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Maiko National Park Progress Report

Category: Issue 49, Gorilla Journal, Grauer's Gorillas, Censuses, D. R. Congo, Kahuzi-Biega, War, Maiko
Taking notes at a gorilla nest in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park (© FZS)

Taking notes at a gorilla nest in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park (© FZS)

Maiko National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo, lies in one of the most remote forest areas in the world. It is an incredible wilderness area, protecting biodiversity of national and international significance, including the Grauer's gorilla and the okapi. It has also been home to the Simba Mai Mai rebels for almost 50 years, and has played a significant role in DRC's political conflicts during that time. This area of tremendous natural value is therefore also very volatile and difficult to access. It receives few visitors and very little research.

By working with both the Congolese conservation authorities (ICCN - Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature) and local stakeholders, including the Simba Mai Mai, FZS (Frankfurt Zoological Society) endeavours to support the management, monitoring and protection of the park. This entails the sustainable development of communities living around the park and the reintegration of the Simba Mai Mai rebels living within the park back into civil society. FZS recognizes the importance of a holistic support strategy in an area as challenging as Maiko and invest in a combination of scientific support, management support and socio-economic support to our partners. Both the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), through the advice centre for non-governmental organisations working in the field of development cooperation (Bengo), and Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe have supported this FZS project in Maiko.

  • During the training in Kahuzi-Biega: use of a tablet computer to collect data in the forest (© FZS)
    During the training in Kahuzi-Biega: use of a tablet computer to collect data in the forest (© FZS)

Achievements

Maiko National Park is one of our most challenging projects. The FZS team faces on-going instability and there is periodic conflict between Simba rebels, ICCN rangers and the DRC military (FARDC). This is further exacerbated by low capacity of state services, inaccessibility of the area and unreliable telecommunications and infrastructure. Nevertheless, FZS has made a number of major achievements over the past four years:

  • FZS supported the construction of a primary school in Bitule village, adjacent to the park. The official ribbon-cutting ceremony took place on the 9th. October 2014, in the presence of the highest local authorities, political and educational. This school replaces one that was destroyed in previous conflicts, and it is now complete and in use by local children.

  • FZS is cooperating with the Congolese Commission Nationale de Désarmement, Démobilisation, Réinsertion (CNDDR) to facilitate the peaceful, voluntary resettlement of the Simba Mai Mai rebels and their families out of the park. Currently they are living in remote parts of the forest within the park boundaries. The families will move to villages outside of the park and transition into civilian life. In May and June 2014 a census was conducted by the CNDDR to ascertain the needs of Simba for this resettlement. Since then, CNDDR has taken the lead for the process, making it a priority at the national level and attracting additional resources and support. Once the move begins, FZS will support their transition with housing, fuel-efficient stoves, and access to the primary school constructed in Bitule.

  • FZS provides top-up salaries to 132 ICCN Maiko park rangers. Given that the salaries they receive from the government are very low, this additional money provided motivation to protect this difficult area.

  • In order to reduce the demand for charcoal, much of which comes from the park's forest, FZS distributed 900 fuel-efficient stoves to communities living around the park. We conducted awareness meetings regarding their use. The stoves have been eagerly adopted. To monitor their impact, 343 questionnaires about charcoal consumption were completed and 196 people were re-interviewed 3 to 4 months after having received stoves. It appeared from a paired t-test that charcoal consumption decreased by 46%. In addition, 100 stoves have been reserved for Simba families, who will be voluntarily resettling in villages outside of the park in the coming months.

  • In partnership with Flora and Fauna International (FFI), FZS supported training a group of ICCN rangers in gorilla census and small mammal survey techniques. Participants included both the rangers and civilians involved in community-based monitoring outside the park boundaries. The training covered navigating using GPS, differentiating between different types of animal sign, especially chimpanzee and gorilla, and accurately recording data on observations.

  • One of FZS's major objectives for 2014 was to conduct a Rapid Biodiversity Assessment (RBA) of Maiko National Park, in order to gain a better understanding of the park's conservation value, and as a means for leveraging further support for conservation action. We hoped this would be the first ecological survey conducted in Maiko since 2005, and the first one of this scale since 1990. Plans were well underway for the RBA, and a team of Congolese and international researchers were assembled from ICCN, FZS, FFI, and the Research Centre in Natural Sciences of Lwiro. In mid-June, the team gathered in Lubutu, ready to start the assessment. However, conflict between the Simba, the military, and other well-armed bandit groups prevented the teams from operating in the forest. Finally, at the end of 2014, the ICCN rangers participated in a partial biodiversity survey of the southern sector of the park alongside FFI field staff and with support from FZS's Maiko project team. The surveys focused on areas where gorillas had previously been documented which were also deemed sufficiently secure. The survey teams came back with valuable data on the presence/absence of gorillas and with small mammals samples. These samples were sent to Lwiro for further identification and analysis. These samples, the first ever collected in Maiko, are of great scientific importance to understand the population genetics and geographical distribution of these mammals.

  • The training and short survey completed in 2014 marks the beginning of a longer-term wildlife and threat monitoring effort to be undertaken in Maiko. A small group of ICCN agents now have the required competencies to participate in biodiversity monitoring and surveys. In the short term, if provided with a small budget, acceptable security conditions and supportive leadership, they should be able to continue to survey gorillas and small mammals. Furthermore, they are capable of training other rangers in basic survey techniques. Previous experience in DRC and elsewhere has shown that regular monitoring and biodiversity data collection is the best method to detect and count gorillas.

We hope that a reconciliation process between the Simbas and FARDC and a transition of Simba rebels into the civil life can occur over the coming year. These are essential to build a peaceful and constructive context in which FZS and ICCN can work together to protect the park. We will continue to collaborate with CNDDR to support the reintegration of the Simba and their families into civil society. Our hope is that peace and security can be restored to Maiko National Park, and that this rich wilderness area, and its biodiversity, can be protected and conserved for the benefit of present and future generations.

Hollie Booth and Osamu Terao

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