Richard Tshombe – Country Director WCS-DRC
Most conservation investments in DRC - from Government, donors and partners such as WCS - have been dedicated to saving dense forests and forest species whereas DRC’s biological richness also include exceptional savannah ecosystems. Despite this imbalanced and somehow biased conservation priority, most conservationists, researchers and managers, including ICCN staff, recognize the value of the savanna ecosystems and the role it plays in maintaining DRC biodiversity across the country (e.g. savannas are the only place where zebra and giraffe occur) and its potential to generate tourism revenues.
With the exception of the Garamba National Park which is home to the world’s last surviving population of the northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) most if not all ICCN savanna protected areas have been neglected by the DRC Government for the last 30 years. Upemba and Kundelungu, the “two forgotten National Parks” situated in the Katanga Province, are certainly the most important of them. Upemba National Park (10,000 km2) was created in 1939, 14 years after the Virunga National Park, the first National Park ever created in Africa. The Kundelungu National Park (2,200 km2) was created in 1970. Its dense network of rivers form several spectacular waterfalls of which the most impressive is the Lofoi falls (340m), Africa’s highest waterfall.
Although that the Parks have been the subject of many scientific studies, little information is available on species abundance. Thus, the merit of Dr Hilde Vanleeuwe and her team is to provide scientific and reliable information on the current conservation status of these two exceptional National Parks.
This report provides critical management information on humans; on sign abundance and distribution of animals as well as information on interactions between humans and wildlife. The historical background provides interesting details on the abundant and diverse wildlife found in the two parks in the 19th century and the decline that follows years of mismanagement and wars.
The report shows that at both sites, wildlife populations are low, especially at Kundelungu National Park. However, the solutions proposed by the authors are suggesting that the two Parks can recover. The authors are right to present the transboundary management of the greater Lufira Valley, situated between DRC and Zambia, as the key to this recovery. The protection of the greater Lufira Valley should take advantage of WCS experience in managing contiguous protected areas in the Albertine Rift. The authors are also right to remind all of us that effort to recover wildlife at both UNP and KNP will bear fruit only if institutional management challenges are also tackled.
In the 19th century Katanga was an elephant (Loxodonta Africana) capital where Arabs from the East coast stocked on ivory. European expeditions of the late 19th century recount on the countless numbers of elephants, hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) and other large fauna that they killed, and on the long caravans of ivory carriers they met in Katanga (Dr Paul Briart, 1890 – 1893). Upemba National Park or UNP was created in 1939. Between 1940 and 1970 wildlife dwindled to critical numbers as a result of poaching and the black rhino became extinct in the 1950’s. Wildlife revived in the 1970’s as a result of the removal of settlement from UNP. Kundelungu National Park or KNP was created in 1970. Wildlife was abundant throughout the 1980’s but then rapidly reduced again in the 1990’s and 2000’s as a result of economic and political instability and subsequent insecurity.
UNP and KNP can easily be ranked amongst the top most compelling landscapes and Protected Areas (PAs) in Africa and they would be DRC’s most diverse PAs if restored to contain the wildlife that was present in the 1970’s and 1980’s. A systematic survey was conducted between Sep 15th and Oct 15th 2008 to establish what wildlife remains and the extent of damage inflicted over the past 2 decades, to help define conservation strategies. The survey combined aerial and foot surveys.
For 3000km of flying over UNP and KNP, 1375 recordings were made of which 850 were observations of clustered human impact signs such as villages, fires and cultivation. Most human impact at UNP was found in the Northwest and along the fringes of the Park and at KNP impact was greatest in the South and along the fringes of the Park boundary. Animals observed included elephant, plains zebra (Equus burchelli bohmi), roan antilope (Hippotragus equinus), sable antilope (Hippotragus niger), bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus), southern reedbuck (Redunca arundinum), common duiker (Cephalophus grimmia), oribi (Ourebia ourebi), puku (Kobus vardonii), yellow baboons (Papio cynocephalus), bushpig (Potamochoerus larvatus), hippopotamus and side-striped jackals (Canis adustus), watlled cranes (Grus carunculatus) and a shoebill (Balaenicepts rex).
For 900km walked and surveyed at UNP , 4701 animal signs belonging to at least 33 species were recorded of which approximately 14% were direct observations. 380km were walked and surveyed at KNP and 1241 animal signs belonging to 20 species were recorded of which 6% were direct observations. The vast majority of direct and indirect animal signs belong to 5 species: common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus), bushpig, common duiker, southern reedbuck and yellow baboons. Wildlife populations at UNP were very low and at KNP shockingly low. In comparison to UNP, KNP had 5 times more settlement, 3 times more human tracks, 40 times more fires, half the number of poacher’s camps but 2 times more animal traps and carcasses. At UNP 43 people were encountered as well as 79 poaching camps and 47 fishing camps in the Lufira valley. Human sign abundance at UNP ranked 13th of 33 species and at KNP it ranked 1st of 20 species, representing by far the most common encountered species both on transects and between transects.
Neither the ground survey teams whom together covered some 1280km, nor the large carnivore (LC) team who scanned 330km in selected areas of UNP specifically for LC signs, found sign of LC’s other than a few signs of leopards (Panthera pardus). For leopards, immediate efforts should be made to prevent their accidental (e.g. through snare traps) and intentional killing at UNP. Given the presence of suitable prey species and the large size of the park, leopards can recover at UNP. Numbers of larger ungulates such as zebra, buffalo and hartebeest would need to increase substantially to sustain lions and spotted hyenas. Numbers of oribi and common reedbuck would need to increase to sustain cheetahs and African wild dogs on the high plateaus. Most LCs are thus extinct from UNP and KNP, and the plains zebra (UNP harbors DRC’s only population), Upemba lechwe (Kobus anselli), Red lechwe (Onotragus leche), greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), roan antelope, sable antelope, Lichtenstein hartebeest (Alcelaphus lichtensteinii), sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii), Cape eland (Taurotragus oryx), puku, Cape buffalo and hippopotamus will follow the black rhino if no immediate conservation actions are taken.
The best and only solution would be the protection of the greater Lufira valley that represents excellent wildlife habitat and functions as a natural animal movement corridor between NE Zambia and the Buyaba papyrus swamps in NW UNP. The largest section of the Lufira corridor runs through UNP, Lubudi-Sampwe and the Kundelungu Annexe which already have a Protected Area (PA) status. Buyaba, where several hundred elephants reside (Mululwa, 2008) and the other end of the corridor connecting KNP with Northeast Zambia (at <200km) should be provided with a protection status. Re-opening the wildlife corridor would restore migrations of elephants and also prevent their local over-population, reducing subsequent human-elephant conflicts in the NW of UNP. Natural restoration and immigration of ungulates would in turn attract LC’s. The principal investigator of the North Luangwa Carnivore Study and the project manager for African Wild Dog Conservation in Zambia reckon there are still lions (Panthera leo) and African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) near the border and that immigration into DRC should be possible if the corridor were protected and snaring is under control. Nothing is known on cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) and spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) in this region but a wildlife corridor spanning the border between PAs in both countries would benefit a whole suite of species.
Protecting UNP and KNP with special focus on the Lufira valley corridor demands mitigation of historical, financial and management problems.