The Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura, has written to Joseph Kabila, President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and to Jean-Marie Guehenno, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, asking for measures to stop the poaching and killing of endangered animals in the five World Heritage sites of the DRC.
The Director-General's initiative follows reports that several hundred hippopotami and at least two mountain gorillas have been killed in recent months in the Virunga National Park, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1979 and on the World Heritage List in Danger in 1994. DRC's four other World Heritage sites - the nationals parks of Garamba, Kahuzi-Giega, Salonga and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve - are all inscribed on the Danger List.
While recognizing the quality of the conservation work carried out by the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation, Mr Matsuura notes that urgent and systematic action is required to prevent the irredeemable loss of the outstanding universal value that warranted the inscription of DRC's five sites on the World Heritage List.
In his letters, the Director-General requests that the mandate of the UN Organization Mission in DRC (MONUC) be extended to include the protection of DRC's World Heritage sites and other protected areas. DRC's World Heritage sites are of exceptional importance to the preservation of biodiversity as they are home to some of the world's rarest and most remarkable species, including the bonobo, the closest living relative of the human species, mountain gorillas and okapi, a rare forest giraffe.
Mr Matsuura notes that the presence of armed groups on these sites, including Mai Mai and Rwandan rebels, presents a threat to the parks which rangers of the Congolese Wildlife Authority are unable to contain. In fact, rangers and their families have been targeted by militias, resulting in loss of property, injuries and even death.
The Director-General further says that "the recent organization of the first free elections with the support of MONUC has been a landmark event in the struggle to bring back peace and security to the country. As peace and stability are also a necessary condition to allow for the rehabilitation of the World Heritage sites, we are hopeful that significant progress towards this goal can be achieved in coming months."