Another Way to Protect Biodiversity - Community Conservation
For a number of years the Congolese government has been campaigning in support of endangered animal and plant species, and has created a new conservation policy, which aims to designate 15% of the country as protected areas. Biodiversity conservation is promoted both inside and outside these protected areas, but as there is no organised monitoring structure outside of them, the legally protected species remain liable to uncontrolled exploitation, which may in the end lead to their extinction. Walikale Reserve, one of the last remaining habitats for eastern lowland gorillas, is not designated as a protected area.
Given this situation, the Walikale population has quickly understood the danger threatening its gorillas and decided to help protect them by joining forces and creating conservation associations to protect areas where some gorillas are still living. This led to the creation of the Walikale Gorilla Community Reserve (RCGW), an association working in collaboration with the London-based NGO, The Gorilla Organization.
The main aim of the RCGW is to protect gorillas and their habitat and to promote the socio-economic development of the populations living around the reserve. This is made possible by the financial and scientific support of The Gorilla Organization. The funds allocated are being used for monitoring tasks and development projects.
The Walikale Gorilla Community Reserve is located approximately 92 km from the Virunga National Park and 150 km from the Kahuzi-Biega National Park; the Maïko National Park, the Tayna Gorilla Reserve, and the RECOPRIBA/RPKI reserve are very close.
The Walikale Gorilla Community Reserve has an equatorial, tropical climate. It extends between 0° 52.346' S, 28° 18.755' E and 0° 42.921' S, 28° 48.358' E, over an area of around 70,000 ha.
Its forest is mixed, on clay soil, with hills, valleys and numerous rivers. The summits of the hills are occupied by the Cyanometra alexandrii (Caesalpiniaceae) and Piptadeniastrum africanum (Euphorbiaceae) group, and the valleys (periodically flooded) are dominated by species which grow in hydromorphic soils, such as Uapaca guineensis (Euphorbiaceae), Funtumia africana (Apocynaceae), Alcornea cordifolia (Euphorbiaceae), Panda oleosa (Pandaceae) etc. The forest comprises 3 separate strata:
- the top stratum, of varying com-po-sition, with the species listed above;
- the middle stratum, constituted main-ly by several species of bushes;
- the lower stratum with ferns in-cluding Pteridium aquilinum and other Pteridium species (Pteridae); species of Commelinaceae (Palisota schweinfurthii, Palisota ambigua); Zingiberaceae (Aframomum sanguineum) and Costaceae (Costus lucanusianus); and others.
In addition to recording the vegetation, the monitoring work carried out in some parts of the reserve has allowed a gradual census of the gorillas. Each evening the gorillas make a nest of leaves in barely 5 minutes, in which they sleep. The nests are found either on the ground or in trees. Gorillas leave their dung in their large nests and then make a new nest the following night. Chimpanzees are also found in the Walikale Reserve and they build their smaller and highly elaborate nests (supported on forked branches, criss-crossed by bent twigs with a mattress of leaves) that are always in trees without dung.
To carry out monitoring work, camps are constructed in the reserve using tarpaulins and tents and material found on site (sticks, creepers etc.). We use these camps as rest places after monitoring and this is where we usually spend the night.
In the morning we form 2 teams of 5 people. Each team sets off in a different direction and returns to the camp in the afternoon around 4 p.m. Another group of 2 people stays in the camp to do the cooking. The stay in the forest often lasts at least a week, sometimes two, if we have to cover large distances. We leave the camp at 7 a.m. in two different directions following the topography of the reserve, either east-west or north-south, to avoid following the same families at the same time. It rains a lot in the region and there are many rivers so each person wears a pair of boots and a waterproof coat.
Once away from the camp we start looking for fresh gorilla tracks, which are then followed to the location of the recent nest sites; only one-day old sites are considered. The area of the site depends on the size of the family. This allows us to count the number of individuals capable of making nests (weaned individuals), i.e. the number per family, as it is not possible for 2 or 3 families at nest on the same site.
Most nests are made in trees that are 10-30 m tall, although it is not rare to find nests made on the ground, particularly for the silverback and females with babies. Photographs of the nest sites and other elements of the ecosystem are taken, and geographical data are collected thanks to the support of the TUSK TRUST, which constantly helps us to obtain equipment such as digital cameras and GPS units. The time of the recording is also noted using an ordinary watch. Overall we have already observed 78 families of gorillas with a total of 721 individuals, the average being 9 individuals per family. These gorillas are still wild; their habituation to the presence of humans is not yet envisaged for strategic reasons, as there are large numbers of weapons in the region due to the presence of armed groups. At this stage habituating gorillas to the presence of humans would merely contribute to their extermination.
Apart from the gorillas, other animal species in the Walikale Gorilla Community Reserve include: Cercopithecus mitis, Cercopithecus ascanius, Pan troglodytes, Rhynchocyon cirnei, Potamogale velox, Manis gigantea, Funisciurus sp., Cricetomys emini, Atherurus africanus, Panthera pardus, Syncerus nanus, Hyemoschus aquaticus, Cephalophus sp., Dendrohyrax arboreus, Potamochoeurus porcus, Civettictis civetta ...
The local population contributes significantly to protecting gorillas and their habitat; they have understood that if they do not get involved, the gorillas may disappear before their very eyes. This explains the strategy used, which consists in getting them to participate in the management and protection of the reserve. This is why we have allowed them to give the authorisations needed for outsiders to go into the forest, in accordance with their customs. The local people themselves decide which people to recruit as trackers, and they are all from within the communities.
Our vision is to respond to people's needs and to ensure the durability of the local resources, whilst at the same time conserving the biodiversity of the various types of ecosystems. It is in this context that we have helped with the rehabilitation of the Institut Technique Médical de Pinga, the construction of the Byamba primary school and that of Ihimbi (construction in progress), the rehabilitation of the RCGW liaison office in Pinga, and the distribution of footballs in some schools and football teams in the region, for leisure activities. Many more development projects are envisaged to support gorilla conservation such as livestock projects, agricultural projects, and improvement of the livelihoods and literacy of the local population.
For conservation, genetic studies are planned on the gorillas, their intestinal parasitaemia, the gorillas' diet, and the biological diversity system of the reserve.
Nevertheless, there are a few difficulties which do not make our task any easier:
- the presence of groups of armed foreigners within the zone in which the reserve is located: the Congolese executive power is only symbolic there, security being in the hands of these armed groups;
- the state of the road between Goma and Pinga: to gain access to Pinga two dangerous zones occupied by different armed groups need to be crossed, and due to the very poor state of the road between Mwesso and Pinga as well, we easily need 3 hours to cover 36 km;
- the absence of a communications network: once in the field there is no longer any contact with the outside world; this leaves us exposed to a number of risks with no hope of being able to call on anyone or anything.