The Struggle for Survival in the Maiombe Forest Continues

Categories: Journal no. 61, Rain Forest, Protective Measures, Other countries, Other protected areas, Western Lowland Gorilla

The Mayombe Forest Transfrontier Protected area and the proposed expansion and zoning of the Maiombe National Park in Cabinda, developed through stakeholders' consultations and based on ecological, management and social considerations. Categories: A - Core conservation zone; B - Buffer zone, integrating restricted communities' sustainable subsistence activities; C - Transition zone, integrating limited sustainable economic activities (© Angela Meder, adapted from a map by Tamar Ron and Topogis)

The Maiombe National Park (MNP) covers a large part of the Maiombe forest component of Angola, an area of some 1,930 km² in Cabinda Province, an Angolan coastal northern enclave between the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It is an area of the Guineo-Congolian biome, covered mostly by secondary high dense tropical rainforest with small patches of climax rainforest, lowland drier forest, forest-woodland-savannah mosaics, and riverine gallery forests. It is home to iconic endangered wildlife species such as western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), central chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes), forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), giant ground pangolins (Manis gigantea), tree pangolins (Manis tricuspis), forest buffalos (Syncerus caffer nanus) and African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus), to name just a few, as well as a number of other primates (white-nosed guenon, red-tailed guenon, golden potto, Bosman's potto), small antelopes (several duiker species, bushbuck, water chevrotain, sitatunga), red river hog, several mongoose species, otters, civets, genets, golden cat, among other species (Ron 2011, 2017).

It is also home to an estimated number of 56,000 members of resident local communities; most can recall their origins in this land back to many generations. Following decades of armed conflict, they are still subject to extreme poverty, and access to vocational education and employment is very limited (Ron 2019). More than half of the families engage in the unsustainable practice of slash-and-burn-based household cultivation for subsistence and small scale local commercial use.

The majority of adult men engage in bushmeat hunting for subsistence and small-scale commercial purposes using traditional methods. The main species targeted are blue duikers, black-backed duikers, bushbucks, other small antelopes, red forest hogs, brush-tailed porcupines, cane rats, genets, civets, guenons, tree pangolins, birds, tortoises and snakes. Only a small number of local hunters engage in poaching and logging for the illegal wildlife trade, including iconic species, engaged with perpetrators from Cabinda city and from the neighbouring countries, mainly from DRC.

Small scale fishing is practiced in the rivers, springs, and lakes in and around the park. Anarchic logging is practiced for subsistence and commercial use, and some anarchic gold mining has also been reported. Small scale husbandry of pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, and ducks is limited to subsistence use. There are two, constantly expanding urban centres within the park's area: Buco Zau and Belize. Furthermore, the park's integrity is threatened by high value mining and logging economic interests.

The conflict is built in. Local residents live off the unsustainable use and continuous depletion of the same natural resources that their survival depends upon. Human-wildlife conflict, in particular elephant damages to crops which aggravates poverty and risks human life, is intensified with the increasing forest degradation. Urban development and infrastructure construction for an expanding population, combined with poor waste management, aggravate degradation of the forest, land and waterbodies. Commercial interests for the extraction of timber and minerals, such as petroleum, quartzite and gold, often over-ride conservation considerations, as well as jeopardize the communities' well-being. Roads and infrastructure constructed for logging and mining operations, with clearing of large forest patches and with employees brought in from outside the forest area, increase the pressure on the forest and natural resources, and negatively impact local communities.

Chromolaena odorata, a prominent invasive plant species, creates dense clumps occupying most of the cleared forest areas throughout the Maiombe forest, thereby impeding forest rehabilitation through natural re-colonising by indigenous species. However, a recent study has demonstrated that in the conditions of the Mayombe forest ecosystem, it disappears after 19 years of colonisation, and the local flora develops resilience (Chicaia 2017).

The results of the illegal wildlife trade, in the province and across the border, targeting endangered iconic species, such as live chimpanzee and gorilla infants and parrots for the illegal pet trade, pangolins for meat and scales, extensive and unselective poaching for the bushmeat markets, and illegal timber trade, are devastating. The giant pangolin, for example, may already be locally extinct.

All of these threats result in the overwhelming challenges that a small number of dedicated park rangers, with very limited resources, are facing daily. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon situation for protected areas in the tropical rainforests of the Congo Basin, or elsewhere.

Conservation efforts, initiated in Cabinda Province of Angola in 2000 (Ron 2005), have led to the conceptualizing of the Mayombe - "Maiombe" in Angola; "Mayombe" in Congo, the DRC, as agreed in the transfrontier context; and "Mayumba" in Gabon - Transfrontier Initiative (MTI) (Ron 2003), formalised through an MoU signed between Angola, the Republic of Congo and DRC in 2009, and with Gabon in 2013. A Transfrontier Strategic Plan was elaborated and adopted by all four governments in 2013 (Ron et al. 2011). Expressed political will by all four governments, as well as cross-border cultural, lingual, and ethnic affiliation between the local communities, increase the potential for successful transfrontier cooperation.

The Mayombe forest ecosystem, a relatively dry part of the Guineo-Congolian centre of endemism, stretches from the coastal area of DRC, through the Cabinda Province of Angola, along the coastal zone of the Republic of Congo and up to southwest Gabon. They form the southwestern margin of the Congo Basin's tropical rainforest in West and Central Africa, and support a large variety of associated flora and fauna species. The Mayombe ecosystems conservation has global biodiversity importance, as well as significant local and regional importance for climate change mitigation and adaptation. The Mayombe area in Angola and the Republic of Congo was defined as a "survey priority" site in the Regional Action Plan for the Conservation of Western Lowland Gorilla and Central Chimpanzee 2015-2025 (IUCN 2014).

Yet, it has been subjected to many decades of extensive unsustainable utilisation, armed conflicts and extreme poverty, with consequential ecological degradation. Nevertheless, the long-armed conflict in the Angolan component has also resulted in reduced utilisation of the forest over several decades, thereby forming an 'island' of relatively intact forest area in Cabinda, surrounded by heavily deforested areas in Congo and DRC, clearly marking the border line. Therefore, the conservation of the Angolan component of the Mayombe forest bears not only national importance, but indeed regional and global significance.

Cooperation between the four countries sharing the Mayombe ecosystems is essential for enabling their conservation. Specifically, cross-border and multilateral collaboration is essential for combatting the cross-border illegal trade in wild fauna and flora, mainly between Angola, Congo, and DRC, through the porous borders. This trade is linked to global wildlife crime networks, mainly through the international airports in Cabinda (Angola) and Pointe Noire (the Republic of Congo) and through international seaports in both cities, as well as in Boma (DRC).

The seaport of Cabinda is being upgraded and expanded and a new deep-water seaport, Port of Caio, is also under construction in Cabinda. It is expected to increase Angolan trade and serve as a transhipment hub for Africa's west coast. Both may well create major vulnerabilities that could be exploited by wildlife traffickers, and significantly increase the risk of illegal wildlife and timber traffic from Cabinda. Building customs and other seaport officials' control and enforcement capacities is therefore among major priorities for protecting the Maiombe's biodiversity, and in particular the main traded wildlife and timber species (Kapetanakos et al. 2019).

The Maiombe National Park is one of the first three national parks gazetted by the Government of Angola since independence. It was gazetted in 2011 (Decreto Lei nº 38/11 de 29 de Dezembro que cria os Parques Nacionais de Luengue-Luiana, de Mavinga e do Maiombe) and launched in 2013. The Headquarters of the Maiombe National Park is situated in Mbuco Mabele, near Buco Zau, the main urban centre in the Maiombe area of Cabinda, and there are two permanent posts, in Inhuca and Bata Linhuca. Fifteen park rangers staff the Maiombe National Park, including the park's Administrator (Park Manager), José Maria Bizi; the Head of Enforcement, Zacarias Kubola Gomes; and two team leaders. With the exception of the Park Administrator, they function on alternating 21-day cycles, meaning that at any time only up to 7-8 rangers are active in the park. They were all recruited as demobilised soldiers and were trained in 2012 in the first Angolan ranger school, in Kissama National Park, with the help of the Southern Africa Wildlife College (SAWC). The existing staff complement is far below the estimated 50-100 qualified staff required to adequately manage the park (Bizi 2017, 2019).

In addition to foot and road patrols, recording information, and enforcement activities, the park rangers engage mainly in community outreach and education. They have established good relations with the local communities, and in particular with the traditional leadership. The rangers attend to the communities' grievances, and enforcement is applied with the help of the traditional leaders, in accordance with agreed principles. The limited enforcement capacity is focused on halting poaching of commercial quantities and on protection of endangered species. Furthermore, cooperation has been established with the Provincial, Municipal and Communal authorities for cooperative planning and liaison with the communities, and with the national enforcement agencies in the Province (National Police, Border Police, the Army, Customs, General Prosecution, and the Forestry Institute), which support the enforcement efforts in the park. Cooperation was also established with the National TV channel (TPA) in the province, radio channels and newspapers, for media-based awareness and dissemination of information.

While the establishment and staffing of the Maiombe National Park has increased stakeholders' engagement at all levels, e.g. in awareness and enforcement which has improved protection of the Maiombe forest ecosystems and the wild flora and fauna, illegal activities jeopardising the forest and its biodiversity persist. One of the results of the increased awareness on the one hand, and of the insufficient resources and enforcement capacity on the other, is the confiscation of live wildlife caught for the illegal pet trade, in particular great apes and African grey parrots. The park rangers, with the help of the Provincial and National authorities, have confiscated over several dozen African grey parrots, over a dozen chimpanzees, three gorilla infants, and one elephant calf since 2013. The numbers are constantly increasing, and due to lack of rehabilitation capacity not all illegally kept individuals known to the authorities are confiscated. The confiscation of adult parrots and chimpanzees reflect mostly improved awareness and enforcement, while the confiscation of young parrots and infant apes are the result of the continuous illegal activities. Parrots are caught locally mainly through traditional methods (climbing, glue), while poachers from the neighbouring countries (mainly from DRC) were reported to be using more destructive methods (even felling entire nesting trees).

Confiscated apes have so far been transferred to rehabilitation facilities in neighbouring countries through cooperation agreements, and mainly through close collaboration with the Jane Goodall Institute and their sanctuary in Tchimpounga, within the Mayombe component of the Republic of Congo. Considering the growing number of chimpanzees that need to be confiscated and rehabilitated, as well as for improving enforcement, for welfare considerations, and for educational purposes, the Angolan authorities are keen to establish a chimpanzee sanctuary in Cabinda. Initial contacts have been made to mobilise technical and financial support for this ambitious initiative. With the support of the World Parrot Trust, Wildlife Impact and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), a parrots rehabilitation aviary and release plan have been developed for the Maiombe National Park, and the park rangers along with relevant Provincial officials have been trained to provide care for confiscated parrots and other species (Kapenatakos et al. 2019). Nine African grey parrots were successfully released back to nature by the park rangers in 2019 and 2020 (Bizi, pers. comm. 2020).

A management plan was developed for the Maiombe National Park in 2019 (Ron 2019). Implementation of specific aspects are being moderately supported through several projects, funded by the United Nations Development Programme: Global Environment Fund (UNDP-GEF), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and USFWS, with implementing partners. Several more projects with additional partners are planned including initiatives to strengthen cross-border collaboration in the context of the Mayombe Transfrontier Initiative. The Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) is providing technical expertise support as well as help with the immediate treatment and long-term rehabilitation of confiscated great apes. Significant further funding and support are still needed.

The management plan was developed based on an extensive consultation process with key stakeholders, including the park staff, relevant governmental departments, officials of all relevant sectors of the Provincial, Municipal and Communal administration, the private sector (mainly loggers), the armed forces and enforcement agencies, and with special focus on consultations with the local communities and their traditional leadership. The management plan is composed of proposed actions for the implementation of strategies developed to achieve the defined management objectives and to mitigate the main identified threats, and of a set of cross-cutting thematic management programmes (or subsidiary plans).

It includes a management zoning plan, with a proposal for the park's expansion and zoning, in accordance with ecological and social considerations identified through baseline studies and stakeholder consultation. Local communities support the expansion and zoning of the park's area that would be accompanied by the development of agro-forestry and other sustainable livelihood options, and with mitigation of human-elephant conflict as a key consideration, including an optional shift to cultivating high-value crops that are not palatable for elephants. Stakeholders of the logging sector, on the other hand, have suggested to fence off only a small area in the north of the park for protection, while removing the conservation status from the rest of the park's area. This option was rejected as it would likely result in the decimation of iconic and other wildlife species of the Maiombe forest into very small and non-viable populations, and finally lead to local extinction.

The management plan for the Maiombe National Park is based on the on-going engagement with the local communities, addressing their considerations and developing sustainable livelihood and benefit opportunities. This is in line with the new legislation regulating environmental conservation areas in Angola (Lei No. 8/20 - Lei das Áreas de Conservação Ambiental, Abril 2020), which includes public consultation, community access, and fair and equal sharing of the benefits from Conservation Areas management among its principles.

The fragile existence of the Maiombe forest and its human and non-human inhabitants alike forms an intense micro-cosmos model. The human population is there to stay. Is this true for the forest and its biodiversity as well? Can the forest, wildlife, and large human population continue to co-exist in the Maiombe forest? Maybe the odds are not in our favour, but despite the overwhelming challenges, giving up is simply not an option.

Tamar Ron

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