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.