Saving a forest stronghold

A wild mix of protectors assemble in support of Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Somewhere high above the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an eight-seater plane emerges from the haze of a cloud bank into open sky. Below, millions of trees burst into view—a carpet of broccoli florets stretching in every direction, vanishing only at the junction of Earth and sky. Every nose presses against a window. The view is astounding—for its magnitude and for its notable absence of human activity. There are no roads, no buildings, no wires laced from post to post. Farmers haven’t cleared fields, and loggers haven’t felled trees. In a world increasingly transformed at the hands of people, this is a rare and arresting expanse of untouched nature. After nearly an hour, a broad river appears below, followed by a smattering of mud huts and burnt orange paths—the settlement of Monkoto. The pilot glances at a screen and flicks a few switches to begin the descent.

Welcome to Salonga National Park.

Rangers in Salonga National Park often rely on pirogues, or dugout wood canoes, to navigate the rivers that meander through the dense forest.

Deep within Africa’s second-largest country, Salonga is a core part of one of Earth’s greatest and last tropical forests, still virtually untouched by modern-day resource extraction and development. At 8.9 million acres—a swath of land larger than Maryland—the park, when combined with the rest of the Congo Basin, falls in line just behind the Amazon in terms of carbon absorption and global climate regulation. The region is known as “the second lungs” of the world. Fittingly, Salonga’s physical shape mimics the essential organ: northern and southern blocks of protected land sit parallel like lobes, separated by a sparsely populated corridor of communities like Monkoto, in which people primarily derive their livelihoods through basic agriculture, hunting, and fishing.

salonga map spring2018

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, located in central Africa, is about one-fourth the size of the United States. Roughly two- thirds of the land is forested.

Within the park’s borders live forest elephants, indigenous Congo peacocks, bongos, giant pangolins, and a host of other wildlife, including an estimated 40% of the world’s bonobo population. At least 51 species of mammals, 129 species of fish, and 223 species of birds make their homes in Salonga. A lack of infrastructure connecting the park to population hubs protects their habitat from business interests, though roads are slowly encroaching on this World Heritage Site.

“This forest feeds the whole planet with fresh air,” says Pierre Kafando, the park’s manager. “Salonga has remained more or less intact, and we must keep it in that state.” But doing so is no small matter.

The sheer size of Salonga—as well as the presence of more than 500 villages in the agricultural corridor and buffer zones—makes the cost and logistics of hiring, retaining, equipping, and deploying enough rangers to protect all corners of the park prohibitive. And for all the benefits of the park’s remoteness, its isolation also enables discreet access for commercial poachers, often with limited risk of pursuit or capture. Virtually no infrastructure exists outside of Salonga’s modest headquarters in Monkoto, and moving swiftly from place to place to address problems is nearly impossible.

Since 2005, WWF has been providing support to the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), a government agency, to help tackle these issues. Funding has come from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and other donors. But the enormity of Salonga’s management challenges have all too frequently exceeded the aid provided, Kafando says. The park’s basic operational costs hover around $486,000 a year, but effective management would require between $3 million and $4 million.

Confronted with these challenges, WWF faced a dilemma: Pull out of Salonga completely and use the resources more effectively elsewhere, or go all in.

The answer lay in the park itself.

congo imbile spring2018

Rangers (like Nana Imbile, above) are charged with protecting 8.9 million acres of largely untouched forest—a harrowing task they’re currently performing with insufficient numbers and equipment.

To catch a poacher

On an evening in mid-May, Nana Imbile sits beneath the thatched roof of a pavilion at a research site about 45 minutes by boat downstream from Salonga headquarters in Monkoto. She finishes a meal wrapped in banana leaves and arranges the bedding she and her fellow park rangers will share come nightfall. The forest around her is alive with the screeches of monkeys and the cries of birds. At dawn Imbile’s patrol will head deep into the jungle for two weeks.

Imbile is one of 16 women who serve as park rangers in Salonga, and one of only eight who patrol the park. Rangers patrol in groups of 15, but often split into two groups to cover more ground. They rarely follow paths, particularly in the vast swampy parts of the park where water can reach their waists. Using GPS to mark animal sightings and signs, they keep an eye out for footprints and small broken branches, which poachers sometimes snap, Hansel-and-Gretel style, to help them retrace their paths.

Just 352 rangers monitor millions of acres here, and they do so with insufficient equipment and almost no communications infrastructure. The park’s many wetlands and flooded forests compound mobility challenges caused by the lack of roads and airstrips. Commercial poachers, by contrast, make use of extensive, organized networks to acquire illegal automatic weapons, ammunition, communications tools, and a host of other resources that put them at a distinct advantage over Imbile and her colleagues.

These poachers are among the greatest threat to Salonga and the future of wildlife within its borders, targeting forest elephants for their ivory, as well as “bushmeat” species such as antelopes, buffalo, and monkeys. Overfishing is impacting river life, and the use of mosquito nets to indiscriminately capture fish of all sizes disrupts reproduction cycles. Traversing inward from urban centers hundreds of miles away, poachers penetrate the park by way of large, navigable rivers. Bushmeat reaches markets as far away as the capital city of Kinshasa, some 430 miles southwest; ivory enters the international illegal wildlife trade to meet demand from other countries, mainly in Asia.

Such large-scale poaching wasn’t always part of Salonga’s story. The Congolese government officially defined the boundaries of the park in 1970, but locals continued to hunt rodents, antelope, river hogs, and other animals for food. While technically illegal, the practice was inconsequential relative to the large-scale commercial elephant poaching that increased sharply in the 1980s as international ivory prices shot skyward. Criminal activity in those years so ravaged certain wildlife populations that Salonga landed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in danger in 1999. In recent years, demand from Asia has spurred a resurgence in illegal ivory trading, and a second wave of heavily armed criminals with a seemingly endless supply of ammunition has swept across the park. Their success has been compounded by the proliferation of, and easy access to, small arms—a product of longstanding political instability in the region.

Rangers in Salonga often travel off the beaten path to patrol various parts of the forest in search of poachers.

In October 2011, the Congolese government launched Operation Bonobo, sending more than 300 military personnel to Salonga to round up suspected poachers and seize illegal weapons. The year-long campaign resulted in the arrest of 30 poachers, and the confiscation of more than 120 high-powered firearms and more than 2,000 pounds of bushmeat.

Park authorities estimate that hundreds of elephants per year died at the hands of poachers before the military presence. Operation Bonobo helped address this persistent problem. Still, after surveying about 40% of Salonga, researchers estimate there are now just over 1,000 elephants in the entire park—a fraction of what a park of Salonga’s size could sustain.

Today only 50 troops remain in the park (the rest being needed in other parts of the country) and the fresh carcasses of elephants slaughtered solely for their ivory are still found by rangers every month. The challenge for park rangers becomes keeping that number down now that the military—and its more advanced equipment—is mostly gone.

Imbile, for one, is acutely aware of what insufficient resources mean for her and the wildlife she protects.

“There are animals that will disappear,” she says, shaking her head. The sun’s almost set now, and several rhinestones glint from the headscarf she wears beneath her standard-issue army hat. “Unless we work well, poachers will finish off the wildlife.”

A path forward

Working well is what WWF intends to do. In 2015, WWF and the ICCN signed a comanagement agreement that has opened up critical new funding streams and allowed for improved governance of the park. Major funding from the European Union, the German development bank KfW, and USAID is designated to bolster park ranger capacity and equipment to fight poaching within the park; develop new infrastructure and better communications systems; and improve livelihoods for the approximately 250,000 people living in the greater Salonga landscape, which extends about 60 miles around the park.

Increasing the number of rangers on staff is crucial to securing the borders, and WWF and ICCN aim to nearly double the number to 650 within five years. This will mean training and equipping new rangers and fixing payroll inconsistencies that have led to late or missed payments to rangers in the past. Retaining staff is another challenge to be met, as is instituting more efficient management.

Ewing Lopongo, a conservationist with the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation, oversees the Monkoto sector of Salonga National Park, and is working with WWF to improve governance and protection of the park.

Bais, or forest clearings, offer open space to congregate and access to water for elephants and other animals. Bekalikali bai sits in the northwest section of the south block of Salonga.

To that end, Bernard Iyomi has a plan. He’s sitting behind a wooden desk at Salonga headquarters, in an office that opens out to a footpath and a stand of trees. On the wall to his left hangs a map of the park he’s charged with protecting as deputy chief of site with ICCN. Against the wall to his right lean two automatic weapons, confiscated from commercial poachers apprehended the day before. Over the course of his 37-year career, Iyomi has worked in every Congolese national park, primarily on antipoaching efforts.

Today the entire park—both north and south blocks—is managed from Monkoto, which is well over 100 miles away from the farthest edges of Salonga. Small patrol posts scattered throughout are inefficient. That’s why Iyomi helped devise a plan to divide park surveillance into eight sections, giving each its own command post. The new system will allow rangers to react more quickly to reports of poaching in their quarter. By 2025, the expectation is that enhanced infrastructure and logistics will allow for intervention anywhere in the park in less than two days.

Access problems are mitigated in part by the increasing use of GPS, data collection software, and other high-tech support, though such tools are potentially costly and require training and follow-up. For now, funds are directed toward improving management of about a third of the park. Once more funding comes through and further improvements have been made, WWF and ICCN can fully execute the model for protecting the park, which includes developing roads in certain areas and upgrading tools for rangers. They will be able to purchase more pirogues, or dugout wooden canoes, and motorboats for easier navigation of Salonga’s rivers. And motorcycles or bicycles will allow rangers to move more swiftly in the parts of the park not submerged in water.

Iyomi recognizes the enormity and ambition of the plan for the park, but he’s ready to take on the challenge.

“Within five years, we cannot reach zero poaching. But we can work so that Salonga National Park is removed from the list of World Heritage Sites in danger,” he says.

Rangers rarely follow paths when on patrol, opting to wend their way through lush—and often swampy—untrodden forest.

A unified approach

Saving Salonga is not just about supporting rangers. The nearby communities need opportunities to make money that don’t involve illegal hunting of bushmeat or slashing and burning healthy forest to create more farmland. A successful model requires engaging with these communities to generate understanding about why conserving Salonga is important, and to help them produce more bountiful harvests and income.

A few miles from Salonga’s border, Marie-Louise Bonyanga is already on board. She stands among hundreds of mature cassava plants on a sun-drenched spring morning, with a grin that slices through language barriers. Several children orbit her as she points to a shallow pond filled with tilapia that she harvests for both subsistence and income. Her land stretches well beyond view—74 acres that remain largely unworked and forested. The acres she does farm are farmed sustainably with technical assistance from WWF and funding from USAID.

Every part of the farm serves a specific purpose. The fish ponds—which she started with catch from a nearby stream—offer a swift return on investment, and the shallow water is also perfect for growing a strain of rice commonly consumed in the region, meaning Bonyanga has a second source of food and income without planting a single field or hunting any bushmeat. She also grows fruits and other foods that she can eat and sell, slowly developing an integrated system where she mixes fruit trees, agriculture, and fish farming.

A little over a year into farming sustainably, Bonyanga is already seeing results. The first time she harvested her fish, she earned 60,000 Congolese francs (about US $40)—enough to clothe her children and pay their annual school fees. “It’s hard work,” she says. “But I see that this is a richness. There will be something at the end.”

Engaging communities in natural resource management—the process of setting and following guidelines around how, when, and in what quantity people can use renewable resources like water, forests, fisheries, animals, and land—is crucial to conservation and the long-term survival of people and wildlife. And farming decreases reliance on bushmeat, helping to stymie that growing market.

Beyond decreasing deforestation and reliance on bushmeat, park manager Kafando sees another benefit to helping local communities, strengthening communication, and building trust: People are then more likely to abide by the rules of the protected area and alert authorities of any illegal activity they may witness. They become extra sets of eyes and ears, protecting forest that has served their families for generations.

A brighter future

Morning sun transforms the waters of the Luilaka River into a rich rust as 10 rangers load gear and clamber into a pirogue at Salonga headquarters. The driver rips the starter rope of the outboard motor, and the boat putters out into the smooth, swift water. It will soon disappear around a bend as its passengers begin yet another demanding patrol of this wild protected area.

These rangers—and more like them to come—anticipate a new future for Salonga. Ultimately WWF wants to hand the reins of a high-functioning, well-managed park over to the Congolese government.

“Everybody has a role to play in protecting Salonga,” Kafando says. “We as WWF staff, development agencies, ICCN, and all of the local communities. We must be the custodians of this heritage. We are here to help so that what has happened elsewhere doesn’t happen here.”

Despite the challenges facing Salonga, the new funding and management model revives hope that this vast and irreplaceable sea of trees, and the wildlife it harbors, will continue to serve the world for generations to come.

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