FEATURE: UN works to protect great apes, habitat, amid ongoing instability in DR Congo

Gorillas have becomes an endangered species. In recent decades gorilla populations have been affected by habitat loss, disease and poaching as is the case in the DRC. Photo: UNEP (file photo)

7 November 2013 – In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where the United Nations has been supporting efforts to end armed violence, protect civilians and spur economic investment and political stability, the Organization is also fighting an environmental battle to save great apes, the region’s iconic local totem and a key link in its rich biodiversity.

“In years past, the fear was always that armed conflict would damage great apes and wipe out wildlife,” said Douglas Cress, Programme Coordinator at the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), led by the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Mr. Cress stressed the mixed bIn terms of natural resources, it is one of the most potentially lucrative regions in all of Africa.lessing of the DRC’s rich endowment of resources. “In terms of natural resources, it is one of the most potentially lucrative regions in all of Africa,” he told the UN News Centre from Nairobi, Kenya, where he is based. DRC has rich reserves of timber, gold, tantalum – used in cell phones and computers, and now potentially also oil and other resources.

However, the fight for possession of these resources, as well as land and political power, is a major cause of conflict with rebels such as, most recently, the March 23rd Movement (M23) , the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and other armed groups that have emerged from the area or entered from neighbouring countries.

That conflict, in turn, endangers the natural environment. “All natural resources suffer tremendously during conflict. But it’s not always a certainty that your wildlife would be exploited to death, often it’s just exploited,” Mr. Cress added.

It is to stave off extreme degradation of the DRC’s precious resources – so important for the future of the country and for the Earth – that the UN and its partners are working with international law enforcement, Governments and local communities to save magnificent wildlife and their habitat.

The forests of the DRC represent half of the total area of tropical rainforest in Africa, providing shelter for great apes, such as the mountain gorilla and the bonobo, as well as the okapi and elephant, among other mammals and countless species of magnificent birds and reptiles.

“You fly over the area and it’s just green for three hours,” Mr. Cress said.

The rich biodiversity led to five natural sites in the country – Garamba, Kahuzi-Biega, Okapi, Salonga, and Virunga – being designated between 1979 and 1996 to the UNESCO World Heritage List, and since then, with nearly all species of animals declining in the DRC, to the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The dangers come from traditional conservation threats – deforestation, mining and bush-meat hunting, but are also fuelled by armed conflict, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless, and forcing them to survive in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and on the scarce natural resources, along with corruption and the lack of rule of law resulting from the ongoing conflict.

Monetizing great apes

The Virunga Mountains and the gorillas that migrate through them – among the great apes the UN-partnership is striving to save –fall geographically in the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda.

The countries, each of which has had its share of violent turmoil, have worked out a tripartite agreement to share the revenues from the tourists eager to explore the primate habitat.

The DRC has wanted to imitate the multi-million ecotourism industry developed in Rwanda and to a lesser extent in Uganda, but its instability is a hindrance. There are reports of rebels acting like forest rangers and taking tourists into the mountains, but recurrent fighting makes the area inaccessible to most would-be visitors.

“That eastern DR Congo strip that passes through Goma that everyone’s been fighting over is so tricky because of the Virunga Mountains right there,” he noted, referring to intense struggle between the M23 and the national forces known by their French acronym, FARDC, on the periphery of what is Africa’s oldest park. “That’s the stronghold of mountain gorillas and yet it’s the prime territory that everyone wants a piece of.”

In addition to instability which cuts off access for tourists, it also prevents rangers and researchers from tracking families of the gorillas to check on their health and safety.

“The first time I saw a gorilla was in 1986 in the DRC, then Zaire. There’s nothing like it, just takes your breath away,” Mr. Cress recalled: “The grace of something so powerful allowing you into its world, even if just for an hour…it’s spellbinding.”

At least 100 gorillas have been killed in Africa through illegal trade since 2005, part of the more than 22,200 estimated great apes lost from the wild during that time, according to GRASP figures based on confiscation records, international trade databases, law enforcement reports and arrival rates from sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres.

These figures are just the tip of the iceberg. At least 2,972 great apes are lost from the wild each year, according to the ‘Stolen Apes: The Illicit Trade in Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Bonobos and Orangutans’ report.

Gorillas illegally sold to a zoo in Malaysia in 2002 reportedly went for $400,000 each, according to the report. Orangutans can fetch $1,000, and live chimpanzees sold at $50 can be marked up by the middleman as much as 400 per cent by the time they are resold.

African great apes - chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos - are listed on Appendix I of the CITES convention on international trade of endangered species. Appendix I lists the highly endangered species at risk of extinction and prohibits any commercial international trade of these species.

Jane Goodall, a UN Messenger of Peace, whose eponymous institute is part of the GRASP network, has for decades advocated for conservation of the region’s habitats.

“The forests of the DRC are of supreme importance in the fight to slow down climate change and to protect the rich diversity of flora and fauna. Eastern DRC provides crucial habitat for chimpanzees and gorillas, both of which are endangered,” Dr. Goodall told the UN News Centre. “Unfortunately the years of armed conflict in the region have hindered conservation efforts.”

“The Jane Goodall Institute has a fantastic team on the ground, based in Goma, but our programmes - community based conservation and our Roots & Shoots environmental and humanitarian programme for youth - have, from time to time, been interrupted by outbreaks of fighting,” she noted, adding that the presence of the peacekeepers in the area has been helpful.

Fighting environmental crimes

Meanwhile, in northern DRC, alleged involvement in elephant poaching and ivory smuggling of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan-based rebel group notorious for kidnapping children to fill its ranks, led the UN Security Council last December to call for an investigation.

Poaching and its potential linkages to other criminal, even terrorist activities, constitute a grave menace to sustainable peace and security

“The historic call reinforces concerns about the links between illicit wildlife trafficking and the regional security in Africa,” John Scanlon, Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) said after the Council action.

In mid-May, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the 15-member Council that armed groups in the area are employing increasingly sophisticated weapons to execute wildlife in the area.

“Poaching and its potential linkages to other criminal, even terrorist activities, constitute a grave menace to sustainable peace and security,” Mr. Ban said at the historic meeting.

Mr. Cress said the Secretary-General raised wildlife crime to a global level with his statement to the Security Council, “That voice, that global advocacy, that platform is one of the most important things that the UN provides.”

In addition to discussing environmental concerns in conflict and post-conflict areas, the Security Council is now intent on incorporating protection of natural resources and engagement with local communities into UN peacekeeping mandates such as MONUSCO’s which was extended for a year in June.

The General Assembly might also get involved. In a meeting last week with its current President, John Ashe, Mr. Cress proposed efforts to establish a UN International Day on Great Apes by 2014.

Meanwhile, this week, UNEP and INTERPOL are holding a joint conference in Nairobi on international environmental compliance and enforcement directed at individuals, such as the rebels operating in DRC, who are decommissioned soldiers trained in military tactics with access to sophisticated weaponry.

“We are talking about tens and tens of billions of dollars that are stolen from communities, from countries, from the national treasury and that finance criminal networks and allow the kind of poaching crisis that we are confronting right now to escalate,” Achim Steiner, the UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, told the participants.

The overriding message from the conference seems to be – there is a gap in needed resources.

“We’re underfunded,” Mr. Cress said. “The bad guys are smart and getting smarter. And we are lagging behind. Until we think the way they do, with the resources and the technology and the tools that they have, we are never going to catch up.”

Engaging with communities

Among the most pressing threats great apes face is the loss of habitat. At the current rate, they lose up to five per cent each year of habitable area. By 2030, GRASP predicts that less than 10 per cent will remain, according to Globio statistics in “Stolen Apes”.

With ongoing conflict in the DRC, environmental protection lags behind the humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands of traumatized people displaced, some sexually assaulted, most forced to flee with a only bag of their belongings – but there are signs of change in local perceptions of importance of these animals.

The legendary Virunga National Park has suffered environmental impacts of the fighting between rebels and Government troops since the late 1990s when some one million people were settled in displacement and refugee camps by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and partners on its periphery.

“We did a GPS coordinate analysis and found that some of the camps were set up inside the park boundaries or on the park boundary,” said Johannes Refisch, GRASP Project Manager. “The first impact is definitely habitat loss.”

Speaking from Nairobi on the sidelines of the INTERPOL conference, Mr. Refisch recalled how the families – given shelter, food and water – needed firewood and charcoal to cook. With a city depleted of vegetation, the people went into the park to collect firewood to heat food and branches to construct tents.

He and colleagues were able to facilitate a dialogue between the humanitarian actors, including UNHCR, and the park authorities to reduce the impact of IDP camps on the environment.

The Eco-Makala Project, created by WorldWide Fund for Nature (WWF), intends to provide firewood from sustainable sources and to link this effort to innovative ways of financing. The farmers receive compensation from carbon credits for the timber. Once it is ready, the wood is sold to UNHCR for dissemination to displaced families in camps.

A 1,200 acre plantation can produce approximately $1.5 million in revenue over 10 years from timber or charcoal production, according to online figures.

Even with this plan, security remains a critical obstacle. “You have to convince the international community to invest into a carbon project while there is still insecurity. It’s very difficult,” Mr. Refisch said.

Displaced communities also endanger local animals by not understanding their local significance. The great apes, for example, are totem animals for some local tribes. But immigrant groups unaware of local taboos are more likely to harm the animals, particularly as the food chain is disrupted through depletion of other resources.

“Once one species has been depleted, people move on to other species,” said Mr. Refisch. “It might be the great apes, or it might be the great apes in the near future. And if even this is not their primary target, poachers and armed groups might encounter gorillas and just kill them.”

Among increasingly creative and multi-pronged efforts to engage with communities, the UN is leading conflict resolution sessions to mitigate tensions over resources.

In Southern Kivu, at the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, with the support of GRASP, partnering Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the park authority ICCN, community conservation groups were created to facilitate the dialogue between park managers and the local communities, many of which were unaware of the park and/or where the park boundaries actually lie.

As a result, illegal activities – trapping, poaching, mining, bamboo cutting, and others – were reduced by 40 per cent in less than two years in the park corridor connecting the fragile high and low altitudes.

Strengthening state institutions

“The number one thing is getting law and order back,” Mr. Refisch stressed when asked about the best way to safeguard natural resources.

“There are rules and legislation, but they are not enforced. There are also many beneficiaries of the corruption,” he noted, describing a circle where illegal revenues from natural resources go to buy more weapons which yield more power which yields a need for more exploitation of resources.

The DRC has one of the highest number of artisanal miners without provisions in national law for regulation and without a regulatory framework for resource extraction

Mr. Refisch stressed that people are not willing to invest in their communities out of fear that they will lose it to armed groups.

“People are not willing to invest and just wait for aid. It’s a very dangerous cycle which really undermines development,” he noted.

Along with more investment, he also highlighted the need for more national pressure from within the country to develop a proper regulatory framework for resource extraction, and greater consumer knowledge in the consumer countries of where products originate, how they got there and whether the production is sustainable or not.

“It’s not about saving that great ape, or elephant, or saving that rosewood,” Mr. Cress said. “You begin to not only lose your natural resources, you begin to strip away revenue from host country. All that illegal ivory is not coming back to the Government. It’s being stolen. It promotes instability. You have Governments which are being held up at gunpoint, really."


News Tracker: past stories on this issue

Illicit trade in great apes increasingly linked to organized crime, UN report finds

Related Stories



In-depth Interviews