The State Party submitted its report on 23 March 2005. The report includes two page fact sheets on each of the five properties, giving information on the events that took place in 2003 and 2004, the state of conservation of the properties and efforts deployed in that period to conserve the properties. The State Party notes that the five properties are still in danger, often seriously threatened but that during the last two years all of the properties have benefited from important interventions for their protection, particularly through the UNESCO/UNF/ICCN project. This is the first time since the beginning of the conflict that the State Party was able to submit a unified official report on the state of conservation of the five properties, a sign of the gradual improvement of the political situation since the installation of the transition Government in 2003. Staff of the Kinshasa headquarters of the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature can now travel to all properties and property managers send regular reports to Kinshasa. It needs to be noted however that, although the country is formally re-united, the political influence of the Kinshasa authorities remains limited in the east and that progress in the political normalization process has been slowing down with the approach of the election scheduled for June 2005 but likely to be postponed for another 6 months.
Unfortunately the security situation in the east remains extremely difficult, due to the continued presence of armed militias. This was again demonstrated by the recent skirmishes in the Ituri province, leading to the death of nine UN blue helmets and 50 militiamen in February 2005. In a recent report, The United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) announced that close to 10,000 militiamen in the Ituri region were disarmed on a voluntary basis by the deadline of 1 April 2004, estimating the remaining armed militias in the region at 3000. However, it has to be noted that MONUC has concentrated its disarmament effort on the part of Ituri where violent clashes have taken place between Hema and Lendu tribal groups and that so far, much less disarmament has taken place around the different World Heritage properties.
In addition, the development of a unified army has also been slow, resulting in little central control over the different former rebel groups who are often involved in poaching and continue to create a climate of insecurity. Whilst members of the regular army and police force are reported to be involved in poaching activities in and around the properties, poaching by the different armed groups is probably the most serious threat to the different properties.
Whilst the State Party invited a mission to visit each of the properties, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN have been unable to undertake this mission due to the general insecurity in eastern DRC and technical difficulties in identifying an appropriate expert. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN note that the State Party is keen to host this mission and reiterate their willingness to carry out the mission as soon as the security situation improves.
With the support of the Governments of Belgium and Japan, and the United Nations Foundation, UNESCO organized in September 2004 an international conference and event: “Congo, Heritage in Danger”. With this event, the World Heritage Centre aimed at getting a high-level political commitment from the DRC Government for the conservation of the properties, securing financial and technical assistance for the reconstruction and management of the properties and raising the awareness of the international public opinion on the situation of the DRC World Heritage properties. The conference was attended by His Excellency Z’Ahidi Arthur Ngoma, one of the four Vice-Presidents, several other members of the Government, as well as members of parliament and senior officials from various ministries. Speaking on behalf of the President and the DRC Government, Mr. Z’Ahidi Arthur Ngoma committed to support the action of the World Heritage Centre and its partners for the safeguarding of the five World Heritage properties and announced that the Government would take appropriate actions to evacuate armed troops and populations who threaten the integrity of the World Heritage properties; restore the integrity of the properties taking into account the concerns of the local populations through development and reconstruction projects and ensure payment of the salaries of the staff at the five properties. Major bilateral and multilateral donors (including the European Union, World Bank, United Nations Development Programme, Germany, Belgium, Italy, France and the United States of America) also attended the conference, announcing close to US$ 50 Million in support of the conservation of DRC’s protected area system over the following five years. A significant part of this will directly benefit the conservation of the five World Heritage properties.
As a follow up to the conference, the World Heritage Centre has proposed to the Government to create an inter-ministerial Commission, comprising all relevant ministries such as environment and forests, land tenure, mining, defence, tourism, justice, interior and others, charged with the follow up of the commitment made by the Vice-President. This Commission has now been created under the authority of the Vice-President. It is hoped that it will enable ICCN to bring forward some of the problems the properties are facing, especially cases where a decision is needed by another ministry than the Ministry for Environment, or even by the Council of Ministers.
Okapi Wildlife Reserve
Although the Okapi Wildlife Reserve is situated in the Ituri region, it has escaped impacted from the upsurge of violence in the region, which is concentrated to the east of the reserve. As reported at the 28th session (Suzhou, 2004), the major threat to the property remains the increase in poaching and in particular elephant poaching perpetrated by military groups. The State Party report confirmed that military belonging to two different rebel factions (MLC-ALC and APC-ML) and the national police are engaged in intensive elephant poaching and that from June to December 2004, an estimated 17 tons of ivory was taken, accounting for 750 to 1,000 elephants. A report by the park authorities of December 2004 provided details on the military commanders and the merchants involved in the trafficking of ivory and elephant meat. At the 28th session (Suzhou, 2004), it was reported that an estimated 230 – 460 elephants were killed in the period 2002-2003. These figures together account for a quarter of the pre-war elephant population of the reserve, highlighting the seriousness of the situation. It needs to be noted that the Okapi Wildlife Reserve harbours probably the most important remaining forest elephant population of the DRC. In March 2005, IUCN received reports from the MIKE (Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants) office of the CITES Convention in Nairobi indicating that ivory from the region is finding its way through Sudan to the Middle East and the Far East. Currently ICCN staff only control the central section of the reserve and although sporadic patrols are conducted in the other parts, rangers are unable to stop the poaching by the military operating in these areas. ICCN together with its partners are currently discussing with the highest military authorities in Kinshasa to organize a major joint operation with the military to clear out poachers from the reserve. A similar operation in 2001 had very positive results. The necessary resources to fund such an operation still need to be identified.
Illegal mining also remains a threat to the reserve. In July 2004, more than 1,000 artisanal diamond miners invaded parts of the central and western sectors of the reserve but the park authorities were able to drive them out after establishing a temporary guard post in the area. In March 2005, 226 gold miners were apprehended in the south eastern sector and 460 gold miners in the eastern sector. They were given a deadline till June to evacuate the reserve on a voluntary basis.
A more long term conservation issue is the management of the human population inside the property. When the reserve was created, local inhabitants living around the Mambassa road were allowed to remain in the reserve. A recent population survey, conducted with funding from Belgium, showed that currently, around 17,000 people are living in the reserve, including 9,000 Mbuti and Efe pygmies. This figure has been fairly stable since 1994. Efforts are underway to delimit agricultural use zones around the road and traditional hunting zones for the Mbuti and Efe and to set up a system to allow the control of immigration into the reserve. However, the same survey shows that the population in the immediate vicinity of the reserve has increased significantly in the same period, as a result of immigration from the densely populated highlands to the east of the reserve, resulting in increased pressures.
Kahuzi-Biega National Park
During the 28th session (Suzhou, 2004), a report was given on the army mutiny in May 2004 in Bukavu, which resulted in a renewed occupation and looting of the park headquarters. Since then, the situation returned to normal, although the insecurity remains a serious problem in the area. The report of the State Party confirms that the park authorities were able to consolidate their presence in the areas previously inaccessible, in particular around the lowland sub stations of Itebero and Nzovu and the re-opened patrol posts of Lemera, Musenyi and Madiriri. Nevertheless, it will take a while until patrols are also effectively covering the entire lowland sector, which was out of control since the start of the war in 1998. The neuralgic corridor, connecting the lowland and highland sectors, remains however totally out of control of ICCN and is heavily encroached by farms resulting in important deforestation.
Mining remains a serous problem, especially in the lowland sector. The State Party reported that more than 10,000 miners are digging for minerals such as colombo-tantalite, cassiterite and gold inside the property. The presence of mining camps also leads to commercial hunting for food, pollution of rivers and localized deforestation. With the economic revival in the information technology industry, there is fear that the demand for tantalum will rise again very soon, leading to increased pressure on DRC resources. In this respect, IUCN reiterates its policy position that mining should not take place in World Heritage properties and its call for a complete ban on mining in all DRC World Heritage properties. It is essential to work towards a regulated coltan industry in DRC as an orderly development of the tantalum market.
Encroachment is another important issue, especially in the corridor and the southern edge of the highland sector. The State Party reported that recently park authorities were able to recuperate more than 3,000 ha of land in the park illegally sold by the local authorities during the war.
In November 2004, the Wildlife Conservation Society was able to organize a new census of key flagship species in the highland sector of the park. They identified 163 Grauer’s gorillas, a significant increase compared to the last census of 2000, which found only 130 gorillas. A 1996 inventory just before the start of the war found around 240 gorillas in the sector. This is an indication that the population is recovering slowly. The recovery of the gorilla population is a clear success for the park guards, who have been trying to safeguard this remnant population, often in extremely difficult circumstances with the support of the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and the World Heritage Centre. The inventory also confirmed the quasi extinction of the elephant population in the sector, which was estimated at 400 animals before the war. The disappearance of the elephant population is also leading to changes in the vegetation and thought to be one of the factors of the expansion of a vine, Sericostachys scandens, that is strangling the trees and resulting in the creation of a more open and degraded habitat dotted with dead trees. These open areas might also facilitate the progression of bushfires. Major bushfires, probably ignited by militiamen, erupted in the sector in July 2004 and were brought under control with the help of the local population.
Virunga National Park
The main threats to the Virunga National Park continue to be the encroachment of the protected area and the presence of armed groups in and around the park. During the 28th session (Suzhou, 2004), a report was presented on the rampant deforestation of the Mikeno sector, bordering Rwanda, that started in May 2004. This sector harbours the main gorilla population of the park. The World Heritage Centre received a letter from the State Party on 24 June 2004, alleging that the Rwandan Defence Forces were directly involved in the deforestation of the area. Conservation NGOs also confirmed that vehicles were crossing the border from Rwanda bringing in people to cut the forest. After several interventions from UNEP, UNESCO, the European Union and conservation NGOs, the forest destruction was stopped at the end of June. WWF in cooperation with the University of Louvain-La-Neuve produced a detailed report, based on satellite images, on the impact and scale of the destruction. The report estimates that 1,480 ha were impacted: 417 ha were completely deforested, 640 ha severely degraded and 417 ha degraded. Since the destruction was halted, 20 km of dry stone wall has been built along the boundary of the park and the international boundary with the support of WWF, UNEP, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, the European Union, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and in cooperation with local communities, preventing further damage and crop raiding by animals.
The document presented at the last session gave an overview of the different areas that are affected by illegal encroachment. Since the beginning of the war 89,311 ha of encroached areas have been inventoried. Some areas are not yet inventoried because of the difficulty of access due to security problems. This is especially the case for the shores of Lake Edward and the Kirolirwe area. It is also estimated that at least 60,000 people settled within the property and 5,778 permanent houses have been inventoried within the park limits. Through the UNESCO programme and with funding from the Government of Belgium, WWF has undertaken a comprehensive programme to work with the local populations in evacuating the encroached areas. The programme has been a major success and so far an estimated 40,000 people agreed to leave the park, recuperating 65,353 ha of encroached land. The World Heritage Centre recently signed a new agreement with WWF to step up these efforts. Under this agreement, a detailed inventory of encroachment on the shores of Lake Edward, the Tongo area and the Kirolirwe region will be prepared and on the basis of these results negotiations will start to evacuate at least one of the studied areas. The project will also prepare an updated version of the park border by establishing geographical coordinates for each section of the border. To accompany these efforts, the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the German Agro-action with funding from the European Union are setting up projects around the property to provide for alternatives for the people willing to leave the property. Although the work ahead is still extremely important and challenging, it is encouraging to note that important progress was made in addressing this serious threat to the property.
The presence of armed groups also remains a serious threat to the property and to the security of the park staff. All military camps mentioned in last year’s report are still present in the park. Efforts by ICCN to get the major camp at Nyaleke, in the northern sector of the park, relocated outside the park have not been successful so far. It is hoped that the commitment made by the Vice-President at the September 2004 conference to evacuate troops from all properties will lead to some progress in this field. The park also continues to harbour different insurgent groups from Rwanda and Uganda. According to ICCN staff, almost 100 park guards have been killed since the start of the war. As recently as 15 April 2005, a guard was killed in an ambush by Interahamwe militias in the Rwindi sector. The State Party report also mentions violent clashes that took place in Kanyabayonga in December 2004, resulting in intensive poaching in the central sector.
It also has to be noted that support for the Virunga National park has increased significantly since the 28th session (Suzhou, 2004). As announced in the September conference, major funding for the management of the property is provided by the European Union, through WWF and the Zoological Society of London. The European Union is also providing funding for development and reconstruction activities around the park. The Frankfurt Zoological Society has also started a major intervention, preparing a new management plan for the property and re-training the park staff. These activities complement the on-going activities by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme and WWF in the gorilla sector and the support provided by the UNESCO/UNF/ICCN programme.
Garamba National Park
The situation in the Garamba National Park continues to deteriorate. At the 28th session (Suzhou, 2004), a dramatic increase in poaching since July 2003 was reported, bringing the endemic northern white rhino, the flagship species of the property, to the brink of extinction and severely reducing the population of elephants, endemic Congo giraffe and other wildlife. The State Party report indicates that since the beginning of the war, elephant numbers have reduced from 15,000 to 4,000 and numbers of the endemic Congo giraffe from 200 to less than 60. The dramatic decline of the rhino population was confirmed through a new aerial survey in July 2004, counting only 15 individuals in the park, and evidence of a further 2 in the surrounding hunting reserves. A similar survey in April 2003 counted 30 individuals and in August the same year 22 individuals, indicating a rapid decline since mid 2003. Following these results, a stakeholder meeting was organized in Nairobi, gathering representatives of ICCN, partners and donors already supporting the property such as the International Rhino Foundation, Frankfurt Zoological Society and the World Heritage Centre as well as new partners interested to support the property such as Fauna and Flora International, African Parks Foundation and the World Bank. The meeting developed a new emergency strategy to stop the poaching in the southern sector of the park and save the northern white rhino from extinction in the wild. Conservation partners committed a total of US$ 1 Million for the first year of implementation of the strategy, including almost $ 300,000 by the World Heritage Centre (as part of the UNF project, the Belgian support for community conservation and the support mobilized under the Italian Funds-in-Trust). The meeting also agreed that if the decline of the white rhino could not be stopped before the end of 2004, the translocation of a small group to a safe area had to be envisaged. In September 2004, the European Union announced, during the UNESCO conference on the DRC World Heritage properties, that it would support the emergency plan by providing experts’ advice and training services to improve anti-poaching operations. The experts have a long experience in dealing with severe poaching and also developed the anti-poaching strategy for Manovo-Gounda St. Floris National Park.
In spite of all these efforts, so far it has been impossible to stop the poaching activities. The main reasons seem to be the level of organization of the Sudanese poachers, who are battle hardened and very well armed, the low morale of the park guards, the complete lack of well functioning fire arms and ammunition, the lack of appropriate training of the guard force to tackle these levels of poaching, ethnic tensions within the guard force as well as tensions between ICCN and its partners and disorganization of the ICCN staff after years of isolation. In addition to this, there is no control of the international border by the Congolese regular army. Nine new rhino carcasses were found during 2004. A survey conducted in November only detected four rhinos in the park and evidence of a further three in the hunting reserves. Although this survey was conducted during the long grass season, making its results less reliable, these figures indicate the seriousness of the situation. In March 2005, the park warden reported evidence of 12 rhinos remaining in the property and surrounding hunting reserves, although some double-counting might have been included.
There is a clear risk that at the current rate of poaching, the northern white rhino might become extinct in the wild by the end of this year. The potential for reintroduction is also extremely limited, as the Garamba population is the last known population in the wild and there exists ten individuals in captivity, from which only three are breeding but genetically related. Faced with this situation, the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group sent a letter dated 9 November, 2004 to ICCN, urging them to propose the translocation of a small group of five rhinos to a safe place. A plan for a possible translocation was developed and submitted by ICCN to the Ministry for the Environment. After consultation with IUCN, the World Heritage Centre sent a letter to the State Party on 23 December, 2004, expressing support for the proposed emergency action and urging the State Party to take a decision as quickly as possible. From 10 to 15 January 2005, a mission headed by the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group, in which the World Heritage Centre, IUCN and the different NGO working in Garamba were represented, visited Kinshasa, and had meetings with several high level government officials including two of the four Vice-Presidents, to discuss the translocation proposal. The mission was informed that the Government would approve the proposal, a position later confirmed by Vice President Zaidi Ngoma in a meeting with a representative of the World Heritage Centre on 14 February. However, after the announcement of the translocation, opponents to the action were able to rally a large number of politicians against the decision. At the time of the preparation of this report, no official decision has been taken but it seems highly unlikely that the Government will approve the translocation, given the political opposition and in view of the upcoming elections. The commotion on the translocation led also to local protests and to increased insecurity at the property, forcing the different NGO’s to suspend their activities in the property, including the payment of bonuses to the field staff, and pull back their expatriate staff.
It needs to be noted that the presence of the northern white rhino, together with the important populations of elephants and other species such as the endemic Congo giraffe, were the main justification for inscribing the property on the World Heritage List in 1980, thus the conservation status of the species should be a priority for the State Party and the international community. If the northern white rhino becomes extinct, it might be necessary to re-evaluate the outstanding universal value of the property.
Whilst the State Party invited a specific mission to Garamba in late February 2005, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN were unfortunately unable to undertake this mission due to the prevailing security situation in the area. The State Party is encouraged, as a matter of urgency, to consent to the translocation of at least five northern white rhinos to Kenya, noting that while in situ conservation would be the preferred option, the present prevailing conditions in Garamba can no longer guarantee the protection of the species. The State Party is also urged to take all necessary measures to stop the poaching. More specifically, the State Party should secure the international border with Sudan and supply the park staff with adequate armament and ammunition to face the current poaching threat. ICCN and its partners are urged to work together constructively to find solutions to the current crisis at the property and to re-start conservation activities as soon as possible.
Salonga National Park
In 2003 and 2004, the Wildlife Conservation Society, with support of the CITES/MIKE programme, US Fish and Wildlife Service and WWF, conducted the first comprehensive survey of key species, covering almost the entire southern sector and two thirds of the northern sector of the 36,000 km² park. The survey teams found evidence of human activity in virtually all parts of the park. In spite of its isolation, the park is actually quite accessible through the extensive river system. Commercial poaching is the main activity, but also illegal fishing activities and some illegal wood harvesting were noted. Several permanent villages exist within the park boundaries. Elephants seem to be the first victims of intensive poaching, and the species has been eliminated from large areas of the park, although some strongholds still exist. The inventory work confirms that the park harbours important bonobo populations although localized in certain areas, especially the southern part of the southern sector and in the north-western part of the northern sector. It is thought that this uneven distribution is the result of ecological differences.
Since the 28th session (Suzhou, 2004), support for the conservation of the park has increased significantly. So far, activities were concentrated on research, with some support for conservation activities through the UNESCO/UNF/ICCN programme and the Zoological Society of Milwaukee. In 2004, WWF started a major conservation programme with funding from the European Union and the USAID funded the CARPE programme. This has already allowed for the opening of two new patrol posts. A first on-site meeting of all organizations supporting the park was held in Monkoto in November 2004. It is hoped that with the increasing support to the property, it will be possible to increase conservation operations and cover a larger part of the total area.