Protection Funded for Animals at Risk in Congo War

PARIS, France, January 12, 2000 (ENS) - Endangered species in five national parks of war-torn Central Africa will benefit from $2.9 million newly pledged by the United Nations Foundation. The money will support a project of the UNESCO's World Heritage Centre to conserve biodiversity in regions of armed conflict.

The United Nations Foundation (UNF) is the U.S. charity which administers the US$1 billion donated in 1998 by CNN founder Ted Turner to promote UN supported causes.

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Northern white rhinos in Garamba National Park. (Photo courtesy International Rhino Federation)
The northern white rhino and northern savannah giraffe of Garamba National Park, the okapi of the Okapi Faunal Reserve, the mountain gorilla of Virungas National Park and Guaer's gorilla of Kahuzi-Biega National Park are among the species most at risk.

Salonga National Park, another Natural World Heritage site in the DRC, is also to benefit from the project. All five sites targeted by the project have been included in the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger, due to the continuing armed conflict in the eastern part of the DRC.

The influx of refugees along border areas, rebel activities, banditry and increased poaching are harming the endangered animals and their habitat. Many of the park staff have fled. Parts of the parks may be serving as hideouts for militant groups.

The expansion of commercial hunting is undermining the hunter-gatherer way of life of the Mbuti Pygmies of the Okapi Reserve and other indigenous peoples who depend on wildlife for survival.

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The okapi is a forest dwelling giraffe with legs striped like a zebra. (Photo courtesy Wildlife Conservation Society)
The Okapi Wildlife Reserve occupies about one fifth of the Ituri Forest in the Zaire River basin in the northeast of the DRC. The wildlife reserve contains threatened species of primates and birds and about 5,000 of the estimated 30,000 okapi surviving in the wild.

The Okapi Reserve was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger due to reports that the armed conflict, which spread in early 1997 to the whole eastern part of the country, has led to the looting of facilities, gold mining and the killing of elephants in the reserve. Most of the staff have fled the park.

Garamba National Park takes in immense savannahs, grasslands or woodlands, interspersed with gallery forests along the river banks and swamps. It is inhabited by elephants, giraffes, hippopotamus and white rhinoceros. This is the last viable natural population of square-lipped or northern white rhinoceros. Intensive poaching caused rhino numbers to fall from about 1,000 animals in 1960 to just 25 surviving in the park today.

Millions of dollars already invested in these parks may be lost if the sites are not protected through the present period of trouble. For several years, the parks have received no financial support from the DRC government. Tourist revenue has also dried up as visitors avoid the armed conflict.

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Mountain gorilla and her baby (Photo by Martin Harvey courtesy WWF-Canon)
Still, the mountain gorillas in Virungas National Park are continuing to survive. Ten new births were documented since the onset of the war in 1996. Despite the enormous problems in the region and the challenges facing the protected area authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the World Wide Fund for Nature says that with technical and financial support, conservation efforts are making a difference.

The project, developed by UNESCO's World Heritage Centre and the Organization's Division of Ecological Sciences, was approved last November by both the United Nations Foundation and by the United Nations Fund for International Partnerships (UNFIP) which is part of the United Nations.

The plan to protect these five parks has been developed in co-operation with the World Conservation Union (IUCN), and a Task Force of partner organisations that includes GTZ-Germany and the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the International Rhino Foundation (IRF).

The focus of the project is supporting local staff in their duties. UNESCO will work with relevant authorities in the DRC to carry out the project.

The funding will provide salary substitutes and field equipment to help site staff carry out their work. Project workers will take steps, including staff training, to enhance surveillance; monitor the status of biodiversity; support programmes integrating indigenous community needs and site protection; and establish long-term financing mechanisms for the conservation of sites in the DRC.

The project is expected to require US$4,186,600 in total. US$1,290,688 are yet to be raised.

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Unique Galapgos crab climbs on sunning lizard. (Photo by Jorge Juan Anhalzer courtesy Charles Darwin Foundation)
This is the second UNF/UNFIP project benefiting World Natural Heritage sites since May 1999, when the UN Foundation decided to support another UNESCO initiative, the project for control and eradication of invasive species in Ecuador's Galapagos Islands. This World Heritage site which inspired Charles Darwin to develop his theory of evolution has a wealth of native species found nowhere else on Earth. They are threatened by the invasion of cats, rats and goats.

Ecuadorian President Jamil Mahaud last week approved regulations to implement a special conservation law for the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles west of Ecuador. The law creates a marine sanctuary extending 40 miles in all directions and ensures that proceeds from tourism are used to support conservation.

In addition to approving these two projects the governors of the UNF also endorsed, at their November 1999 meeting, a Biodiversity Programme Strategy that will target World Natural Heritage as an instrument for conserving globally significant biodiversity.

The Strategy is due to lead UNF/UNFIP into a multi-million dollar commitment in favor of World Natural Heritage. It will be implemented in cooperation with several United Nations agencies, including UNESCO.