Can we protect hippos from poaching in Virunga?

Major causes of declines in wildlife in developing countries witnessed during the recent decades have been population growth, habitat fragmentation, inadequate land use practices and management, lack of economic alternatives, and unsustainable use of resources. In a conflict region like the Easternof the Democratic Republic of Congo, the fauna has been targeted by different armed groups and local people for meat and illegal wildlife and wildlife product trafficking. Among species that have been most poached is thecommon hippopotamus.

Hippopotamus in Ishasha River near a Ranger camp

In Virunga National Park (ViNP*) for example, numbers dropped by 98% from 30,000 in the 1970s to 629 individuals in 2006. With increased patrolling and transboundary cooperation between the DRC and Uganda park authorities, there is hope that hippopotamuses will still exist in Virunga National as the Ishasha river still inhabit a bit of hippopotamus population.

Hippopotamus in Ishasha River near a Ranger camp

The patrolling efforts along the hippopotamus habitats are still low and there is need of closer monitoring to protect them from poaching for bushmeat.

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Thanks to Robert J., Anna, Jessica, Emmerentiane and Antonio for their support to our activities!

 


* The abbreviation ViNP to distinguish Virunga National Park in DRC from Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda

Elephant and rangers’ harmony in Virunga

Through our Elephant monitoring program in collaboration with ICCN rangers in Kabaraza station, we have been able to protect three different herds of elephants.

Through daily monitoring  of elephants, rangers are able to monitor and locate elephants for their protection from poaching.

Elephant at the Mabenga barrier

On 29th, I visited the forest and met up with more than 50 elephants. I was surprised that elephants sighted us before we could and we were scared. As we were moving making some noises, the elephants were scared and took off. I was told by rangers: “they must be around our camp by now as they feel safe around there”. Fifteen minutes later, we were at road (barrier) and met with more than fifty elephants in three different groups.

It is unbelievable that, although elephants have been poached for the last decade in Virunga,  you can get closer to this herd of elephants thanks to the devotion of rangers.

There is need to continue supporting this activity as we hope this herd can restore elephant population in Virunga Park. In 2008, we estimated more than 280 individuals in three different groups.

Field gears and ranger rations are needed by ranger and further support for monitoring.

Thanks to those who are supporting my work in Virunga.

Lessons for conservation related conflict resolution projects in war situation

Stakeholders closing a channel on Lake Edward

The Eastern DRC has been under fire and armed conflict since 90s. The fauna and flora of Virunga National Park are intensely impacted because armed groups target rangers and local communities work for armed groups to use illegally resources. In some areas, local communities are allowed to extract resources (fishing villages) but they don’t comply with regulations. This creates conflict between park staff and communities over resources. More armed conflicts weaken law enforcement.Through a conflict resolution process, a participatory framework was developed, agreed and implemented in Nyakakoma (one of the three fishing villages in Virunga Park) to reduce illegal fishing. All stakeholders (park managers, fisheries and civil society, army and police) were involved and the decrease of illegal fishing was about 50%.  Refugee camp in Kibumba

In October 08; with the clash of the war between rebels and legal army, it was impossible to enforce anything as armed people relied on fishing to survive. We kept contact with stakeholders and make sure that the situation is known and monitored. After five months, with political negotiations, stakeholders wished to restart the process and implement the framework. The success of any conflict resolution project in conservation relies on collaboration between stakeholders which improves relationship and communication among them and built trust. But to get to that level; there is need of commitment and willingness from conservation organizations, support and regular contact with stakeholders and monitoring of the situation. Your support to this blog will strengthen the ongoing conflict and community activities!

Conflict over Natural resources

Virunga National Park is one of the remaining forest in the East North Kivu province and is surrounded by lots of villages with high demographic density.

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Kanyabayonga City

These villages are living near the Park by using resources close to them in different ways with real impact on habitat and wildlife.

Protection of the Park becomes then complex and violent as park managers and their partners face different threats towards their lives.

Managing these conflicts need committment and good willing of different actors after understanding these conflicts and different parameters.

Through the process of conflict analysis, mapping and strategy development, we’ve been able to start looking at different opportunities that can help reducing some of the conflicts starting with fishing villages as it can lead to other complex conflicts.

Needs from different stakeholders are increasing towards conflict resolution that we need to put more efforts even though some conflicts need political decisions.

ICCN rangers
ICCN Rangers

Help Virunga to survive!!!

Ranger Data collection as a tool for ecosystem monitoring

Virunga as a first National Park in Africa is facing several threats which need to be monitored so that people can measure the level and extents of different threats and apply a suitable strategy.

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Rangers on patrols in Vitshumbi areas

In order to ensure its protection, Virunga Park rangers are in patrols everyday in different accessible areas of the Park. During their exercise, they collect data about animals, habitats and other specific information which may inform people about the ecosystem health.

To enable this, we have been working with ICCN (Park Authority) to establish a system whereby rangers collect data on the ground and entered into computer at station and headquarters levels so that the data can be processed and analysed to give out information.

To reach this level, there are different activities implemented and others which need to be covered. We’ve been able to train, equip and supervise the different stations in the system. Still, there is need of getting senior rangers to the different ranger posts to assess the way data is collected and ensure that outside data is collected (information about fishing, population in fishing villages, etc.). As the equipment going to the field is facing handling problems (rain, lost during gunshot exchange), there is need of having other supplies such as GPS, computers, etc.

At least, the system has shown the different changes all over the 4 years of the database. There is a decrease in some illegal activities and increase in encountering animals on the field.

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Kobs in Virunga Park

Let’s hope for Virunga.


Virunga Elephant To Be Protected

Virunga National Park as first National Park in Africa is facing several threats despite the efforts from rangers and conservationist to protect its resources.

One of its resources is African elephant (Loxodonta africana) inhabiting different ecosystems of the park from the forested areas to the savanna areas.

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Elephants in Virunga have been killed in Virunga for the trophy. Due to the occupancy of the park by armed groups, elephants have moved to areas closed to ranger posts with limited movement. Once they want to move, they are killed and forced to stay in limited area.

In order to protect them form this daily threats, rangers have been trying to plan for daily patrols and observations. Three groups of rangers have been monitoring about 300 elephants in Kabaraza ranger station with limited food ration and basic field equipment.

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Any help for these elephants is an input to Virunga conservation

Thanks to Antonio C., Nancy A. and Robert J.G. for their support to our work


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Partnership for Conservation

There is need of working together to save the threatened species

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The eastern DRC is facing armed crisis for about three decades now. Protected areas are among the vulnerable areas as they are used by armed groups as their shelter and source of food and income.

Virunga National park is suffering from that as a consequence of armed conflicts. The different armed groups in Eastern DRC have found their refuge into the Park and depend on its resources.

Main damage concerns:

  • Poaching and massive killing of fauna:

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­ this April; about 14 elephants have been killed by armed groups

­ in 2006, about 400 hippos have been killed by armed groups

­ number of Kobs are killed daily

­ charcoal making and illegal timber trade

  • restricting access to park surveillance:

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­ some of the armed groups have created some networks to facilitate illegal fishing in the Lake

­ they don’t allow rangers and conservation actors to access the area

­ they are allowing cultivation into the protected area

­ there are some gunshots exchange between rangers and armed groups

  • illegal wildlife trafficking

In order to get the issue solved or reduced, there have been several initiatives at political and military levels to try some solutions:

­ Involve the army to support rangers and organize joint patrols in different areas

­ Involve different stakeholders from various areas to help conservation dedicated organizations to protect the park

­ Create some local networks to gather information about the different areas occupied by armed groups

­ Support park rangers in their daily patrols and provide them field equipments

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All these activities are done and need to be done at daily basis. Due to the exceptional situation in DRC, there are daily cases that need support to avoid any political involvement in some of the park issues.

By Helping Virunga, you help to protect threatened species.

Thanks to Robert J. and Nacy A. for your support

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Natural resource use in Virunga neighbouring villages.

Virunga National park located in Eastern DRC is among the richest protected area in terms of animals and plants. Some of these species cannot be found every where apart from the Virunga surrounding regions (e.g. Gorillas).
Covering about 8,000sqkm, Virunga Park is surrounded by a populated region which might be among the highest in DRC – up to 350 habitant/km². In these different areas, natural resources are the most used as about 80% of rural areas in DRC depend on agriculture and use firewood as source of energy.
In order to get firewood, local communities are obliged to get into the park –in most of the surrounding areas – and get some trees cut down for survival purposes. Besides firewood, charcoal is also the main forest killer in the area as the Park is surrounded by 3 big towns (Goma, Butembo and Beni) and others cities (Kiwanja, Rutshuru, Kasindi, etc.) where charcoal is the most used in different households for cooking.
In other areas where there are still some patches of forest, people are cutting down forests for timber, charcoal and firewood.

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Picture 1 – How do we carry firewood?

Surrounding communities as future threats to protected forests
Protecting Parks and forests is seen as a management purpose than a common benefit in Africa and especially in DRC.
The forest on community lands is reducing every day and year leaving behind the protected areas as lonely and isolated forested areas.
Even if the forest on community lands is finished, local communities and surrounding towns’ population will still need charcoal, firewood and timber and the only place to get these will be into the protected areas. That’s the future threat towards natural resource exploitation in the Virunga region.
And this is more serious when you consider the birth rates of the areas and their economic status!
More threats towards conservationist than how it is now!

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Picture 2 – Deforested areas

Actions to be taken for both sides
In order to get this threat reduced, there is need of working on both sides – developing incentives in the community areas and actions for resources sharing with neighbouring communities on the community side and protection of resource with community on the other side.
Among solutions, get networks organized for community and individual plantations for timber products for communities.
To manage to get people committed to such activities, there is need of technical and financial supports.

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Picture 3 –Need to work together to stop the deforestation of the park.

FROM PATROL TO ACTION: USEFUL DATA COLLECTED

Protected areas in Africa are seen like a store where people must be going to collect resource in scarce periods. This is one side of the vision while conservation institutions and organisation see that as a last shelter to protect wildlife species and enable environmental services for the benefit of the world. This being said, local people are aware of the legal prohibitions about park resources but they do want to get in for survival.For this reason, the mandated institutions have rangers trained and equipped to make sure that the area is surveyed.

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Pic1.-Rangers going for overnight patrolling in Lulimbi sector/Virunga National Park

Why rangers do they go for patrolling?

They do patrols to discourage and arrest illegal collectors of resources such as poachers who enter into the park to kill wildlife. For poachers, they don’t care about the status of animal (they don’t care about the number of individuals which are still alive in the world), settlers and invaders who are occupying different habitats that are suitable for wildlife. they do patrols to make sure that the conservation law is respected and have data collected to enable monitoring of the park status.

What do rangers find in the bush?

During patrols, rangers in the field they might find armed poachers, settlers, armed groups people, alive wildlife, etc. Once in the field, rangers meet with armed poachers and people and they have to exchange boo lets. Because of this, there are some rangers killed or injured on duty. We’ve got about 100 rangers killed in Virunga since the 90s (civil conflict in DRC). They also have to destroy some illegal camps and arrest owners and take them to court or get them back to their villages after awareness sessions.

What data do they collect?

Once in the field, rangers collect information about wildlife seen, their sightings and dropping; dead induces, poaching signs and ecosystem status. This information collected is compiled as reports and used for management purposes.

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Pics 2&3 – Top: Sighting of Okapi in Virunga Park and Below: Hippopotamus in Ishasha river/Virunga National park

Does field data used for action?

Data collected and entered into computers, the report is sent out to managers and partners to make sure that they are aware of different threats in the protected area. The report states also some of recommendations to be meant by different authorities if they want the park to be protected. This has been used to convince local authorities to support conservation efforts, but also to determine which areas must be targeted as priority.

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Pic4- Political awareness meeting in Goma

How research helps to protect protected areas

Mushroom in Virunga Park

Mushroom in Virunga National Park

As in the previous information, Mont Hoyo is very interesting for both tourism and research. For tourism as it has some potentials described latter and for research as there has been no research in the forest as we know.

The plan was to survey the area in order to gather biological information and give some useful recommendations. As a forest reserve and following DRC law, it must be fully protected and no human activity is allowed.

In our visit to Mont Hoyo, we noticed that there are several illegal activities carried by local population and some armed people. It has been a plan to get the army responsible to know that there are some illegal activities carried by armed people (soldiers) and nothing has been done on their side. In order to ensure that there is no shooting from these poachers, some actions were planned to arrest the poachers without shooting as people in the area are still stressed by war.

We planned the survey and get military and political authorities to know that we are planning a survey. Even if the security situation has worsened in the neighbouring areas of Mont Hoyo, this plan has been used to arrest the armed poachers in Mont Hoyo.

They were called to join the researcher team for administrative purposes and guide them while the real purpose was to get them arrested. This has been done and they are under arrest.

The other case is, during the biological surveys conducted in Semuliki (Virunga Park); during the research work, several poaching materials are destroyed and removed and large area is covered and give an global picture of the status of the area to manager. E.g.: there have been a hundred of snares removed from the Park, some area not covered by ranger patrols have been covered and the local community sensitised during evening walk in the village.

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Left: Rope snare sample found in Virunga National Park – Right: Ranger in research team getting GPS data

With the money gained from surveys, local communities are aware that, if the protected area is destroyed there will never be any research in the area and they may not get any visitor compared to other areas where they are helping protected area managers to conserve.