The Sarambwe Reserve and the War

Categories: Journal no. 47, Threats, War, Protective Measures, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sarambwe, Mountain Gorilla, Gorilla Journal

Claude Sikubwabo mit Sarambwe-Wildhütern

Claude Sikubwabo mit Sarambwe-Wildhütern vor dem Ausbruch des M23-Krieges (© Augustin Rwimo)

It has been approximately two decades since Sarambwe Forest descended into chaos, with the potential to end in the degradation of its ecosystems or even its total destruction. As the forest was classified as a production forest, several timber traders obtained permits to cut timber for boards, and they use these permits to make charcoal, hunt, set traps and fish. At the same time agricultural activities are eating away at the reserve’s borders.

At the start of 1996, the principal environmental authorities, particularly ICCN, were first made aware of the Sarambwe Reserve’s biodiversity, after concerns were raised by local organisations active in environmental issues and nature conservation. Several international organisations showed interest in the reserve, but few involved themselves directly in its conservation. In 1998, Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe funded a first workshop for the sensitization and mobilization of the local authorities, conservation stakeholders and NGOs. The purpose of the workshop was to analyse the status of the Sarambwe Reserve and to make a first step towards the conservation of the Sarambwe gorillas. The recommendations developed during this workshop have formed the basis for subsequent conservation efforts, and have assisted in the development of activities, programmes and management strategies for this protected area. The reserve will benefit from several forms of support, particularly staff training, infrastructure development, re-establishment of relationships with the communities, mobilization for development and environmental rehabilitation projects, interventions at schools, and the establishment of relationships with other conservation organizations in the region (Uganda and Rwanda). Essentially, the goal is to establish a basic integrated management process.

On 20 February 2012, the Virunga National Park authorities, central sector, requested support for the protection of the Sarambwe Reserve which is adjacent to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. Sarambwe is a sanctuary for mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei), which are threatened by the expansion of agriculture and deforestation: logging, charcoal burning, pit sawing, fishing and poaching with traps. In particular, support was requested for the purchase of equipment for the rangers and for the construction of a water supply line for the Sarambwe post; the latter was funded by the European Associeation of Zoos and Aquaria. It was impossible to deploy this support immediately as the security situation turned out to be insurmountable.

For several years, the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been in a state of almost permanent insecurity. Several armed groups operate in this part of the country, for reasons that remain unknown to the local population. The establishment of M23, an insurrection movement of certain cadres of the Congolese army, on 23 March 2012 provoked several wars with the regular army and caused the occupation of northern Goma, the Nyiragongo territory and a large part of the Rutshuru territory, effectively cutting these areas off from intervention by the Congolese Government. Several self-defence people’s militias have formed in the areas not controlled by the Congolese Government. In order to maintain their resistance, these militias have several times attacked the reserve’s rangers with the aim of seizing equipment (weapons and ammunition) and goods such as mattresses, beds, chairs and cooking pots. Another aim of the militias is to control the reserve in order to exploit the forest for financial gain and to permit agriculture - in the hope that this will gain them the goodwill of the local population.

In May 2012, the Sarambwe ranger post was attacked twice and one ranger was shot and wounded. The ICCN was forced to pull out the rangers from the post and take them to Rwindi station and then to Lulimbi. Some days after the rangers were pulled out, two people were killed by Mai Mai militiamen in villages close to Sarambwe. The Chief of Kisharu District, who was also the president of the dialogue committee, also died as a consequence of the war. In view of this situation, the project was suspended and the reserve was left undefended from all these negative impacts. But what was to be done? We asked ourselves whether we should abandon the reserve with all the infrastructure, suspend the project and wait for the return of peace. The immediate answer was NO, we cannot abandon the forest. So what strategy should be employed: what actions should be undertaken?

Between 1994 and 1998, during the peak of the fighting and when the threat of baby gorillas being trafficked in the Mikeno sector was at its highest, the strategy was to maintain the rangers in their posts. At the present time, this is impossible. After much deliberation, we have reached the conclusion that the first stage in saving the reserve is to acquire continuous information on the reserve that would permit us to develop strategies for actions to conserve it. So, our first action was to find a source of information. To this end, we first looked for members of the dialogue committee as they are true friends of conservation. Unfortunately none were found - they had all left the area.

Members of the NGO VONA seemed to be the next obvious choice. Two VONA members were located near the Sarambwe post at Kasarabande. We have succeeded in arousing their interest and they have agreed to provide us with information; but as they have no telephones, we did not receive any information. So we then decided to arrange for the information to pass through ICCN at Lulimbi or Rwindi. We have now at last started to receive reliable and useful information, particularly on the status of the patrol post, on illegal activities in the reserve, and on the people who now control the reserve. The analysis of this information has shown us a way of conducting ad-hoc activities in the reserve.

In the second stage, it was necessary to sensitize the local and military authorities to support the protection of the reserve, to set up an observation post, and to conduct ad-hoc activities in the reserve. The third stage consists of the return of the rangers to the reserve. Not only would these strategies help to lessen the destruction of the reserve and its infrastructure, but they would also help to demonstrate the Government’s dedication to its protected areas. Human and financial resources were required to implement these steps.

With support from Berggorilla, the first two stages have been realised, i.e. the establishment of an observation post, the sensitization of the authorities and the launch of ad-hoc protection activities while waiting for the rangers to return. In fact, since July 2013, three trackers have been installed at Sarambwe and are monitoring the situation. They regularly send information on the reserve. Two joint patrols have been carried out in the reserve, one on 13 September 2013 and the other on 6 October 2013. The first patrol was conducted under the command of the chief conservator of the Virunga National Park central sector and Colonel Kisembo, chief of the 809th commando regiment. It consisted of 8 rangers, 35 troops and 3 trackers. The second patrol consisted of 3 trackers and 30 FARDC (Congolese army) troops.

As a first result of these actions - the installation of the trackers and the launch of the first patrol - some calm has returned to the reserve. Destructive activities by Ugandan loggers are decreasing. The Sarambwe ranger post building is currently being monitored. It is intact, but it has already lost all its door locks and window panes. During the second patrol, a group of three Ugandan loggers were encountered; two were able to escape but one was caught. He has provided important information on the Ugandan loggers, which will allow us to control them. During the same patrol, fresh gorilla faeces were found, and an unidentified group of gorillas in a closed forest. The reserve boundaries are intact.

Observations from the observation post have determined that the Rushegura group travelled towards the Sarambwe Reserve at the level of Bizenga on 8 October 2013. It should be noted that Bwindi rangers and Ugandan troops followed them into the Sarambwe Reserve to make sure that they were protected. This event constitutes an auspicious moment for trans-border collaboration between Ugandan and Congolese rangers. We hope that ICCN will examine the possibility of re-opening the Sarambwe post in the near future and we would like to encourage the international NGOs to support conservation efforts in Sarambwe.

Claude Sikubwabo Kiyengo