Since the 27th session, the security situation in Democratic Republic of the Congo improved considerably. However, certain regions remain unstable and have been characterised by sudden resurgence of violence. This has been especially the case in the eastern part of the country, where 4 of the 5 World Heritage properties are located. Following the approval of the new constitution in April 2003, the Transitional Government, in which the Presidential coalition, all rebel groups and representatives of civil society are represented, was formed on 30 June 2003, thereby formally re-uniting the whole country. On 28 July, 2003 the mandate of the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) was extended in time and an additional mandate provided, allowing it to assist the Government in disarming and demobilising militia groups, and under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, authorizing the use of force to protect civilians. MONUC has now deployed troops in several of the eastern regions, including around Kahuzi-Biega and Virunga National Parks. A meeting was held between senior representatives of MONUC, the Centre, staff of the Management Authority “Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature” (ICCN) and representatives of the non-governmental conservation organizations to discuss closer co-operation in the demilitarisation of the World Heritage properties. It was agreed that where MONUC is conducting disarmament operations they would cooperate closely with ICCN field staff.
The situation in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve improved considerably since the 27th session. Since April 2003, stability returned to the Ituri region after the violent clashes between different rebel groups from October 2002 until March 2003, which resulted in the Reserve’s headquarters being abandoned and looted. Park staff returned to the Reserve in April 2003 and management operations were resumed by July 2003. Park staff currently control about 60% of the 1,370,000 ha Reserve. Troops stationed originally inside the Reserve were moved to the surrounding towns as requested by the Centre. However, poaching organised by military belonging to former rebel factions continues to be a major problem, especially in the northern and south-eastern part of the Reserve. These armed groups are specifically targeting elephant populations and are involved in poaching and trafficking of ivory. Park staff were able to document 116 cases of elephant poaching and ivory trafficking between 2002 and 2003. Based on these reports, it is estimated that between 230 and 460 elephants were killed in this period, representing 4 to 10 % of the pre-war population. Reports also indicated that the ivory is being exported, in contravention to CITES Convention, to several countries in East and Central Africa, Middle East and Southeast Asia.
As reported at the 27th session, intensive fighting took place in and around the Kahuzi-Biega National Park between October 2002 and April 2003. Park authorities were able to contact the belligerents and received assurances from both sides that the gorilla families living in the highland sector would not be harmed. Park staff was able to continue monitoring 4 of the 5 families of the sector. However in January 2004, with the on-going military activities in the property, contact was lost with the fifth Mishebere gorilla family, composed of 39 individuals. After the cessation of hostilities, Park staff started a search for the family, which appeared to have vanished. The remains of the leading silverback male of the family were recovered in August 2003.
Even after the installation of the Transition Government, the insecurity persisted in the South Kivu region with sporadic fighting around the Park in July and August 2003. Only after MONUC installed an observation post in the Park headquarters in August and engaged in demobilizing fighters, the situation started to improve gradually. With the increased security, Park staff has been able to regain control over parts of the Park that so far had been inaccessible. Guard posts in Kalonge, Musenyi and Lemera in the high altitude sector were re-occupied in February 2004 and the sub-stations of Nzovu and Itebero in the low land sector, which were abandoned since the beginning of the war in 1996, became functional again in March 2004. It will be important to use this opportunity to conduct surveys in both the highland and lowland sectors to assess the impact of the war on the property and on the populations of flagship species such as gorillas and elephants. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is currently planning a survey of the highland sector and is trying to mobilize the financial resources necessary for a survey of the much larger lowland sector.
Illegal mining for colombo-tatalite, gold and cassiterite remains a serious threat to the property. The first report from the lowland sector indicates that 98 mining sites are still in operation within the sector. Another major mining site is exploited by militiamen in the northern part of the highland sector. An estimated 5,000 miners are currently residing in the Park. In spite of the lower prices on the world market, the market for colombo-tantalite in the provincial capital Bukavu is booming.
Another key issue is the illegal occupation of parts of the property, most notably in the corridor between the highland and lowland sector. In some cases, the occupants detain permits issued illegally by the local authorities. Park authorities have been fighting a court case against the most prominent of them, a Bukavu judge. Given the complicity of the local authorities, there is a need for a strong intervention by the central Government to resolve the issue.
The situation in the Virunga National Park remains problematic. The 2 main conservation issues remain the presence of military troops and armed groups within and in the immediate vicinity of the property and illegal encroachment.
Although the security situation has improved considerably, different militia, including armed factions from neighbouring countries, continue to operate in the region and heighten insecurity in certain sectors of the property. Since October 2003, MONUC has deployed troops in the region and is engaged in disarming and demobilisation operations. Several military positions and roadblocks manned with military belonging to former rebel factions are still present in different locations in and around the property at Katanda, at the Vitshumbi roadblock, at Rwindi and at Kabasha, officially to ensure security. In the northern sector, a military training camp is installed inside the Park near the patrol post of Nyaleke. Troops are not paid and do not receive any food or other supplies. They are involved in large-scale poaching of elephants, buffalo, hippopotamus and other animals and in the trafficking of ivory. IUCN reports that it received information that 4 guards were killed recently in an ambush by military when trying to reveal information on poaching by the military. A recent survey of the hippopotamus population in the park by the Zoological Society of London was able to locate only 1300 individuals, a mere 4,5 % of the population in 1979 and 12 % of the pre-war population estimate. In the northern sector, the elephant population dropped from 130 individuals in 1981 to 21 individuals in 2003 and the buffalo diminished in the same period from 799 to 42. These figures are dramatic but one has to take into account that because of the heavy poaching pressure, parts of the populations might have sought refuge in adjacent protected areas in Uganda such as the Queen Elizabeth National Park or the Semuliki National Park, where protection of wildlife is more effective. The increase of the elephant population in Queen Elizabeth National Park from 500 individuals in 1995 to more than 1000 today might partly be attributable to movements of elephants across the border.
Illegal encroachment both by agriculturalists and pastoralists and through the establishment of permanent settlements is affecting almost all sectors of the park. In the Nyamulagira sector, an estimated 30,000 people have occupied parts of the park in Kirolirwe, Burungu and Mushari. As reported at the 26th session, local authorities in Goma started to resettle in this region returning refugees originating from Masisi after their camps in Rwanda were dismantled in 2002. However, although security in Masisi has improved considerably, they seem not inclined to return to their region of origin. Other people seem to take advantage of the situation to settle in the area. An estimated 30,000 ha of evergreen forest has been destroyed for charcoal production and the area converted into fields and pastures. There are at least 5,000 heads of cattle in the area. Following numerous interventions by ICCN, the Centre and non-governmental conservation organizations that were reported to the 27th session of the Committee, the provincial authorities have in principle accepted to evacuate the area. However they advance the argument that extra funds are needed to organise the resettlement as a reason for not implementing this decision. IUCN reports that it received information that Rwandan military are guarding the resettlement area and are preventing ICCN from accessing it and that local politicians are distributing plots in the forests to produce charcoal and converting the plots afterwards for cattle ranching for their own use. In the northern sector of the Park, at least 16,000 ha of fields were installed and 150 houses constructed with the consent of the local authorities belonging to a former rebel faction. On coastal areas west of Lake Edward, at least 20,000 people have settled. This region is situated on what used to be the border between
Uganda and Rwanda controlled areas and was till recently inaccessible to ICCN field staff. Around 350 families of Hima and Karuruma pastoralists from Uganda, with more than 5,000 heads of cattle are still present in the northern sector. These pastoralists were installed in the Park in 1999 by Ugandan troops that were present there at that time. Two meetings were held recently between the authorities of DRC and Uganda to discuss their return to Uganda, without any results.
However, since the 27th session, ICCN with the assistance of its partners was able to make considerable progress in reclaiming some of the occupied regions of the park. In the Nyamulagira sector, 5,000 ha of encroached land could be recuperated at Kibiriza and an agreement was reached with the local population to evacuate a further 5,000 people who destroyed 25 ha in the forest on the Kabasha escarpment. In Tongo-Kanyangiri 40 ha were recuperated. In the eastern sector at Kongo, 20,000 ha were recuperated with the assistance of the Governor. In the northern sector, more than 7,000 farmers from Uganda were evacuated and 6,500 ha recuperated; and in Kanyatsi a further 750 farmers were evacuated and 3,000 ha recuperated. Some of these evacuations took place in the framework of a participatory effort to demarcate Park borders by WWF that is funded as part of the Belgian community conservation project implemented by the Centre.
A further conservation problem is the management of the fishing activities in Lake Edward. At the time of inscription on the World Heritage List, ICCN recognised 3 fishing concessions at the southern edge of the lake, in the villages of Vitshumbi, Nyakakoma and Kyavinyonge. These 30-year concessions have now officially expired. During the conflict, the resident populations in these villages increased considerably. New villages and illegal fishing camps have been installed along the western and northern shoreline, often controlled by the military. The total population on the shores of the lake is now estimated at more then 20,000 people. A scientific study in 1989 estimated the total production capacity of the lake at 10,000 tons per year, sufficient to guarantee income for 700 fishing families. Unless illegal fishing activities are curtailed and camps removed a collapse of the fish populations can be expected destroying a major livelihood source of the local community.
The best-protected sector of the Park remains the gorilla sector. A survey in September 2003 executed jointly by ICCN, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and the Rwanda Park authorities with the assistance off different conservation organizations over the entire mountain gorilla range (Virunga National Park, Volcano National Park in Rwanda, Mgahinga National Park and Bwindi National Park in Uganda) revealed that the population increased from 324 in 1989 to 380 in 2003.
The Garamba National Park is not only affected by the political instability but even more so by the war in Sudan. It was noted in previous reports that key animal populations decreased significantly at the start of the war in DRC in 1997, when Park guards were disarmed and different militia groups occupied the Park station; but since 1998, through increased surveillance efforts, populations of key species remained fairly stable. Unfortunately, this situation changed significantly since the 27th session of the Committee. In July 2003, poaching pressure increased significantly and the focus of the poaching seems to have changed from meat to ivory. As this activity demands less time, poachers who don’t have to stop to smoke the meat, do kill more and more animals. An aerial survey in August 2003 showed 34 fresh elephant and two rhino carcasses. All animals were killed by automatic gunfire and their tusks and horns had been removed. In November 2003, 47 more fresh elephant carcasses were found in an area where a group of northern white rhino occur. On 20 April 2004, the Centre received another report from the Garamba Project that Sudanese poachers where spotted accompanied by 25 donkeys loaded with ivory, moving rapidly towards the Sudanese border. Ground patrols found the carcasses of two rhinos and 12 elephants in the area. Only the horn and ivory was taken. This is the first time poachers were reported using pack animals. There is now evidence that between September 2003 and the time of the preparation of the document at least five rhinos were killed out of a total population of approximately 30 animals. Now that poachers have entered the heart of the Park, the threat to the last remaining northern white rhinos is greater than it has ever been in the last 20 years. Poachers are predominantly SPLA rebels aided by Congolese porters. Ironically, the increase in poaching seems to be connected to the progress in the peace talks in Sudan and the subsequent cease-fire agreement between the SPLA and the Sudanese government, resulting in fighters coming back from the front and turning towards poaching. It has to be noted that a large group of SPLA rebels is stationed in the DRC town of Aba and that there is no presence of DRC military in this region. In response to this situation, an emergency strategy was developed by ICCN and its conservation partners aiming to reverse this situation. The strategy focuses on re-training guards to better equip them to deal with professional bush war fighters, providing the necessary equipment to increase the law enforcement effectiveness and taking steps to put pressure on the SPLA to withdraw their fighters from the region. Several meetings were already held with SPLA officials, in which they promised to recall their troops but the local SPLA commander so far has refused to comply with this decision. A report on the situation was sent by UNESCO to MONUC, requesting them to consider stationing military observers in the region and to inform the Secretary General of the United Nations and the Special UN Envoy for Humanitarian Needs for Sudan.
The situation in the Salonga National Park remains unchanged. Commercial poachers, often well-equipped former military personnel or rebels, with automatic weapons and outboard motors, operate along the rivers in the Park. Bush meat and ivory are alleged to be transported by commercial planes to Kinshasa. Although Park guards receive some support through the UNESCO/UNF project and from other partners such as the Zoological Society of Milwaukee, mainly for salaries, rations and medicine and limited equipment, the Park remains grossly under-funded and continues to lack proper management. Park guards only have some arms seized from poachers and are not allowed to wear uniforms. Currently surveys of key species are being conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Preliminary results indicate that in certain areas, large mammals populations have decreased considerably. WCS is also conducting socio-economic surveys as well as a population census in the corridor that separates the two principal forest blocs of the Park, as part of the Belgian community conservation project implemented by the Centre.
With stability returning to the country, the Government, with support of donors such as the World Bank and the European Union, is planning to rehabilitate the national road network in DRC. Already rehabilitation works are scheduled for roads that cross the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and the Kahuzi-Biega National Park. It will be important to guarantee that these infrastructure works are done without causing negative impact on the habitat of the World Heritage properties. The re-opening of roads to motorized traffic might result in increased bushmeat trade and immigration of populations from the densely populated regions into areas adjacent to the properties.
The Centre continued its support to the 5 World Heritage properties through its project “Biodiversity Conservation in Regions of Armed Conflict, Protecting World Heritage Sites in DRC” in close co-operation with ICCN and with its on the ground partners in each of the sites (German Technical Co-operation Agency (GTZ), Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Gilman International Conservation (GIC), International Rhino Foundation (IRF), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), and the Zoological Society of Milwaukee (ZSM)). The project, funded by the United Nations Foundation with complementary support from the Government of Belgium, will end in December 2004.
As recommended by the 27th session of the Committee, the Director-General of UNESCO in co-operation with the Government of DRC has launched an international campaign to mobilise the necessary support to continue the conservation activities in the DRC World Heritage properties. A high-level conference will take place at UNESCO headquarters 16-17 September 2004. The objectives of the conference are (a) to obtain a high-level political commitment from the Transition Government to address the key conservation problems of the World Heritage properties, such as encroachments, illegal resource extraction and the presence of military and armed groups; (b) to mobilize necessary financial resources to sustain the achievements of the UNESCO/UNF project and ensure recovery of the World Heritage values of the five properties; and (c) to raise awareness in the international community for the conservation of the World Heritage properties in DRC. The President of DRC has accepted an invitation by the Director-General to attend this conference, thereby demonstrating his commitment to the conservation of the World Heritage properties. Several personalities, including the President of France and the Royal Family of Belgium have already accepted to be patrons for the event. The Government of Belgium, the Government of Italy and UNF have indicated their willingness to support the future programme through their financial support to UNESCO. UNESCO is also discussing with the European Union, the World Bank, the Central Africa Regional Programme for the Environment and others on how to support the properties through their on-going or planned conservation initiatives in the Congo Basin. Parallel to the conference, the Government of Belgium will organise an exhibition at UNESCO on the biological and cultural diversity of DRC during 8 –27 September 2004. At the donor conference UNESCO expects to have pledges from some of the major multilateral donors like the World Bank and the EU to invest in building capacity for protected areas, including the five World Heritage sites of DRC.