Virunga: How a Park on the Verge of Collapse Became Hope for People and Nature

The birth of a small mountain gorilla again on January 8, the very first for 2020, was celebrated as a big event. This is proof of the restoration of ecosystems and the sustainable development of natural resources in this protected area declared “world heritage of humanity” and which covers 8,000 km².

Virunga National Park (ViNP) is one of the protected areas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that receives funding from the European Union (EU). In general, by funding projects in the environmental sector in the DRC, the EU is contributing to efforts to limit global warming within the threshold provided by the Paris Agreement.

According to the 2018 annual report of COFED (Technical service of the National Authorizing Officer of the EDF), the execution of the environment and sustainable agriculture program (E&AD), whose objectives are to “stimulate the agricultural and socioeconomic development” of the five protected areas for the benefit of the population, has entered “its most important phase”. With regard to ViNP, and under the 11th EDF, the EU supports several projects.

Conservation component

The diversity of the habitats of fauna and flora is one of the major assets of the park, which gives it recognition as a world heritage according to UNESCO. ViNP team therefore spares no effort to maintain the diversity and ecological integrity of these habitats. Thus, since the beginning of the E&AD program, the ViNP has managed to stabilize the invasion rate of the park around 20% (18.5% in September 2019). This is the fruit of efforts undertaken in the central sector, in particular thanks to the installation of a 10 km electric fence which must be extended over 70 km to safeguard the ecological corridor between Ishasha and Nyamitwitwi, but also thanks to the decrease of charcoal production in the southern sector, especially around Kibumba.

Mount Tshabirimu, home to the last population of lowland gorillas in the park, is once again under control after the Mayi-Mayi attacks in 2018. And the five individuals present are still in good health. Studies for the reintroduction of individuals from the GRACE center near Butembo have been relaunched. Ultimately, ViNP team wishes to relaunch this reintroduction project in order to obtain a population of at least 15 individuals that could be viable, on the only condition that security stability is maintained.

As for mountain gorillas, their population is at its highest since 1970. The species has been removed from the list of critically endangered species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and it is now cataloged as ” threatened species “. The last census in the ViNP (2015-2016) reported 286 individuals, and since then, the population of habituated mountain gorillas is 4.7% per year (excluding migration-emigration from accustomed groups to unaccustomed groups), a figure comparable to the natural growth rate of the species. Two new families (68 individuals) have been habituated. Tourists can visit them and no longer have to go to the other side of the Mikeno massif to watch the gorillas.

In addition, the censuses of traces left by forest elephants have been intensified, and their population is currently estimated at more than 100 individuals. Savannah elephants, used to crossing the border into Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), venture deeper and deeper into the plains in the center of the park. This is a sign of the positive impact of the fence installed in 2017 and the increased presence of rangers in this area. Due to their movement from / to QENP, their census does not give conclusive figures to date.

The hippopotamus is an emblematic species of ViNP. Its current situation is worrying because of the persistence of poaching on the western shores of Lake Edouard. Thirty-seven carcasses were found in 2019. The current population is estimated at 1,496 individuals. The park team hopes to be able to stabilize the area and achieve growth of around 6% per year for the next few years.

Development component

With regard to the development component, the ViNP team is working on four major projects: hydroelectricity, agriculture, tourism and security and the fight against Ebola. Urban, semi-rural and rural electrification targets the city of Goma and the territories of Lubero and Rutshuru on the outskirts of the park. The objective is to produce 95 MW, spread over 8 power plants, or around 25% of the energy demand of the province of North Kivu. This makes ViNP a unique model in the world for the sustainable economic development of the natural resources of a protected area.

Currently, the production supplied affects 18 public infrastructures (hospitals, schools, public lighting, etc.), 314,000 people; 6,400 connected customers, 900 SMEs (more than 3,400 direct jobs and more than 13,000 indirect jobs in value chains). Some 131 SMEs and 700 households benefit from credits to help with connection. The team is currently working on an efficient methodology to assess the impacts on health and education of the local population. The first customer survey shows that 10% to 12% of employees are former members of armed groups.

Despite the delay in starting up, the agriculture and sustainable development project on the outskirts of ViNP is rapidly gaining momentum, and several studies are underway. The project already supports more than 600 farmers per month and 12 agricultural cooperatives. In Kibumba, a market gardening area has been developed.

The production of chias seeds for their high added value is effective. The off-season cultivation will provide farmers with a continuous income. In Lubero, coffee plantations are being developed, the impact of the Ivingu power plant assessed and environmental services for the stabilization of erosion paid for. Regarding fishing in Lake Edward, the team plans to set up cold rooms along the Goma road, 14 of which have already been installed. A chocolate factory has been installed and should start production in early 2020.

Tourism remains very dependent on the security situation. The May 2018 attack and the Ebola crisis had a major impact on reservations. It is estimated that around 2,000 members of armed groups are rife in the park to date. The turnover of these groups is probably over $ 100 million a year. The central sector is the most affected with the organized invasion of fields to the west and the illegal exploitation of the resources of Lake Edward. But the increased presence of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) allows these groups to be pushed beyond the park’s borders.

As a result, the park has registered approximately 15,000 tourists since 2015, which has generated over $ 11 million in revenue for the park, ICCN and surrounding communities. Regarding the fight against Ebola in the province of North Kivu, the park is making its decisive contribution to preventing the spread of the disease.

In agreement with the Ministry of Public Health and the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy, checkpoints have been set up on the roads that cross the park in the direction of Kasindi to Uganda and Goma to Rwanda.

Source: Business et Finance