Equations to distinguish gorilla nests and to know size of gorilla groups

Long term observations by Author and trainer:
John Kahekwa Munihuzi

Four great ape species inhabit Africa and Asia. These are: Chimpanzees, Orangutans, Gorillas and Bonobos. With the exception of Orangutans, whose habitat is in Asia, the three other species live in Africa, with the largest populations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The four species of great ape construct night nests; some members in the trees (upper) and other members on the ground (lower). This article is based on daily, long term observations focused on the nesting and the size of the groups of the Grauer Gorillas, (Gorilla beringei graueri) ranging in the Kahuzi Biega National Park (KBNP), particularly groups in the highland sector.

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The Kahuzi-Biega National Park: an island in the middle of an ocean of poverty -What is the future?-

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There is a reason for hope …….
(Jane Goodall, JGI)

There will never be longevity for wildlife as long as surrounding communities are not involved in the protection and conservation.
(John Kahekwa, POPOF)

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Kahuzi Biega National Park (KBNP) was created in order to protect the Eastern Lowland Gorillas (ELG), which is threatened by extinction. It has two sectors: the highland sector, which was originally created in 1970; and the lowland sector, where the park was extended in 1975. KBNP was the first national park to offer gorilla tourism in the early 1970s, but conflict and poverty in the region since then has led to encroachment of the park boundaries and a sharp decline in tourism.

The management of KBNP falls under the remit of ICCN (the Congolese Wildlife Service), which employs staff to protect the park, prevent poaching and support tourism. These staff work hard, but they are only a small force tasked with protecting an enormous area, making conservation work difficult. Communities around the area are heavily reliant on the KBNP for their livelihoods; collecting firewood, building materials, mineral extractions and bush meat from within the park. The men and women – both young and old – that engaged in these activities were often arrested and put in the park’s jail and forced to pay fines. This was in spite of the high levels of poverty among communities involved in these activities.

John Kahekwa Munihuzi born from the community in the highland sector of the KBNP was one of these rangers employed by ICCN as a teenager in the early 1980s to protect the park and learn more about the gorillas to habituate them for tourism. Tracking the gorillas each day, he was able to develop identification methods for 155 gorillas living in 6 groups, as well as the changing human pressures on the park; these pressures were at their most intense in the war years between 1996 and 2003. During this period, half the populations of gorillas in KBNP were killed for bush meat, trophies and selling live babies, as well as the entire elephant population in the park was killed. Before the war, and since its end, pressures reduced slightly, but many still remain, driven by the poverty of the surrounding communities and their resentment due to their sense of exclusion from the park.

John Kahekwa was shocked by these conflicts between the park and surrounding communities and wanted to better understand why they were happening. He interviewed more than 450 people from surrounding communities and kept hearing the same reply, “Empty stomachs have no ears, the KBNP is not for us, but rather belongs to the wardens, rangers and overseas organizations. We are poor and jobless and have no other way to live without entering the park, our former homeland”. John asked these people whether giving those jobs would fill their stomachs and open their ears to protecting the park; the answer was a universal “YES”.

John was determined to help these communities. In 1986, he used the tips he was given by tourists he had taken to visit gorillas, and bought t-shirt souvenirs to sell to tourists. This business worked well, and he was able to generate more revenue from a small part he acted in the film Gorillas in the Mist, BBC and ABC Sport documentaries and afterwards delivering lectures about KBNP’s gorillas. He managed to save USD $6,000, and – in partnership with fellow ranger colleagues and members of the local community – founded the Pole Pole Foundation (POPOF) in 1992. The vision of the foundation was to use an inclusive model to work for conservation and sustainable development of KBNP and the surrounding communities.

POPOF was welcomed by communities and set about researching where the main human pressures were placed on the park. Almost a 90% of people are living in poverty and dependent on resources from within the park for their survival. Also a 75% rate of illiteracy, and that the park totally lacked buffer zones between communities’ farmland and the park boundaries. To address this, POPOF delivered environmental education programmes, economic development schemes and tree planting activities.

The foundation has continued to expand its reach since its inception more than two decades ago, and now delivers projects within six key themes:

1) The contribution to the habituation of new gorilla groups in the park and the gorilla members’ identification for the tourism.
2) Tree planting schemes, which have led to the planting of over 4 million trees in four groupings surrounding the park, engaged women in tree planting through its “women to face climate change” programme, and created a multiple use buffer zone between communities and the park. When trees often mature, they are sold for building materials and charcoal to provide income for families. Since the creation of this scheme, illegal deforestation has been reduced in areas POPOF acts.
3) Livestock programmes to reduce bush meat hunting. The foundation distributed pigs, goats and guinea pigs to families; families used these animals for meat and also sold livestock offspring to create an income. Bush meat poaching in the park declined as a result of these programmes.
4) POPOF has also worked with an often neglected group, the Twa pygmies. The foundation provided sewing machines and trained Twa women to make clothes and ranger uniforms. They were the first foundation to create a development project for Twa women although a fund was limited to maintain the project.
5) POPOF has also trained ex-poachers in wood-carving. Men and women involved in the scheme carve gorillas in different poses and some carvings are sold as souvenirs in the visitors centre at Tshivanga the KBNP’s headquarters.
6) POPOF has launched an education programme to inspire a young generation to better understand the importance and value of the park and work to protect it. They created the Anga-POPOF-Miti education programme, which is formed of three schools; a kindergarten, elementary and secondary school. Students in the school undertake the conventional DRC syllabus and in addition carry out tree-nursery training and seedling distribution. The school has graduated many students, some of whom – if their families have the means – have progressed to university.
7) After winning the 2013 Whitley Fund for Nature Award, POPOF is now expanding its programmes into Itebero the lowland sector of the park, responding to the needs of communities there for fish pools to provide livelihoods and reduce poaching.

A day of harvesting fish from pools in Itebero-KBNP’s lowland sector in order to fight against poverty and bush meat consuming by POPOF.

POPOF has addressed many of the threats to the park, but other threats remain, and the foundation does not have the necessary funding required to implement all the projects that are required to address these threats. ICCN and International Conservation NGOs are working to address many of the threats facing the park and are running some very effective programmes in some areas; however, large human pressures continue to afflict the park each year. For example, the eco-corridor between the highland and lowland sections is particularly affected, with 95% of the area settled by rich farmers. A significant weakness of these projects is a lack of trust by local communities. ICCN has authority over the park, but lacks authority over surrounding communities. International Conservation NGOs bring large budgets to fund projects, but local communities do not trust them in the same way as they do local Conservation NGOs, and these international Conservation NGOs rarely work with local conservation organisations to implement their projects.

We all have a duty to protect the KBNP as a world heritage site and other protected areas of DRC, as well as the communities surrounding those. The only way we will achieve this is by increasing collaboration between organisations. We must form partnerships between ICCN, international Conservation NGOs, local Conservation NGOs and communities. Together, we can fight the poverty surrounding the park and in the process protect KBNP and other areas protecting the sub specie of the Grauer gorillas known as “the forgotten gorillas”, the flora and fauna within. This is the best, and indeed the only, way to protect the most wonderful World Heritage Sites of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

To know more about conflicts between Park managers/communities around and resolutions. Please email to:
or call:
+243 9 98 89 95 98.
Website: www.polepolefoundation.org

Memory of elephants in Kahuzi-Biega N.P. / A view of elephants in Moukalaba-Doudou N.P. in Gabon

African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) live mostly in rain forests of Africa.
The fact of working hard for over 30 years in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park (KBNP) allowed me to watch them live a sympatric life with gorillas, chimpanzees and other wildlife. Being bigger and tougher than other mammals, elephants opened paths for other mammals when moving in their habitat. When tracking gorillas for habituation or for leading tourists, we could walk smoothly on the paths that were made by elephants. New tender vegetation grew in the paths they made, which were good for gorillas to eat.

Because of lack of buffer zone around the KBNP, elephants often made a lot of crop raiding in the fields of the surrounding communities. People grow crops such as maize, sorghums, beans, soybeans, pumpkins, cassava, peanuts, banana, pineapples, tomatoes and potatoes. During harvest season, elephants always invaded agricultural fields at night and would eat half or all the crops. The Congolese wildlife authority (ICCN) had no compensatory policy. When poor farmers went to claim the damage that elephants caused, they were rejected by ICCN staff. When villagers knew that once they dare to enter the park for some needs like woods, bush meat and other resources they would be caught by anti-poaching rangers and would be punished with fines despite their poverty. This situation led to conflicts between park management and communities around the park.

It was estimated that about 450 elephants lived in the highland sector of the KBNP around Mt. Kahuzi, Mt. Biega and Tshivanga in 1991.

Elephant scratched this tree in KBNP

Elephant scratched this tree in KBNP

Devastating war caused slaughter of all of the elephants in one year during 1996-1997. Only some pictures of their footprints, backs scratching and others remain as souvenirs.

In contrast, the Republic of Gabon is a stable country. The same sub-species of bush elephants live in Gabonese national parks including the Moukalaba Doudou National Park (MDDNP). When I visited in 2013, I noticed that the elephant population is so abundant. The human population in Gabon is about 1 million of people. The law enforcement and legislation is so strict. The human population density around the MDDNP is very low. The crops raiding by elephants are very low.

A Gabonese ranger collecting elephant dungs samples.

A Gabonese ranger collecting elephant dungs samples.

Every day during the two months I spent in MDDNP for training communities and rangers about tourism, gorilla habituation and some socioeconomic impacts, when going to track a gorilla group of Papa Gentil, we walked on fresh paths made by elephants. Rangers of MDDNP were always careful and ready to run when they heard or smelt elephant odors in the surroundings.

I remembered the days I lived in the KBNP for 15 years, every time when I led tourists or when I was habituating gorillas, my trackers Pili Pili and others used to tell me to run away to avoid being squashed by elephants. Those days are things of the past now and it’s only a good memory. And I remembered our 450 elephants that were erased in one-year time in the KBNP.

Skulls of animals at Tshivanga station: For the next generation

Some years ago, during the hard time of the war, almost every day we used to hear gun firing in the hills from the park headquarters. We multiplied patrols inside the park and collected skulls of slaughtered animals from 45 different sites in total.

One day, we heard gun firing and we knew there was a group of gunmen. We organized a mixed patrol group including rangers, soldiers and our brave trackers who are pygmies who knew the forest so well that they could lead us without a compass. When we approached a slaughtering site, soldiers told us to move and stay back because we rangers had no more guns after confiscated by rebels. Soldiers jumped on the opportunity and fired several bullets. Animal slaughters ran away.

At the site, there was a big fire like a campfire, flesh of animals were being smoked above fire. Skin, bones, nails and teeth were put aside. Stock of meat was confiscated by soldiers and it was like their salaries for the work they did.

Those wildlife that were killed included, elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, baboons, antelopes, hogs, cercopithecus, colobus monkeys.

Skull samples are displayed at Tshivanga station and tourists can see them.

It is horrific events but we use it as teaching materials for the new generation to know how to conserve a protected area and the surrounding communities in harmony.