Unep)

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