New hope for Congo rainforest species

Posted: 5 June 2008

The government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) plans to designate between 13 and 15 million hectares of the Earth's second largest rainforest region as new protected areas.

The forests of the Congo Basin in Central Africa are the Earth's second largest continuous rainforest and have a unique biodiversity. The largest part of the Congo Basin forests lies in the DRC. The entire forest area of the country, including dry forests, covers around 1 million km² (larger than the combined area of France and Germany).

These forests 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.

Grauer's gorilla
Grauer's gorilla
Grauer's gorillas are only found in DR Congo. Photo © Wildlife Conservation Society/ J R Makana
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.

Besides combating illegal logging, for the conservation of the Congo Basin forest and its abundant biodiversity it is essential to introduce principles of sustainable management and a protected area regime for these species-rich forests. At present, 9 per cent of Congolese territory - corresponding to 22,000 km² - is conserved in various categories of protected areas. The government of DR Congo aims to extend this area by up to 15 million hectares (150,000 km²).

The conservation of the forests of the Congo Basin is the focus of the international Congo Basin Forest Partnership, currently being coordinated by Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development. Germany is providing the Congo Basin region with a total of over 53 million euro for the protection of the tropical forests.

"I was deeply impressed by the decision of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to conserve its forest resources by establishing new protected areas, while at the same time ensuring sustainable use by the inhabitants," Federal Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel told his Congolese counterpart José Endundo Bononge.

Gabriel suggested to Minister Bononge that the new protected areas be incorporated into the global LifeWeb Initiative. Gabriel proposed this funding initiative for protected areas at the 9th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, held in Bonn in May. It aims at supporting the implementation of the CBD Programme of Work on Protected Areas through enhancing partnerships at a global level.

Meanwhile the first international agreement for the conservation of gorillas enters into force in June, offering hope for a new era of stronger protection for the apes.

One of the main objectives of this new treaty is to agree on a Gorilla Action Plan to conserve and restore the highly threatened Gorilla populations and their habitats in central Africa covering education, research and forest protection, capacity-building and public awareness raising.