Park Protects Swamp Dwelling Gorillas
In 2000, WCS Senior Conservationist, and National Geographic explorer, Mike Fay set off on his now famous MegaTransect through the forests of Central Africa. During that historic 2,000 km trek from northern Republic of Congo to the Gabonese Atlantic coast, he encountered what he later called the "Green Abyss". The swampy forest was densely carpeted by Marantaceae, a family of herbaceous tropical plants that produce impenetrable tangles of leafy underbrush. During the 10 weeks it took Mike Fay and his team to cross the Green Abyss, he realized that while it is a terrible place for humans, it was a major stronghold for large mammals, including extremely high densities of great apes.
The international publicity generated by the MegaTransect also drew the attention of the Congolese government who in 2004 asked the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to assist them in evaluating the potential to create a new protected area to preserve this unique habitat and its wildlife. While WCS and the government were performing biological inventories, the IFO-Danzer logging company, whose concession overlapped the Green Abyss, requested the government to remove 150,000 ha from the southern part of their concession, freeing up this swampy land for protection. By July of 2006, preliminary surveys in the area showed higher than expected densities of gorillas in an area where local communities expressed a strong interest in protecting these inaccessible habitats. Thus in September of 2006, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the government of the Republic of Congo announced its intention to create the Ntokou-Pikounda National Park, named after the two largest villages along its border.
The Congolese National Center for Wildlife and Forest Inventories and Management (CNIAF) and WCS then initiated the first-ever comprehensive census of elephants and great apes across northern Congo, including a return to the Green Abyss, with a team of 40 staff to perform transect counts, fighting their way through the underbrush and sleeping in hammocks slung from trees over the swampy ground. For the first time, thorough and meticulous counts of gorilla signs were made using Distance sampling techniques to estimate great ape density from nest counts. The surveys were unprecedented in their scale – covering a total 47,444 km² of contiguous lowland and swamp forest – and, for some parts of the survey zone, these represented the first systematic surveys of the area.
Upon completion of the wildlife inventories in northern Congo in 2008, WCS announced the discovery of 125,000 western lowland gorillas, Gorilla gorilla gorilla, living in northern Congo – more than half of these individuals living in a population previously unknown to science. This discovery was extraordinary because, prior to the announcement, the most optimistic population estimate for this subspecies put their total numbers at approximately 50,000 to 100,000.
About 30,000 of northern Congo's 125,000 gorillas live in the Green Abyss, a place more properly known as "Ntokou-Pikounda". The density of gorillas throughout this whole area was estimated to be 4.1 weaned gorillas/km². No unprotected site in Central Africa had a higher priority for park creation, ape protection, and long-term conservation.
With this information in hand, and the government's stated desire, the process of creating the Ntokou-Pikounda National Park began in earnest. The CNIAF and WCS worked together through the multi-step process culminating in a Presidential Decree that would protect these gorillas and their habitat in perpetuity.
Armed with the results of biological and socio-economic surveys, the government and WCS convened community meetings around the entire periphery of the proposed park to discuss the placement of park boundaries with all stakeholders. For a protected area to succeed in safeguarding gorillas and other wildlife, local people must be supportive. In the creation of a protected area people must not be physically displaced from their homes, and long-established usage rights must be respected and safeguarded. In Ntokou-Pikounda there were few people living in the area and none inside the proposed park boundaries. Approximately 7,000-8,000 people live around the park. Once the communities agreed to the boundaries, all of the stakeholders were convened in a workshop to discuss and validate the presidential decree that was signed March 4, 2013.
In addition to gorillas, this newly established national park is home to more than 900 chimpanzees and 800 forest elephants. Additionally, because of its unique wetland habitat, this park hosts a wide variety fish, crocodiles, birds and Congo's largest and most secure hippo population.
The creation of this new protected area comes just in time as the threats to gorillas in this region are increasing at an alarming rate. Hunting of gorillas for bushmeat is increasing as the opening of new roads and bridges near the park has facilitated the entry of hunters and the transport of bushmeat. Additionally, prior to the creation of the park, and without consultation with the Forestry Ministry, the Minister of Agriculture issued a 4,700 km² palm oil plantation permit that overlapped a significant portion of the proposed park. However, with the official presidential decree that created the new park the forests within its boundaries are now fully protected.
This new park is a significant move toward the successful long-term conservation of western lowland gorillas and secures a future for this remote population in the food-rich swamp forests of the Republic of Congo. WCS will continue to support the Congolese government with technical assistance to the management of this park. With this opportunity there will also be the possibility to initiate behavioral and ecological studies of these swamp-living apes.
Paul T. Telfer