SOS - Gorillas of the Itombwe Nature Reserve in Danger

Categories: Journal no. 67, Threats, Conflicts, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Itombwe, Grauer's Gorilla

A patrol in the Itombwe Reserve (© ICCN)

An SOS is a 'red alert' signal triggered by a dangerous or life-threatening situation, such as a natural disaster. Here it is suggested that an ecological distress signal is launched at the Itombwe Nature Reserve (RNI), to call for urgent rescue of gorilla and chimpanzee populations in danger of decimation. Currently, managers and eco-guards as well as trackers are 'losing control' of these great apes, following the misunderstandings and tense situations that exist between the RNI and the local population due to interpretation of the law on nature conservation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which is based on the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

This law should have included benefit-sharing mechanisms for local and indigenous forest communities in terms of Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS; access and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the exploitation of genetic resources).

The local population blames the managers of the RNI as well as the Congolese government because since the creation of the Itombwe Nature Reserve in 2006 and the promulgation of the law on nature conservation in 2014, nothing has been granted to the local communities. Yet these communities ceded their forest with the hope of receiving benefits according to article 60 of the law. The lack of Access and Benefit Sharing with the local population leads to distrust and withdrawal from the process of joint conservation of the RNI. This in turn threatens achievement of the conservation targets of the RNI which include gorillas and chimpanzees. We deplore the current deterioration of the goodwill which prevailed between the RNI and the population during the land transfer (2006 and a few years later) given that their cooperation protected gorillas in a reserve with an area of 5,732 km² and a staff of about 42 agents.

The words often used in matters of the environment and natural resource management, such as conservation, protection, preservation, safeguarding, and management have a 'legal' connotation, because 'regulation or prohibition' allow people to intervene in natural processes without deviation from the law or respect for standards in this area. If not, doing so constitutes a "violation of legal principles/provisions". However, if the law is not well explained and well applied, it may be misunderstood and applied in a way that causes conflicts between those who respect it and those subject to it. This is the case of the difficulty of applying Law No. 14/003 of February 11, 2014 relating to nature conservation, mainly Article 60 in the RNI at present.

Towards the loss of traces of the Itombwe gorilla

After several years of persistance and effort, eco-guards and trackers discovered, and in 2021 photographed, a silverback gorilla in the reserve. However, he is no longer followed. The objective was to find proof for scientists and the conservation world that gorillas of the subspecies Gorilla beringei graueri do indeed exist in the RNI. This silverback gorilla was followed for two reasons:

  1. for his protection and for data collection (Biomonitoring);
  2. for his habituation to human presence with a view to promoting ecotourism at the RNI, which is a real source of financial income for the self-financing of the site and also for remuneration to the local population and indigenous forest peoples of the Itombwe Massif in terms of ABS as provided for by the CBD in its objective 3 and the new law of 2014 relating to nature conservation in the DRC, in its article 60.

Like gold plated

In reality, no one can say that the DRC does not have fine legal instruments. These exist and are better and adapted to international principles. Unfortunately, it is difficult to implement the law due to a lack of support resources. The new Law (2014) relating to nature conservation in the DRC is a legal instrument which dates back almost 10 years. But to date it has not allowed the implementation of some of its mechanisms, and without these mechanisms, the new Law of 2014 will 'contradict' itself (see next paragraph).

From the outset it is appropriate to first make "an analytical retrospective of the explanatory memorandum of the 2014 law relating to the conservation of the nature of the DRC, and also to highlight certain articles of this law, in particular the articles (52, 57, 59 and 60) which provide for the need to sign decrees which define not only the mode of management and application but also sources of financing for the sharing of benefits in favour of the population living in and around IUCN category VI areas", of which the RNI is a part.

The article which causes dissension between the managers of the Itombwe Nature Reserve and the local population and which favours the loss of traces of the silverback gorilla in the RNI is the difficulty for the RNI to carry out the requirements of the article 60 of the 2014 law. This article should provide local communities and indigenous forest peoples with financial (monetary) and non-financial benefits. The non-financial benefits do not interest the population, because they find such benefits in the forests of the RNI hinterland which are community forests. Only the financial (monetary) benefits are of interest to the local communities and indigenous peoples of the Itombwe forest massif.

The gorillas of the RNI are threatened with extinction because of delays in the implementation of the provisions of article 60, which provide for the payment to the population of monetary and non-monetary benefits by the national government through the signing of a decree, even though provided for by the CBD.

However, at the RNI, the monetary redistribution preferred by the population of the Itombwe forest massif has not occurred. As a result, local communities and indigenous peoples have disassociated themselves from conservation efforts. There is a distrust and lack of confidence in managers, and hunting of the wild fauna of the RNI occurs, without protection of flagship species such as gorillas and chimpanzees.

The dissension between the population and RNI agents has resulted in an angry population who prevent eco-guards from carrying out surveillance activities in one of three gorilla sectors, which is closest to the RNI headquarters and easy for tourists to visit the gorillas without traveling a long distance.

This is the reason that eco-guards are not monitoring gorillas, including the silverback gorilla photographed in 2021, meaning his location is unknown and he is not protected. The eco-guards have reduced the frequency of their monitoring, as they are afraid of the risk of violating traditional 'prohibitions' decreed by traditional leaders who have not received the promised financial benefits. The local population expect these financial benefits be shared with them as soon as possible if gorillas are to be saved from extinction.

Local communities and indigenous peoples, especially from the Itombwe forest massif, benefit from non-monetary benefits in the RNI. However, these benefits are not fundamental for their survival. For them, their vital needs can only be met through financial benefit (money). But how can the managers of the RNI respond to this demand or satisfy it to some extent, when they do not have access to funding for the reserve? At the RNI we are in the final stages of planning the work while awaiting possible financial revenues which to satisfy the financial request made by local communities and indigenous peoples of the Itombwe forest massif. These planned activities include:

  • Demarcation of the external limits of the reserve, outside natural limits such as watercourses. We forecast the need for 59 signs to be installed over a distance of 59 km. At present, 51 signs are distributed over 51 km as follows: (1) 10 signs in Ulindi Sector; (2) 12 signs in Mulombozi Sector; and (3) 29 signs in Elila Sector. Two sectors need signage: Kiboyoka and Mwana.
  • Location of gorillas and habituation of gorillas for tourism, to bring in tourist revenue.
  • Approach institutional partners who can support the efforts of our traditional partners (Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe), because more funding is needed to support: the local population, anti-poaching patrols, patrol equipment, construction of infrastructure, management of agent performance bonuses, strengthening of professional capacity of agents, financing of socio-economic support for the population.
  • RNI funds can be supplemented through fines, but managers of this reserve prefer to initiate anti-poaching actions by raising awareness among poachers arrested in the reserve, instead of imposing fines on them.

In reality, it is up to the ICCN to push for the signing of the decree referred to in article 60 of the new law in order to allow the RNI to work well, to mobilize partners of the RNI for financial support which would allow the financial needs of the population to be met and support the relaunch of gorilla monitoring activities and the motivation of the RNI eco-guards and trackers, otherwise the gorillas and chimpanzees of the RNI will remain exposed to the risk of extermination through poaching.

John Baliwa Ngoy